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Book review: “Letters to an American Christian”

LetterstoAnAmericanChristian

How should the faith of American Christians affect their politics?
Bruce Riley Ashford, professor of theology and culture at Southeaster Baptist Theological Seminary, answers this question in a scholarly yet readable way in his new book, Letters to an American Christian (Nashville: B & H, 2018). He uses the technique of imaginary letters to a young new believer, named “Christian.” Imagining he is responding to Christian’s questions and experiences as a new believer and college student in a liberal secular university, he covers a vast array of topics from a Biblical worldview, including church and state, free speech, women’s rights, racism, Black Lives Matter, political correctness, big government, judicial activism, gun ownership, gay rights, transgenders, environmentalism, immigration, nationalism, war and peace, and fake news.
The author frequently includes catchy quotations, humor and personal references to his fictional friend that make the scholarly portions of the book come across more human. Yet he is clearly a scholar, drawing from a vast reading and rooted in Biblical references and concepts. In his chapter on immigration, I was surprised that he made no reference to the Old Testament injunction to protect the “sojourner” and “alien” among Israel, since they were once sojourners in Egypt. His political views are self-described as “center right” (p. 211), and this comes across consistently, as he defends most conservative views, but does it with compassion and moderation. He is strongly critical of secular and liberal political views. He also criticizes alt-right, ultra-conservative views, especially those that are mean-spirited.
Few people are likely to agree with every position Dr. Ashford takes on so many topics, but most Bible-believing Christians will find his book thought-provoking and helpful in forming their own positions.

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Book review: “Preaching By The Book: Developing and Delivering Text-Driven Sermons”

Preaching

R. Scott Pace, professor of preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written this concise, but thorough, manual on how to preach expository sermons.
The chapters are structured — like many sermons– with alliterated titles, under three main parts (The Foundation, The Framework, The Finishing Touches), and chapters under those parts (Inspiration, Investigation, Interpretation, Implementation, Introductions, Illustrations, Invitations, Conclusion). However, a better way to understand this book is found on page 18, where he gives a chart of a seven-step process of sermon development. The rest of the book fleshes out the skeleton of these seven steps. As an experienced preacher myself, I can testify that this is a very helpful, balanced, and Biblical approach. It is helpful because it is practical and applicable. It is balanced between theory and practice, and balanced in cautioning against extremes (such as not using too few or too many illustrations). It is consistently affirmed with Biblical reasons and quotations. The only major omission I noticed was no discussion whatsoever of Bible translations, which is a dilemma for many preachers.
Given the brevity of this book (115 pages of text), I was surprised at how much it covered. He does not go into great detail, yet he covers every important topic in the sermon process. He gives sufficient information and examples where needed, such as on page 62, where he gives a sample outline of a text. He frequently gives practical advice, as on page 15 where he advises the rule of thumb that the preacher dress one degree more formal than his listeners, and on page 106 where he suggests a preacher give those responding to the invitation one word to say as they come forward, to cope with their nervousness.
Overall, this can be an excellent textbook for a class on preaching (supplemented by a professor’s assignments of practicing sermon writing and delivery), a primer for a new preacher, and a tune-up for the seasoned preacher.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from B & H Bloggers. I was not obligated to write a positive review.

Book review: “A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity”

HospitalChaplain

Alberts, William E. A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, 2012.

This short, easy-to-read book is a series of 54 diverse vignettes that Rev. Alberts shares about people to whom he ministered as a board-certified, CPSP hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center. He has a loving and accepting approach to all of his patients, and he models some excellent approaches and conversations to the “crossroads of humanity” who need medical care. Health care chaplains and all those who minister to the sick will relate to many stories and can learn much from his compassion and wisdom.
The book is full of touching stories and pithy quotes, such as “religion is about the Golden Rule and not about the ‘gold’ that rules,” and a patient who was transformed from “a hopeless dope addict into a dopeless hope addict.”
However, those like myself who have a conservative, deeply held personal faith will likely be distracted and even annoyed that Rev. Alberts favors those who believe that all roads lead to God, which he spells with the small “g.” He emphasizes his theological position as a Unitarian and United Methodist (more Unitarian than Methodist), and stresses his distaste for conservative politics, especially military spending. Thus it seems odd to me, as a less experienced hospital chaplain myself, that he repeatedly tells how he begins a visit by asking a person’s religious affiliation. He frequently reports that people are defensive or confused by this question, yet he continues to ask it. He even reported that patients occasionally responded with apologies for not attending church, thus showing that the question put them on the spot. Since he seems sincerely focused on serving the needs of all patients, why not just ask the patient what is happening in their lives, and let them talk about their religious affiliation if they want to do so?
The Kindle edition has a few minor errors where lines are repeated or words are missing, such as page 138.

Be aware of these children’s books with an LGBT agenda

The July 1, 2017 issue of World magazine features four books with LGBT storylines that parents should be aware of:

Ashes to Asheville  by Sarah Dooley. (Target audience: ages 14 and up.) Set at a time before legalized same-sex marriage, Dooley’s second novel has 12-year-old “Fella” mourning her mother’s death and the disintegration of the only family she has known: Two moms and sister Zany. The story emphasizes prejudice and unfriendly laws, but it speaks louder of brokenness and confusion.

The Best Man by Richard Peck. (Target audience: ages 12 and up.) Archer Magill is slow to realize his fifth-grade teacher is gay and dating Archer’s uncle. Archer and those around him naïvely accept the relationship, which culminates in a wedding.

In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco. (Target audience: 8 and up.) A picture book told from a child’s perspective, two mothers—Marmee and Meema—appear fully able to offer their three adopted children a loving home. One neighbor snubs them and keeps her kids away, fuming, “I don’t appreciate what you two are!”  A hateful neighbor, not the absence of a father, hurts them.

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan. (Target audience: ages 10-13.) Parents and fans of Riordan’s wildly popular books should know that this second installment in his Nordic-themed fantasy series introduces a transgender, “gender-fluid” character, Alex Fierro. A son of Loki with a tumultuous past, “she” spontaneously changes gender and pronouns on any given day.

For more information, consult World magazine, an excellent news and culture magazine that writes from a Biblical worldview. Their website is www.wng.org.

Book review: “A House Put in Order”

HousePutInOrder

A House Put in Order, by J. Brian Broome, is an entertaining paranormal novel of a prison chaplain who must deal with the disaster in his prison just before Halloween, when a Wiccan inmate summons an evil spirit to get revenge on the deputy warden.
Although the book depicts a Christian chaplain responding to evil spirits, the book is not preachy. In fact, he is very respectful toward other religious faiths. That is not to say that he doesn’t include some enlightening insights, such as the comment in chapter 11, “When a man is beaten down by his pain, well, let’s just say pain doesn’t know religious affiliation.”
The author is a retired prison chaplain, and anybody who has spent time in the prison system will recognize how realistic his descriptions are. His characters are also realistic, and at times, humorous. (For example, in chapter 17, the chaplain reflects on an inmate who argued that since he was a new person in Christ, he should be set free from prison. The chaplain’s brilliant reply was to remind him that Jesus said to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, and added, “Your soul may belong to God, but right now your body belongs to Caesar.”)
After setting up characters and building the plot early in the book, the plot picks up pace and rushes straight to a ending that will keep you reading. Some might say the plot is a bit predictable toward the end, or at least it goes the way the reader would hope, although not entirely; you will certainly want to keep reading to find out how it ends. This book would make a great summer read, and a fantastic read around Halloween.

Book review: A novel of women surviving ISIS

whatcomeswiththedust

“Today is Nazo Heydo’s wedding. The day she will set herself on fire.”

Thus begins What Comes with the Dust: Goes with the Wind, Gharbi Mustafa’s gripping novel about women who survive the abuses of the Islamic State.

I have read Gharbi Mustafa’s first novel, When Mountains Weep, which is the story of a Kurdish boy coming of age when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tried to exterminate the Kurds. I knew Mustafa was as excellent novelist, so I was looking forward to this second novel about the suffering of Yazidi Kurds under ISIS. I was totally blown away by this new book. Mustafa’s first book was very good; this book is great.
What Comes with the Dust: Goes with the Wind is a long title, which comes from the Yazidi religious legends that are explained in the book. It is a story about two Yazidi women, Nazo and Soz, and their struggle to survive. Nazo must escape slavery from ISIS to reach her forbidden lover. Soz is a female soldier who fights ISIS but also struggles with a secret love. Their fates are intertwined in a heart-wrenching story taken directly from the events we see on the daily news.
In 2014, the world watched in horror as Kurdish helicopters dropped relief supplies and tried to rescue thousands of Yazidis on Shingal Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, trapped there by ISIS. Since then, the United Nations has recognized the Yazidis re the targets of genocide by the Islamic State.
Who are these Yazidis? Why are the Kurds so eager to rescue them? Why is ISIS so eager to destroy them? This novel answers these questions, even though it is a work of fiction. In story form, the novel unravels the mysteries of the Middle East to western readers. Along the way, Mustafa shows us the mysterious religion and culture of the Yazidis, and contrasts these peaceful people with the fanatical cruelty of ISIS. Rich in culture and characters, and jarring in its account of jihadist brutality, it is a story that keeps the reader turning the pages to the end. I simply could not put it down until I finished.
Gharbi Mustafa is uniquely qualified to write this story. A Kurd himself, Mustafa is professor of English at the University of Dohuk in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He has personally interviewed Yazidi women who escaped ISIS, and knows the culture like few writers in the English language. As a novelist, he writes in a way that is at once deeply moving and enlightening. It is well worth the two hours and 200 pages.

Book review: “Snoop: A Spiritual Memoir of a Vietnam Army Grunt”

snoop

Snoop: A Spiritual Memoir of a Vietnam Army Grunt (Published by Parables, 2016), by C. Wayne Harrison, is a 98-page book that tells stories of war, grouped together for devotional reflection. That may sound like an unusual approach, but Harrison makes it work.

Harrison was a private in the U.S. Army, who fought in the jungles in the Vietnam War in 1969-1970. Today he is Baptist minister in Booneville, Mississippi. In ten short chapters, he recalls his desire to be a soldier and relates in vivid detail the horrors he experienced in the war. Although the stories tend to move chronologically from early in his life through his year in Vietnam, the chapters are more thematic in nature, with titles such as, “The Heart of a Soldier,” “The Hands of a Soldier,” “The Hardships of a Soldier,” etc. Each chapter opens with a passage from the Bible, then focuses on stories that relate to the theme of the chapter, followed by some discussion questions and a prayer.

The reader identifies with the young man, who is nicknamed “Snoop” because of his lapel pin of Snoopy, the dog who imagined he was a fighter pilot, in the “Peanuts” comic strip. Some descriptions of war in the book may be disturbing to young readers, and the stories certainly are sobering even to mature readers. I believe Harrison’s writing will connect well with soldiers who read the book, and would make an excellent resource for military chaplains or anybody, especially soldiers, who are willing to reflect on God’s purpose for their lives.

The book is well-written, using excellent images and descriptions, and is easy to read, although I noticed a typo on p. 64, where the word “scar” was spelled “scare.” There are black-and-white photos of Harrison as a young soldier in the back of the book. In interest of full disclosure, I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author, with no obligation to write a favorable review.

Book review: “Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales”

DeadLawyersTellNoTales If you like John Grisham, you will probably like Randy Singer. I have read many of Singer’s legal suspense novels, and I found his plot twists to be consistently good, often better than Grisham. Singer is a Christian writer who avoids profanity and has a Christian worldview to his books. As a Christian myself, I really like that. But if you are not a Christian, don’t let that put you off, especially in Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales. Although his previous novels are not “preachy,” this novel is even less so. Singer simply weaves a captivating story of redemption. Landon Reed, a former SEC football quarterback who went to jail for taking a bribe to throw a game, wants to redeem himself by becoming a lawyer and helping others. He is an imperfect man who nearly falls again, and then gets caught up in a law firm where somebody is slowly killing every lawyer at the firm.

From beginning to end the plot kept my interest. Each short chapter seemed to end with something that made me want to read the next chapter and learn how the plot would resolve. Singer is a lawyer himself, and is able to describe complicated legal situations with clarity and detail. But what made this story engrossing in the first half was the theme of forgiveness and a second chance. In the second half, the plot accelerated and I couldn’t put down the book until I finished. This is probably Randy Singer’s best book to date.

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Book review on discipleship: “Growing Up”

GallatyCopyright 2013 by Bob Rogers

Robby Gallaty’s life was radically changed from drug-dealer to the pastor of a growing church. He credits the transformation not only to his conversion experience, but also to the process of personal discipleship he enjoyed under David Platt and others. His book, Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples, shares his passion for discipleship that he is living out as pastor of Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Gallaty gives a strong Biblical argument for the need for discipleship. The focal point of his book is the suggestion that instead of depending on Sunday School classes to do discipleship, churches should have small, closed discipleship groups with a leader and 3 or 4 other people of the same gender. He uses the name “D-group” for such discipleship groups. He prefers such small groups over discipleship by one-on-one mentors, saying one-on-one mentoring is harder to reproduce and may turn into a counseling relationship instead of a discipleship process. While he gives good reasons for the D-group, he seems to overstate the case that his is the best way. After all, Gallaty himself was mentored one-on-one by David Platt, while Jim Putnam’s book, Real-Life Discipleship, describes some effective discipleship with small groups that are larger than the size that Gallaty suggests.
Nevertheless, Growing Up is a useful resource for church leaders wishing to get serious about discipleship. The book is filled with practical advice about growing in one’s prayer life, Bible study, evangelism, and discipling others. Gallaty is fond of acronyms. The last six chapters of his book form the acronymn for the discipleship process: “CLOSER” which stands for Communicate, Learn, Obey, Store, Evangelize and Renew. He suggests the “HEAR” method of Bible study: Highlight, Explain, Apply and Respond. He says the D-group needs “FAT” belivers: Faithful, Available and Teachable.
While I would argue that D-groups are not the only way to do it, the fact remains that Gallaty is actually leading his church to do something, rather than just talk about it. I would highly recommend Growing Up as a resource that church leaders can use to implement true discipleship in their churches. It is “REAL” (Realistic, Easy to Read, Applicable, and Life-changing).

In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I received a free copy of this book for review, but I was under no obligation to write a positive review.

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Book Review: “Crime Scene Jerusalem: A Novel”

Copyright 2013 by Bob Rogers
Crime Scene Jerusalem
Crime Scene Jerusalem: A Novel by Alton Gansky (published by David C. Cook, 2007) does a masterful job of pulling off a peculiar premise: Max Odom, a forensics expert, is taken back in time to investigate the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gansky makes the story much more than believable– he makes it gut-wrenching. The forensics expert doesn’t want to be there, and expresses all of the sarcastic humor of a jaded American man. But when he comes face-to-face with the cross, and sees how Jesus’ death speaks to the pain in his own life, he… well, read the book yourself. You will not be able to put it down, and you’ll be changed by the experience. Gansky describes life and culture in first-century Jerusalem vividly, and Gansky keeps the reader guessing what hurt Max Odom experienced that must come to the surface as he witnesses the Passion of Christ. A fascinating read for the Easter season or any season.