Book Review: Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zahnd

9781601429513Brian Zahnd is an intriguing individual. In Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Zahnd writes to readers who have been taught or told theological concepts that he used to teach himself, including fundamentalist-type ideas of God’s wrath. Throughout the book, he engages different aspects of Christian fundamentalism that have contributed to the notion that God is exceptionally angry at humans. He refutes many of these ideas by presenting alternative views of things like hell and eternal damnation, and interpretations for apocalyptic prophesies in the Bible. Zahnd advocates that God is wholly love and nothing less. Jesus was crucified as the mark of God’s love, not His wrath. Thus, Christian hope is about eternal love and redemption, not just a fear of wrath and condemnation.

Overall, I appreciate that Zahnd made me think more deeply about some things I haven’t thought to challenge. Honestly, I’ve never really read Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and certainly haven’t much considered the need to critique it. I also don’t think a whole lot about hell anymore, but Zahnd’s views have challenged me to study more in these type of areas, so I can better think through and articulate what I believe. Perhaps my greatest appreciation for this book, however, is Zahnd’s personal stories of how he developed in his theological perspective. I deeply admire his commitment to grow himself by staying open to new ideas and honestly engaging things that challenge his current perspective.

This is a solid book that I’d gladly recommend to people. My primary critique is two-fold. First, Zahnd’s content is quite compelling, but some of his views seem a bit incomplete in this book. I think this is a strong starting point for exploring deeper theological concepts (like crucifixion motifs, apocalyptic literature, hell, etc), but I would still like a bit more nuance. Second, Zahnd is a good writer, but I often found my mind wandering after a few pages and had to work to keep focus. Each chapter looks almost like a novel, with no sub-sections or headers, and reads kind of like a sermon (which I’m guessing each chapter was adapted from). Personally, I think this style made it harder for me to engage–even though the content is interesting.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.

* A special thanks to Waterbrook publishers for providing a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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Book Review: Spiritual Wisdom for a Happier Life by Mark W. Baker

I selected to read Spiritual Wisdom for a Happier Life: How Your 8 Key Emotions Can Work for You by Dr. Mark W. Baker on a whim, because I’ve been studying up on the emotional life lately and Baker has strong credentials for speaking into this area of research. I was pleasantly surprised with the simple insights that Baker brings to communicate aspects of emotional health in ways that make sense.

This book is written like a collection of blog posts, including 91 brief essays (each about 4-5 pages on average) which explore various aspects of the 8 primary emotions in focus. These eight essential sections focus on 1) Hurt and Suffering, 2) Guilt and Shame, 3) Anger, 4) Anxiety, 5) Sorrow, 6) Fear, 7) Happiness, and 8) Love. In each essay, Baker introduces a principle (i.e. that anger is a part of grief) and then illustrates how that principle may play out in real life by telling a story of one of his clients. This method proves helpful for understanding the practical implications of how emotions affect actual lives in distinct contexts.

Overall, I recommend Spiritual Wisdom for a Happier Life for two contexts. First, as a leader, this is a nice resource to have on my shelf as a reference material when I’m discipling or training people who are first venturing into the realm of emotional intelligence. Second, this book could function as a good devotional for someone who would like a small reading each day. Over the course of three months, it would provide much food for thought.

My biggest criticism of this book is its title: I think it markets the book poorly. This is not just a self-help book that offers a quick fix for how to become happy. Exploring the emotional life is a lot of hard work. Dr. Mark Baker is also a credible psychotherapist–not a prosperity preacher/self-help guru type. If the expectation of a reader is to find an easy road to happiness, they will most likely be very disappointed. Rather, readers can expect a simple primer on some of the many nuances of emotion, which should be read alongside other books and explored in community. It’s probably most helpful when used as extra resource material to accompany counseling.

With the right expectations, I rate this book 5 out of 5 stars. It well accomplishes its aim.

* A special thank you to the Revell publishing company for providing a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Immeasurable by Skye Jethani

DOM_uvTW0AAn3KBI started listening to Skye Jethani on the Phil Vischer Podcast about a year and a half ago, and I’ve come to deeply appreciate his perspective on the Church and spiritual leadership. Thus, when I heard of Skye’s book Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc., I immediately knew I wanted to read it.

Nearly my entire life, I’ve planned to pastor in a local church, but when God led me to pastoral ministry in a university setting, I found my perspective on the church changing. No longer was I a church leader; I was simply a parishioner. My best gifts for the Kingdom were being used outside of the church, so what did this mean for my role in my church? My dysphoria in church gatherings led me to reconsider the function of local churches and the type of faith community I wanted to be a part of. I experienced disillusionment with what Skye calls Church, Inc.–the industry that turns churches into machines and strips them of heart and soul. Now five months into a house church plant, I’ve found Immeasurable to offer poignant words and enriching insights on how to foster meaningful spiritual communities with healthy leaders and members.

In Immeasurable, Jethani writes twenty-four short essays on relevant issues facing church leaders. Though most are brief and simple to read, this is not a book to rush through. Many essays are four to five pages, but each one packs a punch and is worth taking time to mull over. While starting to list the ones most meaningful to me in this review, I soon realized nearly every single one sparked a “Man, that was so good!” feeling in me. Simply put, every page of this book matters. And I don’t say that lightly.

In American church leadership, it’s way too easy to gain the world of ministry and lose our souls. Jethani consistently welcomes pastors to come back to their first love. Personally, after reading the chapter on Missionalism, in which Jethani reminds readers that our first call is to communion with Christ and only second to engage with Him in mission, I’ve been bothered within my own spirit about how I’ve prioritized ministry over fellowship with Jesus in certain areas of my life. I’m being confronted with my own heart.

In discipleship moments with my student leaders on campus, I’ve already begun incorporating essays from Immeasurable, and I plan to make it required reading for them next summer. Jethani also includes exquisite reflection questions at the end of each essay, which make this great material for leadership teams to work through together. And as a bonus, the design team excellently put together an aesthetically pleasing reading experience.

Overall, I give Immeasurable 5 out of 5 stars. Thanks for writing such a thoughtful and meaningful book, Skye!

* A special thanks to Moody Publishers for including me on the launch team of Immeasurable and who provided me a complimentary copy of the book.

Book Review: Visioneering by Andy Stanley

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I have to admit: I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book all that much. When I found myself in my first pastoral job several years ago, I immersed myself in Stanley’s resources so much that I called him my mentor. But over the last few years, I’ve engaged much less with his materials and thought it might not mean as much to me anymore. I’m happy to say that I was thoroughly wrong. Reading Visioneering: Your Guide to Discovering and Maintaining Personal Vision has been a spiritual experience. I didn’t have any specific vision in mind before I read, but within the first few pages, God captivated my heart and spirit with something I’ve been mulling over for the past year. I’ve experienced renewed vigor and passion to see God’s vision through and faithfully follow His lead.

A few notes:
This is in no way a self-help book. Stanley thoughtfully explores the Old Testament narrative of Nehemiah to extrapolate truth for contemporary contexts. He has a brilliant way of communicating that grasps the intrigue of Nehemiah’s story and connects it with tangible and helpful application for today’s audience. This enables Stanley to be both faithful to the text and meaningful for praxis. Besides a few minor editing errors, Visioneering is an excellent read for all Christians–readers and laypersons alike. Because Stanley focuses on the vision needed for both ordinary life and specialized situations, the book is beneficial for a diversity of readers.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

* A special thank you to Multnomah for providing a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: The Unreformed Martin Luther by Andreas Malessa

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This fun and quirky book provides an enjoyable reading experience for those curious about church history. In The Unreformed Martin Luther: A Serious (and Not So Serious) Look at the Man Behind the Myths, Andreas Malessa impressively includes innumerable primary sources to engage 25 myths about Luther. Malessa peruses a wide variety of myths–from the goofy to the somber–like whether or not Luther was truly a boozer, ate while he preached, and sought to establish an independent church. This piece of work met exactly the niche I was hoping it would. I appreciated both Malessa’s strong scholarship as well as his playful and carefree approach.

I recommend The Unreformed Martin Luther for those who enjoy random trivia. I’m not sure how engaging this work would be for more knowledgeable Luther readers, but as a novice in history on Luther, I have quite enjoyed it. It’s also been fun to be able to bring up random stories in conversation with friends.

Overall I rate this book 4.5 out of 5 stars.

*A special thank you to Kregel Publications for providing a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Season of Heartbreak by Mark Gregory Karris

unnamedIn Season of Heartbreak: Healing for the Heart, Brain, and Soul, Mark Gregory Karris seeks to lead readers through the process of grief after a breakup with a romantic partner. Karris divides the book into four parts: 1) Grieving Processes, 2) Grieving Pathways, 3) Grieving Practices, and 4) Grieving Ponderings.

Overall, I found this book intriguing and sound. From the start, I was very impressed with his use of legitimate research. I wasn’t expecting to find a strong bibliography when I picked up this book, but Karris uses numerous peer-reviewed journal articles along with a variety of credible authors and sources. I appreciated Karris’ fuller perspective on grieving well, which requires more than mere prayer. Never once does he assume anything close to a “just get over it” or “forgive and forget” posture, but rather he consistently conveys compassion and affirms that every person’s process of grieving and mending is unique and occurs at its own pace. Karris’ theology is orthodox and he includes a broad collection of spiritual thinkers and authors. In addition, Karris writes at a swift pace, so I didn’t feel bogged with lengthy chapters; it’s a fairly quick read.

Though I find Season of Heartbreak to be a worthwhile resource, it has two setbacks for me. First, some of Karris’ writing and phrasing is incredibly cheesy. He must be the kind of preacher who always has three points that either all rhyme or start with the same letter (just reference how all of the four parts start with “Grieving” plus a word that begins with “P”). Unfortunately, such consistent banal language–though not entirely deleterious–detracted from the substance of Karris’ content for me as a reader. Second, I can’t see myself strongly recommending this book to someone who has recently experienced a breakup. I think it might be more useful for those desiring to support someone else through the suffering of a heartbreak, but I can’t imagine many of the students I work with being interested in reading this during tumultuous times.

In the end, I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars. The content is solid, but some of the writing style felt trite compared to the depth of its matter.

** Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman (2nd Edition)

61ujeUL48bL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_To be honest, I wasn’t excited about reading this book when it arrived at my door. For years, I’ve been inundated with pleas to evangelize with challenges to incessantly invite people to church or use a simple, guaranteed type of formula. These forms of evangelism have been largely ineffective for me, and I’ve grown tired of them. I’ve chosen instead to invest my life in deeper discipleship, all the while feeling a bit guilty for not focusing on the beginning steps of starting a person on the journey.  Then I picked up Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did (Second Edition) by Randy Newman. Not only was the physical feel of the book (it’s the kind of book that just feels good in your hands and makes you want to read it, which I’m sure fellow bibliophiles can fully admire and appreciate with me), but I was enraptured from the very first pages of the preface.

Randy Newman talks about evangelism in ways that I’ve been thinking about for several years now, but haven’t heard anybody else express in the same way. As Christians, we need to first and foremost value wisdom as we engage with others. I initially encountered this concept in written form through Miroslav Volf’s A Public Faith, yet now I got to read what this concept of living the wisdom of Christ in our interactions with others could look like in evangelistic conversations. Newman communicates this excellently by sharing principles on how to engage then providing numerous examples of how the principles may look in practice. He never shares things as a formula to memorize, but rather as principles we can embody and learn to contextualize. Each spiritual conversation with an unbeliever is unique, so he invites readers to also provide a unique and personal response. I absolutely loved how Newman’s content and communication style helped me to think outside of the box for my own friendships. Throughout reading this book, I’ve been reflecting on past conversations and relationships where Newman’s approach could have been much more useful. I’m now excited to adopt many of his ideas in future conversations.

My only disappointment of this book came in the second section. Divided into three sections, Newman’s book explores in Part 1 Why Ask Questions?, in Part 2 What Questions Are People Asking?, and in Part 3 Why Aren’t Questions and Answers Enough?. Though I highly enjoyed Part 1 where Newman lays out his principles and appreciated Part 3 where he addresses the limitations of this approach, the chapters in Part 2 appeared out of date. I imagined that the purpose of creating a second edition was to update the original content of the book to become more timely for today’s social issues, but it seems like the editors were lazy and didn’t account for all of the changes that have occurred in our culture since 2004 when the original book was published. This lack of update was highly apparent in the chapter on homosexuality. While the publisher may have made minor edits, the majority of sources cited are now over twenty years old. Only two suggested readings were included that have been written after 2004. Considering how much literature and research has been published in the last decade, it’s a real shame that neither the publisher nor author found it beneficial enough to include anything new. With such a polarizing issue in today’s culture, this chapter needed to be entirely rewritten rather than only minimally edited. What worked in 2004 does not work in 2017. Age throughout the book also showed in the types of illustrations and stories used. Whether another story about September 11th or a reference to the old reality television show Elimidate, a significant number of stories failed to be relevant to the current cultural landscape. If nothing else, they could have changed Al Qaida to ISIS. (Sorry, if that’s a low blow, but hopefully you see my point.)

Overall, I’d recommend Part 1 of this book to all of my Christian friends, also informing them that if they read Part 2 to take everything with a grain of salt.

Final Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Link to Book

* A special thanks to Kregel Publications for providing a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.