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Review & Reflection: In Search of the Common Good – Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World

When I saw that Jake Me91QAdoKSqDL[1]ador was writing a book, I knew I had to read it.  His insightful work at Mere Orthodoxy has been a source of great encouragement to me over the last few years.  He has a wonderful ability to blend a practical knowledge of people, politics, and the church with perceptive wisdom about the ideas and assumptions that govern so much of our modern world.

And our modern world is in desperate need of wisdom.   Meador moves methodically from a general discussion of the breakdown taking place in our communities (both sacred and secular) to a more detailed exploration of the specific problems which lie behind this breakdown (Meador focuses in on three: the loss of meaning, the loss of wonder, and the loss of good work).

But this book is not a doom-and-gloom jeremiad.  It’s a book of hope, and that hope shines through in the second half of the book where Meador outlines the practices and promises of community.  He highlights three simple (but profound) practices which can restore and revitalize our communities.  Drawing on the rich heritage of his Reformed background, Meador makes a compelling case for a recovery of the traditional doctrine and practice of Sabbath observance.  Meador corrects the misconception that the Sabbath is merely a source of legalistic virtue-signaling and argues instead that the Sabbath is a positive good.  To quote another advocate for Sabbath observance: “The Sabbath was made for man.”

Meador further draws on the work of Wendell Berry to explore how the factory mentality we bring to society needs to be reshaped around the more biblical and healthy concept of membership.  Flowing out of that is his argument that our relationship to work in our post-industrial world needs reflection and reform.

I said that this book is a book of hope, and the final chapters express that hope in helpful ways.  Meador explores how these simple practices can be sources of light in places of darkness.  The book avoids political posturing and levels criticisms against both Right and Left equally.  While the reader might sometimes wish that Meador would give more detail about the practical (or even policy) details that would promote his vision of fidelity and renewal that’s not really the point of the book.  The real virtue of the work is to begin cultural conversations that explore ways to maintain fidelity and promote health in our churches and communities.  And in achieving that end, Meador is entirely successful.

 


Reading Round-up (Part One)

This has been a productive summer of reading for me.  The down-side to that is that I’m way behind on writing book reviews (I’ve read 10 books since my last book review).  Since this is a hole I won’t be able to dig my way out of, I’ve decided to simply write a series of short reflections on each of these 10 books in place of full book reviews.  (To keep it from getting too long, I’ve decided to break this up into two parts.)  So here is part one of my quick takes on the 10 most recent books I’ve read:

1. To Be Where You Are by Jan Karon (450 pgs.)

910v0yfqfplJan Karon’s Mitford series has been a friend for years.  Like many others, I’ve enjoyed reading and re-reading her books since I was first introduced to them as a teenager.  The books center on the daily lives of the town of Mitford – a small-town mountain-top community in North Carolina.  The stories center on the ordinary (and at times, extraordinary) events of Father Timothy Kavanaugh – the local Anglican priest.  To Be Where You Are is the latest (and purportedly the last) book in the 14 book series.  It has all the charms and strengths of its predecessors and continues the legacy well.  It was a joy to read.

 

2. In Distant Lands: A Short History of the Crusades by Lars Brownworth (262 pgs.)

517sdnbz6el._sx311_bo1204203200_Lars Brownworth is probably my favorite popular writer of Medieval history.  I first encountered him through his landmark podcast series 12 Byzantine Rulers and later consumed the book version: Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.  Earlier this year I read his riveting history of the Vikings (The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings) and so the pump was primed to read this wonderful little book on the Crusades.

As with his previous work, Brownworth shows himself to be a master of the Medieval world.  He understands (and untangles) the complex connections between various kings and cultures to bring us into the period.  The final chapter of the book offers one of the best assessments of the morality and consequences of the Crusades, but the strength of the book is that he manages to hold that until the end.  At its root, this book aims to do what so few books on the Crusades have: unpack the history of this period as the fascinating story that it is.

 

3. Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem by Kevin DeYoung (128 pgs.)

31ot3tvtjpl._sx326_bo1204203200_The title tells it all.  In this little book, DeYoung explores the problem of busyness in American life.  Using his own experience as evidence, DeYoung tries to explore why we are so busy, why that’s a problem, and how we might begin to fight back against the persistent culture of busyness that surrounds us.  This is a simple book.  As always, DeYoung has a natural and persuasive style.  No radical new insights are imparted nor are there “10 steps to success” outlined.  The book is simply a wake-up call/reminder that many of us need to grow in this area.

 

4. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter (304 pgs.)

6620ba6873fcdee5ada499acad108c81J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973.  Just four years later, in 1977, Humphrey Carpenter wrote this incredible book.  Writing a biography of Tolkien has its challenges.  For one thing, Tolkien had a fairly dim view of the usefullness of authorial biographies.  For another thing, Tolkien’s legacy had not had much time to settle when Carpenter first took up his task.  On top of all this, Tolkien’s life (once you move past a full and eventful youth) quickly settled into a fairly mundane routine that hardly makes for scintillating reading.  “Professor grades papers and gives lectures” is not a headline that would sell papers.  But despite these challenges, Carpenter managed to construct a compelling portrait of a complicated man.  He walks us through the different stages of Tolkien’s story without loosing sight of that aspect of the man which has cemented his legacy: the imaginative fruit of his remarkable mind.  This is a good book.  In fact it’s a very good book.  If you love Tolkien, this biography will bring him to life in new ways and offer new insights into not only him, but his work.  An absolute “must-read.”

 

5. A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home by Jason Helopoulos (100 pgs.)

71kw7uxjw-lFamily worship (or “family religion” as so many of our fore-fathers called it) has fallen on hard times.  Many evangelicals struggle to set aside a few minutes each morning for private worship, much less committing to regular times of worship with their families.  Helopoulos hopes to help with this little book.  In it, he explains what family worship is, the biblical foundations for family worship, and offers practical guidance and encouragement for those who are trying to practice it.  Those who are already convinced of family worship and are regularly practicing it will be able to skim the book (although the appendices contains some helpful resources for leaders in family worship).  This book seems best suited to those who are unfamiliar with the practice of family worship, opposed to it, or just unsure of whether or not it’s something that they can or should do.  Helopoulos is a helpful and friendly guide and hopefully this book will accomplish its purpose of recovering family worship in our own day.

 

 


Review & Reflection: 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me

15-things-seminary-couldnt-teach-me-1243x1920[1]As of this summer, I’ve crossed the half-way point in my seminary education (4 semesters down, 3 to go)!  So naturally, I was intrigued when I saw the title of a little book called, 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me.

Though the title might make you think otherwise, this is not an anti-seminary book.  Edited by Collin Hansen and Jeff Robinson, this book is a compilation of 15 short essays/reflections written by 15 different pastors (each of whom goes out of their way to emphasize their gratitude for all they learned in seminary).  The focus of the book is not on the shortcomings of any institution but on the lessons that one can only learned by time and experience.

The writers come from a range of backgrounds and write on a range of issues.  The bulk of the essays focus on what we might call “wisdom issues.”  What do you do when your church is dying (ch. 2)?  When do I accept a call to a new church (ch. 9)?  How do I shepherd my church through seasons of suffering (ch. 8)?  I found each contribution to be thoughtful and helpful – though as with any book involving so many authors some selections were better than others.  My impression was that the bulk of the contributors held to a Baptist/congregationalist polity – a fact which make some of their specific counsel less applicable to Presbyterians such as myself.

Nevertheless, this is a very helpful book.  It would be an ideal book for a young seminary student or minster to work through with an older minister.  Hopefully the careful and mature reflections of these pastors will mean that young men like myself won’t have to learn the same lessons “the hard way.”

 


Review & Reflection: The Brokenhearted Evangelist

I’ve been doing an internship at a PCA church plant in Andover, Kansas called Kirk of the Plains.  One of the privileges I’ve had this summer is 61WYEP5uADL[1]to lead a four-part class on “Nurturing a Culture of Evangelism.”  In leading this class, I’ve worked through a lot of resources on evangelism, and one that I’ve finished recently is Jeremy Walker’s little book, The Brokenhearted Evangelist.  I’ve read and reviewed some of Walker’s work before.  As always, Walker wields his pen well.  His theology is deep without being dry and he knows how to make a sentence sing.  This book is a helpful look at the subject of evangelism through the lens of David’s words in Psalm 51, specifically the words of verse 13: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will be converted to you.”

This is a probing, questioning book that pushes the reader to examine his heart at every turn.  Fittingly, Walker structures his book around five key questions: Am I willing?  Am I effective?  Am I committed?  Am I focused?  Am I fruitful?  In addressing each of these he explores our motivation, equipment, means, aim, and expectations regarding evangelism.

This is not a “how-to” book per se.  Rather, it is a heart check about the work of evangelism.  If you find yourself struggling with apathy or fear when it comes to proclaiming the gospel, this work will drag you out of yourself to see the wonderful and weighty privilege we have to “teach transgressors [God’s] ways.”  Walker does this through thoughtful questions, careful exegesis, and illuminating illustrations and stories.  His careful study of church history comes through in his many rich quotations from our Puritan and Reformed forefathers.

Though this book is small (clocking in at a mere 150 pages) there were a few points where I thought it could have been profitably shortened.  While Walker covers a lot of ground, there is also a fair bit of repetition and some of his discussion felt a bit rambling at points.  (Perhaps this would have been helped by expanding his exposition beyond Psalm 51:13?)  The careful questions were good, but when the reader is confronted with a entire paragraphs of nothing but questions they can lose their force.

That said, this book does its job.  When read with prayer and humility, it will no-doubt challenge, convict, and encourage the believer to seek greater faithfulness and fruitfulness in the hard work of evangelism.  And that, of course, is something we should all desire.


Review & Reflection: The Household and the War for the Cosmos

C.R. Wiley is a writer worth reading.  Two years ago, I read (and reviewed) his book, Man of the House, and today I’m reviewing his latest work: The Household and the War for the Cosmos: Recovering a Christian Vision for the Family.

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Wiley knows how to pack a punch.  In less than 125 pages, he pinpoints the problems facing households in our own day, walks us through the biblical and classical understanding of the (sadly) misunderstood concepts of “piety” and “the cosmos”, and explores the theology of the biblical household codes (think Ephesians 5-6) to show us how households fit into the telos of the cosmos.  Big stuff.

In many ways, this is the book behind Man of the House.  While his earlier work tried to show readers how to build a healthy household, this book explains why they should try.  At the end of the day, Wiley argues that healthy households are not an end in themselves, they are a means.  In fact, they are one of God’s primary means to carry out His grand purposes in creation and redemption.  Our little households are models – images – of the household of God (have you ever stopped to wonder why the New Testament uses that language?  Wiley helps to answer that question).

Wiley moves easily between breadth and depth as he slowly stretches our vision for what households are for and why they must be strengthened.  In God’s providence, I read through this little book the very week that I was preaching through some of the biblical household codes from Ephesians that Wiley discusses.  While his work is not a commentary on Ephesians, I found it far more helpful than many of the commentaries I did read because he takes the time to “zoom out” and see how Paul’s project in Ephesians goes far beyond the bounds of a Focus on the Family agenda.

This book is clear and concise enough to speak for itself.  (And the forward/preface by Nancy Pearcy and Anthony Esolen are the perfect front porch to this book on the household.)  Suffice it to say that if you want to be motivated and equipped to see why households matter, this is the best book out there.  I hope Wiley will keep writing, so that we can keep reading.


The Shape of Pastoral Ministry

Yesterday was the first official day of my Summer-long internship at an OPC church in Northern Virginia.  One of the privileges I have is to complete a number of readings over the course of the Summer.  The first thing I’ve read is from Joel Beeke and Terry Slachter’s book Encouragement for Today’s Pastors: Help from the PuritansFor this book, I read Section One on the Pastor’s piety.  The assigned reading helped to tie some things together for me.  I’ve tended to think about the work of the Pastor as falling under one of two basic categories: either pulpit ministry or parish ministry (though of course, there is significant overlap between the two).  I still think this is basically a sound framework, but on its own it doesn’t go far enough.  What this book does so helpfully is to draw out the vital necessity of the Pastor’s ministry of piety as well.  Together, these three areas (piety, pulpit, & parish) capture the heart of a minister’s duties.

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The picture that’s taken shape in my mind is a railroad track.  There is a rail on each side which allows the train to move forward.  On the one side is the “rail” of pulpit ministry (which would encompass the Pastor’s teaching and preaching) and on the other side is the “rail” of parish ministry (which would cover all the shepherding, counseling, evangelism, and even administrative tasks).  These two rails provide the basic framework for ministry and are what people would see if they look at a train driving down the tracks.  But there is another vital component.  Although it isn’t as visible, what holds these two rails together are the wooden crossties of pastoral piety.  Without those crossties the rails will shift as the train moves and the railcars will careen off the tracks and crash.  With the crossties, the rails stand firm and the train can move safely and swiftly.

It’s the same way with the ministry.  The public work of the pastor is seen in the twin rails of pulpit ministry and parish ministry.  But holding those rails together are the crossties of pastoral piety.  Without a zeal for the Lord, without frequent and fervent communion with God, and without a steadfast dependence on God’s promises the public ministry of the pastor will shift and slide with often disastrous results.  But when the crossties of piety are firmly in place, the public ministry of the Pastor can stand firm.


Review & Reflection: The Spirit of the Age

I just finished reading9781610785725__18478.1508167096.315.315[1] J.V. Fesko’s new book – The Spirit of the Age: The 19th Century Debate Over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession.  It’s a little book (just over 100 pages) with a big title and big themes to match.  His project can be viewed as two-pronged.  First, his goal is to describe the background behind the 1903 revisions of the Westminster Standards that were adopted by the mainline Presbyterian church.  Amongst these revisions was the adoption of a new chapter Of the Holy Spirit.  (There was a second new chapter as well – Of the Gospel of the Love of God and Missions – but Fesko’s focus is on the the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.)  He spends the bulk of the book (the first four chapters) addressing this issue.  The second part of his project is to show how this debate connects with current theological debates which he does in the final chapter.

I’ve always wondering about what prompted the liberalizing mainline church to compose these new chapters and Fesko did an able job of describing that story.  Along the way, he demonstrates the robust pneumatology of the Westminster Divines and locates their work in the context of catholic Christian thought.  He shows their careful attention to exegesis, their masterful grasp of Patristic and Medieval insights, and their mature doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

He tells a fascinating historical tale so I won’t spoil the story by going into the details of his argument.  Suffice it to say, I found the book engaging and fascinating historically while also deeply edifying theologically and personally as well.  This little volume is a model of scholarship with a thorough bibliography and many fascinating footnotes.  Fesko is obviously well-versed in current scholarship and leans heavily on the work of Richard Muller to advance his arguments.  This is a book that will probably be of greatest interest to Pastors and seminarians but historically and theologically inclined laypeople will find it accessible as well.  If there was a criticism, it would be that his account of this debate seems to put diverse figures such as Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin in the same camp as Charles Briggs without acknowledging key areas where they disagree.  That said, there was much helpful information here that was new to me and I continue to find myself enjoying Fesko’s writings!

 

 


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