23 Books Reviewed in 23 Minutes

Stephen J Drain's picture

“The love of learning, the sequestered nooks, And all the sweet serenity of books” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

“A book lying idle on a shelf is wasted ammunition” – Henry Miller.

Here is my exhaustive review of all but one of the books I read in 2014. Skim the list to see if something piques your interest. Peruse as you please. Skip what does not interest you. For my reading list reviews for the past few years click on any of the following: 2011, 2012, or 2013. Now here we go, set your timer to 23 minutes. Go!

 

1. “Save Me From Myself” subtitled “How I found God, quit Korn, kicked drugs, and lived to tell my story”, the autobiography of Brian “Head” Welch from the band “Korn”.

This book is a great testimonial. It’s the story of a typical rock star who was picked on as a kid, didn’t have a good relationship with his parents, found “salvation” in music, alcohol, and drugs, whose relationships were toxic and abusive, and who realized that fame and fortune did not bring happiness. He struggled with depression and thoughts of suicide:

“I was so depressed about the whole situation—I had all this money, all this fame, but I was really missing out on all the good stuff in life. My relationships with my friends were horrible…. I wasn’t raising my daughter right…. So I turned to drugs as hard as I could. Speed. Coke. Pills. Alcohol…. That enthusiasm from Korn’s early days was gone. I just sat there in so much dark depression and asked myself deep questions. How did I get here? Why can’t I enjoy this life? Isn’t being a rock star supposed to be fun? Why is my life such a nightmare? Why do bad things keep happening to me? I felt like I was under a curse,[1] honestly. I was stuck. And it didn’t look like I was ever going to get out.”[2]

And then Welch met Jesus Christ. His struggle to overcome drug addiction was not completely over, but it was in its death throes. I enjoy reading of how God is still at work and on the move, saving people and changing lives. As Welch talked about his life after being saved I became a bit uncomfortable as he seemed to rely a bit too much on feelings, dreams, visions, and impressions of God speaking to him. My prayer is that Brian continues to follow hard and fast after Jesus Christ.

2. “Doctrine, What Christians Should Believe” by Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears.

This systematic theology book was the textbook for the second semester of CBT (Center for Biblical Transformation) classes at our church. The book grabbed me almost immediately, from the opening paragraphs of the first chapter:

“Deep longings pervade the human heart. We long for selfless, trustworthy, unending love…. We long for unity within the great diversity of humanity, some means by which we can live in peace and oneness that benefits each of us. We long for [the opportunity to] know others and be known by them…. We long for community, significant and earnest relationships with others, so that we are part of a people devoted to something larger and greater than our individual lives…. We long for peace, harmony, and safe altruism for others and ourselves so that abuse, cruelty, misery and the painful tears they cause could stop. We long for a selfless common good, a world in which everyone does what is best for all and is not so viciously and exclusively devoted to self-interest and tribal concerns. Why? Why do we have these persistent deep longings that occasionally compel us to action and often leave us frustrated or disappointed? [It’s because] Our longings… are in fact—by design—longings for the Trinitarian God of the Bible and a world that is a reflection of the Trinity…. The Trinity is the first community and the ideal for all communities. That community alone has not been stained by the selfishness of sin. Therefore the diversity of God the Father, Son, and Spirit is perfect unity as one God that communicates truthfully, loves unreservedly, lives connectedly, serves humbly, interacts peaceably, and serves selflessly.”[3]

This book was really good on doctrine with the only exception being the section on the church where the authors, as with the Westminster Confession, suddenly seem to forget that doctrine is supposed to be based on the Bible and not manmade rules. I still highly recommend this book, however.

3. “Uncle John’s Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, 19th Edition”.[4]

Okay, confession time: I’m a bathroom reader! And I’ve been working through this book for several years. It is filled with cool stuff from trivia to history to brain teasers. One amusing read was entitled “I Curse You”, which gives “classic curses” from throughout history such as: “May your daughter’s beauty be admired by everyone in the circus” and “May you win the lottery and spend it all on doctors.” Other pages of interest: “Can You Pass the U.S. Citizenship Test?”, “The Making of the Godfather”, the history of America’s Most Wanted TV show, the history of Vaudeville, the history of the Pilgrims, and the transcript of New York mobster Dutch Schultz’s rambling last words after having been shot (odd and creepy).

4. “The Way to God” by Dwight L. Moody.

I often (very often) need to return to the basics of the Christian faith as I too often get caught up in this current world, its entertainments, the worldviews, the battles, apologetics, and theology. I return to the basics by reading not only the Bible, but also some of the great preachers of the past, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, Oswald Chambers, etc. I am very thankful for books like this. It grabbed me from the opening lines of chapter 1:

“If I could only make men and women understand the real meaning of the words of the apostle John—‘God is love’ [1 John 4:8]—I would take that single text, and go up and down the world proclaiming this glorious truth. If you can convince a man you love him, you have won his heart. If we really make people believe that God loves them, how we should find them crowding into the kingdom of heaven! The trouble is that people think God hates them; and so they are all the time running away from Him.”[5]

Moody takes us back to the basics. Salvation is found in Jesus Christ; our true food and life is found in Him, not in doctrines. He tells us that doctrines are just the streets that lead us to Him. We must, of course, take the correct streets, but we do not remain on the street forever. Christ is the goal. Christ our destination and salvation. But some remain cold and some do not understand. “Some ask, ‘How am I to get my heart warmed?’ It is by believing. You do not get power to love and serve God until you believe.”[6] “[Dear] friends, it is taking God at His word that is the means of our salvation. The truth cannot be made too simple,” he writes, then continues: “some are wanting a miraculous kind of feeling. That is not faith…. [I’ll tell you] what it is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. It is to act on what we believe.”[7]

He says so many good things. Like Spurgeon, Moody’s stories and examples are almost always spot on and make a great deal of sense: “Someone has said, ‘There are three ways to look. If you want to be wretched, look within; if you want to be distracted, look around; but if you [desire] peace, look up.’”[8] Regarding works and salvation, discussing Romans 4:5, he writes, “[We] work because we are saved; we do not work to be saved. We work from the cross; but not toward it. It is written, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12). Why, you must have salvation before you can work it out.”[9]

Lastly, Moody challenges Christians to live the life: “I remember hearing of a blind man who sat by the wayside with a lantern near him. When he was asked what he had a lantern for, as he could not see the light, he said it was [so] people should not stumble over him. I believe more people stumble over the inconsistencies of professed Christians than from any other cause.”[10]

5. “The Word in this World, Two Sermons by Karl Barth” with introduction by William H. Willimon, edited by Kurt I. Johnson, translated by Christopher Asprey.

My friend Chris, when pressed to liken his beliefs to that of someone well known, points to Karl Barth. I’d never read anything by Barth, so this was my introduction. This mini-book contains two sermons which demonstrate how his preaching changed over time. The first is from early in his “career”, given after the sinking of the Titanic, the second much later, given as Nazism was rising, threatening the Church in his native Germany. Apparently, Barth believed that the preachers job, first and foremost, was to use and preach the Bible and, in contrast to the humanistic liberalism that was infiltrating the church (and still is – 2 Peter 2:1), Barth believed that God has spoken through His revealed Word. As Willimon points out in the introduction, modern seminaries and preachers spend too much time asking “how” they should preach, what techniques should they use, what technologies should they employ, how will they be culturally relevant, how will they attract listeners, etc. The reality is,

“that we preach in the name of a Triune God whose nature is to speak… ‘And God said…’ is the basis of everything,” writes Willimon. “Barth’s homiletic implies a lively, impassioned plea for us preachers to return to the proper subject of our testimony—the Trinitarian God who refuses to be silent or to abandon us to our own rhetorical devices.”[11]

6. “The Ever-Loving Truth” by Voddie Baucham, Jr., subtitled “Can faith thrive in a post-Christian culture?

The first time I ever heard Voddie,[12] I was hooked! He is a solid preacher who’s specialty is family and cultural apologetics. The basis for this book is the account of Peter healing a crippled beggar and the follow up events in Acts chapters 3 & 4. In these chapters Peter and John are called before the very leaders who had, just a few months prior, handed Jesus over to be crucified. But Peter and John did not back down; they preached a resurrected Jesus Christ, the only Savior of the world. Here were uneducated men, standing up to the most educated and religious people in their culture. They were ordered to stop talking about Jesus, threatened with punishment and perhaps death, and yet they did not back down.

Voddie uses this as a springboard in order to encourage Christians today living in a culture hostile towards true Christianity, a culture where believers are expected to keep their mouths shut about Jesus (see Acts 4:18). Voddie equips believers with basic arguments against the false and self-refuting “virtues” of our Western culture such as the “all religions are the same” lie (relativism) and the constant call for “tolerance” (which refutes itself in its intolerance toward Christians), as well as the flawed belief systems such as philosophical pluralism. He exposes the antagonistic world of academia, politics, the media, and entertainment.

This book challenges Christians through the example of those early disciples who, in the face of threats and persecutions, prayed not for the persecutions to end, but that they might be even bolder (see Acts 4:29). Voddie tells the reader that Christians cannot remain neutral; they must stand up for what they believe in, but they must do it in love, bearing witness in both word and deed, subjecting all to biblical truth. He underscores that suffering, especially for the faith, is one of the marks of a true Christian. He finishes up with a solid defense of the trustworthiness of the Bible and the truth of the resurrection. He writes,

“If the Bible is true (and it is), then Christianity is the only viable worldview. Hence, every other worldview will eventually breakdown at some point. There will either be internal logical inconsistency, or there will be a problem with the viability of the worldview as it relates to the real world.”[13]

“In short, it is not our job to convict sinners of sin! The goal of a witnessing encounter is to introduce someone to Jesus.”[14]

7. “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert”, subtitled “an English professor’s journey into Christian faith” by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield.

I first heard of Rosaria Butterfield when I read of students protesting her as a speaker at a university. Why the protests? Because this one time postmodern Lesbian Feminist professor had become a Christian and because she is proof positive that people can turn away from their homosexuality.[15] In this book, Rosaria tells her life story without going into any sordid details.  

As a feminist professor overseeing English, Feminist, and Queer[16] Studies at Syracuse University, Butterfield began research on a book she intended to write about “the rise of the Religious Right in America, and the hermeneutic of hatred that the Religious Right uses against their favorite target: queers, or at that time, people like me.”[17] Her research led her to inquire of someone who was actually a Christian, an older Presbyterian pastor and  his wife who were not hateful or standoffish. They invited her into their home and became her friends. This man answered Rosaria’s questions about the Bible and Christianity in reasonable ways and interacted with her on an intellectual level that she respected, on a level that also made her question her own worldview and presuppositions. During this time, she was angered more and more by her Bible reading as she began to believe that what it was saying was true. She knew it was speaking to her, telling her she was a sinner in need of salvation. “I discovered that God… the triune God of the Bible exists, whether we acknowledge him or not. I discovered that God wasn’t very happy with me.”[18]

“The Bible told me to repent, but I didn’t feel like repenting,” she writes. “How do you repent for a sin that doesn’t feel like a sin? How could the thing that I studied and become be sinful? How could I be tenured in a field that is sin? How could I and everyone that I knew and loved be in sin?”[19] She writes, “That night, I prayed and asked God if the gospel message was for someone like me, too…. I prayed that if Jesus was truly a real and risen God, that he would change my heart. And if he was real and I was his, I prayed that he would give me the strength of mind to follow him…. I prayed for the strength of character to repent for a sin that at that time didn’t feel like a sin at all—it felt like life, plain and simple. I prayed that if my life was actually his… he would take it back and make it what he wanted it to be.”[20]

Now I will confess, one thing that was particularly informative was her discussion about how tightly knit the homosexual community is, how they view Christians with distrust, and how upsetting it is when people rudely attack homosexuals with their words. (People who, lacking understanding, probably consider themselves Christians.) Rosaria discusses how one of the most difficult parts of her conversion was how she felt as though she was betraying everyone in her former community. All in all, Rosario Butterfield is a very intelligent woman (“God saved me, but hadn’t lobotomized me.”[21]). In this book she critically examines not only her former circles and worldviews, but also modern evangelical Christianity; in doing so, she pulls no punches.

8. “At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry” by Steve Gallagher.

An excellent book for anyone who has ever made sexuality the main escape, purpose, pursuit, and/or happiness of his or her life. “Come now, let us reason together”,[22] consider how many lives and families have been torn apart and destroyed because of sexual sin, because someone was only thinking about their own self and pleasure? (“Sin, when unrestrained, infantilizes a person”—Rosario Butterfield.[23]) In his book, Gallagher points out that sexual sin is not about others but it is self-centered and, as with any idol, people make offerings to it; upon this altar they sacrifice their time and their money, many sacrifice their children, their spouses, their health, and even their lives to sexual sin. Sin, of course, is its own punishment in many ways; it comes with natural consequences (see James 1:14-15, etc.), with it comes guilt, self-hatred, bitterness, ingratitude, a critical and judgmental spirit, and eventually destruction, death, and eternal separation from God. And, frighteningly, even though our sins are “monstrous crimes against a holy God”,[24] God often gives people over to exactly what they desire (Romans 1:18-32).

Gallagher is well aware that we live in a hyper-sexualized culture; therefore, “Just as our culture makes it easy for a person to slide down the path deeper and deeper into bondage, it also makes it equally difficult for the person, who so desires, to escape it. Everywhere he turns, he is constantly confronted with and reminded of what he is trying to avoid.”[25] But Gallagher also knows that some who claim they are “trying” to avoid these temptations and sins really are not trying at all. Sin is the path of least resistance. Many Christians are unprepared for resistance, even less prepared for war. (Jeremiah 12:5 comes to my mind at the moment.) Some who decide to fight don’t know how. They end up spending all their time thinking about their sin, how bad it is, how they can overcome it, and this does little more than to keep the thing they prefer to avoid at the forefront of their mind. If it’s in the mind, it eventually leads them back to the sin. Christians and counselors give bad advice. Even many small circles and men’s groups get it wrong: “biblical accountability was never meant to be a group of [people] sitting in a circle discussing their failures.”[26] (Listen and learn brothers and sisters!)

Gallagher writes,

“when a person grows up in a society that presents this hedonistic message, which is basically: ‘If it feels good, just do it,’ it is very hard for his mind to dismiss the untruth of it. If he becomes born-again, he suddenly finds himself striving against the powerful flow of this world, with all its seductive charms. He must take a stand for righteousness, although everything in his carnal nature longs for what the world offers.”[27]

How can this be done? For one, the author challenges people to see the consequences of their sins ahead of time. When a person constantly caters to their sins, his or her “world becomes increasingly smaller.”[28] Yet we are called to something so much bigger, we are called to love and serve God and others, to represent Christ to the world. Time and time again, Gallagher brings us back to the fact of God’s love and grace toward sinners, of God’s wonderful promises and stern warnings, all of these in order to spur the reader on towards a life of holiness. He provides the reader with the biblical principles of “putting off”, doing away with the old ways and things of this world, as we “put on” and fill our minds, hearts, and lives with new things, godly things, and, most importantly, God Himself.

9. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (novel) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Well, slowly but surely I’ve been working my way through “The Gulag Archipelago” by Solzhenitsyn, but in the meantime I saw this book, so I picked it up and read it. A decent read, it describes a Soviet labor camp and the existence within, with its sub zero temperatures (“The frost was cruel. A stinging haze wrapped around him and set him coughing. The air temperature was twenty-seven below and Shukhov’s temperature was thirty-seven above.”[29]), a place where a morsel of bread or an extra spoonful of warm gruel along with some time to eat it is the meaning of life (“[His] insides greeted that skilly with a joyful fluttering. This was it! This was good! This was the brief moment for which a zek lives. For a little while Shukhov forgot all his grievances, forgot that his sentence was long, that the day was long, that once again there would be no Sunday [off].”[30]), the social strata amongst the prisoners, the relationships, the reasons and terms for imprisonment as deemed by the Soviets, thoughts of how one might be able to survive, and of who would and who would not make it.

 “Looking through the wire gate, across the building site and out through the wire fence on the far side, you could see the rising sun, big and red, as though in a fog. Alyoshka, standing next to Shukhov, gazed at the sun and a smile spread from his eyes to his lips. Alyoshka’s cheeks were hollow, he lived on his bare ration and never made anything on the side—what had he got to be happy about? He and the other Baptists spent their Sundays whispering to each other. Life is the camp was like water off a duck’s back to them. They’d been lumbered for twenty-five years apiece for just being Baptists. Fancy thinking that would cure them!”[31]

10. “Honestly, My Life and Stryper Revealed”, autobiography of songwriter, singer, and guitar player Michael Sweet, founding member of Christian metal band Stryper, written with Dave Rose & Doug Van Pelt.

The role of Stryper in my life cannot be discounted. In the early 1980s I was a teenager into heavy metal music, Black Sabbath, the Scorpions, Iron Maiden, but I had been raised in a Christian family, encouraged to fill my life with all things Christian, but there really wasn’t any Christian music that measured up to the music I loved. But when I heard Stryper (courtesy of my older brother) and first saw their four silhouettes come out of the darkness on that stage of Mt. Pleasant High School auditorium, Wilmington, DE, on the night of November 12th, 1985, with their thunderous version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” coming from the p.a., things changed. I recall thinking at that moment, “God’s done it.” He had taken a beachhead for Himself within heavy metal music. (After Stryper, the floodgates opened up and Christian bands were signed left and right, which was both good and bad.[32]) Stryper brought the basic message of Jesus Christ to me with the musical power and strength that I felt God deserved. Soon enough I was a devoted Stryper fan buying Stryper everything. (Idolatry.) I remember my Mom saying something like, “I hope that if something happens with them, if they ‘fall’ for some reason, it won’t affect you.” Sadly, by the end of 1991 they had crashed and burned and it broke my heart.

Michael Sweet explains a good deal of the crash and burn in this book. I saw the bad foundations almost immediately, the milestones along the way and decisions made, a great many of them bad.[33] He tells us he was “saved” as a kid but by the late 70s he was caught up into the world of rock music, singing and playing in bands on the Sunset Strip even in his mid teens. “7 years of my life on Sunset Strip living the sex/drugs/rock & roll lifestyle, but there was always this feeling in my heart that told me I needed to change.”[34] When the band members of what would become Stryper, each of whom had either been brought up in Christian families or had come to Christ in some form or fashion, decided to give their music to God and recommit to Christ, things took off. (As per Michael: “We’ve sold almost 10 million records to date and were the first Christian band to air on MTV, and to have four #1 videos.”[35]) But had they completely committed their lives?

The floodgates opened wide. Though Stryper’s popularity and record sales steadily grew, so also did their detractors from both sides of the aisle. Many Christians protested them, bearing false witness and saying they were playing the devil’s music. Many in the secular world and industry hated them or didn’t give them respect because they were Christian. (Musically they were as good, if not better, than most of the metal bands of their day.) Slowly, over time, anger and resentment built up within them towards all their attackers, and towards each other. Couple that with the temptations and excesses that accompany life in the entertainment industry and it was a recipe for disaster. Personality conflicts, control, rebellion, alcohol, women, divorce, and the death of their Christian witness. “I was doing very little to correct it. I wasn’t seeking God like I should have. I just continued down the path of temptation, knowing that I was playing with fire, yet not really caring at all. Well, I’d care for a while, and then I wouldn’t, and then I’d care again.”[36] They’d traveled a long distance from their “Speak of the devil, he’s no friend of mine, to turn from him is what we’ve got in mind” lyrics,[37] from their “God, I will follow you because you died for me, gave to me your life to set me free…[38] lyrics.

“‘How did it get to that point?’ I can tell you this: it didn’t happen overnight. It slowly crept into our lives and before we knew it, we were exemplifying the hypocrisy that drove us to this anger and frustration in the first place. That’s the way the devil works. He slowly convinces you that you’re not wrong. He convinces you without you even noticing, that there’s no longer a need to hold each other accountable. It must be okay if we’re all doing ‘it,’ whatever sin ‘it’ may be…”[39]

11. “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, a Breviary of Sin” by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.

Yes, I asked the same question you just did: “What in the world does ‘breviary’ mean?” It means “summary”; therefore this book looks at sin in its many manifestations and attempts to summarize exactly what it is. But first, how about a world the way it “should be”? After all, “[Every] one of us does possess the notion of a world in which things are as they ought to be.”[40]

“The webbing together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight is what the Hebrew prophets call shalom. We call it peace, but it means far more than a peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.”[41]

But Eden was destroyed by our sin.

The author points out that, according to Scripture, sin is “unknown, irrational, alien. Sin is always a departure from the norm…. Sin is deviant and perverse, injustice or iniquity or ingratitude…. [It] is disorder and disobedience. Sin is faithlessness, lawlessness, godlessness. Sin is both the overstepping of a line and the failure to reach it—both transgression and shortcoming. Sin is a missing of the mark, a spoiling of goods, a staining of garments… a wandering from the path, a fragmenting of the whole. Sin is what culpably disturbs shalom.[42] We’ve seen all this self-destruction in the biographies of Brian “Head” Welch, Rosaria Butterfield, and Michael Sweet. We’ve seen this in Gallagher’s book about sexual idolatry. “Sin is anti-law, anti-righteousness, anti-Spirit, anti-life.”[43]

“All traditional Christians agree that human beings have a biblically certified and empirically demonstrable bias toward evil. We are all both complicitous in and molested by the evil of our race. We both discover evil and invent it; we both ratify it and extend it.”[44]

Sin is corruption, it’s uncreation, “it wrecks integrity and wholeness”,[45] as one chapter tells us in its tile, sin is “Perversion, Pollution, and Disintegration”. Perversion is using things incorrectly, overindulging ourselves and/or aiming natural desires “at wrong objects.”[46] “To pollute is to weaken a particular whole entity… by introducing a foreign element.”[47] Pollution can destroy a lake, a marriage relationship (think adultery, pornography), even our own bodies (think drug abuse, alcoholism, gluttony). “[P]aradoxically, though sinners [violate what is] good, they usually intend to gain something good by sinning.”[48] Think of those seeking comfort through drugs, alcohol, or food, think of those seeking wealth through robbery or fraud, think of those who seek pleasure through crossing sexual boundaries. None of these things connect us all together and help us flourish; none of this removes the boundaries erected between us and our neighbor, us and God.

“God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be.”[49]

Sin grows exponentially. Sin blinds those in its grip. (Think Mafia wives in denial, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, etc.) Thinking along the lines of religious leaders and politicians, those who search out sin and evil in order to squash it, Plantinga writes, “Evil contaminates every scalpel designed to remove it.”[50] Those who overthrow despotic and wicked governments often become despotic and wicked themselves. (Think the French Revolution and the “Reign of Terror”, the Russian Revolution and Stalin, the Cuban Revolution and Castro.) “Everything sin touches begins to die…”[51] Sin is addiction, envy, idolatry, all self-destructive and friends with death.

In the final analysis, however, Plantinga points out that sin is not the whole story. He reminds us that “sin is only a parasite, a vandal, a spoiler”[52] of the good that pre-exists it. The one thing stronger, more persistent and powerful than sin, is the love and grace of God. And it is in the person of Jesus Christ, the sinless One, that God shouldered and defeated sin; He took on the power of sin and all the evil that Satan and humanity could muster and defeated it on the cross. Jesus, while being the One sinned against, also became the sin; Jesus “took Cain’s place as well as Abel’s. And when the terrible struggle between these old foes was over…”[53] we find Jesus rising from the dead on resurrection morning, the firstfruits of the restored Shalom, which God has guaranteed to those who belong to Him. (See Revelation 21:3-6 and Revelation 22.)

12. “The Love of God” by Oswald Chambers, subtitled, “An Intimate Look at the Father-Heart of God.”

Here’s another one of those “back to basics” books that I need to frequently pick up, a book to rescue me from drowning in the deep end and take me back to the beautiful and simple message of the gospel: God loves and sent Christ to save sinners. Now Chambers admits that the difficulties of this life will often appear to contradict the truth that God is loving. The question is: How will we respond? Will we give up, despair, or will we continue to serve God and set ourselves apart from the world?

Now I don’t intentionally choose books to see how they will tie together but, inevitably, they all do. Everything ties together! Note how what Chambers writes here falls directly in with Plantinga’s discussion of lost Shalom:

“Does nature exhibit the creator as a God of love? If so, why is nature a scene of plunder and murder? Has the Bible anything to say about it, any revelation that explains it? Try and weave a concept of God out of Jesus Christ’s presentation of Him and then look at life as it is…. the universe is wild and unmanageable. Yet God in the beginning created man to have dominion over it. The reason he cannot is because he has twisted the order and has become master of himself, instead of recognizing God’s dominion over him. Jesus Christ belonged to the order of things that God originally intended for mankind, He was easily Master of the life of the sea and air and earth. If we want to see what the human race will be like on the basis of redemption, we shall see it mirrored in Jesus Christ”.[54]

We are called to be lights and to love, to be Christ-like in this fallen world. But Chambers pulls no punches with those of us who set bad examples: “Our Lord tells us to judge the [Christian] ‘by his fruits.’ Fruit is not the salvation of souls, that is God’s work; fruit is ‘the fruit of the Spirit,’ love, joy, peace, and all the rest.” He continues: “It is an easy business to preach, an appallingly easy thing to tell other people what to do…. You have been teaching these people that they should be full of peace and joy, but what about yourself? Are you full of peace and joy? The truthful witness is the one who lets his light shine in works that exhibit the disposition of Jesus; one who lives the truth as well as preaches it.”[55]

Unfortunately, we Christians today suffer from the malady of here and now escapism; whenever we find a good, or find a moment of joy, we want to stay there forever. We want to live there. We would love for it to be a pure godly joy; just let us glide above the world’s pain and evil in a godly euphoria. Chambers writes of our desire for the spiritual highs. He calls it “spiritual selfishness.” Using the Mount of Transfiguration as an example, he notes how Peter wanted to set up some shelters for everyone (Luke 9:33). “[But] if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, He will never allow us to stay there,” writes Chambers. “[The] mountain is not the place for us to live, we were built for the valleys.”[56] He tells the reader that it is on the mount that we see God’s glory, but it is in the valleys that we live for His glory. “Holiness in a human being is only manifested by means of antagonism,” he writes.[57] Ugh!

“[It is in the valley] where our faithfulness has to be manifested…. That is where Jesus Christ lived most of His life. The reason we have to live in the valley is that the majority of people live there and if we are to be used of God in the world, we must be useful from God’s standpoint—not from our own standpoint”.[58]

We need to look into what brought Christ joy even though Scripture calls Him a “Man of Sorrows” (Isaiah 53). Of Christ’s joy: “It certainly was not happiness. The joy of the Lord Jesus Christ lay in doing exactly what He came to do,” he writes. “He came to do His Father’s will. The saving of men was the natural outcome of this, but our Lord’s one great obedience was not to the needs of men but to the will of His Father”.[59] Thus it is through serving the Father and doing His will, that we also can find joy because then we are truly doing what we are put here to do, what we are made for.

Lastly, Chambers also pulls no punches with those who think that the love of God is simply grandfatherly, fluffy bunny love: “If your concept of love does not agree with justice, judgment, purity, and holiness, then your idea of love is wrong. It is not love you conceive of in your mind, but some vague infinite foolishness, all tears and softness and of infinite weakness.”[60] So true! “Jesus Christ often offended people, but He never put a stumbling block in anyone’s way.”[61]

13. “John Quincy Adams” from the American Presidents series, written by Robert V. Remini.

As the title of the first chapter tells us, John Quincy Adams was certainly, “A Privileged Young Man.” His father, John Adams, was one of our nations Founders. A teenaged John Quincy traveled to Europe as secretary to his diplomat father. He was taken under the wing of Thomas Jefferson in France. At fourteen, he became secretary to the ambassador to Prussia. Most likely fluent in European languages, he knew Latin and Greek before entering Harvard at nineteen. He graduated second in his class. 

Though a learned man, he struggled with both pride, believing he was made for greatness (This, instilled in him by his parents.[62]), and depression. His mother, Abigail, was a horrible domineering[63] nag, even in her letters to him. She was partly to blame for his never marrying the love of his life, a girl he met after college. The resulting depression appears to have plagued him for the rest of his life. It appears that Adams disliked and resented Abigail for the rest of her life. His eventual marriage to Louisa Johnson appears to have been an unhappy one and he also became a horrible parent.

But was he qualified to be president?

Note his resume above and then add the following: President Washington named him ambassador to the Netherlands. Returning home, he was elected State Senator. When his father became president, J.Q.A. was appointed ambassador to Prussia. Returning home, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. President Madison appointed him Minister to Russia. While in Russia, Adams turned down an appointment to the Supreme Court. After helping to negotiate the treaty which ended the War of 1812, Adams was made Minister to Britain. Lastly, he became the Secretary of State under President Monroe, a position which was, at that time, seen as the stepping stone to the presidency.

J.Q.A. was an early believer of Manifest Destiny, that “[the] whole continent of North America… appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles…”[64] It also seems generally accepted that Secretary of State Adams was the actual author of one of the most famous American foreign policy pronouncements ever, the Monroe Doctrine, which established a non-interference policy in the Western or “American Hemisphere” by European powers, and a continued non-interference or neutral policy of the United States in European affairs. The author writes, “John Quincy Adams is arguably the greatest secretary of state to serve that office. His negotiating skills and diplomatic insights were mainly responsible for the transformation of the United States into a transcontinental nation, an action that guaranteed the emergence of this country as a world power.”[65]

John Quincy Adams became our 6th president because of much political maneuvering in the House of Representatives when none of the three main candidates for the office received a majority of votes.[66]  Some will remember his name mentioned during the contested election of 2000, because he was the first person ever elected president without having had the majority of the popular vote. As with George W. Bush, this set many against him immediately.

No matter his brilliance, J.Q.A. managed to ostracize almost everyone during the height of his political career. He had always frustrated his own party by his independent streak. He had never been one to simply vote along party lines. As he’d always done in public office, he kept a counsel of one, himself. He despised politics and electioneering, so much so that he did things to hurt his own re-election. He refused promise or make political appointments to those who could help his re-election. He would not pander for votes by speaking to foreign speaking immigrants in their own language. He would not answer false charges made against him by adversaries. Thus J.Q.A. was a one term president, like his father. And he and his father were the only two presidents who did not attend their successor’s inauguration.[67]

As the author writes,

“It is really impossible to think of any president quite like John Quincy Adams. He seemed intent on destroying himself and his administration. By the same token it is difficult to think of a president with greater personal integrity.”[68]

That’s a bold statement.

But the story does not end there. John Quincy Adams is the only person to ever to return to Congress after leaving the presidency.[69] As a Senator he was vocally anti-slavery. Like his father he was brilliant in argument and was nicknamed “Old Man Eloquent.” What he may best be remembered for today is the role he played in helping represent slaves who had revolted against those in control of the slave ship Amistad, portrayed in the Steve Spielberg film “Amistad”. In 1846, John Quincy Adams suffered a stroke while speaking in the House of Representatives. He was moved to the Speaker’s Room in the Capitol Building where he died two days later. He was seventy-eight.

14. “American Sniper” subtitled “The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History” by Navy Seal Chris Kyle, with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice.

Chris Kyle was a man who believed he was made for war. Trained as a Navy SEAL and then as a sniper, he was good at killing the enemy. “I loved killing bad guys”[70] is a difficult sentence to read, but I can see the possible rightness in saying such a thing. He was a soldier, not a vigilante. Now some will automatically hate a sniper who claimed to kill over 255 enemy (with 160 confirmed kills) and who holds the 8th longest recorded kill shot at 2100 yards. After all, some people have “War is Not the Answer” bumper stickers,[71] but it’s ignorant to say “war never solves anything”, writes commentator Dennis Prager, “the Nazi atrocities were ended only by war”,[72] so was American slavery. And every nation needs soldiers willing to fight, to defend, and to protect the innocent. As Kyle tells it, “I didn’t risk my life to bring democracy to Iraq. I risked my life for my buddies, to protect my friends and fellow countrymen. I went to war for my country, not Iraq. My country sent me out there so that [B.S.] wouldn’t make its way back to our shores.”[73]

But today’s soldiers face a new problem: the media, politicians, and lawyers. In chapter seven, he tells of the time he protected an Army convoy when he shot and killed a man who came out of a building with an AK-47. A bunch of locals came out, surrounded the dead man, and the weapon disappeared with the crowd. The next thing Kyle knew, he was being investigated for the shooting because the widow claimed that her husband only had a Koran and was innocently heading to the mosque. Such things enraged Kyle and his fellow soldiers. Because of things like this, every shot he took required a “shooter’s statement.” “No joke,” he writes. “I had a little notebook with me, and I’d record the day, the time, details about the person, what he was doing, the round I used, how many shots I took, how far away the target was, and who witnessed the shot. All that went into the report…. Great way to fight a war—be prepared to defend yourself for winning.”[74]

He writes, “[Once] you decide to send us, let me do my job. War is war.”[75] “Tell the military the end result you want, and then you’ll get it. But don’t try and tell us how to do it. All those rules about when and under what circumstances an enemy combatant could be killed didn’t just make our jobs harder, they put our lives in danger. The [Rules of Engagement] got so convoluted… because politicians were interfering with the process. The rules are drawn up by lawyers…. they’re not written by people who are worried about the guys on the ground getting shot.”[76] His wife Taya adds, “[Picking] apart a soldier’s every move against a dark, twisted, rule-free enemy is more than ridiculous; it’s despicable.”[77]

Though I do not necessarily disagree with the above, I was still uneasy with parts of Kyle’s story. For instance, he begins the book by saying, “I was raised, and still believe in, the Christian faith.”[78] The problem I have with him saying that has nothing to do with him as a soldier or sniper or his number of kills. Not at all. In fact, my favorite scene in “Saving Private Ryan” is when the sniper, Private Jackson, takes aim at a German soldier and loosely quotes the words of King David from Psalm 144:1 which reads, “Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war...” The Bible never says it is wrong for a Christian to be a soldier.[79] The issue I take with his narrative in the book is his lack of attentiveness to his wife, his apparent love of drinking and barroom brawling, and the constant cursing. Of course, I expect it is difficult for anyone who has not been in a military culture to fathom the culture itself, but I have been part of the Christian body long enough to know what is expected of Christians. (See Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8, etc.)

All in all, the book was a fast moving and good read. And it was an especially sobering read, knowing that Chris Kyle, who retired from active duty unharmed after four tours in Iraq in some of the worst fighting zones, was later murdered back in the states by an ex-marine who apparently suffered from PTSD. (Kyle had started a foundation to help ex-soldiers with issues.) Tragic irony. Certainly I expect some might say, “Live by the sword, die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

On the final pages of the original book, published before his death, Kyle tells us,

“I don’t spend a lot of time philosophizing about killing people. I have a clear conscience about my role in the war. I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible,. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth…. Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”[80]

God is the final Judge and we know that He will never be incorrect in His judgments.

15: “Love Walked Among Us” by Paul E. Miller, subtitled, “Learning to Love Like Jesus”.

I really liked some things about this book and was extremely frustrated by some things in it. I might have recommended this book to everyone, but I thought the author took liberties with the Gospel texts either in order to make the reading more dramatic or to underscore points he wished to make. Setting those things aside, I think Paul Miller had some great things to tell us:

As Christians called to be Christ-like, there is no one else to whom we must look for our example but Christ Himself. (Makes sense, doesn’t it?) One of Paul Miller’s big themes is that of “incarnation”, of our need to put ourselves in the place of those we purpose to love. This is what God did for us by coming in flesh as a human being in the person of Jesus Christ; He “walked in our shoes.” In love, Jesus died in our place. Paul Miller points out how Jesus’ love did not shy away from getting dirty, touching the unclean and untouchable. Love sees need, is moved with compassion, then acts and pours itself out. Unfortunately, most of us tend to avoid giving ourselves away. He writes,

“We instinctively know that love leads to commitment, so we look away…. We might have to pay if we look too closely and care to deeply. Loving means losing control of our schedule, our money, and our time. When we love we cease to be the master and become a servant.”[81]

True!

To personally confess: If I have always felt that my childhood and life were too painful and burdensome in and of themselves, and if my preference is to find escape and a place to hide from troubles and pain, if I prefer to somehow perfect my stoicism, then certainly I will want to avoid anyone else’s pain adding to my own; thus empathy and compassion would not be a high priority on my “to do” list. But Paul Miller nails it: “This fear is not irrational—when we pause to have compassion, something of the other person’s problems comes on us. Some of his pain touches us…. Compassion affects us.” And many (including me) would like to keep ourselves “from being affected by other people’s problems.”[82]

Another great point that Paul makes is about how Jesus wasn’t afraid to say what needed to be said. He wasn’t afraid of political correctness or what people thought of Him. He wasn’t afraid to rebuke someone in their own house in front of their guests (Luke 7:36-50). “Jesus is both compassionate and honest”,[83] writes Miller. “Jesus shows us that without truth, our relationship lacks definition and meaning. If people are on the wrong road, messing up, they will continue to mess up unless they face the truth. If the only gift we give an abusive husband is compassion, then we are contributing to his evil.”[84] (This makes me think of my April 27th, 2014 column.) “Love moves toward people, even if that means confrontation. It doesn’t leave them alone in their suffering or in their selfishness.”[85]

Lastly, Paul points out that when things get particularly stressful or difficult for us, we often abandon our outward, loving, Christ-like practices: “It’s relatively easy to love when things are going the way we want. But when the pressure mounts, most of us forget about love and think only about ourselves.”[86] But Christ’s love and compassion still stands as the ultimate example for us. Think of Jesus on the way to Jerusalem: “Jesus knows that in just a few days ‘Jerusalem’ will murder him. But instead of weeping for himself, he weeps for ‘Jerusalem.’ Sadness can easily teeter into self-pity and self-absorption, but Jesus’ sadness is other-centered.” How easy it is to miss these moments. Paul also points to the crucifixion: “In the midst of his agony, Jesus never stops looking [at what others are going through and facing]. He cares for his grieving mother, forgives the rough soldiers, [and] gives hope to a dying criminal…”[87]

Great points! And may God, by His Spirit, make all true Christians more and more Christ-like.

16. “Counterfeit Gods” by Timothy Keller, subtitled, “The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters.”

This was a very good book. At the very opening of chapter one we read, “Most people spend their lives trying to make their heart’s fondest dreams come true. Isn’t that what life is all about, ‘the pursuit of happiness’? We search endlessly for ways to acquire the things we desire, and we are willing to sacrifice much to achieve them. We never imagine that getting our hearts deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us.”[88] And the worst thing that could happen to those around us…

Ever see a husband or wife abandon their family in pursuit of an addiction or a new “love interest”? Ever see a person pursue career at the expense of their family? Ever see a pastor “fall from grace” and the wreckage that results? “[An] idol is something we can’t live without. We must have it, and therefore it drives us to break the rules we once honored, to harm others and even ourselves in order to get it.”[89] What destruction is wrought worshipping and chasing idols. God is to be Supreme; obedience, service, and love for Him, along with love for others, are to be those things to which we devote our hearts, lives, time, and treasure.

“What is an idol?” Keller asks. “It is anything more important than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”[90] “If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.”[91]

Ever see someone lose their idol or have it taken from them? I have. Nothing else, not family, friends, or the love of God can console such a person. Life becomes meaningless and without hope; nothing offers comfort. Keller paints a picture of people who have lost their idols when he writes, “There is a difference between sorrow and despair. Sorrow is pain for which there are sources of consolation. Sorrow comes from losing one good thing among others, so that, if you experience a career reversal, you can find comfort in your family to get you through it. Despair, however, is inconsolable, because it comes from losing an ultimate thing. When you lose the ultimate source of your meaning or hope, there are no alternative sources to turn to. It breaks your spirit.”[92]

Know anybody like that? It’s a horrible thing to see.

Keller then gives readers an interesting test, asking that we take a look at ourselves and our emotions: “Look at your most uncontrollable emotions” he writes.[93] What things in our lives, when threatened, taken away (even temporarily), or denied, cause us to respond with uncontrolled emotions like fear, rage, anger, tears, or despair? If we react in any of these ways to anything we should evaluate ourselves because there “you may have found your real god.”[94]

And there is something in that book to convict each and every one of us of our sinful idolatry. His short and few chapters manage to look at the idols of happiness, love, sex, money, success, power, glory, nationalism, politics, religion. He uses examples from history and pop-culture, but also from the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Naaman, Jonah, Nebuchadnezzar, and Zacchaeus.

Unfortunately, because we are such slow learners and so hard-hearted, God often painfully rips the idols from the grasp of those He loves; He amputates them from us, sometimes without anesthetic. “Sometimes God seems to be killing us when he’s actually saving us.”[95] We have to get to a place where we can say to our idols, “Because I have God, I can live without you.”[96] Trouble is, we can never double down and work harder to overcome our attachment to our idol. Instead, “it is deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ.”[97] “Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding and identity, our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without a complete change of heart will be superficial and fleeting.”[98] It is seeing God’s love and goodness for us, seeing Him for who He is, and learning to adore and worship Him, that will cause our idols to fade. Old loves, lesser loves, die away when a new and better love takes root in our heart.  

17. “Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married” by Gary Chapman, author of the excellent book “The 5 Love Languages.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone contemplating marriage. Early on Chapman writes,

“People do not get married planning to divorce. Divorce is the result of a lack of preparation for marriage…. The decision to get married will impact one’s life more deeply than almost any decision in life. Yet people continue to rush into marriage with little or no preparation for making a marriage successful. In fact, many couples give far more attention to making plans for the wedding than making plans for marriage.”[99]

How true that statement is… and how sad.

After all, Chapman writes, “the primary purpose of dating is to get to know each other and to examine the intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical foundations for marriage. Only then are you able to make a wise decision—to marry or not to marry.”[100] Lest someone misunderstand his use of the word “physical” above, he is talking about the fact that it is often “physical attraction that initiated our relationship in the first place.”[101] He writes, “Unfortunately in contemporary society, the misguided emphasis on sexuality has made it difficult for many couples to have a balanced dating relationship. The current phenomena of ‘hooking up,’ in which couples have sex on the first date and their relationship is focused on the sexual experience, fails to qualify either as dating or a relationship. Such encounters either grow out of or lead to sexual addiction, which is certainly not a foundation upon which to build a marriage.”[102]

But for those truly serious about doing some good investigational dating, read on:

Some of the chapter titles speak wisdom in and of themselves: “I Wish I Had Known… That being in love is not an adequate foundation for building a successful marriage.” (It’s been said before that romantic love, the “butterflies” stage, lasts only about two years in a relationship.) “I Wish I Had Known… That saying, ‘Like mother, like daughter’ and ‘Like father, like son’ is not a myth.” (We recognize that children of alcoholics and abusers often continue the pattern, but what about other things such as communication patterns, ways of arguing, male/female roles, physical appearance, etc.?) Chapter seven reminds us “That toilets are not self-cleaning” and he asks the very good question of who will be expected to do what once married. He gives great advice: “One of the learning exercises I have done in premarital counseling is to have the woman make a list of all the things her father did around the house and all the responsibilities that her mother accepted. I asked the young man to do the same. Once the lists are made, we examine the lists to see where their parental models are similar and different.”[103] After all, if both newlywed husband and wife are waiting around for the other to clean the toilets or shovel the snow, that could prove a problem.

There is a chapter on the fact that when we marry, we marry into a family (think dynamics, expectations, holiday traditions), chapters on personality differences (risk takers and non, neatniks and slobs, talkers and clams, passives and agressives, “professors and dancers”, etc.), chapters on disagreements and how to apologize (including his “five languages of apology”), a chapter on handling money, and one entitled, “I Wish I Had Known… That mutual sexual fulfillment is not automatic”.

The biggest question to ask is found in the final chapter: “The question is, ‘Are our spiritual beliefs compatible?”[104] (See 2 Corinthians 6:14-16.) In this chapter Chapman asks, “What do you think about God?”, “What are the basic religious beliefs of your parents?”, and “How do your religious beliefs affect your daily lifestyle?” Does one take the Bible literally or as mythology? Do you believe that God has spoken or not? Has one considered the big differences even between the many “Christian” denominations? After all, many people have no religion at all, though they may call themselves Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, or Christian. Many call themselves “spiritual” when all they are doing is making it up as they go along. Using real couples as examples, he demonstrates how divisions can and will arise because of differences in beliefs. Remember, we will all face troubles, sorrows, questions about the past and the future, questions of purpose and meaning, and religion deals with life’s essential questions; therefore it is important to get this one right.

Conclusion? As stated above, dating is primarily the method in which one gets to know whether the other person is a good candidate for marrying, a person with whom we might raise a family and with whom we should enjoy spending the rest of our lives. One needs to take dating seriously and examine the difficult issues before saying, “I do.” As Chapman writes, “Real life has to do with dealing with hard issues. Learning how to do this while dating prepares you for a healthy marriage in the future.”[105]

18. “Don’t you Forget About Me, Contemporary Writers on the films of John Hughes”, edited by Jaime Clarke.[106]

Okay, theology, Christian living, apologetics, biography, history, fiction… but I am still a product of western culture, so I do indulge in pop-culture. So here is my pop-culture entry.

Now, having grown up in the 1980s I was a big fan of writer/director John Hughes’ movies (“The Breakfast Club”, “16 Candles”, “Weird Science”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”,[107] “Uncle Buck”, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, “Home Alone”, “She’s Having a Baby”, even “Baby’s Day Out”). Hughes died fairly young, at the age of 59 in 2009. Many from my generation felt the loss. After all, “John Hughes takes a high school vision a shade less black than Stephen King’s Carrie and mixes it with pop effervescence… [and] with unabashed Frank Capra sentimentality,” writes Elizabeth Searle. “Borrowing gritty realism from breakthrough films of the ‘70s such as Carrie and American Graffiti, Hughes captures a teen experience both universal and unique to it’s times.”[108]

Now there was a lot to not like in this book. First and foremost was the casual use of the F word and the nostalgic bragging about youthful promiscuity, drinking, drug use, and criminality. Yes, my generation was a big contributor to the self-destruction of this nation and culture (see my column here), but there is nothing good in waxing nostalgic about those things which bring destruction (Romans 1:28-32). Secondly, I get tired of liberal writers taking shots at conservatives, complaining about Ronald Reagan or how bad the 1980s economy was, writing about how it is impossible for someone to rise above the class level into which they were born (meanwhile they are writers, not factory workers, reminiscing of their irresponsible youths), etc. Interestingly enough, one of the contributors, John McNally, after watching the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as an adult writes, “Ironically, the only character for whom  I had genuine sympathy this time around was Principal Rooney, the movies supposed villain. He is the only character who wants to make people accountable for their actions…. What was this man’s crime? Attempting to instill responsibility in a bunch of spoiled brats? Is that so bad?”[109]

But I digress.

So consider the movie list above when you read, “These are the movies that nobody my age can have escaped seeing,” writes one author. “[We] saw the films and identified with the characters despite their occasional caricature. When ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ comes on the radio, we are primally encoded to listen to at least a few bars.”[110] “For those who came of age in the 1980s, the Hughes films deftly illuminated and assuaged the anxieties of an entire generation,” writes editor Jaime Clarke.[111] Very true. “John Hughes established that the marginalized would find their margin, that those truly in love would not go about life in a fit of unrequited yearning, that if you were decent and capable of epiphany, you would be rewarded with your fondest hopes,” writes Tod Goldberg.[112]

Unfortunately, however, Goldberg says, “Adult reasoning suggests that most of the relationships Hughes put in motion were actually destined for bone-crushing failure.”[113] Thus the line in “The Breakfast Club”—“When you grow up, your heart dies”, as if to say that as adults, belief in the magic of the moment goes away: “[Will the magic of the movie ending] still shimmer in the high school hallways in the harsh Monday-morning light? Most likely not, but that’s hardly the point of the film[s],” writes Lisa Borders.[114] “In a John Hughes movie you never learn how things turn out. There’s no epilogue, no moment of recognition… that these teens will meet the future, that life awaits them.”[115] The Hughes movies give us the magic of the moment, when the outcast wins or finds the love for which he or she has waited, the feel good ending with sentimental crescendo of synthesized strings. (I love that!)

“[The] real pull of his movies,” writes John McNally. “is wish-fulfillment. We want to be those kids. Even when they’re not having a good time, even when they’re going through the worst bouts of teenage torment imaginable…. [The idea is] that everything will be okay for them, which means that maybe—maybe—everything will be okay for us, too.”[116]

 19. “The Discipline of Grace” subtitled “God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness” written by Jerry Bridges.

I think this is the best book I ever read on the subject of sanctification, the Christian life, and of how God works it in us while we work towards it at the same time (Philippians 2:12-13, Colossians 1:29, etc.). This is another excellent book given us in our CBT curriculum at our home church. This is a book I should read every year.

As author Bridges tells us in the preface, “the pursuit of holiness must be motivated by an ever-increasing understanding of the grace of God; else it can become oppressive and joyless.”[117] “[The] pursuit of holiness must be anchored in the grace of God; otherwise it is doomed to failure.”[118] Our desire to live holy, separated, upright and godly lives should be motivated by the Gospel, God’s love, mercy, and goodness to us, all ongoing, not just past tense. As Bridges explains, many of us incorrectly think that the Gospel exists only for those who need salvation, but it is essential for our life and well-being through the entire course of our Christian lives. It is the Gospel which drives us towards holy living. When we stray or “move on” from it, we tend towards a works-based sanctification and become do-it-yourselfers. Yes, we have the capacity for self-improvement, to stop smoking or to fill our time with more productive activities, but when we strive for sanctification by sheer power of our own will we find two potential outcomes: Guilt (in constantly failing and seeing that we are still plagued with sin) or pride (in thinking we’ve got this Christian life down and looking down at others who don’t). The Gospel brings both extremes back to reality.

In chapter one, entitled “How Good is Good Enough”, he gives a great example, walking us through both a good day and a bad day. Here is my spin on it: Make the bad day one when everything generally goes wrong: We wake up late, skip our prayer or Bible reading time, become aggravated in traffic, get dumped on at work, are irritable and distant once home, rotten or negative thoughts filled our hearts and mind all day, and we’ve felt guilty all day that we are not better Christian examples. But then,  unexpectedly, an opportunity arises to share the Gospel with someone, what is our degree of confidence in sharing the Gospel on that day? What if our day had been a good one? We spend extra time in devotions, enjoy a leisurely prayerful drive to work listening to worship music, things run smoothly all day at work, we read our Bible at lunch, thank and praise God on our commute home, and love and serve our family once there. What is our degree of confidence in sharing the Gospel on a day such as this?

“Would you enter those two witnessing opportunities with a different degree of confidence?” he asks.[119] Most of us would answer that we would have different degrees of confidence on those two days. In fact, we might have no confidence at all on the bad day. But Bridges points out that “God’s blessing does not depend on our performance.”[120] On those bad days we expect God has turned away from us.  Yes, the bad days should turn us back to the Gospel. It is Jesus’ death on the cross, not our performance, which covers our sins. Romans 4:5, Romans 8:1, Hebrews 9:14, 1 Peter 2:24, etc., remind us that “God’s grace though Christ is greater than our sin, even on our worst days.”[121] But on the “good” days we must still be reminded that we have not earned God’s blessing because of our behaviors. Matthew 5:48 and James 2:10 (etc.) remind us that every single day of our life we are dependent on God’s grace, His unearned, unmerited favor. The point is that,

“Every day of our Christian experience should be a day of relating to God on the basis of His grace alone…. Christ has already borne the curses for our disobedience and earned for us the blessings of obedience. As a result we are now to look to Christ alone—no Christ plus our performance—for God’s blessing in our lives. We are saved by grace and we are to live by grace alone.”[122] “Grace presupposes guilt on our part.”[123]

Bridges has to repeat it again and again throughout the book. (Perhaps this is why I like the book so much; I need constant reminding.) To paraphrase Bridges, “in Christ we are saints, in ourselves we are sinners.”[124] Unfortunately “as believers we act as though we can live lives acceptable to God.”[125] But Christianity is daily reliance upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ, a life lived by faith. “I must continue to renounce any confidence in my own goodness and place my confidence solely in Christ every day of my life, not only for my eternal salvation, but for my daily acceptance before a holy God.”[126]

It is the Gospel that brings hope and courage and spurs us on to follow in the footsteps of Christ. “To be like Jesus is not just to stop committing a few obvious sins such as lying, cheating, gossiping, and thinking impure thoughts. To be like Jesus is to always seek to do the will of the Father. That is a very high standard.”[127] The humanity in us says, “That’s impossible!” but with God’s love and grace poured daily into our lives, the Gospel motivating us, and the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we move forward. We move towards Him because He first moved towards us. We love, because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). “Our love to God can only be a response to His love for us. If I do not believe God loves me, I cannot love Him. To love God, I must believe that He is for me, not against me (Romans 8:31), and that He accepts me as a son or daughter….”[128] There we find freedom and rest and joy. We are loved and accepted, no more striving to get His attention or please Him. He loves us and has given us all we need (2 Peter 1:3). This is our motive. We respond. “Love is essentially a motive.”[129] “[It] is a verb, not a feeling.”[130] Some people will abstain from sin and do good for other reasons, to be seen or for fear of consequences are two examples. But “Love for God… is the only acceptable motive for obedience to Him.”[131]

In a chapter entitled “Obeying the Great Commandment” he discusses what it means to actually love God. Well, according to the Scriptures, to love God is to serve Him, to obey His commandments, and to walk in His ways. (See Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 11:13, 19:9, 30:20, as well as John 14:21, John 14:15, John 14:23, 1 John 5:3, etc.) Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46).

But if it is understood that both unbelievers and Believers sin, where do we find any difference? Bridges tells us that there is a difference between a “settled course of life” in sin and the Christian life: “[The] believer who has died to sin’s reign and dominion delights in God’s law. The believer approves of it as holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12), even though he or she may struggle to obey it.”[132] The sinning unbeliever does not approve God or His Law as being good and righteous. And this is the life of which we all come out: “[We] were accustomed to living without regard for God. As unbelievers, we cared neither for His glory nor His will. Basically, we ignored Him. But now that we have been delivered from the dominion of sin and brought under the reign of grace, grace teaches us to renounce this attitude (as well as actions) of ungodliness. Obviously this training does not occur all at once. In fact, God will be rooting out ungodliness from our lives as long as we live on this earth.”[133] Therefore there is no contradiction in the Apostle John’s writing that knowing and loving God means keeping His commandments (1 John 2:3), because “keep” can also mean “obey”, “honor”, and even “cherish”, while at the same time telling us that we had better never think that we are not violators of those commands (1 John 1:8).

Finally, in a chapter entitled “The Discipline of Choices” Bridges underscores that both sin and righteousness grow exponentially. Quoting Romans 6:19, “Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness” (NIV), he points out the use of the words “ever-increasing”. Whatever we practice, we get better at. So it is through “righteousness—the right conduct… that we develop holy character. Holiness of character is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.”[134] The New Testament, especially, is filled with lists of good things we can practice and bad things with which we should do away. We have not been left without a guide. And, remember, with the Gospel before us and the Holy Spirit within us, we have been given everything we need (2 Peter 1:3).

20. “National Sunday Law” by A. Jan Marcussen.

This is a book given to me by a Seventh Day Adventist guy I worked with. It is a badly written book with very bad eschatology within it; the worst book I read all year.

The author opens chapter one with the 9-11 tragedies and then writes, “Something’s happening in our country. Something strange. Have you noticed the trends?”[135] Next thing I knew he (she?) was discussing the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964. Suddenly we are in the book of Revelation and the author writes, “It is no surprise that the greatest nation on earth should be mentioned in prophecy. What John sees portends events shaping up in the United States that most definitely will affect you!”[136]

Excuse me?

Let the eisegesis begin.[137] Pointing to Revelation 13:11, the author tells us that if a beast coming out of the sea represents a nation[138] arising from many peoples,[139] then a beast from out of the earth must mean a nation rising from an unpopulated wilderness area: Aha! The United States. (How many ways can the faultiness of this “reasoning” be exposed?) I note how in the midst of his/her bad eschatology, the author ever so slightly changes what Revelation actually tells us: Where the Bible says, “The waters… are peoples, multitudes,  nations, and languages”, Marcussen adds in parenthesis “a highly populated area”.[140] These two things are not synonymous. He does this time and time again. For instance, regarding Revelation 13:11: “Then I saw another beast coming up from the earth. He had two horns like a lamb”, Marcussen, without any valid basis, writes, “The lamb-like horns represent civil and religious freedom.”[141]

Well, says the author, since the country is falling apart it is no wonder that religious leaders are calling for legislating Christian morality. The author’s only citation of such a call is from 1981. In 2014, however, I read just the opposite in (I believe it was) Decision magazine, where it was underscored that our only hope is Christ’s changing individual human hearts, not Christians taking over government and legislating morality. But, having hitched his wagon to this horse, Marcussen then writes,

“The dynamics make us wonder little that the nation-wide papers and media messages plea to the masses that ‘It is the responsibility of government to decree the establishment of the national observance of Sunday.’ And that, ‘There will be no relief from mounting economic disaster until a national Sunday law is strictly enforced!’”[142]

To which “dynamics” is he referring? Yes, of course, September 11th 2001, the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder, and the religious right of the 1980s. Good job stringing those together. And which “nation-wide papers and media messages” are pleading for the national observance of Sunday? Right now they seem to be calling for a national observance of homosexual marriage. I see no calls for a National Sunday Law. From where does this quotation come? No citation is offered. So to the internet went I. For a while I only found this quote on Seventh Day Adventist sites. Eventually I found that it was a reference to an amendment put forth by an obscure congressional representative from New Hampshire in (get this) 1888! It was called, “The Blair Amendment.” It was soundly defeated over 125 years ago. Marcussen has just made one of the worst arguments ever.

Note that I have only gotten up to page six of the book!

The whole premise of the book is that America is falling apart and this is a direct, specific fulfillment of what is found in the Book of Revelation. Because America is falling apart, church leaders, politicians, and the media will band together to demand a National Sunday Law. “We must force people to become more religious!” And, of course, the leaders among us will agree that the observance of Sunday will be most beneficial in solving our nation’s problems. (?) Of course, in his reading of Revelation, Marcussen knows for certain that the Roman Catholic Church will become involved as well. Somehow the Pope will take over the world once again and he will then declare that anyone who does not practice regular Sunday Sabbath observance will, eventually, have to be put to death. Here’s the rub: Seventh Day Adventists practice Saturday Sabbath. Thus such a declaration would make them the center of persecution.

In chapter 5, Marcussen tells the reader that God’s seal is the practice of the Saturday Sabbath which, of all the Commandments, best represents God and distinguishes the true believers. “What could be clearer? The seal of God is His Sabbath.”[143] “Sunday worship is the ‘mark of the beast!’”[144] It’s all in there, somewhere. “According to Bible prophecy [the death penalty in the U.S.] will come back… and be used against those who love and obey God.”[145] That’s in II Eisegesians. Thus Marcussen tells the reader that “Satan hates the fourth commandment more than all others because it is the only one that tells who God really is…”[146] Unfortunately, in making the Sabbath commandment the hinge pin commandment, Marcussen contradicts what Jesus says in Matthew 22:34-40 and what Paul writes in Romans 13:8-10 and Galatians 5:14.

Sadly, what the Seventh Day Adventists miss altogether is that the shadows and types (Colossians 2:16-17, Hebrews 8:5, Hebrews 10:1), the old covenant (2 Corinthians 3:14), were all done away with when the destruction of the Jewish nation, the temple, the priesthood, and sacrificial system were ended once and for all (Hebrews 8:7-13). For Christians, our Sabbath rest is found in Jesus (Romans 10:4, Hebrews 4:1-13). We no longer need to legalistically observe days and festivals (see Romans 14, verses 5-6, and Galatians 4:9-11).

In conclusion, Paul in 1 Timothy warns about people like Marcussen: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm” (1 Timothy 1:7). Thus, if  the author is still alive he (she?) needs to be warned with these words from Revelation: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book” (Revelation 22:18).

21. “William Cowper, Selected Poetry and Prose” with an introduction by David Lyle Jeffrey.

William Cowper, author of one of my favorite hymns, “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood” was not known at first for being a hymn writer. “[In] 1785, he was in fact regarded by his critical contemporaries as perhaps the greatest poet of his generation.”[147] Benjamin Franklin was a fan of his poetry. But his story is a sad one. His mother died when he was six. After losing his mother, he was sent away to school by his father. His poem entitled “Tirocinium” (not in this collection) expresses the pain of being sent away by a father, of being of tender age and left unprotected, picked on and (perhaps) sexually abused. He grew up without much personal initiative, Jeffrey tells us. Filled with horrible anxiety and depression, Cowper attempted suicide on three occasions and was institutionalized for some time. Eventually he fell under the pastoral care of John Newton (“a gentle instrument of grace”[148]), author of “Amazing Grace.” Newton encouraged Cowper to use his poetic gifts to express his faith in God. Together they published a hymn book.

But Cowper’s plunges into depression were reoccurring, his thoughts were terrified him, and he sometimes was convinced that he was to be eternally damned. Cowper wrote of times when, perhaps distracted by a friend or a book for a few moments, “a flash from hell seemed to be thrown into my mind, immediately, and I said within myself, ‘What are these things to me, who am damned?’”[149] The pollution he saw within his own thoughts, life, and soul underscored his belief in his impending destruction. And yet there were times when, “Something seemed to whisper to me every moment, ‘still there is mercy.’”[150]

“I, He said, have seen thee grieving,

Loved thee as I passed thee by:

Be not faithless but belieiving,

Look, and live, and never die….”[151]

Jeffrey summarizes that “Cowper thus remains an enigmatic and troubling figure… at once a witness to the healing spirit of Christ in those who ministered to him and an example of the destructive psychological forces…. he was in truth a broken vessel, yet it was given to him to compose some of the most telling spiritual poetry of the period and so become an instrument of grace… speaking a peace he was not himself fully able to know.”[152]

As for Cowper’s poetry, as was the fashion of the day, he offered social criticism in poetic form, setting his sights on many different categories of people in his poems (included in this collection), “Truth”, “Hope”, “Charity”, and “The Task”. His criticisms include unbelieving liberal clergy, people who don’t believe in hell or who believe that one’s works can keep them from hell, all kind of hypocrites within the church, those who say “Let people do what they want”, and a society which has thrown out even the pretense of morality. He appears to be a man before his time when criticizing conquistadors, slave traders, prison conditions, and even sport hunters. He loved nature, gardening, and country life, believing them to be a witness to God; therefore, the “metropolitan volcanoes… breath[ing] darkness all day” and cities were a destruction of God’s beautiful witness to Himself.[153]

But one of his main focuses of attention was the scientist (known as “philosophers” back then), arrogantly self-assured in their own knowledge, thinking that mankind was god and could eventually lift itself up by its own bootstraps (“Truth”, “Charity”, “The Task”). Yet, they miss the Creator of man and nature while looking down through their microscopes at worms: “So sings he, charmed with his own mind and form, The song magnificent—the theme a worm! Himself so much the source of his delight, His Maker has no beauty in his sight.”[154] It saddens Cowper that with all their knowledge, they learn nothing of God: “Our wayward intellect, the more we learn Of nature, overlooks her Author more,” writes Copwer in “The Task”. “Eternity [they trade] for bubbles… a senseless bargain.”

“But reason still, unless divinely taught,

Whate’er she learns, learns nothing as she ought….

The solemn trifler, with his boasted skill,

Toils much, and is a solemn trifler still:

Blind he was born, and his misguided eyes,

Grown dim in trifling studies, blind he dies.”[155]

Cowper anticipates the criticisms, that he is no scientist: “True; I am no proficient, I confess, In arts like yours...” he writes, but he is still a fellow man, “I think  articulate, I laugh and weep” and, most importantly, “[I know that God] commands us in his word. To seek HIM, rather…”[156] Therefore the truly enlightened scientist or philosopher, who acknowledges God, finds that “all is plain. [Science and philosophy] baptized In the pure fountain of eternal love, Has eyes indeed; and, viewing all she sees As meant to indicate God to man, Gives HIM his praise, and forfeits not her own.”

He writes that mankind “if not perversely blind” would see God’s “wisdom, goodness, pow’r and love, On all that blooms below, or shines above”, that these things are a daily witness to God’s “paternal care” of His children.[157] The conclusion is that man is evil and rebellious from childhood (“Truth”) and that where we choose happiness always disappoints (“The Task”). “When God and man stand opposite in view, Man’s disappointment must of course ensue.”[158] In several poems he warns that death, judgment, and hell are coming, that eternity is just around the corner (“Hope”, “Charity”, “Bill of Mortality” II and III). He tells his readers that “Scripture is the only cure of woe” and the Gospel is the only hope. Sadly, though God’s “Charity” (love) and “Truth” can be seen, especially seen in “The bright original” Jesus Christ[159] they are scorned by mankind: “[Men discern not the danger and] deny; Laugh at their own remedy, and die.”[160]

Of mankind, without Christ:

“Man, on the dubious waves of error toss’d,

His ship half foundered, and his compass lost,

Sees, far as human optics may command,

A sleeping fog, and fancies it dry land;

Spreads all his canvas, every sinew plies;

Pants for it, aims at it, enters it, and dies!

Then farewell all self-satisfying schemes,

His well-built systems, philosophic dreams;

Deceitful views of future bliss, farewell!

He reads his sentence at the flames of hell.”[161]

22. “The Innocents Abroad” (volumes I and II) by Mark Twain.

For those of you unfamiliar with this book it is Mark Twain’s first full length book, a travelogue which detailed his cruise and tour of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East around 1867. He visited such notable places as Paris, Rome, Pompey, Athens, many cities of the New Testament churches in Turkey and Asia Minor. He visited Damascus, Constantinople, Palestine, “Beirout” [sic], Jerusalem, and many of the “holy places” in Palestine. (His descriptions of how small[162] and barren many of the biblical places were at the time, were something I found interesting.) On his travels Twain was able to watch a tightrope performance by the famous Blondin, on an excursion into Russia his traveling party met with and was hosted by the Czar of Russia, Emperor Alexander II, and in Paris he saw Napoleon III parading with Abdul Aziz the “absolute lord of the Ottoman Empire”[163] causing Twain to comment, “the First Century greets the Nineteenth!” (He constantly comments how the Arabs and/or “Moslems” still lived in the “Stone Ages” and the wording I’ve quoted here, are probably the nicest things he had to say about them.) Then again, his travelogue was meant to be a counter to the typical travel books of the day which simply praised everything everywhere as wonderful and beautiful; Twain meant to shed a realistic, critical, and humorous light on everything.

He recounts freak show people[164] and the endless beggars he encountered all over the Middle East but also, surprisingly, all over Roman Catholic Italy as well. The latter prompting him to write, “As far as I can see, Italy, for fifteen hundred years, has turned all her energies, all her finances, and all her industry to the building up of a vast array of wonderful church edifices, and starving half her citizens to accomplish it. She is to-day one vast museum of magnificence and misery. All the churches in an ordinary American city put together could hardly buy the jeweled frippery in one of her hundred cathedrals.”[165] Even in Jerusalem he became annoyed at how distracting the Roman Catholic churches were: “When one stands where the Saviour [sic] was crucified, he finds it all he can do to keep it strictly before his mind that Christ was not crucified in a Catholic church.”[166] He also calls into question, “In all seriousness… without meaning to be irreverent… I state as my simple deduction from the things I have seen and the things that I have heard, that the Holy Personages rank thus in Rome: First—“The Mother of God”…. Second—The Deity. Third—Peter. Fourth—Some twelve or fifteen canonized Popes and martyrs. Fifth—Jesus Christ the Saviour—(but always as an infant in arms). I may be wrong in this—my judgment errs often, just as is the case with other men’s—but it is my judgment, be it good or bad.”[167]

As a humorist (the comedian of his day), Twain spares no one abuse. He pokes fun on every culture and people with whom he comes in contact, including his own shipmates and traveling companions. (As to the “devout” travelers to the Holy Lands, he calls them the “Pilgrims”. As to himself and his own traveling companions: The “Sinners.”) He shows that even in the nineteenth century American tourists were not only rude and believed in their own superiority (though sometimes merited), but that they also had a penchant for rule breaking (sneaking onto shore when the ship would be quarantined and/or constantly chipping stones and rocks off of ancient sites as souvenirs). He often compared things in the other countries to things in America, telling the story of how one foreign or ancient King had the architect and builders all beheaded when a bridge they had built collapsed, and how that might improve public works problems in America if practiced.

In Genoa, Twain believed he saw some of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen: “There may be prettier women in Europe, but I doubt it.”[168] In the Arab countries, just the opposite: “I caught a glimpse of the faces of several Moorish women,” he writes, “and am full of veneration for the wisdom that leads them to cover up…”[169] In one amusing account, while standing in a crowd in Paris, he turned to a friend and said, “Dan, just look at this girl, how beautiful she is!” She turns toward him and says, in perfect English, “I thank you more for the evident sincerity of the compliment, sir, than for the extraordinary publicity you have given to it!” He then writes, “Why will people be so stupid as to suppose themselves the only foreigners among a crowd of ten thousand persons.”[170] His stories of calling every foreign guide “Ferguson”, of asking every Italian Ferguson if what they were looking at was a product of Michelangelo’s, and of asking the Fergusons of every country, whether of some ancient architect, artist, or even mummy, “Is… is he dead?” were all very funny, my favorite parts.

I was also impressed by Twain’s extensive knowledge and storytelling in these volumes. He recounts local legends, mythologies, the histories of Rome, Greece, and the Crusades (of Godfrey, “King” of Jerusalem, and Saladin). He quotes from literature, tells the story of Abelard and Heloise, talks of the Arabian Nights, as well as ancient apocryphal stories and Gnostic writings. And he extensively quotes the Bible (something any educated and well-read person should be able to do).

Sadly, we know Twain was not a Christian; at best he was a Deist and at worst an Atheist.[171] We see hints of his belief in these volumes as He constant speaks of Jesus as being the “Saviour”, with a capital “S” but speaking of Him as a “god”, small “g”:

“It seems curious enough to us to be standing on ground that was once actually pressed by the feet of the Saviour,” Twain writes. “I cannot comprehend yet that I am sitting where a god has stood, and looking upon the brook and the mountains which that god looked upon, and am surrounded by dusky men and women whose ancestors saw him, and even talked with him, face to face, and carelessly, just as they would have done with any other stranger. I cannot comprehend this; the gods of my understanding have been always hidden in clouds and very far away.”[172]

All things considered, I am still able to thank God when I read a book like this. I appreciate and enjoy the good gifts He gives (James 1:17). I enjoy it when a gifted artist, in this case a writer like Twain, uses his craft so masterfully. I certainly praise God for the gift of humor and laughter. And, time and time again, I am amazed and blessed (and praise God) for the ability to journey to other times and places in our minds and imaginations as we read. God is good.

23: “Beyond Opinion” subtitled “Living the Faith We Defend” with Ravi Zacharias as the General Editor as well as one of the authors.

I picked this book up because I love books on apologetics (defending the faith). But the book also underscores the truth of the fact that it is the way we live and act, and the way we love others, that often attracts others to Christ (1 Peter 2:12, 1 Peter 3:15, etc.). As Ravi writes  in the introduction, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been the inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.”[173] God have mercy on us. Let us heed the warnings given to the first century churches in the book of Revelation. For Ravi, part of the problem is that the last three or four decades churches began to practice new “techniques” and became “masters in entertainment and minimalists in thought.”[174] Author Alison Thomas suggests that perhaps too many youth programs at churches focus on having a place for kids to hang out and playing games instead of training young people “to develop a biblical worldview.”[175] Young people should “be taught to practice their faith in the sense of [constantly] working on skills, habits, and virtues [in order to excel] in faith, [just as] scholars, athletes, and musicians [do].”[176] Thus many young people raised in Christian homes or in the church “abandon the faith” when they go off to college because the Christian faith was never really taken seriously. (My wording.)

As for apologetics, the chapters cover a lot of ground. In “Postmodern Challenges to the Bible”, Amy Orr-Ewing points out the constant contradictions and falsehoods in the relativistic modern worldviews. In “Challenges from Atheism”, Alister McGrath counters many of the arguments by the celebrity Atheists of the world like Richard Dawkins. Does Christianity and religion always lead to violence or is it Atheism and the abolishment of religion that is more likely to lead to violence? Is Christianity and religion simply wish-fulfillment for people who can’t deal with reality or is Atheism and unbelief simply wish-fulfillment for those who cannot deal with the reality that there is a God to whom we are accountable and before whom we will all stand on Judgment Day? If Christianity and Atheist are both belief systems based upon faith, should we not be able to judge which one is better?

In “Challenges from Islam”, Sam Soloman (an interesting person, look him up) points out that the Koran, unlike the Bible, “has no historic authentic documentation that can witness to its… reliability or to its historical authenticity.”[177] The god of that book, writes Soloman, “As portrayed… is master of deception. He contradicts himself…. He commands the followers of the prophet, whom he calls Muslims, to kill [all non-Muslims]…. He does not consider the Golden Rule.”[178] (Haven’t we heard again and again that “all religions practice the Golden Rule”? Another secular lie.) He explains the Doctrine of Abrogation within Islam (that if it says early in the Koran not to mistreat Jews and Christians, but says later to kill them, the later “revelation” supercedes and nullifies the former.) He introduces us to the Doctrine of Takkiya (or “Cover-Up), which “sanctions lying to or deceiving others to advance the cause of Islam or to preserve its good name.”[179] Thus Muslims can make use of this rule when discussing Islam with another (or when negotiating a nuclear deal with John Kerry). Muslims are told to model their lives after Mohammed’s life, so one should  find out what kind of life he lived. Still, in the end, Soloman underscores that we are to “Demonstrate the love of Christ in your relationship with Muslims.”[180]

There is just so much in this book, including “Challenges from Science” which is actually challenges from the worldview called Naturalism, not science, as many of the greatest scientists from throughout history believed in God. (The author exposes many of the contradictions within that worldview as well as the fact that everyone, including Naturalists, Scientists, and Christians base their worldview upon some presupposition.)  Ravi Zacharias himself authors the chapter entitled “Existential Challenges of Evil and Suffering”, something he is really good at as he has already authored several books on the subject.  

Still, people who enjoy apologetics can easily become sidetracked; so the authors continually try to pull us back. In a chapter entitled “Broader Cultural and Philosophical Challenges”, author Joe Boot writes, “Our priority in apologetics is not to make the nonbelievers listen to us, but to help the person be ready to listen to God and taught by him.”[181] I’m convicted by this all the time. When interacting or arguing (in the legal sense) with an unbeliever, I often start to think that if only I could expose enough holes in their worldview, then they would realize that their belief system fails. But that rarely, if ever, happens immediately. Do I remember that I am not trying to simply win an argument, but should be leading them to a person? My side of an argument can never save anyone, only Jesus Christ can. I have to lead them to Him, to the Bible (John 5:39). “Faith is not speculation that God is; it is knowing that God is,” writes Michael Ramsden.[182] He continues by writing, “For the Christian… the basis of faith is Christ.”[183] We want to lead people to Him, not just win a debate.

Finally, the authors keep bringing us back to the fact that we need to live out the truth we say we believe: “Our defense of the propositional truth of the gospel must correspond with the truth embodied in us. The reality that we proclaim to be true must be evident in the way we live and love,” writes I’Ching Thomas in a chapter entitled “Cross Cultural Challenges”. Author L.T. Jeyachandran, in the chapter “Challenges from Eastern Religions”, tells us that “As God’s church, our final apologetic is the loving community of Christians that proclaims to the world that we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:34-35)…. Indeed, many Hindus and Buddhists have given their lives to Christ, not through philosophical arguments, but through the genuine love and friendship offered by their Christian friends.”[184]

This has been one of the main themes of many of the books I’ve read in recent years. Let me, let all Christ-followers take this to heart, for His Name’s sake.

“The lordship of Christ over the life of the apologist is foundational to all answers given,” writes Ravi Zacharias. “The way the Christian’s life is lived will determine the impact upon believers and skeptics alike. This is a defining line because the claim by the believer is unique. The claim is that of a ‘new birth.’ After all, no Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim claims his or her life of devotion to be supernatural, yet they often live a more consistent life. And how often does the so-called Christian, even while teaching some of the loftiest truths one could ever teach, live a life bereft of that beauty and character?”[185]

Quoting Irish evangelist Gypsy Smith, Ravi Zacharias writes, “There are five Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian, and some people will never read the first four.”[186]

 

Finally, since I am an O.C.D. choleric list-maker, my eye will twitch if I do not add the following books to my 2014 reading list: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Zephaniah, and Habakkuk. I have not reviewed them here, personally, as other gifted writers have written excellent and lengthy commentaries on these books throughout history. Feel free to explore those elsewhere. Feel free to start with Matthew Henry if you like.

God bless!




[1]
“If anyone does not love the Lord–a curse be on him” (1 Corinthians 16:22).

[2] “Save Me From Myself”, copyright 2007 by Brian Welch, published by HarperOne, pages 113-115.

[3] “Doctrine, What Christians Should Believe”, copyright 2010 by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, published by Crossway, pages 11-12.

[4] “Uncle John’s Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader”, copyright 2006 by the Bathroom Readers’ Press (a division of Portable Press).

[5] From chapter  one of “The Way to God” by Dwight L. Moody, originally published in 1884.

[6] Ibid, chapter 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, chapter 7.

[9] Ibid, chapter 2.

[10] Ibid, chapter 8.

[11] “The Word in this World, Two Sermons by Karl Barth”, copyright 2007 Kurt I. Johnson, published by Regent College Publishing, page 17.  .

[12] One of the first talks I ever heard Voddie give was, “Why I Choose to Believe the Bible”, a version of which can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZNXMJGYNG8

[13] “The Ever-Loving Truth”, copyright 2004 by Voddie Baucham, published by B&H Publishing Group, page 189.

[14] Ibid, page 181.

[15] I found it interesting that she was being protested for her speaking of no longer being homosexual because of God’s grace in Christ. (See articles: http://www.fightbacknews.org/2013/10/12/tampa-students-protest-homophobic-speaker and http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2014/february/wheaton-students-protest-exgay-chapel-rosaria-butterfield.html?paging=off ). Why did I find it interesting? Well, she was being protested, in part, because she is proof positive that one’s sexual orientation can be changed. But, wait, the wife of NYC Mayor De Blasio has also made a decision to change her orientation (or at least her practice) from homosexual to heterosexual as well. (See http://www.nydailynews.com/news/election/de-blasio-wife-chirlane-mccray-talks-lesbian-article-1.1339398 ). My question is, “Why the protests and anger against the former and not the latter?” It’s because Rosario says that her former way of life was a sin. It’s because she is a Christian and this culture is at war with Christianity.

[16] “Queer” is her wording, not mine.

[17] “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert”, copyright 2012 by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Crown & Covenant Publications, page 6.

[18] Ibid, page 47.

[19] Ibid, page 21.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, page 80.

[22] Isaiah 1:18, NIV.

[23] “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert”, copyright 2012 by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Crown & Covenant Publications, page 108.

[24] “At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry”, copyright 1986, 2000 & 2007 by Steve Gallagher, published by Pure Life Ministries, page 37.

[25] Ibid, pages 160-161.

[26] Ibid, page 77.

[27] Ibid, page 161.

[28] Ibid, page 31.

[29]  “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, original copyright 1978 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translation copyright 1991 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., ans William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd. page 24.

[30] Ibid, pages 152-153.

[31] Ibid, page 45.

[32] Something Michael Sweet actually rightly criticizes in his book on page 107.

[33] I believe the opening lines of the book are actually a mistake, something they should not have done, most likely written to grab the reader’s attention, perhaps even shock them in order to cause them to read further. The opening lines made me really hesitant to read any further.

[34] “Honestly, My Life and Stryper Revealed”, by Michael Sweet, with Dave Rose and Doug Van Pelt, copyright Big3Records 2014, page 37.

[35] Ibid, page 13.

[36] Ibid, pages 176-177.

[37] From the song “To Hell With the Devil”.  

[38] From the song “More Than a Man”.

[39] “Honestly, My Life and Stryper Revealed”, by Michael Sweet, with Dave Rose and Doug Van Pelt, copyright Big3Records 2014, page 169.

[40] “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, a Breviary of Sin” by Cornelius Plantinga Jr., copyright 1995 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., page 11.

[41] Ibid, page 10.

[42] Ibid, page 88.

[43] Ibid, page 87.

[44] Ibid, page 26.

[45] Ibid, page 32.

[46] Ibid, page 40.

[47] Ibid, page 44.

[48] Ibid, page 89.

[49] Ibid, page 14.

[50] Ibid, page 79.

[51] Ibid, page 95.

[52] Ibid, page 199.

[53] Ibid, page 172.

[54] “The Love of God”, copyright 1938 Oswald chambers Publications Association, this edition copyright Oswald chambers Publications Association Limited, published by Discovery House, pages 23-24.

[55] Ibid, page 38.

[56] Ibid, page 43.

[57] Ibid, page 69.

[58] Ibid, page 45.

[59] Ibid, page 50.

[60] Ibid, page 12.

[61] Ibid, page 38.

[62] “He had been born with gifts few others employed, they told him, and was expected to live up to them and become a ‘great man.’ Over and over, year after year, his parents reminded him that he was privileged by birth and education, that he was destined to be ‘a Guardian of the Laws, Liberty and Religion of your Country,’ and that he must achieve a distinction in this life that would add to the family’s already illustrious record of accomplishment” (from page 2 of “John Quincy Adams”, copyright 2002 by Robert V. Remini, published by Times Books).

[63] “John Quincy Adams”, copyright 2002 by Robert V. Remini, published by Times Books, page 33.

[64] Ibid, page 44. “One language, one general system of religious and political principles”? Well that’s been squashed to death in the last 100 or so years.

[65] Ibid, page50.

[66] Back in 1824, if no candidate for president had a majority of the electoral votes, the decision went to the House of Representatives which would choose the president from the top three vote getters. General Andrew Jackson had the popular majority, but the House, lead by Henry Clay, eventually chose Adams. Clay, who had run for the presidency and come in fourth, had three men to choose from, all of whom he disliked, but he disliked Adams the least. He certainly believed Adams was the most qualified to be president (which, of course, was true).

[67] Though to me it seems more real since campaigns are so bitter; how can one stand next to a person and smile and congratulate them if they have been slandering you for several years?

[68] “John Quincy Adams”, copyright 2002 by Robert V. Remini, published by Times Books, page 110.

[69] Interesting trivia: J.Q.A. was the only former President to be elected to congress after his presidency; however, Lincoln’s former V.P., then President, was the only person to ever become a Senator after leaving the presidency and President Taft was later appointed as the Chief Justice of the United Sates.

[70] “American Sniper, the Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”, copyright 2012 by Chris Kyle and Scott McEwen, page 251.

[71] To all the Neville Chamberlain’s out there I suggest reading C.S. Lewis’ essay entitled, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” and then you can get back to me.

[73] “American Sniper, the Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”, copyright 2012 by Chris Kyle and Scott McEwen, page 221.

[74] Ibid, pages 337-339.

[75] Ibid, page 341.

[76] Ibid, pages 341-342.

[77] Ibid, page 179.

[78] Ibid, page 8.

[79] What does John the Baptiser tell the soldiers who come to him for a baptism of repentance? See Luke 3:14.

[80] “American Sniper, the Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”, copyright 2012 by Chris Kyle and Scott McEwen, pages 431-432.

[81] “Love Walked Among Us”, copyright 2001 by Paul E. Miller, published by NAVPRESS, page 34.

[82] Ibid, page 41.

[83] Ibid, page 54.

[84] Ibid, page 88.

[85] Ibid, page 148.

[86] Ibid, page 223.

[87] Ibid, page 229.

[88] “Counterfeit Gods” copyright 2009 by Timothy Keller, published by Riverhead Books, page 1.

[89] Ibid, page xvii.

[90] Page xix-xx.

[91] Page xxi.

[92] Pages xii-xiii.

[93] Page 169.

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid, page 20.

[96] Ibid.

[97] Ibid, page 68.

[98] Ibid.

[99] “Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married”, copyright 2010 by Gary D. Chapman, published by Northfield Publishing, page 10.

[100] Ibid, page 19.

[101] Ibid, page 156.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Ibid, page 77.

[104] Ibid, page 117.

[105] Ibid, page 152.

[106] “Don’t you Forget About Me, Contemporary Writers on the films of John Hughes”, introduction and compilation copyright 2007 by Jaime Clarke.

[107] One funny thing in the book was something I had thought back when I saw “Ferris Bueller” for the first time: “The first time I watched Ferris Bueller take his day off,” writes Rebecca Wolf, “I believe I may have wondered why they chose such a dorky name for the character if he was supposed to be so cool.” (“In What Way Does the Author’s Use of the Prison Symbolize…?”, copyright 2007 by Rebecca Wolf, page 185).

[108] “The Scream, With Lip Gloss”, copyright 2007 by Elizabeth Searle, page 164.

[109] “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche”, copyright 2007 by John McNally, pages 137-138.

[110] “Which John Hughes Character Are You?”, copyright 2007 by Nina de Gramont, page 98.

[111] “Don’t you Forget About Me, Contemporary Writers on the films of John Hughes”, introduction and compilation copyright 2007 by Jaime Clarke.

[112] “That’s Not a Name, That’s a Major Appliance”, copyright 2007 by Tod Goldberg, pages 92-93.

[113] Ibid.

[114] “Enchanted Night”, copyright 2007 by Lisa Borders, page 28.

[115] “I Dated Molly Ringwald, Sort Of”, copyright 2007 by Dan Pope, page 146.

[116] “Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche”, copyright 2007 by John McNally, page 131.

[117] Page 7.

[118] Page 12.

[119] “The Discipline of Grace”, copyright 1994, 2006 by Jerry Bridges, published by NavPress, page14.

[120] Ibid.

[121] Ibid, page 16.

[122] Ibid, page 19.

[123] Page 55.

[124] See page 40.

[125] Page 48.

[126] Page 52.

[127] Pages 101-102.

[128] Page 125.

[129] Page 121.

[130] Page 121.

[131] Page 122.

[132] Page 71.

[133] Page 86.

[134] Ibid, page 190.

[135] “National Sunday Law” by A. Jan Marcussen, 89th printing 2004, original copyright 1983 by Amazing Truth Publications, page 2.

[136] Ibid.

[137] Eisegesis is “the process of interpreting a text or portion of text in such a way that the process introduces one's own presuppositions, agendas, or biases into and onto the text.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eisegesis

[138] Beasts as kingdoms or nations based upon Daniel 7:23.

[139] Revelation 17:15.

[140] “National Sunday Law” by A. Jan Marcussen, 89th printing 2004, original copyright 1983 by Amazing Truth Publications, page 2.

[141] Ibid, page 3.

[142] Ibid, page 6.

[143] Ibid, page 47.

[144] Ibid.

[145] Ibid, page 54.

[146] Ibid, page 36.

[147] “William Cowper: Selected Poetry and Prose”, introduction copyright 2007 by David Lyle Jeffrey, published 2007 by Regent College Publishing, page 9.

[148] Ibid, page 11.

[149] Ibid, page 17.

[150] Ibid, page 22.

[151] From “A Song of Mercy and Judgment”.

[152] Ibid, page 13.

[153] From “The Task” (1781).

[154] From “Truth”.

[155] From “Charity” (1781).

[156] From “The Task” (1781).

[157] From “Hope” (1781).

[158] From “Hope” (1781).

[159] As Cowper writes of the evils men do in not loving one another and then writes of what the better course would be, he says, “Such was the portrait an apostle drew; The bright original was one he knew; Heaven held his hand—the likeness must be true” (“Charity” 1781).

[160] From “Charity” (1781).

[161] First stanza of “Truth”.

[162] “the word Palestine always brought to my mind a vague suggestion of a country large as the United States. I do not know why, but such was the case. I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history” (Volume II, chapter XIX).

[163] Volume I, chapter XII.

[164] Literally, the deformed, who would display their deformities to travelers and tourists in order  to receive money.

[165] Volume I, chapter XXV.

[166] Volume II, chapter XXVI.

[167] Volume II, chapter I.

[168] Volume I, chapter XVII.

[169] Volume I, chapter IX.

[170] Volume I, chapter XII.

[172] Volume II, chapter XVIII.

[173] “Beyond Opinion” copyright 2007 by Ravi Zacharias, published by Thomas Nelson, page xiii.

[174] Ibid, page xiv.

[175] Ibid, page 44.

[176] Ibid, page 47.

[177] Ibid, page 63.

[178] Ibid, pages 63-64.

[179] Ibid, page 73.

[180] Ibid, page 78.

[181] Ibid, page 165.

[182] Ibid, page 140.

[183] Ibid, page 141.

[184] Ibid, page 105.

[185] Ibid, page 305.

[186] Ibid, page 304.

Comments

sonshine's picture

Excellent ! I chose from Dwight L. Moody's review this statement for the bible.org facebook post for March 27th: "If we really make people believe that God loves them, how we should find them crowding into the kingdom of heaven!  The trouble is that people think God hates them; and so they are all the time running away from Him.”   The truth is really what the Apostle John wrote: God is love! and we can only love because He first loved us. [1Jn 4] 

When others ask how can I love "that person" all we need to do is look in the mirror an see the list Paul wrote to  Titus. We are as unloveable as "that person"  We have an opportunity to show God's love and how He transformed us this Resurrection Sunday and thus why we can love "that person" ! 

Thanks Stephen for this lengthy and well written post and an encouragement to read. 

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