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!

Summer Summaries – 2017 Reading Project

Playing catch up again with reviews of books I’ve read for the 2017 Reading Challenge. Summer has been great for providing reading time but not so much with writing time. But here’s where I’ve had my nose buried lately!

“Onward” by Russell Moore

Book 25: A book about Christian living

Dr. Moore is a truly prophetic voice in our generation, and this is among his best work. As usual, his writing both challenges and convicts as he calls Christians to engage the culture winsomely but effectively. To do this, we must “keep Christianity strange,” avoiding the temptation to become conformed to a world that is increasingly antagonistic toward our faith. But we must also avoid the opposite error of conflating the gospel with either social justice or political action. For many, the first introduction to the leader of our denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was his outspoken criticism of then-candidate Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. His rhetoric is often biting, and certainly a departure from that of the “Moral Majority” that defined conservative evangelical political activism for a generation. Yet every word he said during the campaign is consistent with what he had written in this book about the importance of character, integrity, and gospel clarity trumping (no pun intended) whatever social/political goals we may have. I, for one, believe that the trail Moore is blazing for the future of evangelical cultural engagement is exactly what we need to succeed in post-Christian America, despite the toes which may be stepped on along the way, and I highly recommend this book for all believers. Pick up your copy here.

“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand

Book 26: A book about the second world war

The first time I encountered the name Louis Zamperini was several years ago while reading George Beverly Shea’s 1968 autobiography Then Sings My Soul, in a list of notable converts from early Billy Graham crusades. This biography of the former Olympic athlete and Army Air Force veteran is one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read. Zamperini’s life contained more than enough tragedy and suffering to break nearly anyone. He truly endured some of the worst depths of depravity of which mankind is capable, and yet emerged “unbroken” though not unscathed. While his sufferings took him to the brink of sanity, his encounter with the Gospel bought his redemption, and led to a long life, lived well. I understand the movie based on this book is excellent, though I’ve heard it downplays the religious elements of his story. I’ll be checking that out soon, I hope. And I hope you’ll check out this former #1 New York Times Bestseller here.

c10832“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

Book 27: A book for children or teens

Nate and I are continuing to work our way through the Chronicles of Narnia this summer. It’s such a joy to watch him learn to love these books that I’ve enjoyed so much over the years. Thus far, this has been his favorite book of the series, as it remains mine.

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.

“13 Hours” by Mitchell Zuckoff

Book 28: A book based on a true story

This “inside account of what really happened in Benghazi” is a fascinating and excellently written retelling of the events of September 11, 2012, at the U.S. diplomatic consulate and CIA Annex in northeastern Libya. While the CIA, the Obama administration, and the Hillary Clinton campaign have vehemently denied the veracity of this book, it definitely seems to have the ring of truth. Zuckoff cites many sources, nearly all of whom are decorated heroes who have gone on record stating their name and reputation on the testimony contained in this book, as well as in Congressional hearings. Their detractors don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to telling the truth, either… Regardless, it was an enjoyable read. I watched the movie as well, after finishing the book. As usual, I greatly preferred the book (get it here), though I did appreciate the visual reference of the appearance and layout of the compounds.

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons

Book 29: A graphic novel

Chalk this up as a book I definitely would have never read had it not been for my goal of reading more broadly by using the categories provided by Tim Challies in this year’s reading challenge. Having never read (or even though about reading) a graphic novel, I didn’t even know where to begin. When I googled “best graphic novels of all time”, this one was near the top of every list I saw. I also learned it was the only graphic novel to have been included in TIME’s 100 best novels of all time. When the blurb/endorsement on the cover from a prominent reviewer read “if you’ve never read a graphic novel, start here” I figured that was me, so I did. And while I can see why this book is so well regarded—Moore’s character development is truly brilliant, and the story is very unique and well told—I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. Not to take anything away from the enjoyment of others… it’s just not my cup of tea. If this is the “best” the genre has to offer, I probably won’t be spending much more time in the Graphic Novels section at McKay’s.

“Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain

Book 30: A memoir or autobiography

I’ve always been a lover of Twain’s writing. Years ago I gobbled up all his novels I could get my hands on, and later learned to love his satirical writing as well. But I’d never before read this account of his early life spent as a steamboat pilot navigating up and down the Mississippi River, which became the source material for a lot of what he wrote in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While the writing is perhaps not as polished as his later work, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable read on a hot summer’s day.

“131 Christians Everyone Should Know” ed. by Mark Galli

Book 31: A book about church history

There is a lot to like about this book. The short (2-3 pages each) biographies of so many different people makes each entry a quick easy read… pretty much an ideal “bathroom book”. The timeline in the front of the book helps to place each historical figure in context. I learned a lot of interesting facts about some of the more obscure figures, and even a few new things about some men and women about whom I’ve read and studied much before. But that also leads to the book’s weaknesses. It sometimes makes me nervous to “learn” new things about people I’ve studied before, particularly when nothing in the book has citations which would allow me to verify and learn more about those things which most interested me. Still, despite some shortcomings, this book will be a good reference book and introduction to history, and will come in handy in the homeschooling of our children, particularly as the Classical Conversations method which we use is so heavily dependent on timelines. It’s no substitute for more scholarly and detailed works of Christian history, but is a great introductory book. Grab yours here.