Book Review: Fake or Follower

Fake or Follower

My Rating – Probably not worth your time

Level – Easy, short/moderate in length

Summary
This is another book that is hard to summarize. In her intro, the author tells the story of being confronted with what matters in life due to the death of her mother in law. Of course, on of those things is whether she is a legitimate follower of Jesus. The following 10 chapters really are more of a collection of loosely connected essays than a defense or story arc related to her title or thesis. This is likely more on the editors than it is in on the author.

Her first chapter, Refuse to Fake it, generally follows this idea and has very solid critiques of modern American Christianity. Other chapters criticize our ‘misplaced loves’ and overuse of social media versus actually living in community. Unfortunately, many of the other chapters seems scattered and disconnected, partially because the basis of much of what she wrote seemed to be autobiographical.

My Thoughts
I was torn on how to rate this book, and eventually lowered it as I tried to write out a summary. This is mostly due to the massive gap in theological agreement between us. She appears to be fairly far out on the Charismatic spectrum. In the book she claims to see visions and have dreams sent by God, including receiving direct revelation from God. This is problematic theologically that is beyond the scope of a book review, but it does seem to inform much of her thought in the book.

Another problem I have is her use of Bible ‘translations’. I had thought The Message was on of the worse one to use, but she also uses the The Passion, which I had never heard of. Neither of these are actually translations. The Message at least tries to convey the original thoughts; albeit in dumbed down/’modern’ language. The Passion is similarly a paraphrase, but instead of being written by someone who at least knows Kiona Greek, it comes from someone who claims Jesus came into his room and breathed the spirit on to him and he has ‘downloaded’ his version.

Though, as I said above, I do enjoy many of her points, especially on community and the kind of cultural Christianity that is prevalent in America, the theological implications and issues are too much to ignore. You could likely find most her salient points on her blog, or by other writers who similarly criticize and challenge us. Overall, the book probably isn’t worth your time.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Grace in the Valley

Grace in the Valley: Awakening to God’s Presence When He Feels Far Away

Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – medium length, reads a little slow

Summary
It is hard to summarize this book as it was not what I thought it would be. I was expecting more of an exposition of Psalm 23. I knew it wasn’t a true commentary, but this was pretty far off from what I had anticipated. The book is kind of a mix of autobiography, sermon, and exposition more or less on Psalm 23, but almost more focused on David, overall.

The book is broken into 11 chapter plus an intro and afterward. Each chapter is titled with what he plans to focus on and then correlates(ish) to a particular section of Psalm 23 (e.g. chapter 2, Does God Recognize You? and the Lord is my shepherd). 

My Thoughts
I’m not entire sure what I think about this book. Overall it was pretty good. There were some valuable insights and the writing style is solid, though he lacks conciseness. I would have preferred more exposition and less autobiographical details. While some related, others seemed shoehorned in. I had a few theological issues with some of the more Pentecostal aspects of his story, but that doesn’t cause the rest of the book to suffer.

The biggest flaw in the book was likely that he failed to meet his subtitle. His central argument is that the valley and green pasture may be the same place. I wasn’t entirely convinced by his argument. Regardless, he doesn’t really address God feeling far away, unless you think that bad things happening and God feeling far are perfectly correlated, instead of each happening independent of each other. Further, I think the book lacked both focuses on grace and the ‘awakening God’s presence.’ Overall, the book was alright, the strength being when he did dig into the Psalm, but he didn’t make that the focus or majority of the book. The content didn’t really match the title/subtitle, which in his defense might have been the editors fault, so it wasn’t quite what I wanted, but it could be worth it, if you are looking for something.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Faith for This Moment

Faith for This Moment

My Rating – Must read

Level – Quick, easy read

Summary
The premise of the book is that the US has changed, we are now a post-Christian nation, and so the question that we currently face is, what do we do about it? He points to a turning point (this moment) in his life, and one he thinks had a larger effect on the nation. To him, things changed after the Pulse nightclub shooting back in 2016. He specifically mentions an NPR interview with a local Orlando pastor, who has asked ‘how do Evangelicals respond to his crisis when it is clear politically that Evangelicals are anti-gay and pro-gun.’ Apparently the pastor had no answer. I suppose you could quibble with the anti-gay statement, but perception can become reality, a notion only made stronger with the 81% support of (self identified) Evangelicals for President Trump.

After the Intro, where he points out how proudly nonreligious Portland is, McKinley spends his first chapter discussing this moment as well as other broader trends in US culture. The following 12 chapters answer his question of what to do now. He compares modern Christians in America to ancient Jews in Babylon. That is to saw, we are exiles, which means that we will not fit nicely in to current norms of society. He challenges us to embrace this notion and spends a few chapters each on things like giving, Sabbath, vocation, and hospitality which on the one hand will will differentiate us even further, but on the other, are all commands from God for us to follow.

My Thoughts
I was originally going to rate this book a little lower, but as I wrote the summary, it made me realize how potentially important this book could be; if for nothing else than an intro into thinking about ourselves differently. In the age of political Christianity, where a large number of self described conservatives look solely to government for their source of comfort and strength, McKinley challenges the efficacy of these practices. On page 24 he states, ‘from gay marriage to gun control, these efforts have backfired.’ He goes on to point out the ways in which this is true as well as the lasting impact of the ‘Culture Wars.’ He comes back to this in a later chapter and discusses the fact that our efforts have gone here instead of teaching people the Bible and for this reason, ‘people have put down the Bible, and picked up self-help books.’ He doesn’t discuss this idea too much further but the sad fact is that this has had a double impact as self-help and inward, selfish focus have come back around and are now effecting the church more than the Bible.

A final thought I liked as he challenges political Christianity is in his chapter titled ‘Babylon.’ He discusses empires and the power of nations and reminds us that in the Bible the might nations (Babylon, Assyria, Egypt), where never the good guys. Instead, they were used, by God, to punish his people. This should make every Christian, especially those of us who pursue political power for the sake of Christ, to stop and think for a few moments. I think his challenge to Christian norms of political power might alone be worth reading the book, but if not (or if you are already there) the remainder of the book serves as a valuable intro practices that will help us live out our life in exile.

Many Christians haven’t even heard of some of the practices he touches (mentioned above), and certainly only a few really follow them well. Vocation might be the trickiest topic, especially for a generation who’s idea of career has become so converted. There are many other books to dive deeper into this topic if your interest was piqued. His strongest chapters were on hospitality, some Christians probably fail at most, and Sabbath. Really focusing in on Sabbath and rest and separation is cultural norms is an idea regaining prominence recently; I’ve seen few different books dive a little into it.

My only critique, really, is that the intro was too short. As someone born and raised in the South, I would’ve liked to hear a little more about the life of a Christian on the other end of the spectrum, the Pacific Northwest. Overall, I think it is an interesting, if short, book that hits on some big topics, from our interaction with our current moment, the concept of exile, and reforming some of the ancient practices of God’s people. The breadth of ideas and challenge of this book make it a must read.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Book Review: Welcome to Adulting


Welcome to Adulting: Navigating Faith, Friendship, Finances, and the Future

My Rating – Put it on your list

Level – Quick, easy read

Summary 
Adulting is a book about approaching young adulthood from a Christian perspective. The book is broken into five sections, Adulting – with a Purpose, Like a  Boss, with Friends, Fearlessly, and Forever; with each section having one to three chapters. The second section hits on topics like money/budgeting and choosing a career, while the third going into Friends, but also repairing relationships and marriage.  The final section is basically a presentation of the gospel.

My Thoughts
I think I might be just outside the age for the target audience for this book. I have been married, had a budget, and work in my career field, all now for more than 10 years. I could have used the career counseling section more like 15-20 years ago, but if I’m honest, I was probably too young/immature then to even listen. I am already a fairly practical guy, so I was already following some of his tips earlier on in life, but I think the one that would have been the most impactful is the chapter on community.

Community versus friendship is an interesting concept. The fact that it is based on intentionality and not affinity is challenging. I am just now coming around to the idea. The first ‘community/small group’ in which I participated, we were basically all the same person. The one I’ve tried to build over the past two years now is quite different, a pretty big range in education and income, and, most challenging, an age range of over 40 years.

The ‘with Purpose’ section of the book really serves as the intro and the strength of the book comes in the practical steps in the next three sections. Section four was unexpected Pokluda touches on worry and recovery (both overcoming addiction and putting issues in your past behind you). The only chapter I felt that was a little week was the final one. He acknowledges as much in his opening paragraphs of the chapter. His goal is to point us to Christ and the focus of eternity, which makes sense as he is a pastor. However, the chapter was just a little too long and didn’t quite flow/match the rest of the book.

I also suspect most people reading it, already know (again, something he acknowledges). He probably felt he couldn’t pass the opportunity, just in case, which is commendable. Overall, I thought it was an interesting book. It is one I would definitely recommend to people just out of college or starting ‘adult’ life, or for any pastors/mentors out there who know people in this group. It is a solid mix of practical and theological/spiritual and is thoroughly Biblical throughout.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: 12 Faithful Men

12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry

My Rating – Put it on your list

Level – Quick, easy read; short book

Summary
I have to admit that I just skimmed the title of this book and didn’t read the subtitle. I was expecting a basic short biography of 12 men, but the subtitle says it all. This book is about pastors and their particular struggles in life. The book is a collection of essays written by 12 different men, only one of which was one of the editors. The first chapter is about Paul, and also functions as something like an intro to what the book is trying to accomplish. The other 11 men/chapters are John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, John Newton, Andrew Fuller, Charles Simeon, John Chavis, C.H. Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, Janani Luwum, and Wang Ming-Dao.

My Thoughts
If you are wondering if the ‘J’ in J.C. Ryle is for John, the answer is yes. That means that half of the book is about people named John. I have no idea what Janani means in Swahili, but, it’d be pretty funny if it translated to John (the was John Calvin is actually named Jean). I feel like there was a missed opportunity to go full John here. I’m mostly joking, if anything I wish it had been expanded a little more across time and the world. I appreciate them covering two more modern Christians from other countries (I guess non-English, as most of the guys are). I hadn’t heard of either of these two, nor did I know who Simeon or Chavis were. I thought I new Fuller, but I was getting him confused withe other Fuller, founder of the seminary.

Overall, I thought it was pretty interesting. I’m already pretty familiar with Paul, Calvin, Edwards, and Spurgeon, but this book definitely makes me want to grab a biography, and learn more about Spurgeon, Bunyan, and especially Newton. Personally, while reading this book, I was going through my own time of suffering as well as studying unanswered prayer at church, so this fit in well, and was at least some level of encouraging.

This book would benefit most people who are struggling in their faith, but especially pastors. That really seems to be the target audience. Though, as the book is written by 12 different authors, you have varying degrees of focus. It was probably a mistake to attempt an intro and snippet on Paul. The book would have benefited more from either a dedicated intro, or a chapter more focused on being an intro that used Paul as an example and then perhaps another pastor (obviously needs to be another John, Knox perhaps?) if they want to keep the 12 angry men play on words thing going.

If you like history or biography, it is also a worthwhile book. It is a short enough book that is easy to read and will encourage you in your faith; so it is probably a book most people should put on their list. If you are a pastor/elder/deacon, I’d say it is a must read.

* I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Activate

Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groups

My Rating – Probably Not Worth Your Time

Level – Easy read, moderate length (reads quicker than its 300 pages)

Summary
The subtitle pretty much sums it up, though I’d quibble with the ‘new’ part. Activate is Searcy’s system for running/managing small groups. The book is broken into two parts, The Activate Mindset and The Activate System. The former is his attempt to ‘challenge’ existing ‘beliefs’ on small groups and is broken into four sections (all of which begin with Rethinking Small Group) Methodology, Structure, Strategy, and Leadership. Each of these is broken down into chapters which he calls Big Ideas, of which there are 12.

The System is also broken into four sections – Focus, Form, Fill, and Facilitate. Again, each of these is broken into further chapters, each one being a step or guiding principle to the subset of his system.

My Thoughts
I picked this book because I am a small group leader, though not one that would fit his definition, and I also thought it could be helpful for our Community Pastor, who is a little newer in his role. The title is a little (unintentionally) misleading. I thought it was going to be the groups that were being activated, made stronger, more engaged, etc. However, activate is the name of his system for signing people up for groups. I guess it is people you are activating.

Overall, I was disappointed in this book. To be fair, maybe it was revolutionary 10 years ago, when it was originally published. That’s when I finished grad school, got married, and first attended a church that did small groups. My church in high school had Sunday School, so there weren’t small groups. My current and former church do not have Sunday School, and instead work entirely with small groups. So, all of his ideas in the Mindset part of the book might have been new then, I don’t know how groups were typically run prior.

That being said, many of the ideas he proposed as being the prevailing thought really seemed to be strawmen. I seriously doubt anyone pastor believes that sign-ups should be complicated (compared to his ‘big idea’ that they should not). Now, many pastors may not put much effort or thought into sign-up and they end up being unnecessarily complicated, but that isn’t how he presents his arguments.

The second part of the book, the System, is fairly interesting and has a many good points and practical steps. However, this is only true if your small group fits his definition, which is a group that meets 10-12 weeks to study a specific topic or read a particular part of the Bible. My church offers these, but also offers deeper groups that stay connected for years, as many other churches have and are often called home or community groups.

So, if you have the topical side, his ideas for roll out, launch, and general marketing principles are great. The authors clearly have a good mind for marketing a practical actions steps for achieving goals. I think most pastors could learn a few things, or least use this to augment their current system. If you are looking to change, relaunch, or start this type of small group, this book would be one of the few that would be worth grabbing and reading before putting together your strategy. This is particularly true if you are a seeker church or a very large church.

Now to the problems, this book really left me with a strange feeling. I’m sure the authors are caring pastors who have come up with a system that they think is the best and are genuinely excited to get it out there to everyone else. Everyone knows people like this, those high energy endlessly positive people, that’s how I imagine these authors. However, I don’t think it translated to the written form. Far too much of what is written comes off as a sales pitch. It doesn’t help that Searcy markets his other books eat least once a chapter or so, and tells you to go to his website on every other page. At points it started to seem like an infomercial.

I’m a cynical guy, so in an attempt to see the positive, I went to his website thinking maybe he put everything out there. While there are few free downloads, most of the site is selling his other books or his ‘coaching’ services and subscriptions. Honestly, it is a bit off-putting. There is little discussion in the book of making disciples, but much about growing numbers, both total and participation percentage. Two particularly egregious sections come in the book on page 93 where he states that the best investment you can make in your staff is to hire him for small group coaching and again list his website. The second is on page 147 where he lists the different types of leaders – group leader, team leaders (who manage a number of group leaders), and group coaches (who manage a number of team leaders). He lists the requirements of each of these people and under group coach he states they must have ‘an unshakable commitment to the activate system.’

Again, I don’t know these people, and I’m fairly confident they are just pumped about their system, but much of the book rubbed me the wrong way. It was just far too much of a sales pitch, that included what seemed like upselling. Like I said, there are parts I think you can find helpful if what you are doing matches their groups and you have the same goals/type of church as them. However, if you don’t fit nicely in or you already have fairly successful groups, this book is probably not worth your time.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Book Review: I’d Rather Be Reading

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life

My Rating – If you have time

Level – Short, easy

Summary
It is hard to summarize this book other than it is about loving books and the impact books can have on your life. Each of the 21 chapters is basically a short essay (maybe former blog post) about a different topic related to reading and being a book love, such as – organizing your bookshelf, working for bookstores, and recommending books to other people, etc.

My Thoughts
While the essays are funny, witty, and (to me) pretty relatable, I wish there was a little more coherence to this book. There is no real build or order through the chapters. Some stories are repeated, sometimes more than once, as the book is little more than a collection of essays. The chapters are quick and funny, but sometimes leave you wanting. For instance, she has a chapter on organizing your bookshelf that has some funny observations, but no actual practical help. In her defense, that may not be her intention, but as my personal physical book collection approaches a thousand, I’m looking for suggestions.

That’s pretty much it, a short review for a short book. I do wonder why Baker published it. Not that the book shouldn’t have been published, but Baker tends to have a ‘Christian’ focus on books. That’s not a knock on Bogel, I certainly don’t think Christians should read only Christian books, I’m just genuinely curious as to their criteria for publishing.

For someone trying to become more involved in reading, you should probably pass on this book. You won’t get too much in the way of choosing a book or finding a reading system. On the upside the wife finds the cover of the book to be very ‘cute’, so we’ll probably put it somewhere as decoration.  If you are an avid reader and book collector and are looking for something this could be worth your time.

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

Book Review: When God’s Ways Make No Sense

When God’s Ways Make No Sense

My Rating – Put it on your list

Level – Easy, relatively short (~230)

Summary
This book is mostly about unanswered prayer. We pray for certain people or events, and sometimes God does not answer that prayer, but instead takes our life (or others) in different directions. To us, that makes no sense. The book tries to answer what we do when this happens.

There are 19 chapters, plus an intro and concluding thoughts. The chapters are grouped together in four parts – When God’s Ways Make No Sense, What Then? Three Stories, Three Answers; When God’s Ways Make No Sense, Tremble! Why? What? How?; When God’s Ways Make No Sense: Trust in God’s Unthwarted Sovereignty; When God’s Ways Make No Sense: Three Parables.

I really dislike the use of the book title in each chapter; it seems really unnecessary and redundant. Part One looks at the three stories of Jonah, Paul, and Habakkuk. Part Four retells Part One with modern day reactions. Part Two takes a look at our two responses, as Crabb sees them, which is to tremble and to trust. Part Three takes a bit of a detour into providence and sovereignty, which is probably necessary in a book about God’s plan, especially when we disagree with it.

 My Thoughts
I wish I could rate this book a 4.5, because I think some of the questions Crabb discusses are necessary for all Christians to seriously consider, but some of his analysis isn’t quite there for me. Much like Yancey’s book on Prayer (my review), it challenges Christians to really be discerning and ask hard questions, but I’m not sure either take you much farther (though, that is a great place to be).

Early in the book, Crabb makes reference to Romans, where Paul discusses sin and how he seems unable to stop sinning. That is an interesting aspect to unanswered prayer that I have never considered. Have lost two friends just last year to addiction, I would have liked to hear more about this. However, that is the last mention of personal sin as far as unanswered prayers. That’s too bad, it is an understandably difficult topic. What makes less sense than prayer to God to be delivered from temptation, only to fail? Instead the book moves mostly to the familiar realm of pain, suffering, and failure. I love this quote, and I think Crabb really hit on how Christians feel if they are being honest:

God I know you are good, but what good are you? In struggles with no answer, or when his ways make no sense, we wonder what good God is for us.

It really sets the tone for the book – the honesty, the struggle, the questions – and I’m glad that a esteemed leader in the Christian community is willing to write about them in this way; and these are clearly issues he is struggling with currently.

Part Two is probably the strength of the book. That is where you have to look honestly at events in your life and how the unfold in ways that are not according to your plan and you have to wonder what God is doing. Likewise, Part Three looks at our response and delves Biblically into what God says about suffering and general pain in our lives. Though, I’m not sure why he felt compelled to make up his own term, unthwarted sovereignty, that is somewhat between a slight misreading of Calvinist sovereignty and open deism. It’s almost more of a rebranding (attempt) of God’s sovereignty; maybe some people will find it helpful in understanding God’s ways.

The only part I didn’t really like was the second of his stories/answer/parable in Parts One and Four, when he discusses Paul. In Part One, he does a little exegesis of the three Biblical narratives of people he things exemplifies ways we respond to God when we don’t like what he is doing. Though they were insightful and Biblically sound, I feel like his point on Paul missed. Or rather, his point was good, but Paul didn’t really show it the way he might have thought. His point is that Paul distorted and denied God’s word. Obviously we do that today, and I suppose you could say that Paul did, but that is all before his conversion. I just don’t think you can make a strong argument about a Christian response from a non-Christian.

Overall, I think it is an interesting and challenging book. I think anyone who has ever wondered why God’s ways often don’t make sense should read this. This is certainly a must read for those who believe, like I once did, that you can’t question God’s ways. Similarly, people who come from a moralistic or health and wealth gospel view of God, need to read this book. However, for those who have moved passed this, you won’t get as much new thought, and definitely no definitive answer. But that is our lot in life, right? We will likely never understand why some things happen. For now, we keep praying, keep reading, and continue to seek understand. If unanswered prayer is one of those questions for you, this is a book to add to your list.

* I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: True Grit

True Grit: A Novel

My Rating – Put it on your list

Level – East, short

Summary
After the murder of her father, Mattie Ross tracks the culprit to Fort Smith, Arkansas where she enlist the help of the Marshall Rooster Cogburn. He eventually takes the case, after meeting a Texas Ranger who is also chasing the man for various other crimes. After telling her no, the men begrudgingly accept that she will come with them. They head into nearby Indian Territory, where the eventually find the man and others in hiding after a train robbery.

My Thoughts
Portis waste no pages of this short book with writing that isn’t action. The book starts with the murder and then Mattie heading to Fort Smith and doesn’t stop until the final few pages as he concludes the book. Interestingly, the book is written form the perspective of Mattie, who is looking back and telling the story. I think this adds to the quick and action-packed pace.

The three main characters are all unique and compelling, even if they a little cliched. Two movies have been made from this, I’ve seen neither, but know that the Ranger is played by Matt Damon in the most recent one. From the movies where he has tried to be unlikable, I think that fits well. Cogburn is most in line with the grizzled not necessarily lawful anti-hero, while Mattie is more head strong and stubborn. Each character is somewhat iconic in fiction.

In case you were wondering, ‘true grit’, is the term she uses when explaining what she was looking for in a Marshal to track the murderer. It is a compelling story, though the ending felt rushed. There are some of the usual tropes, but there were also a few surprises and twist. Overall, it is a fun, easy book to read, definitely one for the beach/vacation. It is also an American classic, so a novel to put on your list.

Book Review: Prayer

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God

My Rating – Must Read

Level – moderate, 250+ pages before appendixes and notes

Summary
It is a book about prayer, that is pretty clear from the title. There is a little bit of almost everything, prayer as it is in the Bible, a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, notes from people in church history, differing prayers styles/times, and ways of doing prayer. Overall it is a good survey of most things related to prayer. The book is broken into five parts – Desiring Prayer, Understanding Prayer, Learning Prayer, Deepening Prayer, and Doing Prayer – with a few chapters per part, for a total of 15 chapters.

My Thoughts
I’ve read a number of book on prayer recently for a sermon series, and as someone who occasionally writes, it is almost annoying the Keller once again has written the best book on a topic. The book is almost academic at some points, particularly the exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, while still remaining pastoral and accessible to most readers. I actually read only part of the book a year or so ago when I was studying the Sermon on Mount and heard his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer was one of the best, then finished this year while studying prayer.

There is a good bit of discussion from people throughout church history (Augustine, Calvin, Luther) regarding prayer. I particularly enjoyed his ‘doing prayer’. This was the strength of the book to me. I’ve read many of the other commentators, and I know that/why we should pray, but I’ve always struggled with the how and especially with the habit of prayer. If that is you, the book is worth it just for that section and the resources in the back.

The only weakness in the book is that Keller doesn’t really discuss unanswered prayers. Or at least, he doesn’t do it well. He isn’t ready to say that God doesn’t answer prayers sometimes. That’s a huge theological issue and maybe outside the scope of what he wanted to do, or just knows the answer is both simple and complex. Check out Yancey for more on unanswered prayer. Keller kind of hedges bye saying the answer can be yes and no. He gives the example of a girlfriend in college that broke up with him and him praying that it wouldn’t happen. He says the answer was no, as the girl did break up with him, but that the answer was yes because he eventually married his wife. I see what he is saying, and I appreciate what his view, however, this isn’t always the case. Some people may never be married; additionally, people die young from cancer, addicts can’t kick their addiction, etc.

It is a hard topic, so I don’t mind that he failed, because what he does cover is covered so well. As I said earlier, the practice of prayer is handled extensively and is reason enough to get the book. If you are just looking into prayer as an intro, or your prayer life is stuck, or you are looking to go deeper in your understanding of prayer, this book is a must read.