Book Review: God Among Sages

God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader

My Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – Easy read, moderate length (a little repetitive)

Summary
Samples has put a book together that looks at Christ and historic Christianity, and compares Him to the leaders or representatives of four other major religions. The book is broken into three parts – a historicity of Christ, both as a man and God; a short intro to representatives of four other religions and how they compare to Christ; a few thoughts on plurality in the world and the Biblical view of other religions.

The first part of the book is broken into four sections, but overall it is a basic apologetic for the Christ of traditional Christianity. Samples goes through Christ claims of divinity, the reliability of the Bible, and then a few points on the fact that Christ, the man, a person in history, actually existed.

The second part of the book is really the meat and what you’d expect based on the title. It is also broken into four parts and Samples hits on Krishna as representative of Hinduism, Gautama (the Buddha’s birth name) for (obviously)  Buddhism, Confucius, and finally Muhammad for Islam. In each section he outlines the life of the person, the basics of their teachings/beliefs, and then how they compare to Christ.

The final part of the book is broken into three sections, plurality in our world, Biblical view of other religions, and finally a concluding summary of Christ’s claims verses the other four.

My Thoughts
I wasn’t really sure how to rate this book. I liked a good bit of it, but found other parts annoying. I guess it will depend on the perspective from which you come to this book. It is a little too apologetics 101 for me, especially the first part of the book. I understand, that almost by definition, if you are trying to substantiate the claims of Christianity, you have to use apologetics, but what bothers me is really more of the tone. There is a just an attitude and style of argument from those in the philosophical (especially Ontological) and presuppositional  apologetic framework seem to have. It just rubs me the wrong way. If you like it, or are new to apologetcs, the you will probably really enjoy the first section of the book. All that being said, he does a good job summarizing arguments for the reliability of the Bible and Christ’s claims of divinity that all Christians should know pretty well.

The section about the other leaders was a well written introduction. Some of it was new to me and others a good reminder from my high school world religions class. As Christianity declines and more people arrive from different parts of the world, it is becoming more and more important to know the basis of other beliefs. This book could be a good start (Sample pack? sorry) into the study of world religions. He cites other works at the end of each chapter if you want to go deeper. The only part I really didn’t like about the section of the book is that he repeats his arguments (stated in the first part of the book) about Christ again and again in each chapter. Maybe it is a pet peeve of mine, I just dislike redundancy and repetitiveness.

The last section of the book was probably my favorite. Sometimes, I’m not sure I’d necessarily call them moments of doubt, I do wonder, what if all paths lead to God? That does change my view that this is the path Christ chose for me, but what if one day we get to heaven and we find out that everyone is there and they all came through different ways? Maybe that would be kind of neat. Samples summary of the issues with plurality point out that this isn’t really possible. For one thing, not all ‘paths’ even have a ‘god’. Many don’t have an afterlife, but reincarnation. Also, what about people who are on no path, so to speak? Even as you try to be kind and loving and accepting (to some extent) of all other beliefs, it is good to remember that plurality (in the sense of all beliefs being equally valid) is unworkable.

I think many people could learn something from this book. However, it may not be for everyone. It isn’t quite on the level of everyone should read it, but if you are looking for a good intro to either divinity of Christ, reliability of the Bible, any of the four religions covered, or Christianity in a pluralistic world, then you should put this book on your list.

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

Book Review: Misbehaving

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

My Rating: Put it on your list

Level: Moderate to difficult, depending on your base knowledge of Economics and Psychology. Moderate in length, but reads quickly

Summary
Part Thaler autobiography, part time line of the development of the field, with plenty of humorous anecdotes and academic ‘anomalies’, this book does not read like a history of an academic discipline. The book is broken into eight broad chapter based around years in which Thaler worked through differing parts of the development of the field. The chronology starts with him as a graduate student, where he is just starting to look into ideas that would become the discipline, and proceeds up to the present, where he seems poised to hand over the reins to the next generation. Along the way are his stories of getting the discipline recognized by academic journals, struggles with the establishment, and gaining allies (across other disciplines, as well) and students that will become the next generation.

My Thoughts
This book, like the somewhat related book (Thinking, Fast & Slow) by his fellow collaborator, Daniel Kahneman, kind of annoyed me in how well it is written. Thaler has had a nearly five decade career as researcher and writer, so he should write well, but that is not what I mean. His book is funny and reads quickly like a narrative. As I said above, it it part autobiography, and lends itself tremendously to humorous narrative that leaves you interested in reading more. As a pretend internet researcher and writer, I am envious that someone with actual credentials writes so well.

All that being said, I think I missed the subtitle of this book when I first heard about it a few years ago. I heard Thaler on a interview, and knew he was related to behavioral economics, but didn’t quite realize this was book he was promoting. I must have searched his name on amazon and bought the first book I saw, without noticing the reference to ‘Nudge’ on the cover. Nudge was really the book I was looking for, which is more about the research out of Behavioral Economics as it relates to topics like money and health. ‘The Making of Behavioral Economics’ should have clued me in to this book being more of a history. Luckily, I enjoy history and biographies, and as I said above, he is a very talented writer.

One of the first things that stuck out to me was how long he as been in the field. His book starts in 1970, with him as a grad student. I wouldn’t be born for another decade and a half, and I don’t consider myself very young. I’ve heard that Millennials will have between seven and 17 careers over their lifetimes, so it amazes me to read of someone’s history in a field that is longer than my lifetime.

Reading history is always fascinating, because you, with the addition of hindsight, can read and say, ‘how did these people miss this?’ I couldn’t believe some of the resistance he and others would face as the argued against the efficient market hypothesis. I was in high school during pets.com (look it up kids) and the tech bubble and finished grad school a few months before the housing bubble popped, so I struggle to believe in any way the the market is efficient and that people are well informed. Thinking back to my undergrad economics courses, I believe I was taught the distinction between theory of economics (people who Thaler calls Econs) and actual behavior (called Humans). In grad school, the distinction was called that of theory and practice. So, it is interesting to see that a few decades before, saying things like this, which to me are clearly true, would get you laughed out of conferences and barred from academic journals.

This history was interesting, and the debates with other academics were amusing and insightful, but the book really shines with the anecdotes. I won’t go through all of them here, but the include an economist who refuses to sell his wine (for a gain) at the market price while also stating he would never buy it at the price and companies whose stock prices are lower than their subsidiaries (even when purchasing the larger company stock means getting the smaller companies stock included; this means the larger company is valued in negative dollars relative to market cap).

These types of stories are what I enjoy reading. They are amusing on their own, but also challenge your assumptions about certain areas, but even more, make you really question whether you actually know what you are doing. You may think you do everything rationally, but you probably don’t, and that is illustrated time and again in this book. If you are looking for just stories and research results, you are probably better off with Nudge or Thinking, Fast and Slow. However, if you are interesting in Behavioral Economics in general, this is definitely a book to put on your list.

Book Review: Fearless Parenting

Fearless Parenting: How to Raise Faithful Kids in a Secular Culture

My Rating: Probably not worth your time

Level: Quick, easy read; short book.

Summary
The title of this book is a little strange. For the most part, the book is about Biblical parenting in a secular world (which is more or less what the subtitle says). The name comes from the second chapter, where the authors tell you to reject fear as your basis of parenting. That is all well and good, but the response in this chapter is in relation to the first chapter, which might be one of the worst examples of writing in any parenting book, ever. I’d highly recommend skipping the first chapter, if you have any plans on finishing the book.

The remainder of the book is pretty solid; with almost a completely different feel than the first chapter (as if there were two authors…). The first few chapters are general reminders and thoughts on parenting from a Christian perspective that should be familiar to most church-going families. Some of the topics covered later in the book include clothes, materialism, social media, and ‘screen-time’, and they all contain good, practical advise.  The one section where the book really does shine is in discussion of kid’s sports. In it, the author calls out parents who try to live vicariously through their children in sports and challenges parents to ramp down the amount of sports played and to not make them the number one priority in the life of your family. The section of the book was redeeming enough for me to not rate the book lower.

My Thoughts
I wanted to like this book more, but it was hard to get past the first chapter. In it, the author ‘projects’ what life make be like in 2030. Some of the ‘data’ points (such as rising crime, or Trump reducing/balancing the budget) are somewhere between disingenuous to out right lies. In case you decide to fact check (which I did), he heads you off by pointing out that if you think he is being ‘too political’ (or, what I’d call, maybe just being a complete political hack) it is because YOU, reader, are too politically correct. Along with misused data, the author also gives us an Orwellian tinged far right-wing dystopian fantasy; including the suggestion that new government agencies will be created and that pastors will have to submit their sermons/teaching for approval by the state.

Honestly, this first chapter is just embarrassing. It hurts me on two levels. First, as a Christian, it is embarrassing that this book is written by/for and published by Christians. I suppose the author may shrug it off and say, ‘this is just what could happen.’ However, his projections are based on neither facts nor anything to do with Christians. It is straight up far-right political (hackery?, propaganda? fantasy/nightmare? I can’t even come up with the right word for this). It reminds me of the chain email that went around (you probably got it from your mom or grandpa) 2008/2009 that claimed that Obama was the anti-christ and that Revelation said he would be a Muslim. Of course, the book of Revelation makes no such claim, and Islam would not be founded for a another couple of centuries. Overall, I think the first chapter could best be summed up as an email your grandmother would forward you because she is scarred. I think this is probably one of the biggest reasons why young people leave the church today. This is beyond the scope of a book review, but a generation ago, people left the mainline churches because they sounded like democratic party meetings, and now people are leaving evangelical churches because they sound like republican party meetings.

Second, this chapter was bad in it’s use of statistics. George Barna and I both have master’s degrees in City Planning, so I feel he should know better. Which leads me to another criticism of the book overall – with one of the authors being the head of a major polling/research group, the book was very lacking in data. I was interested in this book partly because I thought, with Barna being co-author, it would be data heavy. Then again, based on the first chapter, maybe that is for the best.

This has already gone on too long for a review, so I’ll wrap up quickly. The sections/chapters on social media and screen time offer some great guidelines and I appreciate anytime a parenting book (especially Christian focused) offers practical examples. The section materialism was impressively counter-cultural. It did a good job of calling parents out for their endless wants and purchases as a way of setting a poor example for our children. Finally, I was really impressed with the section on sports. This is something of a sacred cow in America, particularity for things like Baseball and Football (especially here in the South). It is an incredible challenge the author lays out, telling someone you may skip a tournament, or not enroll in a sport because it has games on Sunday. They do well in discussing the impact too many sports have on your family life (e.g. vacation time or even canceling vacations), on your children’s health, and, most convictingly, your own idols (vicarious living, or idol of parenting a sports star in think on how that reflects on you).

I haven’t seen a parenting book really reflect on sports to this extent before, and it almost makes the whole book worth reading. However, due mostly to the drag of that first chapter, I think this book is mostly not worth your time. If you are specifically looking for some guidelines on materialism, social media/screen use, and sports participation, it may be a worthwhile. However, you can probably find some decent guidelines for most of these online somewhere, or perhaps in other books.

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

Book Review: Martin Luther in His Own Words

Martin Luther in His Own Words: Essential Writings of the Reformation

My Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – Short, but moderately difficult read. This isn’t an intro for the Reformation, some knowledge of church history and theology will be needed.

Summary
The title could be a bit misleading to some, i.e., one may think it is a sort of autobiography. However, the book is a collect of Martin Luther’s writings. Twelve selections, to be precise, broken into five broad topics (cleverly) modeled after the five solas – fida, gratia, scriptura, Christus, and gloria.

If you are unfamiliar, the five ‘solae’ (alone or only in Latin, think of the modern words sole and solo) was the cry of the Reformation. So the chapters are laid out in the Latin words mentioned above that correspond to faith, grace, Scripture, Christ, glory (to God). Delving into these is beyond the scope of a book review, but as this year (2017) is the 500 anniversary of the Reformation and Martin Luther was the initiator, it was a pretty interesting way to divide the book.

There is an into by Kilcrease before each selection that helps with context and there are a few footnotes within the selections that are helpful for understanding particular, archaic, and/or theological/ecclesiastical terms.

My Thoughts
There is a difficultly in trying to review a sample pack of a book. My main critique would be that Luther’s most famous writings are probably ‘The Bondage of the Will’ and his Larger & Short Catechisms, and if you know much about him, his commentary on Galatians, and of the 12 selections, only four come from sources other than these. Granted, this may have been their reason for the selections, but I would have preferred a more diverse grouping.

I wanted to like this book more, but maybe because I am fairly familiar with Luther, it just didn’t quite do it for me. However, if you do not know much about Luther’s writings or the beginnings of the Reformation, this may be a great place to start. Kilcrease’s introductions are great and very informative. Or, if you are curious about Luther’s writings and don’t know where to begin, this would be a great place to start. If you haven’t read much, the translation footnotes are incredibly helpful and will make it an easier read the just pulling some of the freely available online versions of many of his writings.

There is renewed interest in Luther and the Reformation in general this year as we approach the 500th anniversary and this book is one to read, if you are looking for something.

If you were looking for a biography then check out Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. I haven’t read it yet, but the general consensus seems to be that it is the best.

If you think this book sounds a little to introductory, or you’ve read it and want more of Luther, then this collection (which I have read) seems to be the best next step (there is some overlap) – The Martin Luther Collection: 15 Classic Works

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

Book Review: Brave New World

Brave New World

Rating: Put it on your list

Level: Quick, easy read

Summary
Huxley’s most famous book is set in a dystopian world roughly 600 years in the future; puns abound as the time is known as the Year of Our Ford, a reference to Henry Ford and the roll out of the Model T (all crosses at churches are cut to a ‘T’ and Ford is a used as a swear). The book explores eugenics as were feared by some at the time of the right (1932), including forced sterilization; strict classes separation for the sake of ‘order’; ‘sleep-learning’ and classical conditioning; open sexual ‘freedom’; and most famously, self medication with high power psychopharmaceuticals, in the book known as ‘Soma’.

The book is famous enough I won’t spend any more time on the summary, but will note that it somewhat kicked off an era of in which some of the most famous dystopain books of the 20th century were written. Most notability, within 20 years both 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 were written. Both Brave New World and 1984 are widely considered two of the best books of the 20th century (though I find 451 more frighteningly accurate).

My Thoughts
This book is most famously contrasted with 1984, so I will get that out of the way, as the offer two competing views about books and our free time. In 1984, the government bans book, in Brave New World, there is no need. We have TVs (though hilariously viewed from his time as small and black and white), special entertainment complexes after work, orgies, and of course, Soma. Huxley’s view of the future had us seeking our own pleasure as the reason for our undoing.

Along with technological issues, the other surprising thing to the modern reader might be his fear of the breakdown of the family. My copy was published in 1946 and in his forward he writes that he has heard there are parts of the US where the divorce rate is pushing 50%, of course we are now roughly that as a nation. As someone born in the 80s, after the sexual revolution and the advent of the no-fault divorce, this fear of his seems quaint and almost strange. Additionally, in the forward, he reflects that he set his world in the distance future, but feared we’d be closer to it by the end of the century. The sex didn’t get quite as crazy (mostly due to his fear of what would happen with minors) as he thought, and eugenics has (mostly) fallen away, but he was correct on some level as far as conditioning goes. Though, in our current world, the conditioning comes from media and our consumerist culture than it does from government ‘learning centers’ and schools. What he did nail was ‘Soma’, the explosion of pills lit up in the 90’s, 60 years after the writing of the book, not 600 (Xanax was released in 1981, less than 50 years out).

He (obviously) didn’t get everything correct, but many of the overall issues are still with us today, especially the way we are conditioned, often without knowing it. The writing is good, maybe not as quick and clear as it could be, but overall this is an easy and entertaining read. If you are a fan of dystopian literature, this is a must read. For everyone else, I think you need to put this on your list, if for nothing else than it’s cultural impact and significance. I think it is always fascinating to look at what those in past thought the future would be like.