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.

Book Review: The Music Architect

41lqjsxj1ul-_sx331_bo1204203200_“The Music Architect: Blueprints for Engaging Worshipers in Song” by Constance Cherry

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 24: A book by a female author

Though I purchased this book more to be a resource volume on my shelf than anything else, I did find it an enjoyable read. Cherry’s opening chapter about what it means to be a “pastoral musician” was very good, and I appreciate very much the priority she gives to corporate singing throughout, as she lays out her “blueprints” for congregational engagement.

I found myself skimming this book far more than reading it closely, for a couple reasons. For one, it’s very similar to a lot of other things in my library, and being familiar already with the concepts she was presenting as well as with most of the sources she was quoting meant there wasn’t much new to process. Also, I often felt like chapters continued on long after she’d gotten her point across.

Still, the sections about the history and development of different types of songs used in worship services, and the appendix at the end designed to evaluate your church’s “canon of songs” are the reason I bought the book, and will serve well as a resource, so I’m glad I added it to the collection. If you’d like to do the same, you can grab a copy here.

BONUS POINTS! I don’t usually read a book’s “Acknowledgements” section, but for some reason I glanced at that page in this one. Imagine my surprise seeing some folks in there from my little home town of Huntington, Indiana! Turns out Dr. Cherry is from Huntington, too. Small world!

Book Review: Steal Like An Artist

71yg3jyya9l“Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative” by Austin Kleon

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 23: A book recommended by a friend

This is a pretty tiny book (the cup of coffee I poured when I started reading was still warm when I finished), but may end up being my favorite of everything I read this year. It’ll almost certainly be one of the few that I’ll come back to over and over.

Austin Kleon is an artist from Austin, TX, and in Steal Like An Artist he asserts that what good artists do—that is, “stealing” as much as possible from as many influences as possible to shape one’s own unique style—is a concept that can carry over into virtually any line of work. And while there are a number of people out there who have made the case that we are all a product of our influences, few have communicated this truth so compelling and creatively as Kleon.

The reality is that someone can “know” that’s true, yet still feel bound by a desire to be “original” than can have a debilitating effect on creativity. I know, because I’m that guy. And that’s why I’m so thankful to have been told to read this book, because it’s definitely a game changer for me!

Kleon’s 10 short chapters each present a different principle for developing creativity, and though it’s a numbered list, it manages not to come across as a “how to” manual. Rather, it’s a testimonial borne from experience, and an encouragement that these timeless principles (e.g., “Be Nice”) really do work in the real world, and they really are things that don’t apply only to artists. It’s a book which manages to be both artistic and pragmatic… not an easy combination!

Anyway, I’ve already written a review that will take you half as long to read as the book itself, so stop reading this and go get the book!

If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and embrace influence instead of running away from it.” ~ Austin Kleon

Book Review: The Magnolia Story

41tt22f9v0l-_sx332_bo1204203200_“The Magnolia Story” by Chip & Joanna Gaines

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 22: A book on the ECPA bestseller list

This was an easy call for me. First of all, not knowing what the “ECPA bestseller list” was until I looked it up, I realized quickly that there wasn’t much on that list that appealed to me at all. But my wife and I both enjoy watching “Fixer Upper” together, and since we were taking a trip down to central Texas, I thought this would serve as a fitting audiobook for our hours on the road.

It was a perfect choice. I love when books are read by the authors, and hearing Chip & Joanna tell their story in their own words and their own voices really made it come alive. It’s a relatively short read, but a very enjoyable look into the lives of some genuinely good people. Get it here.


Book Review: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War

23647114“A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918” by Joseph Leconte

2017 Reading Challenge —Book 21: A biography of a Christian

As I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia with my oldest son, I thought it was the right time to pick up a book that, to my shame, has been languishing on my to-read pile for far too long. The last several times I’ve read through either the Chronicles or The Lord of the Rings, I’ve tried to also read a book about the author to help provide familiar stories with new depth. Each time, I’ve gained greater insight and a greater love for these books.

This time was no different. Or rather, it was different, but in the sense that Leconte’s approach comes from a very different direction than other materials I’ve read about either author, providing a perspective that has made an even greater impact on my enjoyment than I’ve encountered in the past.

From previous biographical material, I already knew that both Lewis and Tolkien had served in the trenches of the Great War. But Leconte, a descendant of a World War I combatant himself, does a masterful job of showing the great impact that their wartime experiences—in which each saw brutal combat, lost close friends, and spent time in military hospitals recuperating from serious illness (which killed far more people than weapons during the War)—had on their writing as well as on their friendship, which has been described by many as arguably the most important friendship of the 20th century.

The literature produced following the war was largely cynical, which was perhaps understandable given the fact that, astoundingly, about 5% of the world’s population had died, thanks in large part to the 1918 outbreak of Spanish flu, which spread rapidly in the trenches and crossed oceans on troop ships. The Great War was seen not as a product of the philosophical and political climate—it was the age of progressive optimism in which eugenics and socialism were in; religion and social mores were out—which led to its inception and its mind-numbing disregard for the value of human life, but as one of the final nails in the coffin of Christianity, which claimed that a Good and Just God reigned over all Creation. After all, who could believe that there could be a loving Father in heaven after the carnage of those years?

Yet these two great friends and Oxford professors encouraged one another to counter this trend by writing stories of virtue and heroism, and of the ultimate triumph of good over evil, though it come at great—and often ultimate—cost. Because, remarkably, where nearly everyone else saw only violence and despair, these men saw exemples of integrity and courage, revealing a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time” that pointed to One far greater than the conflict in which they had found themselves.

Many of the characters in their stories are drawn from attributes they saw in the common British soldier during the Great War, and in some instances are based on specific men they had encountered (Sam Gamgee, for instance, was based on a particularly faithful batman Tolkien had met in the trenches). But the greatest influence that their battle experiences had on their writing was in the “big picture” themes present in their works: the corruption of world systems and powers; the failures of even the most noble characters, and the reliance of those characters on a Power outside themselves to overcome their own weaknesses; the idea that greatest real strength lies in the least likely, whether it be children, Hobbits, or hard-working, faithful, lower-class peasants fighting in the trenches in a truly senseless conflict.

Lewis once wrote that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance,” and I know he was right. Literature, and particularly the fantasy genre in which both he and Tolkien excelled, provides a great vehicle for understanding the deep things of God which cannot be grasped from mere academic study. After all, God is the greatest storyteller of all, and has revealed Himself to us in a Story!

But after reading A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, I have found that there are even greater riches to be found in these authors’ fictional stories when those stories are placed within the context of the real story in which Lewis and Tolkien themselves took part, which is in turn a part of the great Story of God’s redemption of the world, which is being written even now, and in which each of us plays a part. For truly, “all the world’s a stage…”

I highly recommend this book, particularly for those who, like me, love to plumb the depths of Middle Earth and Narnia on a regular basis. You can get it here.

Book Review: Zealot

zealot“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 20: A book from a theological viewpoint you disagree with

First of all, let me comment on how grateful I am that Tim Challies has included this category on his reading challenge list. I know how important it is to read books that I know will challenge my own views, but I’m not always disciplined enough to actually do it. And as usual, I find that I have been sharpened in this pursuit as I read Aslan’s biography of “Jesus of Nazareth” (who is contrasted throughout the book with “Jesus Christ, the Son of God”). Which, by the way, I do indeed disagree with, and strongly so.

But first, let me share what is commendable. The first of three sections in Zealot is devoted to the historical and religious context of the world in which Jesus lived. This section really is rather good, particularly his depiction of temple worship. This is an area of study in which scholars of many stripes—secular, Jewish, and Christian historians of both the theological right and left—are largely in agreement, and while this section reviews ground that’s been thoroughly covered before, Aslan is a very gifted storyteller, and I found the way he “sets the stage” to be quite enjoyable, particularly in the audiobook version, read by the author himself.

Beyond that, however… I found his arguments to be both unoriginal and uncompelling. For the most part, he simply rehashes many of the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar, albeit in a more narrative fashion, sure to appeal far more to lay readers than the more academic writing of many mainstream biblical scholars. And though admittedly I approached the book skeptically from the beginning, I found his depiction of Jesus as a “zealous Galilean peasant and Jewish nationalist who donned the mantle of messiah and launched a foolhardy rebellion against the corrupt Temple priesthood and the vicious Roman occupation” to be based on a mountain of flawed premises and poor scholarship.

Typically, after firing shots like that, I’d back them up with supporting evidence, but sadly, time prohibits my doing that at this time. Perhaps at some later date when life slows down I can write a more thoughtful review, but for now let me point you toward some others who have done the heavy lifting already, and whose conclusions I echo:

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.