Book Review: Blink

41lrqaehkbl“Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 19: A self-improvement book

I’m really torn on how to review this book. On the one hand, I found it an enjoyable read, full of fascinating anecdotes and interesting observations. On the other hand, I had hoped—based on its subtitle—the book would provide insight into how to increase in my ability to “think without thinking.” Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting something the author never really claims the book offers, or perhaps it’s because I listened to an audiobook version of the book (which doesn’t allow me to interact with the book in the margins), but I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed at the end.

That said, I do find the concept of “thin-slicing” to be quite intriguing. Quickly drawing accurate conclusions based on limited data is a skill I try to cultivate. And so it was with great interest that I listened to many stories about times when people have been able to do just that. Of particular relevance to me was Gladwell’s exploration of the work of John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and therapist who specializes in relationship counseling. Gottman used thin-slicing to build a model with which he predict the long-term stability of a marriage after only a few minutes of observing a newly married couple. Skills like that have obvious applicability in the ministry, as in most walks of life.

But there are also inherent dangers in making snap judgments, something to which Gladwell devotes half the book. More often than not, decisions made quickly are decisions made rashly, and can lead to disastrous consequences. This point is made most poignantly in the recounting of the death of a man named Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by police officers who believed him to be armed, dangerous, and pulling a gun on them. In reality, he was unarmed and terrified.

Most decisions we make are not literally life & death choices, but the point remains that “go with your gut” is rarely wise counsel. Gladwell offers many insights into the reasons that our gut instincts can be deceived, though again, this is accomplished through story-telling, without necessarily arriving at much of a “take away” for those seeking personal improvement.

Of course, that storytelling is quite engaging, and in this regard the audiobook (read by the author) particularly shines. If you approach this book from a standpoint of learning from a gifted researcher and storyteller, rather than as a “self-improvement” book, you’re likely to be quite satisfied with Blink. Grab your copy here.

Book Review: The Heart of Technical Excellence

51yf1hzis4l-_sy346_“The Heart of Technical Excellence: How to Start, Train, and Operate a Technical Support Ministry with Excellence” by Curt Taipale

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 17: A book with 100 pages or less

One of my favorite descriptions of an ideal approach to the technical aspects of Worship Ministry comes from a supplement to a message series preached by John Piper about two decades ago. Here is his explanation of his great term “undistracting excellence”:

We will try to sing and play and pray and preach in such a way that people’s attention will not be diverted from the substance by shoddy ministry nor by excessive finesse, elegance, or refinement. Natural, undistracting excellence will let the truth and beauty of God shine through. We will invest in equipment good enough to be undistracting in transmitting heartfelt truth.

I love this concept, and the heart behind it. As a worship pastor, I want to guide our church to avoid the opposite errors of overemphasis on technical excellence—many churches put on such an elaborate production that the gospel can get lost in all the “show”—and lack of emphasis that produces what Piper calls “shoddy ministry”… which, sadly, describes far more churches than those guilty of “excessive finesse.”

But how to accomplish this? How do we get the idea of undistracting excellence from philosophy to practice? There are plenty of technical manuals which focus on the “how to” of technical production, and most books on worship philosophy include some token reference to the importance of media ministries, but there aren’t a lot of resources out there which “connect the dots” between technical excellence and heartfelt worship in a way that is useful and appealing both to technically-minded media workers and to artistically-minded worship musicians.

Enter Curt Taipale.

This small book has proved to be a great resource for me, as I seek to give leadership in an area of worship ministry in which my skills and experience lag far behind my musical expertise.  Taipale’s writing style and obvious heart for worship make it easy for a guy like me to absorb the necessary technical jargon that will help be better communicate my vision for our church’s worship ministry with those who work in the audio, video, and lighting areas. And his decades of expertise working with churches of all sizes and levels of media production give him a unique perspective to communicate a pastoral vision of media ministry to those workers in a way that no technical manual can.

The best parts of the book are his chapters on the relationship between the Worship Leader and the Sound Guy. I’m grateful to have Ray Stephens, our church’s Director of Media Ministries, as my “wingman,” and am glad we were both able to read this book recently. I pray this book will help us strengthen our relationship, and, in turn, to strengthen the overall media ministry at FBC Powell in a way that leads us toward undistracting excellence week in and week out.

If you’re a pastor, worship leader, or church media technician, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of this book. Print copies are apparently rare, but the Kindle version is under $4 here.

Book Review: The Whistler

51nekcjdpul-_sy344_bo1204203200_“The Whistler” by John Grisham

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 16: A book on the current New York Times bestsellers list

This is a perfect example of a book making the bestseller list based on an author’s past history, rather than being there on its own merits. I haven’t read all 31 of his novels, but this easily ranks as my least favorite of the dozen or so I have read.

The Whistler began with a lot of promise. A female lead character working for a little-known investigative entity called the Board of Judicial Conduct (which processes complaints filed against judges) was a premise that seemed to be a refreshing new approach to the genre of legal thrillers where Grisham has thrived best.

Unfortunately, this story lacked both the “thrill” that has been present in his best legal work, and the level of character development which has made his best non-thrillers equally riveting. While this may merit a trip to the library (where I reserved the copy I read) for hard-core Grisham fans, most everyone else will want to pass on this forgettable book.

Book Review: Raving Fans

raving-fans-book-cover-pic“Raving Fans” by Ken Blanchard & Sheldon Bowles

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 15: A book about business

A friend of mine who runs a very successful Chik-Fil-A franchise has recommended this book for years as a way to revolutionize customer service. I’m glad I finally took the time to read it! I love Blanchard’s notion that “satisfied customers” aren’t enough (because, as C.S. Lewis agrees, we are far too easily satisfied). Raving fans—those who not only offer repeat business, but “rave” about a service or product to others—are what we ought to pursue.

The relatively short book is divided into three sections, clearly outlining a philosophy and process for establishing a culture of customer service which produces such fans. The book is widely applicable in business (examples in the book itself range from grocery markets to taxi drivers to giant corporations), but is also broadly relevant in my own “business” of church ministry.

While pastors and church leaders aren’t marketing a product or service to consumers, we are working with people all the time, and so strategies for better serving, communicating with, and casting vision for customers often are also successful ministry strategies. I’ve been reading & researching a lot lately about guest relations/experience at churches, and found this book to be as helpful as anything I’ve read that is explicitly “ministry”-oriented. Grab your copy here.

Several Short Book Reviews

Well, I’ve been doing a lot better at keeping up with the 2017 Reading Challenge than I have been keeping up with the blog. I’ve done a lot of writing in the last month, but much of it has been offline (though my biggest recent writing project will make an appearance here very soon). My original intention had been to review all or most of the books I’m reading this year, so in order to catch up here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

lesmis“Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo

Book 10: A book more than 100 years old

I’m a bit ashamed I hadn’t read this book before! I’ve seen several different movie and stage adaptations, and read an abridged version many years ago, but this was my first time tackling the “real deal.” It’s so, so good! Not that I expected anything else. It’s one of the greatest stories ever told, and hopefully one I’ll have the opportunity to re-read several times in the future.

51-2b3wjprhl-_sx331_bo1204203200_“Dug Down Deep” by Joshua Harris

Book 11: A book about theology

Speaking of re-reading books… this is a book I read when it first came out in 2010, and it quickly became one of my top recommendations for young readers first starting their study of theology. I’ve bought and distributed many copies over the year, but decided to re-read it in its entirety this year when I assigned it to my three worship interns, so I could participate in our book discussions having seen it with fresh eyes. Still as good as I remember! You can read my full book review here.

c10832“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and “Prince Caspian” by C.S. Lewis

Book 12: A book of your choice
Book 13: A book written by an author with initials in his name

These are books I’ve read many times, but I’m more excited than ever to be reading them now with my 7-year-old son. His eagerness to devour these books (he’s asked to start going to bed earlier so he can wake up earlier and read with me before his sisters wake up) makes my heart so glad! I love seeing my children learn to love the things I love, and having the opportunity to introduce such beloved characters and stories to him—seeing them for the “first time” again through his eyes—is a great blessing.

By the way, though the edition we’re reading together (we LOVE this complete collection illustrated by Pauline Baynes) has the stories in chronological order (with The Magician’s Nephew first), we’re reading them in the order of publication, which I still stubbornly insist is the proper way to read them.

book-stateoffear“State of Fear” by Michael Crichton

Book 14: A novel by an author you have never read before

Having seen and enjoyed several movies based on Crichton’s books, I thought I might as well try out one of his novels. This one sounded intriguing, particularly the author’s statement that it’s the book he least wanted to write, and one which he felt could actually put his life in danger.

While I’m not sure about that last part, I can definitely see how he could face a lot of opposition because of the content of this novel. The characters (and Crichton himself, in an appendix that is well worth reading by itself) in this thriller challenge the status quo of “settled science” in the debate on global climate change. He writes a compelling and plausible story in which scientists and educators who dare to push back against the notion that man-caused global warming is a grave threat requiring massive government regulation & investment are ostracized and persecuted by peers, press, politicians, and celebrities.

While I wouldn’t call it a great work of literature, the audiobook was an enjoyable distraction over a few weeks’ worth of driving.

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I’ll try to get back to writing more detailed book reviews going forward! I’m reading several more books right now that are really terrific. Here’s a preview of what’s on the horizon:

  • The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk — Definitely a long-term reading project… I’m slowly but surely making my way through this massive survey of conservative thought. It’ll probably take me a few more months at my current pace.
  • Raving Fans by Ken Blanchard & Sheldon Bowles — I’ve actually already finished this one and written a review that will be published Monday. Excellent read on customer service, with broad application in ministry as well.
  • Culture Care by Makoto Fujimura — Probably my favorite book of 2017 so far, it focuses on how Christians can steward and cultivate creative gifts, harnessing the great power of beauty to reform and renew our culture.
  • The Whistler by John Grisham — Just started reading the latest in a long line of Grisham’s NYT bestsellers.

What’s Up With All the Roaring?

African Lion Roaring Animal Model

Maybe it’s just me, but every so often, it seems like a particular word or phrase becomes “trendy” in contemporary Christian worship music. For instance, 10-15 years ago, it was variations on the phrase “wings like eagles”(see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for examples of chart topping songs that came out between about 2001 and 2008). Don’t get me wrong… most of those are great songs that I’ve sung and led many times, and there’s nothing wrong with the phrase “wings like eagles”. It’s a biblical phrase, and we should sing it! But by 2008 I was pretty much ready for a break from feeling like I sang it all the time.

Today, I’m getting the same vibe from the words “roar” and “roaring.” It’s everywhere right now! Is it a biblical word? Absolutely.

So I get it… there’s a lot of roaring in the Bible, and there’s nothing at all wrong with using that term in our worship music. But until recently, that wasn’t a word I sang very often. Some notable exceptions being The Lamb is a Lion by Michael Card (1988); Shout to the Lord by Hillsong (1994); Holy Roar by Christy Nockels/Passion (1996); and She Must and Shall Go Free by Derek Webb (2002).

But lately, there’s been a lot more roaring on the radio and in our sanctuaries. It seems the trend began around 2009 with Daniel Bashta’s song Like a Lion:

The song’s popularity really began to take off when David Crowder covered the song during the 2010 Passion Conference (an annual trend-setting event). Two years later, it was covered by the Newsboys, which is the version that hit the radio ad nauseum, especially after the movie God’s Not Dead came out.

In 2012, Hillsong carried the growing “roaring” trend to the other end of the world with their song Glorious Ruins:

Once Hillsong and Passion have both used a phrase with great success, you can bet it starts working its way into more and more new songs! Sure enough, Chris Tomlin began roaring that same year with White Flag (though he also had a preliminary roar back in 2006 with Let God Arise). By 2014, Tomlin was all in with The Roar:

Here’s who else got in on the action in recent years:

I Am Yours, Lauren Daigle (2014)

Praise the King, Corey Voss (2014)

O Praise the Name, Hillsong (2015)

Jesus, Chris Tomlin (2016); see also All Yours from the same album

Lion and the Lamb, Bethel/Leeland (2016); also covered by Big Daddy Weave

What a Beautiful Name, Hillsong (2016); some lesser known roaring songs also by Hillsong: End of Days (2013); Love on the Line (2015); Prince of Peace (2015)

None of this is criticism, by the way, just observation. Again, most of these are good songs (and the blame doesn’t lie with the word “roar” in the ones that aren’t). And since I’m not a song writer, I’m not really in a position to criticize anyway. But as a lover of language and variety, I do sort of hope we’ll be coming out of this “roaring” phase soon…

Book Review: Reflections on the Psalms

015676248x“Reflections on the Psalms” by C.S. Lewis

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 9: A Commentary on a Book of the Bible

Okay, so using this as a “commentary” might be cheating a bit, as it’s not expositional like pretty much every other commentary I’ve ever read. But considering Psalms is a unique genre in Scripture, I thought a different genre of commentary might be appropriate. When factoring in that I wanted a commentary on Psalms (our pastor is preaching from that Book right now), and that this is one of the few books by C.S. Lewis I hadn’t yet read, this seemed an ideal choice!

The book itself was both wonderful and bewildering. As always in Lewis’ writings, I found myself challenged and edified by his words. I particularly enjoyed his insistence on reading the psalms as poetry, rather than attempting to interpret them in the same way one might read other genres.

I also appreciated—for the most part—his “amateurish” commentary. The fact that he was approaching the psalms with genuine questions and an insatiable desire to learn was quite refreshing. Too often I find myself reading the Bible academically, and so Lewis’ book has aided me in approaching the psalms with a renewed sense of wonder. For that alone, the book was worth every penny!

That said, there were quite a few head-scratching moments as well. For all the admiration I have of him as a scholar, and author, and a thinker, there are some major areas in which we simply disagree. A big one is on the approach to Scripture itself. I believe that all Scripture—including the psalms—is “a perfect treasure of divine instruction… totally true and trustworthy”, a conviction held so firmly by Southern Baptists that we place it as the very first point of our convention’s summary of our faith.

Lewis did not share this conviction, though his views on Scripture are far more nuanced than I will get into here; for a charitable reading of Lewis’ hermeneutical approach to the psalms which stresses (unlike theological liberals) his belief the authority of Scripture, check out this essay. I had a difficult time wrestling with Lewis’ description of some of the imprecatory psalms, which contain curses against the enemies of God and His people, as “devilish” or “contemptible.” Yes, they are difficult to read. Yes, they can poignantly reveal our own temptations to anger and hatred (as Lewis points out). But devilish? That’s several steps too far for me.

There are other instances in which Lewis’ view of the psalms as words of men which contain truth rather than the Word of God which is Truth led to questionable interpretations of their meaning. Still, I greatly benefited from his reflections, as I believe most discerning readers will. Pick up a copy here.