Book Blurbs (Summer 2013)

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. I think I made the outlandish promise in 2011 to do a “Book Blurbs” once a month. I believe that was also the last time I did a “Book Blurbs” post. Well, the series is back for today. Hopefully it will decide to stick around longer.

My reading appetite has been all over the map lately. Sometimes I’m craving a deep theological book, sometimes it’s a suspense novel, and sometimes I just want to watch TV. (Hence the gap in Book Blurbs.) Here’s a short list of books I’ve been ingesting and two books I have yet to read, but am dying to do so.

The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith
by Matthew Lee Anderson

I just purchased this book on my Kindle and I am pumped to dig into it. Anderson is a super-blogger from Mere Orthodoxy and is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith (Another great read that really helped me write my post on tattoos). The End of Our Exploring is focused on how to question, doubt, and interact with the ambiguities of the Christian faith.

Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent
by N.D. Wilson

Wilson is one of my favorite living authors, having written Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World and the Ashtown Burials series. The Tilt-a-Whirl is a mind-blowing book that I’ve recommended before on this blog and so I have been anticipating Death By Living ever since I hear about it. While the former book focused on living, this one focuses on the reality of death and how that effects our living.

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City
by Tim Keller

This book is Keller’s life philosophy on the church. The face of our culture is changing. America is becoming more and more a post-Christian society. People are moving away from the country and rural areas and are flocking to the cities. These cities are shaping culture and creating culture for the entire country. Through this massive tome, Keller seeks to answer the question of, “How do we effectively do church in such a new environment?” The result is a very interesting and provocative book. I’m not sure if I agree with everything Keller says in here but at least he’s trying to do something.

Culture Shift: The Battle for the Moral Heart of America
by Albert Mohler

This book is very timely, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court cases. Mohler examines how the moral heart of America has shifted over the years—why it happened, how it happened, and what the results will be. Instead of fear-mongering, Mohler then tells Christians how we can react to such changes and how we can still make an impact for the Gospel.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories
by Flannery O’Connor

I simply love O’Connor’s short stories about a “Christ-haunted” South. Her stories are dark, gritty, and will make you squirm because you’ll realize she’s writing about us. O’Connor isn’t afraid to shine a light on the church and show that cracks of darkness have infiltrated the body.

God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China
by Liao Yiwu

Liao is a Chinese journalist and not a Christian but he was fascinated by believer’s resiliency in the face of Chinese Communist oppression and persecution. Liao set out to travel around China and unearth stories of faith, martyrdom, and revival. This book is an eye-opener about how widespread and devastating Communist persecution of religion truly was. But it is also amazing to see how these fellow believers reacted in the face of extreme opposition. The whole time I read it, I kept asking myself, “Would I have  been able to stand for the truth in the same way?”

Odd Thomas
by Dean Koontz

Sometimes you just need a great novel to sit down with. I’ve always enjoyed the adrenaline rush Koontz’s stories gave me and so I knew I needed to check out his most beloved character Odd Thomas. Odd is a young man who has been given a special gift: he can see dead people. No Bruce Willis does not show up. With the aid of his gift, Odd is able to combat the evil that seeks to stamp out his life and those around him. Odd Thomas narrates the book and he has one of the most unique voices I’ve ever read. He is funny, earnest, but also somber at the same time. Also, some have made fascinating observations that Odd Thomas is a sort of Christian hero for our day.

Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life
by Douglas Wilson

If you want to know how N.D. Wilson learned to write so well, look no further than to his father, Douglas. Douglas Wilson is also an accomplished author, prolific blogger, and the wit-master of the 21st century. Wordsmithy is a tiny, tiny book centered not on just writing, but on the writing life. Wilson contends that you cannot be a good writer unless you are living a good life. Each section is written in blog post length and can easily be read in five minutes—which is good because as soon as you finish reading a section you will want to go back and read it again. This is by far one of the best books on writing I have ever read. When you have lines like, “Look at the world, and try not to look at yourself looking at the world,” how could you not want to read this?

Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions
by Sam Storms

Including the fact that his name sounds like the alter-ego of a superhero, Sam Storms has a lot to offer in this book. It’s a very straight forward book, dedicating one chapter to each of the twenty-five questions—and Storm did not pick softball questions. Storms picked questions that really do burn in people’s hearts. Here are some examples: Does God ever change his mind? Are those who die in infancy saved? Will people be condemned for not believing in Jesus though they’ve never heard his name? Will there be sex in heaven? (Storms admits that this chapter is the first one everyone will jump to.) Can a Christian be demonized? This is a great resource book to refer to when you have a question but it’s also great to read through all together.

We Are Far Too Easily Pleased

“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” -C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Diluting the Wine: Watering Down the Gospel

This is why Paul resolved to know nothing else but Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2):

There is a way of “doctoring” the gospel in much the same manner. A little truth is given up, and then a little more, and men fill up the vacuum with opinions, inferences, speculations, and dreams, till their wine is mixed with water, and the water none of the best. Many preachers—and I speak it with sorrow—have built a tower of theological speculations, upon which they sit, like Nero, fiddling the tune of their own philosophy while the world is burning with sin and misery. They are playing with the toys of speculations while men’s souls are being lost.

C.H. Spurgeon (An All-Round Ministry: Addresses to Ministers and Students, 10-11)

How Can a Good God Allow Evil?

Many Christians wrestle with this question and many doubters tout this as the trump card to all lofty theistic arguments.

Normally the flow of thought goes like this:

  • The God of the Bible appears to be good and all-powerful.
  • We know that evil exists and it is everywhere.
  • If the God of the Bible exists (being good and all-powerful) how can evil also exist? Wouldn’t the mere presence of evil negate the existence of either God’s goodness or almighty power?
  • If that is so, the God of the Bible must not exist.

Pretty sound logic, right? Or so it may seem.

The actual reason why this argument is a stumbling block for many Christians and seen as a fool-proof gambit by others is that they are looking at evil and suffering through an imperfect lens.

Consider Mitch Stokes’ explanation of the problem of evil and why it is actually not a problem at all. The quote is long but well worthy of a careful read through:

This is where it is particularly useful to look more closely at the Christian story of redemption. God created humans to bless them, to allow them to enter a deep, fulfilling relationship with him…

But it is entirely different for us; to put oneself above the most perfect being is morally wrong. Yet this, apparently, is what we desired. We wanted things that only God could have. And in trying to take them, we marred our very natures, so that—although we still retain something of God’s image—it is badly misshapen. And now, of course, we’re suffering for it.

But God suffered more. Infinitely more, in fact…

When God’s Son was crucified some two thousand years ago by the Roman government, the eternal relationship between the Father and Son was severed. This is why the cross is so horrific. To be sure, the physical suffering was genuine suffering, but that suffering was negligible compared to the pain of losing this infinitely close relationship. Anyone who has felt the pain of a lost relationship—especially a close one—knows that this suffering can be devastating. Separation from someone you love is nearly unbearable. And in Jesus’ case, the pain would be infinite.

God, then, suffered an excruciating evil, and on our behalf. This is no small thing, and it may be of some comfort. Realizing that God himself suffered far greater pain to save creatures who—at the time of their rescue—hated him, might offer some perspective…

And so, “perhaps that invitation [of salvation] can be issued only to creatures who have fallen, suffered, and been redeemed. If so, the condition of humankind is vastly better than it would have been, had there been no sin and no suffering. O Felix Culpa, indeed!” O Felix Culpa: “O Happy Fall!” Ironic, paradoxical, yet a story with a wildly happy ending. But like all riveting stories, the journey is at times unbearable.

The problem of evil, while still a problem for the believer, isn’t one that makes belief in God irrational. And so despite the problem’s centrality in the atheist’s arsenal, it is surprisingly weak, from an intellectual standpoint. But there is more to say about evil, this time about its implications for the atheist or, more accurately, naturalism’s implication for morality in general. And the conclusion is simplicity itself: if there is no God, there is no evil.

Nor is there any good.

(A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists, p. 198-200, emphasis mine)

The Pastor: Thoughts on Congregation and Church

I have been slowly plodding through the memoir of Eugene Peterson (the man responsible for The Message paraphrase of the Bible), entitled The Pastor.

Think what you will of Eugene Peterson (he is sometimes too ecumenical for my tastes) or The Message (more of a commentary than an actual translation of the Bible) but this is a pretty good book so far (I am halfway through it).

There are a few criticisms but I will save those for when I finish the book.

What I really appreciate are Eugene’s insights on congregation and the church. Eugene and I are both people who easily gets caught up in the academic and intellectual side of ministry and theology. We have to really try hard to remember that we are in the “people business” to quote Michael Scott, and Eugene’s openness about that struggle has helped me immensely.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts regarding this:

I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls—immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. (7)

Congregation is composed of people, who, upon entering a church, leave behind what people on the street name or call them. A church can never be reduced to a place where goods and services are exchanged. It must never be a place where a person is labeled. It can never be a place where gossip is perpetuated. Before anything else, it is a place where a person is named and greeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, in Jesus’s name. A place where dignity is conferred. (40)

The life of David that comprised prayer and adultery and murder could be written and told as a gospel story, no one in my congregation would be written off. For me, my congregation would become a work-in-progress—a novel in which everyone and everything is connected in a salvation story in which Jesus has the last word. (59-60)

Everything that I had imagined or expected in the formation of church was wrong. I had a lot of remedial learning ahead of me. (106)

Church is a core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not that kingdom complete, but it is that kingdom. It had taken me a long time, with considerable help from wise Christians, both dead and alive, to come to this understanding of church: a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God. (110)

This is also part of the church as story. Not everyone wants to be in the story if she (or he) doesn’t have a starring role. (121)

The people who made up my congregation had plenty of problems and more than enough inadequacies, but congregation is not defined by its collective problems. Congregation is a company of people who are defined by their creation in the image of God, living souls, whether they know it or not. They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered…And my work is not to fix people. It is to lead people in the worship of God and to lead them in living a holy life. (136-137)

How to Memorize a Bible Verse in 10 Minutes or Less and Never Forget It

 

Since we are living in the days of Google, Evernote, and Wikipedia, do we really need to memorize anything? I already have a hard enough time remembering where I parked my car, whether or not I took my allergy medicine today, or how old I am. And I’m only 23 (I think), what’s going to happen when I get older?

Cramming more information in there seems like it would just crowd my ever-shrinking knowledge base.

And when it comes to memorizing Scripture, is it really necessary now that I have my iPhone with dozens of Bible translations and sermons living inside it?

Psalm 119:11 shows the purpose for memorizing the Word of God: our holiness.

“I have stored up your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (emphasis mine). When the Word gets inside of us, it begins to master us. When we memorize the Word, we can run it through our minds constantly, bathing our consciousness with God’s truth. As we renew our minds, we allow God to transform us into the image of His Son (cf. Romans 12:2). The Holy Spirit can’t bring something out if we have not already put something in.

Ok, so you may understand the benefits but you just don’t know how to get started. You tried the AWANA thing (to my everlasting shame, I made fun of those kids) but the memorization never stuck.

How do you normally memorize Scripture? Writing the verse down, over and over, and over again? Maybe you like to say it out loud (to the chagrin of your roommates). Or maybe you even turn the verse into a song (your poor, poor roommates). Most of those methods take about 30 minutes or longer and even if you get it in a shorter amount of time, how long before that verse hides itself deep in the crevices of your brain with your passwords and the Periodic Table of Elements?

Have no fear. I might have a solution.

Here is a fairly fool-proof (I, the fool, can do it. So can you.) method to memorize a list, names, or even a Bible verse. I found this method from reading Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, an account of how Joshua became the US Memory Champion.

As you begin using this method, it may be difficult at first but if you practice just 10-15 minutes a day, you can memorize verses extremely quick and never lose them again! (I know…I sound like some sort of infomercial but it really works!)

THE METHOD

Joshua’s method for memorization is called “elaborative encoding” also known as the “memory palace.” It’s not some new idea, but one that people have been using for thousands of years (You ever wonder how the Jews could memorize the entire Pentateuch?).

The basic idea is that our brains do not remember information equally. There are just certain things that interest and stimulate us more and so they stick in our brains better. What you want to do is take the information that is hard to remember (in our case, written words on a page) and turn them into something that you can’t possibly forget (colorful and dynamic pictures). The more outrageous, silly, and multi-sensory the pictures are, the better.

You then take those pictures and place them in a space in your mind’s eye (such as different locations in your childhood home). The space is called a “memory palace” and this anchors the pictures to something that you are already familiar with. Then, to recall the information all you have to do is walk through your childhood home, in your mind, and the pictures should pop out at you.

This method has already helped me memorize half of Philippians 2.

One note. It may seem like this is an irreverential way to memorize Scripture. Not so. As long as you are not thinking of sinful pictures (you know what they are) and if you do not lose sight of why you are memorizing Scripture (to know God and follow Him) then you are doing fine.

PRACTICE

Let’s memorize part of the verse I quoted earlier, Psalm 119:11, one word at a time. I want you to use your childhood home as your memory palace to place the pictures.

I: Begin at the mailbox of your childhood home. At the mailbox, think of a gigantic eyeball. Bloodshot, with veins popping out. Blinking with its long eyelashes. Pupils dilated. It’s looking all around and then right at you.

Have: Next you are in your driveway. For abstract words (which comprises a lot of Scripture) it is good to think of things that sound like the word. In this case, “have” and “half” sound alike. In your driveway, place a gigantic (big things are always good) donut that has been half-eaten. It is lying on the cement, crying (making the objects come alive helps too) because it is missing its other half. It has bright rainbow colored sprinkles on it and chocolate frosting. Imagine the smell of the donut and its glaze (try to engage more than one sense).

Stored: Go to your front door, but don’t open it yet. In front of your door, imagine a store (whichever store you would like, just pick what first pops into your mind). The products are all arranged around your front-door step. But because this is a past-tense word, think of it as a dead store. All the colors in the products and advertisements have faded. Cobwebs and dust cover every inch of the store. Maybe there is even a skeleton as a cashier.

Up: Go through your front door and into the first room that is closest to the front door. In it, imagine that the Pixar movie, Up, is happening in that room (if you haven’t seen it, you really haven’t lived yet…the ball is in your court). Technicolored balloons fill the room. The old man and the little wilderness scout are chasing the giant colorful bird, Kevin, through the room. Kevin is squaking and Doug, the talking golden retriever, is chewing on Kevin’s leg.

Your: Next, go to the closest location to that room, and pick something (an object or area) to place a giant chore list (“chore” rhymes with “your”). There are big checkboxes on the list and they are all empty because you haven’t done your chores yet. One of your parents is standing next to the giant list, wagging their finger at you, reminding you that these are your chores (Get it?). Their voice is loud and stern.

Word: Go to the next object or location in the house. Make sure these are all in some sort of sequential and logical order in your house so you can go back to it at any time and remember the order. At this next location, place the annoying talking paperclip from Microsoft Word. If you do not know what I am talking about, this paper clip has eyeballs and a mouth and an irritating habit to suggest useless things for the documents you are trying to create. Give him some sort of a whiny voice and have him say things like, “Would you like help with your Word document? I see you are writing a letter with Microsoft Word. Word, word, word, blah, blah, blah.” You get the picture.

So, hopefully this gave you somewhat of an idea of the benefits elaborative encoding brings. Have fun with it. I encourage you to finish memorizing 119:11 on your own and then move on to something much bigger and daunting!

For a more detailed explanation about the memory palace and Joshua’s rise to the top of the memory athletes, check out his book. Word of caution, in the book Joshua is not above thinking of or describing the sinful pictures I was talking about earlier and many of the memory athletes live quite a lascivious lifestyle. 

Love and Basketball—and God

With the NBA Playoffs rolling along and baseball season in full swing (pun definitely intended), I was thinking about our love for sports—how we can love sports too much. I was reminded of this excerpt from Matt Chandler’s book, The Explicit Gospel, which smashes me over the head with conviction every time I read it:

As I write this, March Madness is going on. It’s the greatest sporting event. (I say that because it’s also the last athletic venue in which David can still beat Goliath. There’s not really another venue like it where a college you’ve never heard of that has, say, eight hundred people in it can upset superpowers in the basketball world.) But here’s the thing about fallen men and women who love March Madness. All over our country, fans are nervous. I’m not joking. They’re nervous in their guts, they want their team to win so badly. They watch the games and yell at their televisions: “No! Yes!” Kids are crying in fear, wives are running for more nachos—it’s chaos. It’s madness. With victory comes elation and surfing a thousand websites to read the same article over and over and over again, and with defeat comes destitution of spirit and days of mourning and moping, angrily arguing on a blog and about who really deserved it or an official’s botched call.

Every bit of those affections, every bit of that emotion, and every bit of that passion was given to us by God for God. It was not given for basketball.

Where is the nervousness in our guts when we’re coming into an assembly of those pursuing God? Where is the elation over the resurrection? Where is the desolation over our sins? Where is it? Well, it’s on basketball. It’s on football. It’s on romance. It’s on tweeting and blogging.

Are you really going to believe we’re not worthy of hell?

Thank God for his response to all this blasphemous nonsense: the wrath-absorbing cross of Christ. (51)

Matt is not saying that sports or even enjoying sports is a bad thing. Sports are a good thing—a gift from God. But, as Mark Driscoll would say, when we take a good thing and make it a god thing, then that is a bad thing. It is called idolatry.

How Do I Find God’s Will For Me? (aka. How Do I Know God Wants Me to Date Her?)

The age old question of my generation: What is God’s will for me?

Here is Kevin DeYoung’s take on the question, from his book Just Do Something: How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. (the title alone makes the book worth it):

The will of God isn’t a special direction here or a bit of secret knowledge there. God doesn’t put us in a maze, turn out the lights, and tell us, “Get out and good luck.” In one sense, we trust in the will of God as His sovereign plan for our future. In another sense, we obey the will of God as His good word for our lives. In no sense should we be scrambling around trying to turn to the right page in our personal choose-your-own-adventure novel.

God’s will for your life and my life is simpler, harder, and easier than that. Simpler, because there are no secrets we must discover. Harder, because denying ourselves, living for others, and obeying God is more difficult than taking a new job and moving to Fargo. Easier, because as Augustine said, God commands what He wills and grants what He commands.

In other words, God gives His children the will to walk in His ways—not by revealing a series of next steps cloaked in shadows, but by giving us a heart to delight in His law.

So the end of the matter is this: Live for God. Obey the Scriptures. Think of others before yourself. Be holy. Love Jesus. And as you do these things, do whatever else you like, with whomever you like, wherever you like, and you’ll be walking in the will of God.

So guys, stop using God as an excuse, look her in the eye, and just do something.