Book Reviews

I am often asked about what I am reading.  I shall use this page to let you know my thoughts, both favorable and unfavorable, on the books I am reading.  I am a slow reader so this will not be a very dynamic page.   The most recently read and reviewed books will be at the top.   Peace, Pastor Bruce

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A Book Reflection [5 September 2018].  I recently read an abbreviated version of Surface at the Pole written by Commander James Calvert, U.S.N.  It was nourishment to this retired submariner’s bones.  It tells of the historic adventures of the nuclear submarine, U.S.S. Skate, the first vessel to surface near the North Pole, in both arctic summer and in arctic winter.  The submarining details are accurate without being technical.  CDR Calvert (with his editors) did a great job with this adventure travelogue.

The book would not be a likely candidate for a Pastor Tidbit, but for this: the Commander was a religious man and participated in worship services that took place on the U.S.S. Skate.  One September Sunday morning in 1958, U.S.S. Skate was under ice and heading for the North Pole.  Religious services were about to commence, when the Commanding Officer is informed that there was an opening in the ice (a polynya) that was large enough for his submarine to surface.  “We’ll have church later.  Call away the Plotting Party,” was CDR Calvert’s response.  It would be a historic first, the most northern surfacing of any submarine.  Once surfaced, the submarine had opportunity to ventilate fresh air throughout the ship, while those on the bridge could take in the arctic beauty as well as a sense of smallness in midst of seemingly infinite ice.

After submerging, CDR Calvert returned his attention the responsibility and privilege of worship.  The text for worship that morning came from Psalm 139.

 7Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.

I suspect that few of us have had a better setting in which to contemplate this wonderful promise from God, that he is with us no matter where we are and, even in the most desolate places, he is on our side.

[As an aside, in the early 1980’s, I served as the Protestant Religious Lay Leader on board the U.S.S. Nathanael Greene, SSBN 636.]

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Book Review on “waking up white and finding myself in the story of race” by Debby Irving  [29 August 2018]

This book was a disagreeable read for me.  I am glad that I stuck with it, but it was challenging at times.  I found the book useful in better understanding much of the language and logic used by the anti-racism industry.  In the end, I do not know anyone to whom I could recommend this book.  At the same time, I am glad that I read it and consider myself the better for it.

Why did I read this book?  It comes highly recommended within the PC(USA) and makes it on various recommended reading lists.  I read it because it was talked about for months within the Presbytery of Geneva and because I hear the Lord calling me to take race relations seriously.  So, one of my disappointments with this book and its promotion by our denomination and presbytery is that the arguments contained with it are not explicitly tied to Christian values or Scripture.  Thus, the book is not an aid to someone like me, who is trying to discern God’s call for reformation of the heart leading to kingdom action in his name.

The book describes the very personal journey that Debby Irving makes from her naïve, protected childhood to becoming “woke” on the matters of race relations.  She starts off being careful about how her experiences are very personal and apply to her, but, later in the book, she progressively presumes a universality to her experience, perceptions, and values.  I do not really fault her for this; we all fall into the trap of believing that others would see things our way if they had our experiences.  [At the risk of falling down into a deep rabbit hole, I think that one of the terrible flaws of secular humanism is the belief that humanity could be unified by having a common socio-economic-educational experience.  A biblical world view yields a different expectation.]

For me, the most annoying and distracting aspect of the book is that Debby Irving does not even now seem to realize that her life was extremely sheltered and also peculiar in other ways.  Her experiences in becoming “woke” shocked her to the core and literally sickened her with guilt and remorse.  I find that her extremely sheltered upbringing makes much of her journey inaccessible to me.  For instance, as a child, Debbie had never heard that Native Americans were ever mistreated by settlers or by our government.  I cannot recall a time in my life when I did not know this.

The second most annoying aspect of the book it that I think it is generally harsh in its many gratuitous, broad judgments.  There are too many examples to capture here, but if you are not thick skinned and do not consider yourself “woke,” you are likely to find the book is filled with one “stick in the eye” after another.  Please understand, the book is filled with touching anecdotes that most kind-hearted people would sorrow over or cheer over, right along with the author.  But what many would not agree with is that “unwoke” people like to profit from racial bias and only “woke” people will do what is right.  With a biblical world view, I do see good and evil pitched in conflict, but it is definitely not along the lines that I think Debby Irving is describing.

The third most annoying aspect of the book is that it has a lot a logical contradictions.  For instance, Debbie Irving makes the argument (it was really more of an assertion) that businesses improve their bottom line when they incorporate “woke” multi-cultural ideology into their work environment.  And then she argues that the workplace is tremendously resistant to the multi-cultural inclusion she and the anti-racism industry are promoting.  Economic Darwinism does not really allow that contradiction to stand.

While there was plenty that annoyed ME, I did profit from this book.  For instance, I now better understand why progressives say a culture of politeness is inherently racist.  I also have a keener sense of how government policies, even within my lifetime, have adversely impacted the opportunity for people of color to create wealth and pass it from one generation to the next.  I also have a keener sense of how people of color feel the burden of always being an ambassador for their race.  One example Debby Irving offers is that she used to go out for the newspaper in her bathrobe.  She learned that her neighbor, a person of color, always dressed up before going out because he felt that he (because of his race) would be judged if he went out too casually.  In solidarity with her neighbor, Debbie now dresses up before getting the paper.

The one thing I take away from the book that really touched my heart and which I am still processing was an exchange the author had with a Black woman about their childhood dinner table conversations.  It turns out that in Debby Irving’s family, race relations was never discussed at the dinner table.  In her friend’s house, race relations was a topic of conversation every night.  Even though my family sometimes talked about race relations at the dinner table, I feel that I can relate to this story.  I believe that I am as sad as author was when she first discovered this difference, that neither she nor I had ever thought about.  It is an example of “you don’t know what don’t know,” which I find humbling and a little frightful.

The book is well enough written so that one can learn a lot about the language and logic of the anti-racism industry.  There are two results for me.  One, I am better able to hear what anti-racists are saying, whether I agree with it or not.  Two, I now hold with enhanced conviction that much of the societal model that Debby Irving assumes to be true is simply not real and, therefore, many of the solutions proposed by the anti-racism industry simply will fail to make society better.

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Not all book my reviews are going to be glowingly favorable.  That is the case today; I am reviewing a book that I am not recommending.  I recently read Getting the Garden Right by Richard C. Barcellos.  I studied this book with a group of pastors who meet once a month.  This is the fourth book we have finished since I arrived in Arkport in February of 2017.   This book, like the other three books before it, is focused on the distinctions between and definitions of Covenant Theology, New Covenant Theology and Progressive Covenant Theology.  The book is a theological workout, but the workout is very focused.  It is kind of like going to the gym and only working on one muscle group.

There were two discussion threads in this book that I found informative.  First, there was the rich discussion on whether or not there was a Covenant of Works that governed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Second, there was the discussion as to whether or not Christians are obliged to observe the (a) Sabbath.  Our group did a video tele-conference with the author to discuss points in his book that were difficult to grasp or with which we strongly disagreed.  He is a very thoughtful Bible scholar and argued for his position with grace and deep regard for the authority of Scripture.

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Devotions for a Sacred Marriage: A Year of Weekly Devotions for Couples by Gary Thomas.  I usually avoid recommending books I haven’t actually finished reading.  I am making an exception for this book., because I really do not wish to wait an entire year to share my enthusiasm.  Dede and I are going through this book together. As the title suggest, we cover just one devotion a week.  Each week seems to bring a different spiritual lens for inspecting one’s own inner motivations and thought processes that can either gum up or bless the marriage relationship. One chapter I especially enjoyed reminded the reader that his or her spouse is God’s adopted daughter or adopted son and to treat them accordingly, or the Father would be displeased.  Dede and I both read the same chapter at about the same time, but we do not read it out loud to each other.  We often discuss the chapter, but sometimes we just comment on whether or not we agreed with its premise or found it thought provoking.  Each devotional is a mere three or four pages long.  Like all devotionals, it is impossible to get a lot out of them if you do not genuinely put something into them. But, if you approach each chapter with a relaxed and open mind, this book may be a great help in bringing new found tenderness and understanding into a marriage relationship.

To be honest, Dede and I have given this book away to our adult children and the feedback we have received so far has been less enthusiastic than my own.  So, it may not be a great gift for millennials.

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I really enjoyed Eric Metaxas’ book “7 Men and the Secret of Their Greatness.”  Eric Metaxas writes in an easy to read manner, for which I am very grateful.  I think I most enjoyed and was most inspired by his mini-biographies of William Wilberforce and Jackie Robinson.  Before reading these mini-biographies, which included one on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I had read Metaxas’ full length biography of Bonhoeffer.  I appreciate how Metaxas recast the large biography into 23 pages of mini-biography.  It gives me confidence that each of the mini-biographies are well considered and well crafted.  The other persons covered in this book are George Washington, Eric Liddell, Pope John Paul II, and Chuck Colson.  The story on each of them was inspiring and memorably written.

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Rowan Williams’ What is Christianity? is a booklet more than a book.  It opening chapter is a useful lens on how non-churched people might see the culture of Christianity.  If you choose to read and reflect on this booklet, it will say more than if  you scan it for powerful declarative statements.

The author organizes his subtly made argument around the idea that Jesus inaugurates his earthly ministry in the Gospel of John with a question and then an invitation: “What do you seek?” (John 1:37) and “Come and see” (John 1:39).  This question and invitation is the beginning of spiritual wisdom today, just as they were two thousand years ago.

One of my favorite excerpts from the book is “The story of Jesus…is not just an epiphany – a revelation of glory and no more – and it’s not just a commandment or a set of instructions dropped down from heaven.  It’s a manifestation of radiant beauty that lands in our world in the form of a profound moral challenge, because it’s a revelation of active love that dissolves fear.” (p.52)

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David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church …And Rethinking Faith (BakerBooks, 2011) is an excellent read.  Kinnaman  with Aly Hawkins do a tremendous job of using data and anecdotes to explain the struggle that churched-millennials have with the formal established church.   True to his Barna Group background, Kinnaman relies on statistically significant facts to inform his expressed opinions, but only after interviews with large numbers of individuals corroborate causal relationships.  The book is spiritual, thoughtful, easy to read and actionable.  I found this book to be enormously encouraging.  The punchline line for me is that millennials are not “failed Baby Boomers.”  Millennials are vastly different from Baby Boomers and in many ways are closer the values of the Gospel than the established church they are abandoning.  The Body of Christ would be greatly strengthened if we could find a path(s) for welcoming, celebrating, empowering millennial Christ-believers and their perspectives on how to authentically live out Christ-centered lives of faith in the modern culture.

Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker’s Progressive Covenantalism.   This book was used for a book study by a group of about 14 local pastors.  Apart from that group, I cannot think of a single person to whom I would recommend this book.  The book has many contributing authors, all weighing in on the debate between Convenantalism and Dispensationalism.  I do not generally find this theological debate of sufficient pastoral importance to devote so much time to it.  The book was hard to grasp, mainly because most of the contributing authors advanced their arguments through allusions to the work of other writers, who have devoted themselves to explaining/debating Covenantalism and/or Dispensationalism.  Since I was unfamiliar with the referenced authors and their arguments, I usually missed how the discussion was being set up and contextualized. That said, worship with my fellow pastors was fantastic and I learned a lot from them on the debate topic, even if I did not learn it from the book directly.

May McNeer and Lynd Ward’s John Wesley.  This is a truly  excellent book written for thoughtful youths.  It’s about 100 pages and has excellent artwork.  It is historically rich and very inspiring.  I greatly enjoyed reading this book and feel as though I learned and experienced a lot through it.  I have purchased a copy to share with children of the church.  I highly commend it.

Sam Storms’ Practicing the Power: Welcoming the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Your Life has been an excellent read for me.  The book is intended for people just like me.  That is to say, the book is intended for people who believe that the Holy Spirit probably operates today much in the same way the Holy Spirit operated in the Book of Acts, but who do not have rich first hand experiences of Holy Spirit empowerment to corroborate that understanding.  The book is Scriptural, theological, and richly anecdotal.  It offers practical advice and is full of cautions of how things can go badly when human weakness and error enter in.  It has a reverence and candor that make it a most pleasant educational read.  I recommend reading this book before praying for Holy Spirit led revival.  Since I DO recommend praying for Holy Spirit led revival, I recommend reading this book.

Carl Medearis’ Muslims, Christians, and Jesus: Gaining Understanding and Building Relationships, is a bit of a God-sighting for me.  In the Fall of 2016, I found myself dwelling on the recent spree of terrorist attacks conducted in the name of Islamic jihad.  I developed a rather negative heart towards the religion whose name was being used to justify these evil atrocities.  One Sunday morning, before worship, I felt a conviction that God was displeased by my negative heart.  That very Sunday morning, at church, my friend Robyn was selling Medearis’ book in the back of the sanctuary (gymnasium).  Robyn is a friend of the author and commended the book to me.  The book was a blessing in changing my heart.  My thoughts have not been altered very much, but how I hold those thoughts sure has.  If you are feel convicted about how you think about Muslims, I commend this book for your consideration.

Steven Tracy’s Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse is a powerful book for group discussion.  It is one of those books that comes with DVDs and workbooks and is intended for a group of students with a commitment to the program and to each other.  The group works best when the facilitator is both a gifted individual and has already been through the course at least once.  I went through an abbreviated program in the Summer of 2016.  It was heart wrenching to be surrounded by so many people I knew and cared for who had suffered terrible abuse (usually sexual abuse but not only that).  I have come to the opinion that our churches must be filled with people who have been viciously victimized and who bravely managed to put a veneer  over their scars to keep other people from seeing their wounds.  Sadly, the veneer does not support healing, and so they often find themselves living perpetually wounded and wounding lives.  This book and study is not for the faint of heart and it should probably not be read in isolation.  That said, this book if a powerful resource for those who need healing from abuse or who wish to aid someone in their healing.

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