Thanksgiving Reading Update

I’ve been falling slightly behind the pace of a book per week, which was my goal for the 2017 Reading Challenge. Now, if we’re counting books I’d started, I’d already be there… but who’s got time for finishing books that aren’t great? Here are six more books that I did finish, though.

512ppaoszxl-_sx355_bo1204203200_“How to Wow Your Church Guests” by Mark Waltz

Book 38: A book of your choice

Okay, I should revise what I said above. Sometimes we have to make time for books that aren’t great, so long as they have some other use, right? Well, this one certainly isn’t “great,” but it was a helpful resource in thinking through ways to make guests feel more welcome at our church. Like many churches, we see a lot of first time guests every week. However, we don’t see nearly so many second time visits as we would like. This book contains “101 ways to make a meaningful first impression.” They don’t all fit in every context, of course, but I’d imagine anyone serving (whether on staff or as a lay leader) in a position which deals with church guests would be able to glean useful information here. Grab your copy here.

81wv0-rto9l“Verily, A New Hope” by Ian Doescher

Book 39: A play by William Shakespeare

So, obviously this is not a play by William Shakespeare. Nothing against the bard—on the contrary, I love reading Shakespeare!—but to the best of my knowledge there are no Shakespeare plays I haven’t read, and I have wanted as much as possible to read new things this year. And this has been on my “to read” list for far too long!

Here’s the gist: Doescher is a Star Wars fanatic and a Shakespeare scholar. Basically, he’s my kinda guy. He has taken each of the Star Wars movies and re-imagined them in the style of William Shakespeare. The transformation is incredible! We’re not just talking re-wording the dialog in Elizabethan English. No, he’s added all sorts of Shakespearean touches, from subtle foreshadowing to lengthy (and often humorous!) monologues by minor characters to the tormented musings of a tragically-flawed fallen Jedi. And, of course, the whole thing is composed in iambic pentameter, with rhyming couplets at the end of each scene. Brilliant!

You can grab a copy of this book here. Better yet, pick up this nice boxed set like I did, for yourself or as a Christmas gift for the Shakespeare/Lucas fan in your life. I actually read The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return as well, but since they’re short I don’t want to count them as separate books toward the reading challenge unless I’m still a few short by the end of the year and need to “cheat” a little!

91otdgqxykl“God Dreams” by Will Mancini

Book 40: A book about preaching or public speaking

This was another of those “reading for work” books. Our staff read this in preparation for a vision clarity retreat back in September. While the retreat was a very big success, I think we had mixed reviews about the book. Personally, I thought it was helpful. Others didn’t appreciate the book’s efforts to help us “visualize” the vision. I chalk it up to different learning styles. Regardless, the thought processes that went into the book and the retreat have set us on the road to better communicating and executing the vision we believe God has given for the direction of our church.

As for the book itself, this probably isn’t one I’d recommend as a “stand alone” read. It was helpful in the context of our retreat planning, but unless you’re a glutton for church vision books, you can probably leave this one.

“David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” by Malcolm Gladwell

41xqkhvru8l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Book 41: A book that won a prize

If you’ve followed my book reviews for any period of time, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. Like his others, this proved to be a very thought-provoking read.

He begins with the provocative premise that we’ve misunderstood and misapplied the biblical story of David & Goliath. While the shepherd boy had every appearance of being an underdog, the reality is that the giant never stood a chance against him in personal combat. Sound ludicrous? Gladwell’s reasoning is plausible.

He extends this reasoning to rethinking several other situations in which “conventional wisdom” may have reversed the concepts of advantage and disadvantage. I found several of these vignettes fascinating, particularly the discussion about student-to-teacher ratios in classes.

If the book has a weakness, it’s that Gladwell perhaps oversells his argument. The first half of the book is great, but the rest seemed to drag on with too-many examples proving the same point. Regardless, it’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and think you will, too. Grab your copy here.

41rquwzpgyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_“Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions” by Gregory Koukl

Book 42: A book about apologetics

Having pursued an M.Div in Worldview & Apologetics, I’ve read quite a few books on the subject, but this is one I hadn’t tackled before. It just so happens that this is one of the books used in the apologetics class at the private high school attached to my church, so I thought I should acquaint myself with it.

It should be noted that there are a great many books about apologetics which present arguments far more exhaustively than this one. But then again, that’s not really what this book is about. This is a book about how to engage in apologetic discussion rather than focusing on deep, intellectual contents.

I love that this is a book for all Christians. It correctly teaches that you don’t have to be some sort of intellectual superstar to engage in discussion about Christianity both winsomely and persuasively. It’s a perfect choice for the FBA classroom, and one I commend to all believers. Grab your copy here.

25013067“SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” by Mary Beard

Book 43: A book about history

Full disclosure: I didn’t (yet) actually make it to the end of this book. It’s quite large (over 600 pages!), and I ran out of time before it was due back at the library. But I have every intention of getting back to it as soon as possible. I got too far not to finish!

This is definitely not a situation where I gave up because the book wasn’t worthy. Beard does a fantastic job of combining rigorous scholarship with engaging storytelling, and I was riveted to it as often as I was able to. Unfortunately, though I placed the book on hold during the summer (when I had time to read something like this!) it wasn’t available until we were in the thick of the busy season preparing for our church’s missions conference.

I’ll write a thorough review whenever I get back to the book, which will hopefully not be too long. If you’d like to read it yourself, you can put it in your own queue at the library, or pick it up here, which is maybe what I should do.

81pgqluhbzl“Sing!: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church” by Keith & Kristyn Getty

Book 44: A book with a one-word title

Now here is a book I was excited about for a long time! I pre-ordered it months before it was released so that I could be among the very first to read it. The Gettys have been among my favorite hymn writers for 15 years now, and I’ve never heard either of them (and particularly Keith) say anything from which I did not benefit immensely. This book is no exception!

Again, I’m going to refrain from writing a full review at this time, as I intend to re-read it again in early 2018 and would like to have the benefit of reflecting on two readings before I flesh out my reactions to it. But you don’t have to wait! Go ahead and get it now, regardless of whether you are a worship leader, musicians, or “just” a church member.  You won’t regret it!

51i8zkhs2bnl-_sx309_bo1204203200_“The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis

Book 45: A book of your choice

Continuing my way through the Chronicles of Narnia with my 8-year-old son, we recently wrapped up book 4 (or book 6, depending on which way you’re counting). This has always been my least favorite of the entire set, but a funny thing happened this time through… I thoroughly enjoyed it in a way that I don’t think I have before. I don’t know if it’s just because of the joy of reading it with Nate (who, by the way, is fascinated by the idea of subterranean living, and loved the whole concept about the underworld) or what, but I’ll take it!

Book Review: Steal Away Home

51hdw-dr7ml-_sy344_bo1204203200_“Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon & Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom” by Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 37: A book about race or racial issues

It’s been a long time since a book made me weep as I did in the final pages of Steal Away Home. There is so much beauty in this story, in the writing of it, and—most of all—in the Gospel which saturates it, that there really was no other way to respond but through tears of joy for God’s victory over sin and death, mingled with tears of sorrow for the brokenness which still mars our world until Christ returns to consummate that victory.

I have read a lot of books by and about Charles Haddon Spurgeon. But I can truthfully say I’ve never encountered anything like this book, both in its scope and style.

The book’s authors, Matt Carter & Aaron Ivey, are two of the elders at The Austin Stone Community Church, a church whose ministry has often encouraged and inspired me. While visiting the Stone last May for a Worship Pastor Intensive, Aaron shared with us about how co-writing this book had been such a blessing in his life; I pre-ordered it on the spot.

While the book is somewhat biographical, its genre is difficult to identify due to its unique nature. In the introduction, Carter states that the book’s style was inspired by Michael Shaara’s excellent book The Killer Angels, a novelized story of the Civil War focusing on the lives of several historical figures. Steal Away Home is written as a novel in which the main characters are the 19th century preachers Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson.

If you’re like me, you’re reading that second name and saying, “Who?”

The fact that Johnson’s name is relatively unknown is a real tragedy! His story is truly fascinating, and the impact he had on the Kingdom of God is immense, both as a missionary to Cameroon and as a much-needed encourager and friend to the “prince of preachers.”

Thomas Johnson had been a slave for 28 years in Virginia when the end of the Civil War brought about his emancipation. Though he had heard the name “Charles Haddon Spurgeon” (when he was forced to accompany his master and a Baptist preacher to a book burning in which the works of Spurgeon—an outspoken abolitionist who openly challenged slave-holding “Christians” in the American South—were read to slaves before being thrown into the fire), he never dreamed he would have the opportunity to meet with him, much less become his friend.

Providentially, God allowed Johnson to be sponsored to attend Spurgeon’s Pastor’s College in London, to be trained and commissioned as a missionary to Africa. During his time in London, and for decades later, Johnson became one of Spurgeon’s closest friends and confidants. Spurgeon’s lifelong struggle with depression and physical ailments are well known. But the way Johnson spoke truth into Spurgeon’s life, teaching him about true freedom in Christ, has remained mostly obscured from history until now. I’m so grateful to Carter & Ivey for telling his story!

While the narrative and much of the dialogue for this book required some “artistic license” from the authors, as often as possible the words and “voice” of the characters come from their own writing, primarily their frequent correspondence (Spurgeon kept all of Johnson’s letters in the desk in his study), and from Johnson’s own autobiography, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave. The book was thoroughly researched at the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the fact that so many prominent Spurgeon scholars have endorsed the book lends a lot of credibility to the historicity of the story.

I can’t imagine more capable hands for the telling of this story than Carter and Ivey. I know of no other ministry so invested in story-telling as Austin Stone (learning more about their Story Team is one of the main reasons I attended the Intensive in the Spring). The story is beautifully told, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you. Get your copy here.

Book Review: Consider the Lobster

41ludlgf0ll-_sx331_bo1204203200_“Consider the Lobster and Other Essays” by David Foster Wallace

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 36: A book recommended by a family member

I honestly don’t have a whole lot to say about this book, which was technically not recommended by a family member, though its author was recommended. This is just the one I found at the library.

Wallace was a gifted writer, no doubt. He made topics that I would otherwise have zero interest in (e.g., the Maine Lobster Festival and hardcore pornography) interesting. His talent as a journalist to draw out stories and ask good questions is apparent in each essay, seen most poignantly in “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s” as he describes his recollection of the events of 9/11.

The reader is truly able to “get inside his head” through his writing, and it was good for me to be able to do that with someone whose worldview is so different from my own. That said, I can’t say I necessarily enjoyed this book, though I’m not sure that was the point. Thought-provoking? Sure. Life-changing? Not a bit. Recommended reading? Probably not.

Book Review: The Art of Mentoring

51ygdsiqwnl-_ac_ul320_sr208320_“The Art of Mentoring: Embracing the Great Generational Transition” by Darlene Zschech

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 35: A book about the Church

I am passionate about raising up worship leaders from the generations to follow, discipling them, developing their skills, and providing them with opportunities to lead. Unfortunately, this is an area in which the Church (speaking generally, not of any specific local church) does not have a strong recent track record. The lack of competent, pastoral worship leaders is reaching crisis proportions, which, while great for job security, is very bad for the Kingdom.

So when I see a church that is excelling in passing on their vision to a new generation of leaders, I want to hear more about how they’re doing it.

Let’s get a few things out of the way here: I have some theological differences—some of which are major—with Hillsong Church, and with their former Worship Pastor Darlene Zschech. My personal views on the extent to which their music ought to be a part of our worship services at FBC Powell are far too nuanced to get into here, but this discussion (of which I was a part last November) pretty well reflects my take on the matter.

That said, there are an awful lot of ways in which I know I can benefit from their ministry, not least of which are their approach to artistic excellence and multigenerational worship leadership. I would think that even their most ardent critics should be able to recognize Hillsong’s organizational strength in these areas, and be able to learn from their experience and teaching. And so it is that this book was predictably a mixed bag, though I found far more positives that I can use than I did things which I can simply discard due to differences in theology & practice.

In particular, Zschech’s chapters (though she doesn’t call them “chapters”) on fostering excellence through “the squeeze” (i.e., perseverance in adversity) and on discipling and leading “geniuses” were especially helpful. The latter because I undoubtedly have geniuses in my ministry whose talents I want to develop and whose souls I want to nurture; the former because the day I become satisfied as an artist is the day I need to find a new line of work.

Here’s an area where everyone I know (even especially Baptists!) can learn from Zschech: she is passionately, relentlessly optimistic about the coming generation, about the future of worship music, and about the triumph of Christ through the Church. We need more of that! The way Scripture rolls from her tongue and from her pen is both encouraging and instructive (Romans 15:4), as well as convicting, when I contrast that with my own speech and writing.

All in all, this is a worthwhile read for those who desire to raise up leaders from the next generations, particularly those serving in worship ministry. You may not agree with everything, but the good bits are really good, and it’s an easy enough read that you won’t have to spend much time on the rest. Get your copy here.

Book Review: As You Wish

51aluqonyfl-_sx329_bo1204203200_“As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of ‘The Princess Bride’” by Cary Elwes

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 34: A book of your choice

This was a total guilty pleasure read for this weekend’s quick trip up to northern Kentucky for my cousin’s wedding. Our whole family loves The Princess Bride, and I also love Cary Elwes’ accent. Checking out the audiobook (read by Elwes himself) seemed like a great choice for a road trip read.

Nearly every living cast member, along with the writer, director, and producer of the film, contributed some of their thoughts to the writing of this book, and most of them also lent their voices to the audiobook. Laurie and I were cracking up nearly the entire time hearing about some of the hijinks that went on behind the scenes (particularly the often ridiculous stories about dealing with the size of Andre the Giant), and now can’t wait to watch the movie again!

Definitely a great one to check out for yourself. Get it here.

Book Review: The Art of Neighboring

4152gbonbfl-_sx322_bo1204203200_“The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door” by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 33: A about Christian living

I picked up this book a couple months ago when I visited The Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, TX. They had a kiosk in the foyer with recommended reading relating to the topic of that morning’s sermon (which was excellent, by the way), and this was one of them.

I’d never read a book on neighboring. I don’t know that I’d ever heard of a book on neighboring. And honestly, I’d never considered “neighboring” to be a verb. So I bought it. I’m glad I did!

Pathak & Runyon are both pastors based in Denver, Colorado. This book grew out of an initiative in which their churches—along with eighteen others—joined forces to encourage their congregants to become better neighbors, at the encouragement of local elected officials. Their goal: mobilizing every church member to be intentional about reaching out to those who live close to them, and to build and foster relationships that lead to stronger, more caring neighborhoods all over their city.

“But why do we need a book about this? Shouldn’t the Bible be enough to convince us to love our neighbor as ourselves?”

Sure. Maybe. But do you intentionally reach out to your neighbors to the extent that you probably should? I know I don’t. So maybe I needed something like this after all.

One of their main points is a great one: We often misinterpret (or at least misapply) Luke 10:25-37. When a lawyer, seeking to justify himself, asked Jesus “who is my neighbor,” Jesus responded by telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The takeaway is that everyone is my neighbor. Who am I called to love as I love myself? Everyone!

Well, that’s all true, so far as it goes. But the argument Pathak & Runyon make is that if “everyone” is my neighbor, it can be easy to overlook those who are my actual neighbors, living in close proximity to me. And while Jesus’ commandment to love “everyone” stands, the fact remains that I can’t love “everyone” specifically; I can only demonstrate love to those I actually encounter. Since God has providentially placed me in a certain place and time, the authors argue compellingly that I have a special calling to love those He has placed near me in a specific, tangible, sacrificial way.

That’s an important point, to be sure, and they build their case effectively, but it doesn’t require a whole book to get that point across. The Art of Neighboring spends a couple short chapters establishing the “why” of being a good neighbor, but the bulk of this book is very practical. Pathak & Runyon lay out a very specific strategy for building relationships with your neighbors, and developing unity in your community.

One challenging concept which struck me as odd at first, but which I later grew to accept, is that “good neighboring” does not need to be—and sometimes definitely ought not to be—explicitly evangelical. That is, building genuine, loving, long term relationships with our neighbors does not require us to draw every conversation back to the Gospel. It’s not that we should avoid talking about Jesus… more that we should trust that, as we build trust and camaraderie with someone, the Spirit will open doors to share the Gospel at times when our neighbors will be ready to receive it. I know I’ve turned people off in the past by hitting them so hard with the Gospel that I forgot to love them (that is the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, after all!), resulting in doors that became closed for building any kind of relationship.

Each chapter is genuinely helpful, though I often found myself skimming large sections. The biggest drawback is that this good book would have been a great book if it were about 80 pages shorter. The concept and the content are excellent, but the authors obviously had a word count quota that caused them to restate their points more often than necessary.

Still, this book is very unique, and very much worth your time. Grab your copy here.

Book Review: Dad Is Fat

dif_cover_2x“Dad Is Fat” by Jim Gaffigan

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 32: A humorous book

If there’s ever a week I needed to read the memoir of a comedian, this was it! In the midst of one of the hardest weeks I’ve endured in quite a while (including nearly electrocuting myself… long story), laughter was truly the best medicine.

Jim Gaffigan has been a favorite of mine and Laurie’s for several years now. His clean, self-deprecating humor is always appreciated, particularly when he talks about his family. And I love that, while he does include his wife and children in his jokes, he never speaks ill of them. Quite the contrary: it’s rare (and refreshing!) to find a man so obviously in love with his wife and children as Gaffigan is.

In Dad Is Fat, his first book, Gaffigan’s entire focus is on the travails of parenting 5 young children in New York City. For those who’ve seen his hour-long comedy specials on Netflix and elsewhere, it’s predictably hilarious. And while his storytelling is often outrageous, it never seems contrived. In fact, he’s quite relatable, as I think any Dad will find.

And that’s what makes him so good at what he does. While his circumstances and mine bear very few similarities, his writing expresses perfectly what it means to be a loving and devoted husband and father in a culture that doesn’t often honor those things, in such a way that I found myself often identifying myself with even his most ridiculous tales.

Like all the greatest comedians, Gaffigan is funny without being merely goofy. His wit is disarming but sharp, and often cuts to the heart of our personal and societal failures and blind spots in a way that forces us to acknowledge just how ridiculous we truly are. We need that. need that.

You can grab a copy of Dad Is Fat here. Personally, I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, and highly recommend you do the same!