Catching Up – Reading Challenge Mini Reviews, Part II

As you can see from my last entry, I am using my offline reading journal to catch up on some of what I’ve been reading in 2016. This time around, I’m closing out the year with mini reviews of all the other Challies Reading Challenge books I read.  And the 2017 Challies Challenge?  Why yes, I am definitely participating – but more on that next year. 😉

scared Book InformationScared: A Novel on the Edge of the World

Author – Tom Davis

Publication Information – David C. Cook (2010, $9.99 digital, $14.99 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a book about a current issue.

I realize that the “book about a current issue” prompt was probably meant to steer readers to a nonfiction book. However, two things led me to this novel instead. First of all, while reading my way through this challenge, I was trying to stick to books that I already had in my library since I have quite a backlog of books I need to read. And the second reason? Well, I had just finished reading and thinking my way through a work of theology and I really wanted to read a novel.

And what a novel it was. I have said in the past that I think there are ideas which can be brought home more vividly through fiction rather than nonfiction. That is exactly the case with Scared. This novel, which deals primarily with the AIDS crisis in Africa, not only teaches readers a lot about the issue at hand but also makes readers feel what this crisis does to our brothers and sisters overseas who must live with it.  Before reading this book, I knew factually that AIDS has ravaged – and continues to destroy – large chunks of the African continent. However, in this book, I found myself forced to face the specifics of this plague more closely and in such a way that one simply cannot comfortably ignore it or isolate oneself from it. Continue reading

Catching Up – Some Reading Challenge Mini-Reviews

evangelism Book InformationEvangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Author – J. I. Packer

Publication Information – InterVarsity Press (2012 edition of 1961 original; $9.99 digital, $16.00 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a book recommended by my pastor.

One of the pastors at the church where I grew up makes no secret of his love for this book as well as for J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. Even though I’ve read Knowing God several times over and really found it life-changing, somehow I’d missed this book.

One of the attacks often leveled at reformed theology is that we must not believe in evangelism since God has chosen His elect. In this short book, Packer very powerfully makes the case that God’s absolute sovereignty is what should drive our passion to evangelize. This book contains one of the best discussions of the reasons for evangelism that I have ever read and it is deservedly a classic. I intend to read it again so that I can think about it more deeply and it’s one of those books that I think belongs in any library. Rating: 5 stars


benfranklinBook InformationBenjamin Franklin: An American Life

Author – Walter Isaacson

Publication Information – Simon & Schuster (2004, $12.13 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a biography.

Clocking in at nearly 600 pages, this is an impressive doorstopper of a book. Fortunately, it’s also fascinating reading so it didn’t feel terribly long at all.

Most relatively well-educated people will have at least a vague sense of Benjamin Franklin and his importance in American history. However, this book really digs deeply not just into the person but also the time in which he lived.  The result is a vivid portrait that made me appreciate Franklin more, despite his infamous shortcomings.

Isaacson starts with Franklin’s early life, which was somewhat difficult to put it mildly. The picture that emerges is one of a bright boy who develops into a clever, determined young man whose humor and wit take him far. Though obviously very gifted, his pride and temper seemed to make him his own worst enemy at times.

In some ways, Franklin with his Poor Richard’s Almanac and famous maxims has been made to personify the American spirit of thrift, striving and innovation.  These are definitely present in the story of his life. However, Isaacson does a marvelous job of marshaling the primary sources to show him as human as well. The Franklin that emerges here is a more complex (and sometimes less likable) figure than the one we see in textbooks or even his own autobiography. A good biography of a flawed but important figure. Rating: 4.5 stars


howardsendBook InformationHowards End

Author – E. M. Forster

Publication Information – Dover Thrift Editions (2010 reissue of 1910 publication, $0.99 digital, $4.50 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a book more than 100 years old.

My first introduction to E. M. Forster came through the lush Merchant and Ivory films that were popular when I was a child.  At the time, I think I was too young to really grasp some of the themes of the novels but I could enjoy the gorgeous cinematography.

Now, as an adult, I can better appreciate the complexity of Forster’s books.  This novel, originally published in 1910, illustrates the tensions between the more traditional segments of English society as represented by the Wilcox family who own Howards End and the more modern (and decidedly secular) patterns of the Schlegel family.  In this tale of a friendship and other interactions between members of the unorthodox Schlegel clan and the Wilcoxes, we see the tensions again and again.  For instance, Margaret Schlegel and Mrs. Wilcox become very close friends but the worldly and “modern” Margaret just cannot understand the importance family holds for Mrs. Wilcox.

In addition to the push and pull of emotions and tangled relations between Schlegel and Wilcox, a chance meeting between the Schlegels and a young working class man named Leonard Bast set in motion a series of events that eventually unfolds with tragic consequences.  The result is both an interesting if sometimes disquieting portrait of the early 20th century as well as a thoughtful consideration of the meaning of life. Written from what appears to be a decidedly non-Christian perspective(Forster was an athiest), I don’t agree with some of the places that Forster’s pondering takes him but this subtle, well-written book is worth reading and thinking through nevertheless. Rating: 4 stars

Making Theology More Accessible: Review of Visual Theology

visualtheologyBook InformationVisual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God

Authors – Tim Challies, Josh Byers

Publication Information – Zondervan (April 2016, $17.99 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes – This is a book published in 2016.

I have been looking forward to this book for a long time. I’m a visual learner, and even though I have had plenty of exposure to sound teaching and reformed theology, I often feel like I have trouble organizing what I know. And like many Christians, I really want to deepen my understanding and grow closer to God.

In many ways, I found this book a helpful tool for doing that. I think that new Christians and those looking for an intro to theology would be the readers who would get the most out of this book, but it’s not a bad refresher on the basics for others as well.

The opening chapters on the gospel, Christian identity and relationships talk about how we as believers are called to grow closer to Christ. The book then shifts to discussion of understanding the work of Christ, becoming more Christ-like, and finally, practical chapters on what living for Christ looks like in areas such as vocation or stewardship.

Everything is explained in fairly basic terms, and while the language can be a tad dry at times, it’s quite clear and for that reason, I found the book helpful and informative. It’s the sort of book where I’d read a chapter and stop to digest it for a while rather than just plowing straight through.

Some of the graphics in the book are quite excellent in terms of aiding readers to reach a deeper understanding of their faith. For instance, there is one which shows all the many things that having an identity in Christ means in the lives of believers. And then there’s the flowchart that walks readers through the process of dying to a particular sin. That was phenomenal for me. Not only do we walk through a series of questions about our sin and how we want to end it, but the authors point out common pitfalls we face during that continuing period of sanctification as well as biblical means by which to combat them. It’s good stuff.

The main weakness of the book for me was its unevenness. For example, we have that wonderful graphic on dying to sin and that graphic comes as part of a generally strong chapter that discusses putting off our old sinful identities. However, that strong section of the book is preceded by a chapter on doctrine, one of the weakest and most unhelpful chapters in the book. I understand that Visual Theology is meant to be only an introduction to studying theology, but telling readers that they should really, really study doctrine but that the authors aren’t going to go into such complicated stuff in this intro book really doesn’t do much for me as a reader.

In addition, while I did enjoy the visual aids that are included with this book, I do wish there had been more of them. Even so, if you are in search of a gentle introduction to theology, this is one to try. I can also see it being useful for homeschooling with adolescent-age children to get them started on a serious study of theology. Rating: 4 stars

A Charming Family Story – Review of The Penderwicks

penderwicks Book InformationThe Penderwicks

Author – Jeanne Birdsall

Publication Information – Dell Yearling (2005, $7.99 paperback, $7.99 digital)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a children’s book.

Growing up, I loved family stories. The various sibling groups in Noel Streatfeild’s Shoe books, the All-of-a-Kind-Family stories, Little House books, you name it.  I think I always wished I had more siblings, and so I enjoyed living vicariously through the adventures of families in fiction.

The Penderwicks is a wonderful addition to these sorts of books. In something of a nod to Little Women, Birdsall writes of four sisters – Rosalind, Jane, Skye and Elizabeth (Batty). We learn in the book that their mother died of cancer soon after four-year-old Batty’s birth and as the story opens, their professor father has taken them to stay for the summer in a cottage on the grounds of a New England estate called Arundel. Continue reading

A Needed Reminder – Review of Onward

onward Book InformationOnward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel

Author – Russell Moore

Publication Information – B&H Publishing (2015, $24.99 hardback, $6.29 digital)

Reading Challenge book? Yes. This is my “Book with the word ‘gospel’ in the title.”

“The culture of the kingdom is not a projection of our lives now onto eternity, but instead the reverse: a vision of a new creation that breaks us and prepares us for our inheritance by patterning us, now, after the life of creation’s heir: Jesus himself. With a kingdom vision, we realize that the priorities of this present world system are different from those of the age to come.”
– Russell Moore

Onward won Christianity Today’s Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year for 2015, and upon reading it, I could understand why. The author is Southern Baptist and I am a reformed Presbyterian, so we may disagree on nonessentials, but when it comes to the priority of the gospel message, Moore nails it. His love of Christ and the Word shines through in every chapter of this book. Continue reading

A Helpful Guide – Review of The Message of Isaiah

isaiah Book InformationThe Message of Isaiah: On Eagles’ Wings

Author – Barry G. Webb

Publication Information – IVP Academic (1997, $15.82 print only)

Reading Challenge book? Yes.  This is a commentary on a book of the Bible. For more information on the VT Reading Challenge, you can check here.

When I saw that reading a commentary was one of our tasks for the VT Reading Challenge, I immediately knew which book of the Bible I wanted to cover. The book of Isaiah contains so much meaty material and the prediction of Christ’s coming contained therein is only the tip of the iceberg. However, as I’ve read it on my own and studied it in church over the years, I have to admit that this is also one of the more confusing books of the Bible for me.

This may be because prophecy doesn’t read like a history. There is more symbolism, more foreshadowing of events to come rather than recitation of what has been.

At any rate, my pastor had recommended several commentary series to our church, one of them being InterVarsity Press’ The Bible Speaks Today. When I picked up Dr. Webb’s volume on Isaiah, I was not at all disappointed. I read this book side by side with my Bible, and the result not only helped me understand more, but also has enriched my spiritual life immensely. Continue reading

A Neglected Classic – Review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

uncletom Book InformationUncle Tom’s Cabin

Author – Harriet Beecher Stowe

Publication Information – This novel has had many publishers since its initial release in 1852. For classics, I often buy Dover Thrift Editions – $5.00 paperback, $0.99 digital

Reading Challenge book? Yes. This is a classic novel.

Though I’ve encountered few people nowadays who have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe was wildly popular at the time of its initial publication. Her fictional portrayal of slavery humanized the abolition debate and made a powerful emotional appeal. For that reason, many historians credit the novel with laying the groundwork for emancipation. Some have even credited the book with inflaming Northern sentiment in favor of civil war.

Growing up in the South, I always heard very mixed things about this book, but had not read the novel itself. Going into it, I knew that the book dealt with the slavery issue and I had been told that some of the enslaved characters are subjected to brutal treatment. Based on the descriptions, I had assumed that the book must center on escape from a plantation in the Deep South.

I could not have been more wrong in my assumptions. The book is actually set in Kentucky, and the slaveholder we meet initially is a far cry from the wealthy plantation class. Arthur Shelby, who appears to be a fairly modest Kentucky farmer, has fallen on hard times. As the book opens, he has decided to raise needed funds by selling two of his slaves. This prompts debate between him and his wife Emily – not because they have qualms about buying and selling human souls in general but because one of the slaves to be sold is the son of Emily’s maid and Mrs. Shelby had promised the maid that the Shelbys would keep her son.

What unfolds initially is a plot of great adventure as Emily’s maid Eliza escapes in a desperate attempt to save her son. Readers follow her dangerous path,and it’s almost impossible to read dispassionately as we see the dangers and deprivations she must endure. Continue reading

Warm Hearts and Open Homes – Review of A Life That Says Welcome

welcomelife Book Information A Life That Says Welcome: Simple Ways to Open Your Heart & Home to Others

Author – Karen Ehman

Publisher – Revell (2006, $16.00 paperback, $9.99 digital)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes! This is my book about Christian living. For more on the reading challenge, there’s a Goodreads group going here.

I tend to be a tad introverted by nature. I love  interacting with folks online (still wishing I could find a great online discussion group!), but I’m best with smaller groups in person. And maybe I’m a little bit of an anxious entertainer. I have a toddler, and my house reflects that. So, it’s hard to open my home without worrying about how it looks.

For that reason, I could relate to Ehman’s book. I really appreciated how she first grounded her ideas about hospitality in Scripture. She makes it clear that hospitality isn’t just a good idea, but something that we’re told to extend to others. And since we’re commanded to show hospitality to others, how do we go about it?

The word “welcome” gets used in this book, and that makes sense. Hospitality shouldn’t be about showing off how great we are, but more about making our guests feel comfortable and at home with us. For myself, I know that when I’m thinking about what will make guests feel cozy and well cared for, that takes away some of the anxiety. After all, extending hospitality isn’t about showing off what we have; it’s about sharing it. Continue reading

Interesting Ideas – Review of How the West Won

westwon Book InformationHow the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity

Author – Rodney Stark

Publisher  – Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI Books) (2014, $9.99 digital, $14.00 paperback)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes! Clocking in at 432 pages, this is my “Book With More than 400 Pages”.  For more on the reading challenge, there’s a Goodreads group going here.

I’ve not read Rodney Stark before, though I have heard his name mentioned. Stark is a prolific author and serves as Co-Director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. His background is in sociology rather than history, a piece of information I found helpful as I read this work. Stark appears to write more as an observer of human progress and societal developments rather than as a conventional political historian. When trying to understand patterns in history, this perspective is useful.

I did learn a fair amount from this book and I’m glad I read it, though I did find myself disappointed sometimes.  Why is this?  Well, Stark’s subject had much potential to it, but some of his arguments just did not get the full development they deserved.  The book is a little over 400 pages, but the vast sweep of history covered within could easily (and perhaps should have) filled multiple volumes. Continue reading

First Read of the Year: Review of For the Love

Book Information For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards

Author – Jen Hatmaker

Publisher – Thomas Nelson ($11.99 digital,  $22.99 hardcover (now on sale for $12.73 at Amazon)

Reading challenge book? Oh yes! This is “A Book That Has a Fruit of the Spirit in the Title.”

I’ll admit something. While I tend to read plenty of fiction, both old and hot off the presses, I do tend to shy away from trendy books when I’m choosing my nonfiction reads.

This one snuck in on me, though. Several of my friends enjoy Jen Hatmaker’s blog and I’ve read it myself every now and again. I don’t always agree with the views expressed, but I do find Hatmaker’s honesty and sense of humor very refreshing. When my book club decided to read this book as a “light read” for the end of the year, I picked it right up. The positive review by Tim Challies in WORLD magazine didn’t hurt either. Continue reading