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.


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.

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.

What Then Shall We Read?


After spending much of last week reflecting on The Hunger Games — which ended up producing a trilogy of blog posts (read parts 12, and 3) — I thought today I might direct readers of this blog toward some fiction that I really like!

Of course, there are many GREAT pieces of literature that could go on a list like this, but, outside of the first couple I’ll list, I’m going to try to concentrate on some more recent fiction (though I personally prefer older books most of the time) that are wonderful despite being less familiar. Please do not take this as a list of things you should read in place of classics like Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn. Think of this as more of a summer supplemental reading list for teens and preteens who want to read a good story with a “contemporary” feel.

Also, though most of the authors listed here are Christians, almost none of the content of the books is explicitly Christian, or even allegorically “Christian”. They are simply good stories, which are perfectly able to come from non-Christians as well.

Without further ado, here are some authors I love, and some of their fiction you and your kids will enjoy:

C.S. Lewis

If you don’t know about The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s time to crawl out from the rock you’ve been living under your whole life. But if your kids haven’t read it, get it in their hands immediately! I read the set for the first time in (I think) fourth grade, but have probably read them at least six times since then. They get better each time! This is my favorite illustrated edition, though the first picture displayed is not the correct cover (the “customer images” are correct). Deeper thinkers may also enjoy Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward, and What I Learned in Narnia by Douglas Wilson.

Less familiar is Lewis’ “Space Trilogy”. They aren’t as “kid-friendly” as the Narnia books, but I still enjoyed them. Check out Out of the Silent Planet (my review), Perelandra(my review), and That Hideous Strength (my review).

Another good piece of fiction by Lewis is Til We Have Faces, his retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche from classical Greek mythology.

J.R.R. Tolkien

The other series that everyone knows but which I consider an absolute “must read” (which I also tackled for the first time in 4th grade) is The Lord of the Rings (including the prequel, The Hobbit). As with Narnia, there are dozens of books about LOTR, though many are not that good. My favorite (so far) is The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft (my review). Fans of the series should also check out The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s translations of three epic poems including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton was a turn-of-the-century (the 20th, that is) author who wrote a lot of great non-fiction, but what I love best are his mystery books. My personal favorites are The Man Who Was Thursday (my review) and the Father Brown Mysteries.

Andrew Peterson

Peterson has long been one of my favorite songwriters, but now he has also become one of my favorite novelists. His first fiction series is a work-in-progress, with the final book of the “Wingfeather Saga” due out later this year. Until then, get caught up by reading On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (my review), North! Or Be Eaten (my review), and The Monster in the Hollows (my review).

For a great example of how music can be used to tell a story, check out his Behold the Lamb of God album, which I’ve also reviewed.

N.D. Wilson

Here’s an author whose fiction I’ve only recently discovered (though I’ve been hearing of its greatness for some time). I should have expected nothing less than great writing from the son of Douglas Wilson (whose new satirical novel Evangellyfish is on my to-read list). The younger Wilson has authored the “100 Cupboards” trilogy, which consists of 100 CupboardsDandelion Fire, and The Chestnut King. My review of this trilogy will be coming soon.

He’s also written a standalone novel called Leepike Ridge, and The Dragon’s Tooth, the first book in a new trilogy (which I’ve decided not to read until all three books are published).

Walter Wangerin

It’s rare that I’ve enjoyed the act of reading as much as I do reading Wangerin’s books. I just love the way he uses words… it’s like the sentences and phrases themselves produce some kind of tangible sensation that is addicting. My favorite is The Book of the Dun Cow (my review), which somehow makes the life of a rooster really exciting… seriously! He’s also done some really interesting novelizations of the Bible, including The Book of GodJesus: A Novel, and Paul: A Novel (my review).

Richard Adams

Another master of the “beast fable”, Adams has written a modern classic called Watership Down (my review). It’s one of my favorites, and I’ve recently converted my wife and her sister to Watership fandom as well. Adams wrote a sequel called Tales From Watership Down, but it’s not nearly as good as the original. The Plague Dogs (review coming) is much better, and often called “the true sequel to Watership Down“.

J.K. Rowling

I thought I’d round out this list by re-affirming my love for the Harry Potter series. I don’t place them on the same level as the books at the top of this list, but I really do think they are great stories. Rather than going into detail about why, I’ll refer you to this article by Andrew Peterson (the same Andrew Peterson mentioned above), whose thoughts mirror my own. For deeper thinking about the HP books, check out John Granger (no relation to Hermione), the Hogwarts Professor. Whether you like the movies or (like me) hate them, I also recommend The Harry Potter Bible Study (my review), which gives a good blueprint for how to watch movies critically.

Your Recommendations?

Obviously, this list could go on and on. These are just some highlights of things I’ve read and enjoyed in the last couple years. What are some of your favorites?

P.S. — If, like me, you enjoy reading about reading, you should definitely get Tony Reinke’s Lit! A Christian’s Guide to Reading Books. I’ve only just gotten it, but already can tell it’s going to be awesome! I’ll have a review published when I finish.

Combing the Net – 7/19/2010

C.S. Lewis on Democracy — A great quote by one of the best minds of the 20th Century.

Facebook Struggles to Track Dead People — As more and more people sign up for FB accounts, more and more FB users become deceased. Have you seen a Facebook “ghost”?

I Write Like — This one was especially fun! Copy and paste a few paragraphs of text sampling your writing, and this gadget will calculate which famous writer your writing most closely resembles. I’m not sure how reliable the results are, though. I tried it twice. My results? Lewis Carroll (wow!) and Dan Brown (gag!). Who do you resemble? (HT: Challies)

Our Church Isn’t “Cute” — Jared Wilson stands up for his “blemished and perfect” church in Vermont. I love it!

Dancing in the Minefields — Andrew Peterson is among my all-time favorite singer/songwriters (and now author!). Not only does he have a brand new CD coming out (my pre-order ought to arrive soon!), but he’s also recorded his first-ever music video, to the song “Dancing in the Minefields”. Check it out!

If I ever get a GPS, I want the Darth Vader TomTom! (HT: Kevin DeYoung)
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Book Review: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

“On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness: The Wingfeather Saga, Book One” by Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson has long been one of my very favorite singer/songwriters. His lyrics possess both depth and whimsy, a combination that is rare among Christian artists. He has also shown a proclivity for conveying rich spiritual truths in his music using familiar language from popular fantasy novels by Christian artists such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings (particularly in his album “The Far Country”). So when I found out he was writing a series of fantasy novels himself, my interest was piqued.

What I encountered in this first entry to the “Wingfeather Saga” was a fun-filled yarn that was a pure pleasure to read. Peterson is a first-rate storyteller, and this is sure to be a book that will be enjoyed by many a young reader (and a few old ones, too).

Though it got off to a bit of a slow start (then again, so did The Fellowship of the Ring…), I quickly found myself completely wrapped up in the story and, more importantly, in the characters. The action focuses on the adventures of the Igiby children: Janner, Tink, and Leeli. Through his engaging writing style, Peterson quickly allows the reader to become invested in these children. Their personalities are very well-developed, as are those of the secondary characters; no two-dimensional caricatures here!

While the story itself is engaging (I won’t spoil it for you by revealing too much of the plot, but the teaser on the cover will perhaps whet your appetite: “Adventure. Peril. Lost Jewels. And the Fearsome Toothy Cows of Skree.”), the real strength of this book is the way it incorporates a lot of teachable moments that touch on some serious real-life issues. This book was written for children, but especially to be read to children by adults (The language of the book lends itself particularly well to out-loud reading).

In addition to the more serious themes such as trust, forgiveness, and the providence of God (or “The Maker”, in the book), there were a few things I especially enjoyed in Peterson’s writing. One of these is the way he makes books themselves so fun. Peterson, like me, is an avid bookworm, and this love of books is instilled in nearly every chapter of this novel. “Books and Crannies”, the bookstore frequented by the Igiby boys, is a place filled with deep mystery and a sense of adventure. Salvaging (and reading) old books is portrayed as one of the noblest deeds a hero can do. I was also fond of the “boyness” of the boys in the story. This novel doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is not afraid to be irreverent (though never crass), the way little boys often are. Face it: Sometimes boogers are hilarious!

The only thing that keeps this from being a 5-star story is the sometimes awkward use of language, especially in the names of characters and places. One of the things that made LOTR so great is the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien was such a great linguist. He didn’t just invent and name characters; he invented entire languages! When he named characters and places, there was a sense of history in the consistency of fantastic names. This is one of the great weaknesses in many books in the fantasy genre, as such linguistic genius is exceptionally rare.

However, Peterson does an admirable job of lending depth to his fantasy world in many other unique ways, most prominently in his use of footnotes. Throughout the novel, he has incorporated notes that provide historical commentary on many of the locations, creatures, and people mentioned. While these notes usually have little to no relevance to the main plot line, the many citations of “scholarly” works set in this fictional world are an interesting way to create a sense of antiquity for “Aerwiar”, much in the way of the languages of Middle Earth or the ruins of Narnia. These footnotes are also dripping with the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm characteristic of the way Peterson tells stories in his live concerts.

I am looking forward very much to the sequel, “North! Or Be Eaten!”, which I’ll probably read this week. Even more, I am looking forward to the day I can read this book to my own son in a few years! Buy it here.

The Church’s One Foundation

One of the reasons I had been avoiding politics in my blog is because I knew that what I have to say would stir up a lot of strong feelings among people whom I greatly love from all political persuasions. Sometimes, though, people need to be stirred. I certainly did.

Please keep in mind, though, that — as I said in my last blog — what I write here is testimony of my own spiritual journey. I know that, for whatever reason, God is leading me in a certain direction, and that that direction is very different from where I was heading even just a year ago. He may not be leading you in that same direction. However, if you find yourself being stirred by what I write, I encourage you to prayerfully consider whether God is trying to get hold of your heart as He has gotten hold of mine.

During last year’s election season, I wrote that I considered myself a political moderate, and that I did not think we ought to think of things in terms of “liberal vs. conservative”. I still feel strongly about the second half of that statement, but for very different reasoning now. Since that time, I believe that Jesus has been radically changing my understanding of His “politics” (for lack of a better word) and it is completely changing the way I view the world around me.

I used to believe that Jesus was neither politically “liberal” nor “conservative”, but somewhere in the middle. I could not understand then why so many passionate Christians seemed to be so “extreme” to one side or the other. The lack of unity in the Body of Christ greatly disturbed me. I wanted us to meet in the middle; to see things from points of view other than our own. So I began studying the passage in Ephesians 4 about unity in the Body of Christ, and examining Jesus’ earthly ministry more closely than ever.

I know now why this line of reasoning wasn’t working, and why I couldn’t fully buy into it myself. Asking Christians to “compromise” in the name of moderation is asking them to do something that is contrary to the nature of Christ. Jesus was anything BUT moderate! When Jesus was tested by the Pharisees or confronted with questions from the disciples and others, He did not respond by working out compromises; He responded by completely challenging their way of thinking. The last shall be first, you must give to receive, love your enemies… this is radical stuff!

The reason Christians tend to feel so passionately about their political views is because we have NOT been given a spirit of timidity (2 Tim. 1:7)! But why do we see such political polarization among believers? I think it is because, once again, we are not thinking on the same plane of thought as our Lord. We have all bought into this idea that there exists a political line stretching from left to right, liberal to conservative, and that everything and everyone — including Christ Jesus — MUST exist at some point on this line.

My brethren, I have come to believe that this is simply not true. When we try to confine Jesus to our own fallible logic, we are left with an incomplete picture of our Savior. In Jesus’ earthly ministry, He didn’t define a “correct” point on that political line. He exemplified a position wholly separate from our very concept of politics! I submit to you the idea that Jesus Christ was simultaneously the MOST conservative AND the MOST liberal man who has ever lived! This is no mere compromise; it is something completely different and far greater. What I had thought were moderate views were just my feeble attempt to compromise between two false choices on a line that doesn’t even exist in God’s eyes.

The two central themes of Christ’s earthly teachings were loving God, and loving others as oneself (Matthew 22:36-40). He demonstrated both these themes in His own life. His teachings to hold fast to the Word of God, to obey God’s commands and to trust His judgment are uncompromisingly conservative. He calls His followers to a higher standard of living than any of us could ever attain. His teachings on sacrificial love, mercy, and charity toward even the least deserving fellow man are uncompromisingly liberal. He calls His followers to a higher standard of giving than any of us could ever attain. His death on the Cross was the ultimate portrayal both of righteous judgment AND of sacrificial love. His resurrection was the ultimate fulfillment of true conservatism AND true liberalism taken to their final conclusion. Only at the Cross of Christ can “liberals” and “conservatives” meet, but that Cross is not the center of the political spectrum as I once believed. It is THE center. Of everything. (Sorry, having a C.S. Lewis moment here…)

I believe that Paul was reconciling this same point in Ephesians 4. When he wrote to the believers in Ephesus that, in order to achieve unity in the Body of Christ, they must “speak truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), I think they must have been having the same argument we have today. See, when Christians buy into the lies of this world, and believe that we must be either conservative or liberal, but not both, we are only representing part of Christ’s nature. I firmly believe that “conservative” Christians are right to stand up for Truth, protest corruption, and call sin what it is. But they MUST do so humbly, motivated by love rather than pure zeal for the Law. I just as firmly believe that “liberal” Christians are right to have unconditional compassion and mercy for our neighbors, pursuing social activism and justice for all. But they MUST do so with a firm grounding in and adherence to God’s Truth, rather than pure zeal for social justice.

This is what I was trying to get at in my last post. The Church is the Body and Aroma of Christ. When we fight amongst ourselves or make our political identity more important than our identity in Christ, we are not being Christ’s Body. We are being something else, and we stink. We absolutely MUST shed these labels of “liberal” and “conservative”, and recognize that none of us has got it all right. We (as individuals, as Americans, as members of a political party, as denominations, etc) must decrease so that Christ may increase.

If anything here offends you, please don’t take it personally, but don’t expect an apology, either. The last thing I want is to appear to be haughty in spirit. This blog is as much for my own benefit as for anyone else’s, but I feel that what the Lord has laid on my heart in this matter is a message for every Christian. I pray that the Lord’s Will be done, and that these words may give grace to those who hear.

*Disclaimer: I’m not responsible for the mis-spelled title of this video, nor for the Purgatory stuff in its description on YouTube, I just think it’s a good recording of a great hymn!

The Church’s One Foundation
Words by Samuel Stone, Music by Samuel Wesley

The Church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation,
by water and the word:
from heaven he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,
and for her life he died.

Elect from every nation,
yet one o’er all the earth,
her charter of salvation,
one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy Name she blesses,
partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses,
with every grace endued.

Mid toil and tribulation,
and tumult of her war
she waits the consummation
of peace for evermore;
till with the vision glorious
her longing eyes are blessed,
and the great Church victorious
shall be the Church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union
with God, the Three in one,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with thee.