Thinking Out Loud

October 15, 2015

Currently Reading

Filed under: books, Christianity, reviews — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:29 am

I have books stashed all over; in the living room, by the bedside table, and at the workplace* that I access not for review purposes, but just casually reading them for their input. Sometimes I reach the half-way mark and consider doing a review after all; you never know. With these I’m almost at the middle page, though these two books could not be more different.

The Key to Everything - Matt KellerMatt Keller — The Key to Everything: Unlocking the Life You Dream of Living (Thomas Nelson, September 2015)

This would fall into the Leadership genre as Keller is both a Florida pastor and a leadership consultant. The theme is teachability and he looks at things that impede it, the nature of it, and the art of maintaining it; using examples from his own experience and principles taken from the story of Saul (the OT king) and Saul (the NT Paul) and Solomon (the OT wise guy.) Is teachability truly the key to everything? In the intro, even Keller admits the title is a bit overreaching.

There’s some good stuff here for pastors as well as husbands/dads, but the primary target reader is probably someone in business. If you’d like to know more, try this review.

So far there’s been some repetition, and I wish that (like Kyle Idleman) the rather humorous footnotes had been bottom-of-page instead of end-of-chapter; and the content is — as it is in all leadership books — aimed at those who are driven to success. If you like John Maxwell**, who is frequently quoted, you’ll like this.

Accidental Saints - Nadia Bolz-WeberNadia Bolz-Weber — Accidental Saints: Finding God in All The Wrong People (Convergence, September, 2015)

A year-and-a-half after the autobiographical Pastrix (which we reviewed here), the tattooed, sometimes foul-mouthed, Lutheran pastor from Denver is back, this time with what could be described more as a collection of essays; many of which revolve around the various people who make up the weird that is House For All Sinners and Saints (aka HFASS; say it out loud, you know you want to) and people she encounters in the course of her unlikely vocation as professional clergy.

Most people reading this will struggle getting past the language (i.e. occasional F-bombs and S-bombs)*** yet my thinking on this is the same as what my wife and I conclude each time we listen to a new sermon podcast from her church; namely that underneath all the tats Nadia’s theology is quite sound; quite orthodox. Some of the chapters, like the one where as a young Church of Christ girl she visits the home of a very Marian Catholic family, are actually quite heart-warming.

For reasons that escape me, Random House, Hachette and Simon and Schuster insist on releasing their religious books, published under the imprints Waterbrook (and Convergence which this one is), Faithwords and Howard Books, in first-edition hardcovers. Even Canada doesn’t catch an “international paperback edition” break as it does with Christian publishers Baker, Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, etc. There’s always a paperback down the road, but I think a book like this one, published in a popular trade edition, could seize its momentum and draw in a greater number of readers.****

Nadia may never make a list of favorite authors, but she’s definitely one of my favorite people.

Like I said, the two books could not be more different, but I am enjoying them both.

*But not the bathroom. This is, in my opinion an abuse of books. You’re there for a specific purpose and you want to get in and get out quickly. To paraphrase Proverbs 25:17, ‘Do not spend too much time on thy neighbor’s toilet, lest you get caught up reading the magazines there.’ (Actually, that’s a big stretch from the original text.)

**I’m not a J.M. fan myself, but I’d rather be effective than successful. Nonetheless, there appears to be a strong market for this genre of writing, and there are a number of leadership-related blogs listed in the right margin here at Thinking Out Loud.

***I’m more concerned about the H-word: hate. I think that in past decades we’ve placed too much emphasis on particular lexical elements (like the f-word), and not enough on the content of what people are actually saying. (But don’t expect me to use that word in full here anytime soon.)

****I have always marveled at, even the midst of recession, the American insistence on first-edition hardcovers. England, Australia, New Zealand and other such places always get the paperbacks from Day One. As someone in the business, I never miss an opportunity to rant on this.

September 24, 2015

Tolkien and Lewis Unlikely Choices for Sci-Fi and Fantasy

by guest book reviewer: Ruth Wilkinson

A common piece of advice given to young writers is, “Write what you know.”

So how did a couple of turn of the century, word-geek, English academics become the preeminent fantasy and science fiction writers of the modern era?

Joseph Laconte - A Hobbit A Wardrobe and a Great War - Thomas Nelson In A Hobbit, A Wardrobe and A Great War (Thomas Nelson) History professor Joseph Loconte traces the parallel stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien through the cataclysm that was World War 1 and beyond to their shared discovery and exploration of epic fiction and alternate history.  Drawing from many sources – including historians, biographers and original writings – he connects the two young men’s experiences in the trenches, mud, fire and disease of The Great War with themes, characters and landscapes found in the Narnia series, Lord of the Rings and their other writings.

We come to understand what the fierce friendships, values and personal strength of the characters they created have to teach us about being human and at war.  Quoting Lewis, “For let us make no mistake.  All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service.  Like sickness, it threatens pain and death.  Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst and hunger.  Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice and arbitrary rule.  Like exile, it separates you from all you love.”  And when Tolkien writes,”I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  I love only that which they protect,” is he writing about England or Middle Earth?

And we see the world through the eyes of Lewis, a teenager who had written off Christianity as “ugly architecture, ugly music and bad poetry”, and Tolkien, a young man of faith whose Catholicism survived the war intact, when his peers and culture had found God to be uninterested and absent, and therefore nonexistent.

Loconte examines the spirit of an age that worshiped science, eugenics, industrialization, technology and related forms of ‘progress’.  He lays out how those forces were put to use in a war that was more destructive and devastating than any in the past, and the profound disillusionment and cynicism that were born out of it. And, yet, Lewis is able, through his friendship with Tolkien, to rediscover “…the myth that has really happened” – the story of Jesus Christ – to turn from his skepticism and to write stories that “offer the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable.”  Loconte writes, “Against the temper of their times, these authors dared to reclaim some of the older beliefs and virtues.  Their common Christian faith had much to do with this…”

This book challenges:  both to look back at the horror that humanity is capable of, and to look forward to the hope that Christ brings – when “everything sad will come untrue.”

September 21, 2015

Chuck Colson’s My Final Word is Serious Reading for ADD Readers

Chuck Colson - My Final WordYou consider yourself a deep reader and thinker, but you struggle with staying focused when you hold a book in your hands. You like to be challenged and engaged, but your ADD kicks in every time you look over there, I think that cat is chasing a squirrel– so you’ve probably already seen the advantage in reading story collections and anthologies.

It’s ironic then that in presenting this assembly of transcripts from the Breakpoint radio program with Charles Colson to you I should be proposing the writing of a man who was such a voracious reader to people who struggle with that same discipline.

Because of who Colson was, it should come as no surprise that many of the short articles in the book are related in some way to politics and political systems. That was his passion, and that is where he truly speaks with authority.

Other themes in My Final Word: Holding Tight to the Issues That Matter Most include Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics, public life, culture, crimal justice, contentment, homosexuality, and several other topics. Within each theme there are at least a dozen transcripts, some longer, and some that were edited, though at times the subject ends up being political- or economic-related. This of course creates a bit of a liability when you are an international reader because so much of this concerns the American political system and key figures in the U.S. government. Even so, in those articles there are principles to be extracted and some of the stories have ended up on the front pages of newspapers in Sydney, London or Toronto despite their origin.

Then there is the richness in terms of the quality and quantity of the writers Colson quotes. He was a huge fan of C. S. Lewis and G. K Chesterton, and to continue the list here would be to leave out others. If you want to know what makes people great, look at who they read and whose quotations they have memorized.

My Final Word clocks in at 240 pages total, released in August from Zondervan. In the foreword, longtime Colson associate Eric Metaxas suggests that there is sufficient material here to make the book suitable for small group discussions, and if all your group members are not always in touch with such issues, these radio transcripts will certainly raise awareness.

Full disclosure: Because of the nature of this anthology, I have not yet read every section, though I do prefer not to review a book before I’ve read every last word. I do intend to finish it however — it’s perfect nighttime reading for me — and I would encourage readers to keep a pen, pencil or highlighter handy to underline key sections and mark page numbers of passages to which you wish to return. I’m also reading the sections out-of-sequence, starting with ones which resonate more, and then, as I get more into the rhythm of the book, finding the others to be of equally interesting. In that sense, it’s a great reference resource on the topics listed above.

Chuck Colson was a very, very wise man.

Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing in Canada for a copy of My Final Word.

April 29, 2014

Book Review: Your Divine Fingerprint

Because of the readership this blog has gained over the years, review books now arrive unsolicited, many of which sit on my living room coffee table waiting for a break in my reading schedule. Such was the case with Your Divine Fingerprint: The Force That Makes You Unstoppable by Keith Craft which released on HarperOne back on October 1st in hardcover, and will release again in paperback on October 7th of this year.

Your Divine FingerprintSimply put, it was the right book at the right time. I started it midday yesterday and had consumed all 252 pages in record time.

Your Divine Fingerprint is first and foremost a motivational title. The author, Keith Craft is co-lead pastor with his wife Sheila of the non-denominational, but Charismatic-flavored Elevate Life Church in Frisco, Texas with a weekly attendance of 7,000; and was mentored by another motivational writer, Zig Ziglar and considers Joel Osteen a friend. The book walks a tightrope between the self-help genre and the business-leadership genre; though despite the use of scripture, there’s nothing expressly here that would fit the church-leadership category.

The premise of the book is that people are ultimately 99% the same and that the key to an effective life lies in finding that 1% that makes you unique and then exploiting that, according to this formula: Discover, develop and deploy.

This is a book which brings a Christian perspective to personal development but in such a way that you could be very comfortable sharing this book with a non-churched friend, relative, neighbor or co-worker who will benefit from the practical suggestions on every page.

January 20, 2014

The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

For several months, the book’s working title was Tomorrowland.

Eventually, it was ruled that ‘The Mouse’ would never stand for that, and so the title of Skye Jethani’s third book became Futureville: Discover Your Purpose for Today by Reimagining Tomorrow, and while another Disney property, EPCOT, is mentioned, the major motif in Futureville is the great promise that was held out for mankind in general, and America in particular in the 1939 World’s Fair.

Futureville - Skye JethaniWhile Jethani is not entirely a household name in the Christian community, his voice is as unique as his ability to weave a subject — in The Divine Commodity it was the art and life of Vincent Van Gogh — into his writing as an ongoing talking point. The middle book of the current three takes a different approach; elsewhere I described his book With as The Preposition Proposition.  His audience is widening through friend Phil Vischer’s podcast, but he is probably best known for his work on Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, and its highly ranked blog, Out of Ur, relaunched this past weekend as PARSE.  As I’ve said elsewhere — and in reference to other authors — I think his books are best enjoyed after you’ve had exposure to some visual media; some clips are currently available at his blog Skyebox.

The premise of Futureville is that “our vision of the future is what determines how we understand the present. In a very real sense today is defined by tomorrow… what lies ahead.” The book looks at the wide arc of Biblical history through a lens that is both somewhat philosophical and agnostic-friendly. This is a title that meets the giveaway criteria.

He also offers some fresh insights for insiders. Example: We tend to think of the Biblical narrative beginning in a garden and ending in a return to a garden (which owes more to Crosby, Stills and Nash) while in fact the story ends in a city. If you live in Philadelphia or Detroit or Gary, Indiana, the idea of city may suggest that perhaps God could do better. But Jethani uncovers the rationale behind the imagery.

Social activism, environmentalism, politics, etc. all come under the microscope as does the effect current affairs have on shaping theology. Yes, the Bible can be thought of as somewhat clear on matters, but theological thought trends in ways not unlike celebrity fixations on Twitter. We may know what the text says, but the book points out the ways in which the capital ‘C’ Church will spin it differently and slowly drift from its mission.

Much of the book’s purpose is to help refocus us by freshly acquainting ourselves with the key images of scripture and of worship, and to re-purpose us to realigning our priorities. In many respects, Futureville is prescriptive, it gives the Church a mandate for 2014 not unlike Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock did for a broader society in 1970. While parts of Futureville may leave you disturbed, overall, the book offers assurance that God has orchestrated things to lead toward a conclusion of his choosing, and one that, to borrow from Jeremiah, offers us a future and a hope.

November 6, 2013

Wednesday Link List

Link List - Out of Ur

I’ve checked this week and nobody in the Pentecostal community is organizing a Strange Ice Conference. So far.

The last link listed here this week is to an interview that Chrsitianity Today did with me about a month ago that I didn’t think would ever appear. Speaking of which, you can catch this week’s list at Out of Ur; the individual links will take you there now as well.

Wednesday Link List Sign
Yes, blogrolls are now uncool, but if you scroll down the right margin at Thinking Out Loud, for a limited time, there’s a list of a small selection of the places Paul Wilkinson hunts each week for buried treasure.

July 13, 2013

Insights into Jesus Parables and Prayers

Filed under: books, Jesus — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:39 am

What I’m doing here is considered most uncool. Book reviews are supposed to focus on the latest releases, not past titles. Obviously, I disagree. In the rush to be first to offer an opinion on the latest manuscript, there may be some treasure buried on the bookstore and library shelves which shouldn’t be ignored.

Eighteen months ago, referencing the translator of The Message Bible, I wrote this:

For several days at Christianity 201, I’ve been sharing my excitement over discovering that Eugene Peterson The Message bible translator is also Eugene Peterson the author. For those of you who’ve known this secret for some time, I apologize for arriving late to the party.  I’m reading The Jesus Way (Eerdman’s) and spreading the reading out over several weeks, which is really what is needed to take it all in.

Well, that was then. But more recently I picked up a copy of Tell it Slant. I love the titles he chooses. Others in this series include Practice Resurrection and Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places and Eat This Book. The full title — which begins with a borrowing from Emily Dickinson — is Tell it Slant: a Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (Eerdman’s, 2008).

Tell It SlantThere are two parts to the book. The longer section deals with what he calls Luke’s travel narrative, the teachings of Jesus ‘on the road again’ that fall between the end of Luke 9 and the end of Luke 19. The prayers are selected from a wider variety of texts.

Why, for example, read another book about the parables? The thing I like about the book is that Peterson doesn’t attempt to teach everything you need to know about the parables and prayers in question. He’s offering his insights, and is, I believe, assuming you’ve heard other teaching on these sections before. He recognizes the multifaceted nature of scripture and is willing to tilt the scripture toward the light and allow us to catch some fresh reflections and refractions.

The beauty of scripture is most evident when someone points out something that was there all along, but you had never considered it before.

Now, having read two of the five books in the Conversations series, I find myself wanting to complete the set. I might even do the uncool thing and review them here.

…In a world where recent Bible translations have involved upwards of 130 people, some will ask where Eugene Peterson gets the authority to write his own Bible.  I think if someone questions The Message, instead of dismissing Peterson, they need to read some of his other writings like this one. To me, it’s clear that his depth of understanding of the text most certainly gives him the clout to complete his own translation.

June 3, 2013

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Jesus

Jesus A TheographyThere are two things that are immediately striking about the book Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola (Thomas Nelson, 2012). The first is the sheer scope of the work. While some books clearly are the product of a two week writing break, others earn to be called a “labor of love,” or earn the phrase, “represents the culmination of a lifetime of ministry.” This book fits into the latter camp and is the product of two authors who have spent untold hours in deep study of God’s word.

As a reviewer who prizes “rich text;” this is one of the richest books I have ever read, and any critical remarks I might make should be seen in the light of what is generally my highest recommendation. Truth be told, I have read about two thirds of this book out loud with my oldest son. While it slowed the reading time, it allowed me to process the material more fully, at the rate of half-a-chapter per night.  It also enhanced my appreciation of the final chapters which I read normally.  Jesus is definitely a book that delivers your money’s worth. You can’t read this book and not have a clearer picture of the Bible’s grand narrative.

The second thing that is immediately striking is the word theography in the title. The idea is that in trying to present the over-arching story of the Bible, most things printed are biography moving, as the authors say, “from womb to tomb.” The idea here is to look at Christ before and after the incarnation. This is an ambitious goal, and the two chapters most representative of this ambition were the only ones that disappointed, though I am continually interested in accessing books which deal with Christ before the manger — the pre-incarnate Christ — and deal with what the second person of the Trinity was doing before that Bethlehem morning. Ditto Christ’s present activity seated at the right hand of God.

This is a small matter however in a book where each page is full of illuminations, and in particular comparison passages where one aspect of what the writers call The First Testament is unmistakably linked to another in The Second Testament. Sometimes the insights simply involve a different way of expressing a familiar dichotomy; thus Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial is referenced as “Judas’ kiss and Peter’s kiss-off.”

There is also a trade off between the benefit of having two people craft the book who are already established and respected authors, and the tendency of the book to repeat itself in many places. Perhaps readers like me simply need to have some truths drilled in a little deeper.

The sixteen chapters of Jesus: A Theography break down the Christ story into chronological sections emphasizing the spiritual significance of every aspect of His life and ministry. This is truly a book like no other. I’ve seen some dissent online concerning the use of selective Bible translations to make a certain point fit, but we followed up in various texts from the various footnotes — there are 1,835 of them — and don’t feel that any verses were overly stretched to make a point. The authors have also gone out of their way to make dogmatic statements on any theological point which is contentious, making this a book for all Christian readers.

…To someone who mostly reads Christian fiction, I suspect that all doctrinal books look alike, but Jesus: A Theography is a volume like no other. This definitely fits in my top ten list of books I would want to be stranded on an island with. While not every reader will agree with every point this is definitely a book worth owning, underlining and filling with bookmarks. 

An excerpt from the book appears here at Christianity 201.

Jesus: A Theography is a book I truly wanted to read. When no review copy was forthcoming by the publisher after several requests, I purchased this copy with real money. TNI, you owe me one!

April 5, 2013

Ken Wytsma: Evangelist for Justice

Sometimes books just show up unsolicited. When a copy of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things by Ken Wytsma (with D. Jacobsen) arrived, my plan was to read about 50 pages and then thank the publisher (Thomas Nelson) with a passing reference in a “currently reading” blog post.

Pursuing Justice - Ken WytsmaInstead, this was literally a “can’t stop” book until, more than 300 pages later, I ran out of book. First time author Wytsma is president of Kilns College, an innovative school in Bend, Oregon which began with four night classes in 2008 and now offers 36 classes with a focus on missions and social justice. The website defines the purpose, “We didn’t want to simply provide a vocational Christian education. ”   He is also the founder of The Justice Conference, a two day annual event in Los Angeles which began in 2010 and will have its fourth event in Feburary, 2014.  He’s also a pastor at Antioch Church in Bend,  and writes at (K) blog.

Pursuing Justice is on the surface an easy to read primer on all the issues which social justice raises. Wytsma teaches philosophy, and approaches the topic from the vantage point of one wanting to know the heart of God in issues such as slavery, disease,  poverty, inequity, etc., but with a view to the “cluster concept” of the justice God desires that is rooted in the concepts of righteousness, ethics, integrity, truth, love, etc.  On closer examination, this title goes much deeper.

The book is a call to action on the part of the church, but that action has to be rightly considered. Don’t expect him to be a fan of your church’s next one-week mission trip unless the purpose of that trip is to build one-decade relationships. And I would add, don’t expect to grasp social justice through the reading of a book; Wytsma’s personal history in some world hotspots gives him both the credibility and the requisite passion on this subject; he has literally looked social justice in the eye.

And don’t think what happens a world away doesn’t matter, or that what we do in North America or Western Europe doesn’t impact the uttermost parts of the earth. In a visit to his daughter’s school — literally taking a friend from the Democratic Republic of The Congo for show-and-tell — a student asks if the visitor’s community has PlayStations. The African doesn’t get the question, and Wytsma actually tells the man to say no, but it’s really a lie of sorts because they do have the raw materials that make the PlayStations possible. It’s an awkward moment all round that underscores the complexity of life in a shrinking world.

As one who grew up at a time when Evangelicals neglected their social responsibilities, both locally and globally, Pursuing Justice is one of those books which, having read it, I need to start back at page one to fully absorb its  implicatons.  Each chapter is followed by an “interlude” and while the reason for that may have been artistic, it allowed some of us to catch our breath between topics in what is an incredibly complex topic.

Finally, while the book is certainly appropriate for a mass audience, its exhaustive examination of justice gives it a textbook quality. If you haven’t delved into this subject, or your reading is limited to one or two popular speakers, Pursuing Justice belongs on your bookshelf.

…Thanks to Wordle (and blogger Nicole) here’s another look at what the book is all about:

Pursuing Justice  - Top 25 Words

Watch a one-minute book trailer and read another excellent review at this blog.

March 28, 2013

Rob Bell Talks About God

Filed under: books — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:22 am

Once you get past an extended section dealing with various disciplines of science, there are a couple of chapters in the middle of Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God, where he seems to be making a strong case for the centrality of God in every conversation, and when he says God, he’s clearly talking about God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Rob Bell - What We Talk About When We Talk About GodBut if you’re expecting the evangelism to reach a crescendo in the final ten to twenty pages, Bell doesn’t exactly deliver. The ending is disappointingly soft. There’s certainly no organist playing “Just as I Am” behind the final paragraphs. So what are we left with?

We’re left with a book that I would be more than happy to have at least one atheist I know read. Yes, there are better books of Christian apologetics, but I don’t know if they would connect with those outside the inner circle as well as What We Talk About…  This book and all Bell’s book are now published under the HarperOne imprint, and  seem tailor-made for browsers in the religion section at Barnes and Noble in the US or Chapters in Canada. I have to say, he gets his audience.

We’re left with a book that — at least in the middle — contains sufficient allusions and direct quotes from scripture to place it safely within the Christian book genre. There were several pages I thought would fit in well at my devotional blog, were it not for the expected backlash.

We’re left with a book that generously acknowledges the range of religious belief in the marketplace, but chooses to deliberately focus on a faith rooted in the teachings of Jesus.

Having said all that, this is not the book for the average Christian book reader. But if you want to think about faith from a different perspective, or you want to hone your own apologetics, I would suggest it’s far better to own a copy than to rely on those who criticize the book from the safe distance of never having skimmed a chapter.

If there’s someone in your household, your workplace, your neighborhood, your school or your extended family with whom you want to engage a deeper faith conversation, you should read this, and then pass on the copy to them to read. I guarantee it will get you both talking about what it is to talk about God.

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