Archives For Book Reviews

'Why?' is out now.
‘Why?’ is out now and available from The Book DepositoryAmazon

When I first heard about this book I was in the middle of thinking about suffering myself. I was writing an essay on evil and was consumed with the topic. So it was with great interest that I watched from a distance the last few months of the book’s production.

Of course, it’s easy to sit back and isolate the ‘problem of evil’, treating it purely intellectually. Pub chat, blog posts, academic essays – they go some way to examining the issue but all the talk falls short of actually confronting the full scope of this topic which seems to be as an 18-tonne truck, poised to run any one us over at any moment.

Yes, we can philosophise and wax lyrical about Hume, Epicurus etc. etc. but as we are told by Leonato in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, “there was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.”

It is with great sensitivity that Sharon Dirckx delves into this age-old problem. The genius of this book lays not so much in the answers given – which are presented clearly, concisely, and reasonably – but the manner in which the answers are wrapped up in bite-sized reality.

The book starts with the story of Millie, a little girl with a rare brain abnormality. The pain and anguish of the parents is conveyed through the pages as we watch their little girl fight for life. The story of this family retold frames the focus of the book as the search for meaning in the midst of pain and suffering.

The philosopher William Lane Craig has said that the question of suffering is, “undoubtedly the greatest intellectual obstacle to belief in God.” Perhaps in part the obstacle is so large because it is heard so loudly. It is of course a question that is common to all people. As Philip Brooks, quoted in the foreword by Ravi Zacharias, says, “If you preach to a hurting heart, you will never lack for an audience.”

Through the five stories of people coping with suffering the book positions the answers given as answers to real questions, questions any of us may ask. Far from an abstract treatment of the issue, we are tenderly coached to answer the questions honestly, in the face of reality.

However, it is the final narrative – that of the author’s own experiences – that provides the book with the proper tone to tackle this question. In sharing the suffering of her own family, Sharon Dirckx is able to treat this thorny subject with great care and sensitivity. Sharon’s shared experiences presents the text with a voice that resonates with the prayer, searching, and questioning that has been a part of her and her family’s life.

The stories of Sharon’s family, the other five stories, the answers from Christianity (alongside answers from other religions), and ultimately the portrayal of a deeply caring God, in Jesus, offers the reader a true hope.

I have already been happy to send copies to friends seeking answers in this world that can hold much pain, inevitably – or so it seems – coupled to confusion. Why? gently offers an accessible peace by placing suffering into a context of meaning, and ultimately hope. Sharon shows how Christianity – a relationship with Jesus Christ – makes sense of this broken world. And more than that – because knowing about something is never enough – we are shown how Jesus enters into our world and suffers for us and with us.

Buy this book, read it, and then think about whom you can give it to.

Why? is published by IVP and is available to buy from The Book Depository and Amazon.

The Defining Decade

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay
UK | US

I’ll level with you. Until a couple of years ago I wouldn’t have picked up this book. Psychology? Pah. Man up.

The older I get the more I narrow minded I realise I must have been and realise just how much grace I’ve been given by people around me!

I don’t know how the process of softening rock-hard judgements begins for everyone else. I suppose for me it’s a trust issue. If people or ideas I trust point me to areas that I haven’t explored/I’ve kept locked down, then, if I trust them enough, I may venture to that new area. With time I’ve realised these forays often prove very useful and they’ve become easier and easier with each successful trip.

It was the wisdom of my pastors in Maui and a friend/tutor in Oxford who helped illuminate my glaring blind spot here. Anyway, a few books later and this book, The Defining Decade pops up.

The Book

Easy, fun, and informative. The book, firstly, is easy to read. I don’t mean that it’s light fluff but that the author has a natural, gentle style that is a pleasure to read. Ideas are formed and repeated with just the right distance between the two to sit well in my mind.

Secondly, the book is fun. There are lots of stories. Some stories I laugh at, boldly. Some I laugh at a little more nervously as they land closer to home. Real-world stories help to connect the reader. Like a great film, we identify ourselves with certain characters. This is the same for The Defining Decade. I found myself turning to the next chapter keen to read the forthcoming story and see how much of me I saw in it.

Because of these two reasons, and probably many more, I learnt a lot from the book. Great writing + great storytelling = compelling learning. Here are some of things I learnt.

What I Learnt from The Defining Decade

I suppose that I didn’t walk away from this book saying, “Aha! I get it now.” Rather, the book reinforced some ideas I already held and helped to shape them to fit the stage of life I’m in now (side note: yeah, it’s risky to read this in your late twenties – who wants to hear they might have got them wrong?! – but hey, man up, it’s worth it).

The big idea is simply this, “Ideas have consequences.”

What we believe will determine how we act. Choices we make about career, marriage etc. well, they are big ideas, big decisions, and have big consequences.

Here are three things that stuck with me;

  1. Weak Ties“The Urban tribe is overrated” claims Jay. More and more, twentysomethings form a group of like-minded, socially-similar peers. With the dispersion of the family many people seek comfort in close friends. The trouble is, “the urban tribe helps us survive, it does not help us thrive.” By neglecting to cultivate weak-ties – relationships beyond our immediate close friends – we limit our connections and our potential.I can relate to Jay’s advice. My last job and my year of study in Oxford were the result of weak ties. I went out of my way to grab that lunch, have that coffee, with two “weak ties”. And big things happened as a result. If I had stayed put I would never have branched out discovered so much more of who I am and who I am meant to be.
  2. The Cohabitation EffectOk, so I knew that moving in with your boyfriend or girlfriend was a bad idea. Marriage first, that’s the way, right? What I didn’t realise was some interesting studies that show just why cohabitation before commitment is bad.Jay calls it, “Sliding not deciding.” Bob moves in with Jane because it makes life “simpler”. But they haven’t decided to get married. However, with time, their lives become more and more entwined. In the end it’s “simpler” to get married. But then the marriage breaks down. The reality is couples who live together first are more likely to divorce than couple who do not.There’s value to the right amount of space needed to make a good decision. Instead of being led by a rush of hormones, or by cold pragmatism, weigh up the decisions neutrally. A good reminder – not just for who to marry, although I can’t think of many bigger decisions.
  3. Delayed Gratification“People of all ages and walks of life discount the future, favoring the rewards of today over the rewards of tomorrow.”This might be the biggest, and one of the hardest, lessons to learn. Credit cards, passionate romance – our culture screams that whatever you want you can have it now. But then comes the mountains of debt and the heartache.We are promised bliss and happiness, but often it turns out to be a lie. The trouble is, even though we’ve been fooled before, we’re easily fooled again. The smart decision is to delay gratification. To work hard and put off the reward. To invest now and take later. But if the purpose of work is pleasure and gratification then we’ll easily put it all on credit to get it now. How we define work will define a very large portion of how we live.I find that being a Christian helps to break the cycle of “must-have-it-now”. In Jesus I can truly know myself and be truly satisfied in God. I have desires for other things, but Jesus is my chief desire and through worshipping Him my priorities and desires are straightened out. Being a Christian isn’t about killing desire, it’s about desiring the right things. We’re built as creatures of desire – but as C. S. Lewis talks about, we are “half-hearted creatures” with weak desires.

Conclusion

This is a really useful book and I have no problem recommending it to twentysomethings (or thereabouts). Especially so those in university or who have just left. The Defining Decade is full of helpful wisdom, the stories are down to earth and the points are well made.

Have you read it? I wonder what you think. Be great to hear from you on this.

Buy The Defining Decade on Amazon – UK | US

John Maxwell needs little introduction. A noted leadership and communication guru he is sought-after the world over for his accumulated expertise and wisdom. Actually, that is only half of his attraction. The other side of the coin is that Dr. Maxwell is a brilliant communicator himself, taking people with him on journeys of belief and expectation.

So when a new book from this New York Times Best-Selling stable is released with the title, Everyone Communicates, Few Connect there is a lot to anticipate.

I have a handful of Maxwell’s 30+ books on my bookshelves and have learnt much from him already. As a young man with a vision of my own I gravitate towards inspirational men who have can-do attitudes. These may be men I know and work with, men such as Carl Beech or the late Dr. Kit Lauer. Or these may be men I observe from afar such as Dr. John Piper and Dr. John Maxwell. Positive, forward-moving, encouraging people are attractive and also vital to the health of a vision, movement, organisation or team etc.

What I experienced first hand with Kit and from a distance with John Piper, is a strong arm around the shoulder championing me and urging my forwards with clarity and fidelity towards my goals. What men like Carl do is enable you to see mountains as targets for tunnels instead of dreaded obstacles of setback.

John Maxwell encompasses these traits and more and manages to convey them clearly, through the excellent help of his writer, Charlie Wetzel.

How I Read Everyone Communicates, Few Connect

I read this book a chapter a morning, marking up the book where things stood out to me and interacting in the form of asking questions of the text and it’s application to me. I also keep a Moleskin notebook where I can chew over thoughts that come to me from the text. Essentially, the notebook is a place for my ideas to roam with more space to breathe. So to speak.

Reading at this pace allowed me to think through the chapter for the rest of the day. I was taking each chapter as a separate lesson and gleaning what I could from it before progressing. The highlighting of the text will serve me well when I return to the book in reference at a later date.

What I Learnt From Everyone Communicates, Few Connect

With wisdom springing from every page it would require a lot of space to reflect on all the lessons that I have learnt. Here’s just one point that came home to me from chapter 2, Connecting Is All About Others. Essentially, what I learn was that if my agenda demands that I talk about me, without taking into consideration the thoughts, views, feelings, expectations and requirements of the person/people I’m trying to connect to I’ll lose my audience.

I must possess a genuine care and concern for my audience if I am serious about communication actually taking place.

This is highlighted through a question Maxwell asks:

“Think about the best experiences you’ve had with people in your life. Really stop for a moment, and try to recall three or four of those experiences. What do they all have in common? I bet that the person or people involved in them genuinely cared about you!”

Immediately my friend, Trevor, sprang to mind. Trevor jumped on a plane with me when he heard about a situation I was facing and thought to himself that I could do with the support of a friend. A red-eye across 6 time zones at the drop of a hat, no questions asked. Yeah, that was an experience created through genuine care that I’ll never forget.

The truth is, there is a wealth of wisdom in everyone Maxwell book, and Everyone Communicates, Few Connect has chock-full. One gem I have taken from earlier books is this little maxim: “Vision comes first, resources will follow.” To this day I can be heard muttering that to myself when big opportunities appear on the horizon!

Big Picture

Two lessons that I take from this book as a whole and from Dr. Maxwell in general are these:

  • Stories have immense potential as connectors
  • Competence counts for nothing when character is lacking

Stories

Ravi Zacharias is a master story teller. The famed Christian Apologist has a gift for communicating compelling truths through the brilliant use of timely stories. Indeed, most memorable lessons I have learnt from Dr. Zacharias come off the back of a well told-story.

John Maxwell is also a champion of this method. Stories, little anecdotes, a personal tale, they are all used to engage the imagination and home in on the point at hand. These stories have been amassed over time and it is a skill that has been invested in. So now I keep notes on stories through my Moleskin or in my ‘Clippings’ folder on my laptop.

Character

Dr. Os Guinness wrote a short book entitled ‘Character Counts’. This book examines the characters of four noted leaders from History. The premise is simple, to succeed in leadership and life in general your character is crucial.

John Maxwell chooses to finish his book on this note as well. It is something that Maxwell takes pain to highlight throughout the entirety of his writings. It is the point that demands the most reflection from the reader.

“Credibility is currency for leaders and communicators. With it, they are solvent; without it they are bankrupt.”

We are only credible to the point that our character backs up our what we say. If we say one thing and don’t appear to live it then we are contradicting ourselves and poisoning our message. Character development, whilst often slow and sometimes painful is the only way to both land and sustain your message. So if you have something to say, put in the time to work on your character so when you say it your message is heard and received.

There are no short cuts to a robust character. Like getting fit it’s tough, but worth it.

Everyone Communicates, Few Connect is available to buy from Amazon (UK|US). I recommend it to everyone who wishes to communicate anything to anyone.

 

Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a book that I was eager to read. It finally made its way to my reading list courtesy of Father Christmas and I made good use of the holiday season to dive in.

I first became aware of Dietrich Bonhoeffer through his book, The Cost of Discipleship. Held in high regard by many Christians, Discipleship takes the role of the Christian seriously, managing to walk that tight line between highlighting the requirement of good works in obedience and the act of salvation which is only through God’s grace. Being a Christian has implications; being a Christian brings action with conviction.

Discipleship in many ways portrays the life that Bonhoeffer himself led. Eager to find out more about the man and how he fit into, and indeed shaped history, I started ‘Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy’ with enthusiasm.

From the moment I entered the pages I knew that Metaxas had done his homework. This is not merely a salute to a personal hero with a few gaps filled in. No, this is clearly the product of much research into Bonhoeffer’s life through the dissemination of as much information that can possibly be found about him. From personal letters to all sorts of interesting people to essays and positional pieces on the state of the church, the reader is afforded a close look at the world that Bonhoeffer occupied.

However, at this point I must sound my first note of concern. This may merely turn out to be stylistic, and a matter of personal taste, but it bothers me enough to mention it.

One aspect of a well-written biography that I enjoy is the chance to see the world through the eyes of the subject of the book. To experience the relationships, the geography, the politics and prevailing thoughts of the day. Bonhoeffer was brought up and educated in Berlin, a centre of learning, high thought and excellence. With strong links to pre-Great War Germany and keeping with the traditions of 19th Century Europe, Berlin was at that time a city of high culture and nobility.

Through the great use of correspondence and with an awareness of the historical scene at large the stage is set and the reader is invited to participate in 1930s Berlin, only then to be yanked back to the present day by sloppy colloquialisms from Metaxas. There is a light-heartedness in the style of writing that makes Metaxas very readable and yet at the same time almost unsuitable for critiquing this period in history.

One could indeed argue that this is a book written for an audience today, merely peering into a window in history. Yet if we are to judge history by today’s eyes alone are we not acting in snobbery in assuming that we, living in the present, are more enlightened by the mere fact that we came after the events we are studying?

Moving on from the style, the substance of the book is reflective of the obvious research that has gone in to this work. The relationships that are essential to the character development of Bonhoeffer are teased out in a fashion that show clearly the pieces of the puzzle coming together at key times in Bonhoeffer’s life.

From his close friends and family at home in Germany, to his friends abroad throughout Europe and particularly in England and the US we see the development of a man and the thought processes which ultimately shaped the direction of his life.

We are privy to the dreams and hopes of Bonhoeffer – which surely make up as much of a man’s personality as his actions. Indeed, we see how his actions are directed by his aspirations and to separate the two would present only half of the truth.

Metaxas labours to spend time on the formation of Bonhoeffer’s character before World War II, where Bonhoeffer would ultimately make his name in defiance to both the German church and the Nazi regime.

We see the development of intimate discipleship groups – the formation of which brought back something lost to the Western church for a great number of years. We also see the deep relationships that were forged which would ultimately be of assistance to Bonhoeffer and many varied ways.

Some of the overall history, especially towards the end of the book during World War II flirts with revisionism but that can be forgiven with the understanding that the author, much as the reader will be, is caught up with Bonhoeffer as the central focus of the story. By the last few chapters the reader does indeed begin that he feels like he knows Bonhoeffer and this emotional investment can change how the reader sees the overall global historical picture.

It is on that last point that I conclude. Metaxas may employ a different style of writing than my personal preference and may depart from the historical record on occasion. He may even make some theological errors, although that is not for me to comment on. However the reader is left at the end feeling that he has made a friend in Bonhoeffer. Through the piecing together of the intimate and profound moments of Bonhoeffer’s life we are left with an empathy for this brilliant, passionate, affectionate and courageous man who whichever way you read history has left his indelible mark upon it.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy is for sale on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com

ESV Study Bible

May 6, 2009 — 5 Comments
ESV Study Bible

The ESV Study Bible

It was a long time ago that I heard that Crossway would be putting out a new Study Bible. The pre-publishing buzz really got me quiet excited. The Bible came out and I thought, “OK, I don’t really need it, I can wait until Christmas.” Christmas came and went and alas, no big hunking book in my stocking.

Then came the good news; The Gospel Coalition were handing them out to those who attended the conference in Chicago. So I counted down the days until the conference and was duly rewarded on the opening day with my not-so-portable Study Bible.

I managed to get the said Bible back to England and now I have the opportunity to enjoy it. To be honest, I’ve already been using a friend’s copy when I was with YWAM in Maui so I knew what I was getting myself into.

So my thoughts so far. The book is big. Bigger than most. And all that excess is in-depth articles and commentary on the text. There are great intros to the books, as well as guides to the literature. There are also some great looking maps and charts. I’ve been going over 1 and 2 Peter quite thoroughly again (as inspired first by Tom Osterhus in my YWAM days, and later Mark Driscoll) and I’ve found the notes incredibly helpful in my understanding of the text.

I don’t feel as if I’m simply reading the footnotes either, as I’m prone to do with some commentaries, but rather that the footnotes keep me in the text and help me to dig deeper in my study. John Piper stressed at the above mentioned conference that we young teachers need to ‘wrestle’ with the Word of God, to really stress over the words used. I’ve found that the ESV Study Bible helps me to do that.

As well as all this, the whole Bible – with notes, articles, maps, charts etc. – is online and open to all who have purchased a copy of the Bible. The book is big, and so if you’re travelling somewhere and don’t fancy lugging it along then you can look things up online. This is much more than a gimmick – it’s a really useful addition that will be of great help.

I’ve found so far that the ESV Study Bible has been greatly helpful to me. I’d recommend it hands down to anyone who a) doesn’t have a Study Bible, b) wants to add another tool to their library, c) anyone with £30 to spare.

The ESV Study Bible is availble for sale on Amazon and all good Christian bookshops.