Review & Reflection: 90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James

51bqeytnh3l-_sx350_bo1204203200_I was recently offered a review copy of Tim Keller and Sam Allberry’s book 90 Days in John 14-17, Romans, James.  This is the first time I’ve been able to get my hands on a copy of a title from the Explore by the Book series put out by The Good Book Company.  The book is well designed and well put together.  It’s a hardcover book that is attractively designed and well constructed.  As the first sentence of the introduction describes it: “This book is not an end in itself.  It is a means of accessing the treasures of a far greater book.  […]  So, rather than seeing these devotionals as snacks, view them as meals.  Set aside half an hour in your day to work through the study, and to respond to what you have seen.”  Unfortunately (as this is a review book) I wasn’t able to spend a full 90 days to work through each chapter but after looking through the book I think I can give at least a general overview of what the book has to offer.

The book casts a fairly broad net by attempting to walk the reader through John chapters 14-17 (with notes written by Sam Allberry), the book of Romans (with notes from Tim Keller), and the book of James (again, with notes from Allberry).  That said, the tight structure and specific purpose of the book keep it from being either unwieldy in size or vague in content.  Each chapter covers a specific portion of Scripture (sometimes just a few verses) and offers a few words of comment and context with thoughtful questions to push the reader deeper into the text (many chapters also include a section to highlight points of application).  Guidelines for prayer are also included together with a blank page for notes and prayers.

I’ve never been much on “devotionals” as such, but this book seems to be strong in orienting the reader to the text without allowing extra “fluff” to distract.  I would imagine that this could be studied in a group, but it’s probably best fit for the individual believer looking to bring some structure, focus, and flow to their personal Bible study.  All in all, this looks like a helpful tool for the believer who appreciates some guidance for times of private worship.

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.

 

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Review & Reflection: Finding Forgiveness

finding-forgiveness-2-front__79526-1465501101-1280-1280Stanley D. Gale’s new book Finding Forgiveness: Discovering the Healing Power of the Gospel is a gem of a book.  It is short and sweet but lyrically rendered and biblically informed nonetheless.  The book is made up of five brief chapters with titles like “Forgiveness and the Gospel”, “Practicing Forgiveness”, and “What about Forgiving Ourselves?”  Gale takes a pastoral approach and he offers thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

As he shares in the introduction, the book grew out of a shorter booklet he wrote for Reformation Heritage Books called Why Must We Forgive?  In fact, he admits that: “Those of you who have read Why Must We Forgive? will experience a sense of déjà vu in that what you read within will sound familiar.  I have taken the approach of dividing the content of that booklet and augmenting and illustrating it in greater detail.”  I did not have the chance to read Gale’s prior booklet, but there was nothing in this larger book that felt out of place or awkwardly attached as some projects of this sort do.  Gale  brings a writers eye and a Pastor’s heart to the subject and I’m confident that many will find his reflections on the subject of forgiveness to be of help.

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.


Review & Reflection: The Hidden Life of Trees

9781771642484_custom-a316d76aa28097c907ce59c0adae992a2bfa0386-s400-c85I’m not a science guy.  Or at least, I haven’t been in the past.  But I’ve recently been looking to expand my intellectual horizons a bit by looking into some topics that I don’t already love or have familiarity with.  To that end, I’ve been looking for a specific field of science that I could dig into to help me become more engaged in science in general.  After several months I’ve decided that botany and horticulture are a good place to start.

I love nature – hiking, hunting, gardening, and just being outside – so something that allowed me to understand and appreciate the things I already come into contact with seemed perfect.  Also, since I am an amateur gardener, it just seemed to make sense to study an area of science that would allow me some real world application as well!  Since narrowing my focus to these two fields I’ve been spending the last few months learning more about the subject and I am hooked.  I’ve taught myself the names of all of the trees in my office park, learned some of the basics of plant terminology and identification, and slowly but surely built up a list of helpful resources (blogs, podcasts, and Youtube videos) that have helped me to get a feel for the study of botany and horticulture.

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Peter Wohlleben in Hümmel, Germany

But nothing has been as helpful or stimulating as reading Peter Wohlleben’s incredible book: The Hidden Life of Trees.  Don’t misunderstand me, Wohlleben’s book is not a botanical textbook or introduction in any way.  In fact he has a somewhat narrow focus in this book.  Wohlleben is a forest manager in Hümmel, Germany who has over 20 years experience as a Forester.  In 2015 he wrote The Hidden Life of Trees in an attempt to connect the modern reader to the wonders of the forests in which he spends so much of his time.  The book has been wildly successful and just been translated into English this year.  I stumbled on The Hidden Life of Trees at a local bookstore and quickly decided to take it home.  Listen to a bit of Wohlleben’s writing if you want to understand why I was so taken:

“Four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah.  The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit.  It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores.  The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity.  But did they move on to trees close by?  No, for the time being, they walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when they had moved about 100 yards away.

The reason for this behavior is astonishing.  The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that crises was at hand.  Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves.  The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on.  Or else they moved upwind.  For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there” (pg. 7)

These short paragraphs capture what makes Wohlleben’s book so good.  First, his writing is engaging and accessible.  He uses a conversational style that pulls you in and writes short chapters that keep you reading.  Each chapter focuses on one aspect of forest life (i.e. the hidden life of trees) and he uses anthropomorphic language to make it easy for us to relate to the rhythms of life in the forest.  Second, as the example of the giraffes and the acacia trees shows, he does a marvelous job of pulling us into the action.  Trees live life in the slow lane (to borrow a phrase from the book) which means it can be much harder for us to connect with them than with animals.  But just because things happen slowly with trees doesn’t mean they aren’t happening at all!  Trees defend themselves, send out warnings and messages, and even “talk” through the vast underground web of roots and fungi that connect the trees of the forest to one another.

There is more that could be said about the book, but I truly believe it speaks best for itself.  If anything you’re read so far intrigues you and you want your own understanding of forest life deepened and developed then I’d encourage you to pick up Wohlleben’s book.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I have!

 


Review & Reflection: Martin Luther

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I’ve been itching to get my hands on a copy of one of the books in Simonetta Carr’s acclaimed “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” series for years now.  So when I had the opportunity to write a review for her book on Martin Luther (which is her latest addition to the series) I jumped at the chance!  I’m a church history buff (I’ve been both studying and teaching on the subject for years now) so I’m always fascinated to read more about Luther and the Reformation.

Of course one of the great challenges in a work like this is to present the basic outlines and significance of Luther’s life in a way that does justice to both the man and his times.  Too many  accounts of his life (particularly ones intended for young readers) fall into hagiography or stop the story just as it’s beginning.  Simonetta Carr does neither of those things.  Instead she offers her readers an informative and engaging introduction to Luther’s life from birth to death.  She hits the high points of his dramatic story (his abrupt decision to become a monk, dramatic conversion, and stirring courage in the face of Papal displeasure) without painting him as a spotless saint (she talks about the horrors of the Peasant’s War, the troubles he faced in the work of Reformation, and his unfortunate tirades against the Jews later in his life).  The prose is steadily written and easily read.  The illustrations are lavish and the visual material arresting.  The book is beautifully produced and well-made.

One of the things that most surprised and delighted me about the book was how many facts and tid-bits were new to me.  Even though I’ve been learning about Luther for years she had a wonderful way of weaving striking new insights into this introductory text.  She managed to write a book that is both accessible to new readers and engaging for those who are already familiar with her subject.  I give this book high marks on all counts and now I’m itching to get my hands on the rest of the series!

I would like to thank the good folks over at Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a free review copy of this book.  I was not obligated to provide a positive review.


Review & Reflection: What Men Live By and other Tales

what-men-live-by-other-tales-leo-tolstoy-paperback-cover-artLike everyone else I read Leo Tolstoy’s little book The Death of Ivan Ilyich in my college Literature class.  I enjoyed it, but was far more impressed by that other Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Recently, however, I dipped back into Tolstoy and was pleasantly surprised.  I read his excellent little book of short stories called What Men Live by and Other Tales (this is just one of many titles available in public domain over at Librivox).

What Men Live By is made up of four short stories written in the aftermath of Tolstoy’s conversion from the self-absorbed life of his aristocratic youth to the radical Christianity which would shape his later life.  The book was published in 1885 and contains some of his most famous short stories including the title work “What Men Live By” and the acclaimed story “How Much Land Does a Man Need”  James Joyce once claimed that “How Much Land Does a Man Need” was: “the greatest story that the literature of the world knows”.  Each story takes the form of a parable or a fable by using a simple setting and story to communicate moral and religious truth.  All four stories were well written and engaging and all were short enough to be read in a single sitting (which is, of course, the proper way to enjoy any short story).  I was most impressed by “How Much Land Does a Man Need” and I was least impressed by “The Coffee House of Surat” (which argues for a sort of religious relativism).  This little volume has definitely whet my appetite to read more Tolstoy and I found these short stories (with the possible exception of “The Coffee House of Surat”) to be both delightful and profound.  I look forward to reading them to my kids and re-reading them as an adult.


Review & Reflection – William Farel

Fuk_william_farel_cover_1024x1024__03909-1461257079-1280-1280or the past several years Evangelical Press has been putting out a truly wonderful little series of books they call “Bitesize Biographies” which offer brief and helpful introductions to some of the great heroes of the faith.  Jason Zuidema has added to this collection with his short survey of the life and work of the great Reformer William Farel.

One of the things that I’ve appreciated about this series in general, and perhaps about this little volume in particular, is how well it navigates the waters between the danger of hagiography on the one hand and deconstruction on the other.  Most have probably only heard of Farel in connection with his famous encounter which led Calvin to come to Geneva.  As the popular story goes, the fiery Farel challenged the scholar Calvin with threats of God’s judgment if Calvin did not give up his journey to Strasbourg to aid in the reform of Geneva.

But there is much more to Farel than one anecdote.  Zuidema traces his early life and upbringing in France and shows how the idolatry and superstition of his childhood drove him to embrace the Reformation with a zeal and conviction that would be characteristic of his ministry.  Farel was a flawed man in many respects (and Zuidema does not shy away from exposing his faults – whether his quick temper or imprudent marriage late in life that left his friends shocked), but he was clearly a significant figure in the establishment of the Reformed churches of Switzerland and France.  This book grabbed my attention from the beginning and left me with a better understanding not only of Farel, but also of his own age.  Studying the biographies of these Reformers can often bring refreshing revelations of just how difficult and tenuous the work of Reformation often was.  Students of church history and struggling Christians alike will be encouraged and educated by this helpful little biography.


Review & Reflection: Scripture and Worship

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I recently finished reading the book Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation and the Directory for Worship by Richard Muller and Rowland S. Ward.  The book is a small collection of essays that were adapted from addresses given at Westminster Seminary as part of their ongoing work on the Westminster Standards for the Craig Center.  Most people who would find the book interesting will be familiar with the game-changing work of Richard Muller in Historical Theology.  I found his essays exactly what you would expect: precise, pointed, & thorough.  His essays make up the first part of the book and tackle the issue of the Westminster Standards and Biblical Interpretation.  In the background of his essays was the polemical point that undergirds so many of his contributions to the field of post-Reformation historical studies: while developing a degree of diversity, the Reformed tradition represents a basic continuity from the magisterial Reformers to the later Reformed Scholastics.  This point stands in contrast to the claims of some who wish to drive a wedge between early and later Reformed thought.

His first essay underscores the diversity of the Reformed tradition by showing how the exegetical work of the Westminster Assembly built on the tradition exemplified by the English Annotations without being slavishly (or even primarily) influenced by that particular work.  He lays to rest the common misunderstanding that the English Annotations are somehow part and parcel of the Westminster Assembly’s project.  Instead he shows how they are distinct, if still somewhat related, works.  His second essay underscores the continuity of the Reformed tradition by showing how the exegetical work of the Westminster Assembly did not simply engage in simplistic proof-texting as their modern critics often claim.  Instead, the proof-texts they provide serve as sign-posts which connect their exegetical work with the broader Christian tradition of Biblical interpretation – often connecting back to the work of both the early Reformed tradition and even the Medieval and Patristic writers before them.

Like other reviewers, I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent contributions which Rowland S. Ward makes to this volume.  Ward is an Australian Presbyterian scholar and pastor and his two essays consider the Directory for Public Worship.  Ward’s essays are more accessible than Muller’s – but no less significant.  While he provides helpful historical background and fascinating facts to flesh out our understanding of the Directory, he also builds on Muller’s basic argument for continuity within the Reformed tradition.  Ward demonstrates that no wedge can be driven between Continental and British views on worship and that the framers of the Directory were largely following in the tradition of Calvin, Bucer, and Knox in their own work.  The book concludes with a full re-printing of the Directory for Public Worship.

I enjoyed this book immensely.  While Muller’s essays can be a bit dense (and no doubt daunting to the unfamiliar reader) they are solid in content and delivery.  Ward’s contributions are more accessible without sacrificing scholarly substance.  All in all, this is a fine start to what looks to be a promising series and a valuable little book that underscores the basic continuity of the Reformed tradition.

 

 


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