2016 Reading Challenge: December Update and End-of-Year Round-up!

Time for the final 2016 Reading Challenge update!

This month, I only read one more book from the list:

A Book About Money: Love Your Life, Not Theirs, by Rachel Cruze. This volume by the daughter of Dave Ramsey (and heir-apparent of his financial-counseling empire) is a lighter version of the core Dave Ramsey principles, with some extra material thrown in. In the book, Cruze lists 7 principles for finding contentment, which includes things like “avoid debt,” “save money,” and “use a budget.” Essentially, if you are familiar with Dave Ramsey’s “Baby Steps,” there’s nothing groundbreaking or useful here. The only addition Cruze makes is some discussion of the dangers of comparing yourself to others. However, the book mostly avoids the spiritual aspects of contentment and jealousy, so the reader is left with a bland, faith-lite exhortation toward gratitude and generosity as a solution for envy and discontentment. In the end, this book is fluff: watered-down, non-challenging, non-offensive. It seems like she’s trying to move away from the brusqueness associated with Dad, but it’s weak tea, so don’t bother.

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Final tally for the 2016 Reading Challenge: 33/52. I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t do better, but honestly, it’s a good run, considering how many additional books I read this year. All in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the experience. As you can see by the list below, the challenge successfully broadened my typical reading, and took me out of my  comfort zone. While I don’t plan on tackling another reading list in 2017, I will certainly give it a go down the road.

Reading Challenge Categories completed:

A book about Christian living
A biography
A classic novel
A book more than 100 years old
A book for children
A mystery or detective novel
A book published in 2016
A book about a current issue
A novel that won the Pulitzer Prize
A book with at least 400 pages
A book with a great cover
A book on the current New York Times list of bestsellers
A graphic novel
A book of poetry
A book that won a ECPA Christian Book Award
A play by William Shakespeare
A humorous book
A book based on a true story
A book written by Jane Austen
A book with 100 pages or less
A book with a one-word title
A book about money or finance
A novel set in a country that is not your own
A book about music
A memoir
A book about joy or happiness
A book by a female author
A self-improvement book
A book by David McCullough
A book you own but have never read
A book targeted at the other gender
A book by a speaker at a conference you have attended
A book written by someone of a different ethnicity than you
Check back tomorrow for my full 2016 reading list, and my top-five favorite books of the year!

2016 Reading Challenge Update: October/November

Time for another update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

You may be thinking, “Wait, Dave’s still doing this thing?” And the answer is…kind of?

I’m not sure why, but October and November were just not very bookish for me. Personal reasons aside, I just didn’t make reading a priority like I had in previous months. Also, as I noted previously, my limited reading was often occupied with non-Reading-Challenge materials.

That said, I did finish one short book from the Reading Challenge list:

A book about music: On Bowie, by Rob Sheffield. I mentioned in an earlier Friday Five post that I was slowly working my way through this one, with mixed feelings. While I definitely love Sheffield’s writing, I realized that my understanding and appreciation of David Bowie was very shallow. In a sense, “my” Bowie was the elder-statesman Bowie–more subdued, less sexually-charged, singing about love and loss. Sheffield’s short but adoring biography of David Bowie gave me a fuller understanding of the artist’s long and turbulent career. And to be honest, I find I’m starting to distance myself from him as a result. I can’t explain it other than to say I’m seeing in a new way how out there Bowie often was, and it’s turning me off a bit. I still recognize his immense talent–I’d never argue that. I guess I’m just seeing that Bowie isn’t my bag anymore, if he ever was. (I’m pretty sure Sheffield would be horrified and/or outraged by this response.)

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There’s one month left in the 2016 Reading Challenge. Guess what? I’m not going to make it.

Right now, the tally sits at 32 out of 52. A respectable number, especially given how many extra books I threw into the mix this year.

For this final month of the year, I’m going to focus primarily on books that I have committed to reviewing on the blog. (I’m already about halfway through one more book from the reading list on money/finance, but that shouldn’t take long.) Some of these books for review can be applied to reading list categories, but most will not. However, I want to make sure I take care of these commitments I have made (some of them, months ago).

So my expectation is that I will reach at least 35 out of 52 before year’s end. As for the books and reviews coming up this month (hopefully): selections by Jared Wilson, RC Sproul, Tom Schreiner, Kevin Van Hooser, and others. Some tough sledding, but what better time for that than winter, right?

As for next year, who knows? I may decide to finish out this list before doing anything else. Or I may chuck the rest of this list and tackle something else. Tim Challies has already posted a 2017 Reading Challenge list, but I don’t think I’ll attempt that one next year. I have piles of unread books (both physical copies and Kindle books) that I would like to work through, so I may decide to do just that, and post little capsule reviews on this page from time to time (similar to these monthly updates).

Until then, thanks for reading.

Your Turn: Reading anything good lately? Let me know in the comments below!

The4thDave Reviews: “Kill Devil” by Mike Dellosso

The Hook: In this sequel to 2015’s Centralia, Jed Patrick has been living “off the grid” in a mountain cabin with his wife Karen and daughter Lilly under assumed identities. They have guarded the flash drive that contains all the secrets of the government program known as “the Centralia project,” and have done everything they could to stay out of sight until they figure out how to release the data. Unfortunately, their location is discovered by government operatives. The safety of their daughter is threatened, and they’re given a new mission: help a small group of operatives within the CIA expose and take down a plot to overthrow the federal government. However, as Jed begins to learn what exactly he’s being asked to do, he starts to wonder if the people he’s working with are the ones who can help him…or the ones he has been trying to escape.

What Worked: Jed Patrick worked. Dellosso has created a solid protagonist that seeks to do the right thing and wrestles with the moral challenges and ambiguities of the situations he faces. This isn’t a Hollywood tough-guy type that blithely takes life and inflicts pain. Patrick seeks to incorporate the realities of his faith into the darkness of his daily life. This is a character whom I have enjoyed getting to know over the course of these two books.

The action in Kill Devil is fast-paced. Dellosso knows how to keep the tempo up on his stories, and once things kick off in the first chapter, the novel does not slow down a bit. These stories seem like they would make a natural jump to film adaptation.

What Didn’t: The thing I liked best about Centralia was that there were so many twists and turns, I really didn’t know what to expect. I just can’t say the same for Kill Devil. Dellosso delivers a few surprises, but the “big twists” were telegraphed to the point that I got impatient waiting for the other shoe to drop. While the reader may not be able to predict all the finer details, the broad strokes are easy to anticipate. In the end, my expectations for another thrill ride were pretty let down.

The narrative sections that focus on Jed’s daughter Lilly just didn’t work for me, for 3 reasons: 1) They didn’t really contribute to the main plot. There seemed to be threads of subplots that were perhaps abandoned, and as a result they felt a bit irrelevant. 2) Lilly is, honestly, a boring character. She’s a cipher, a perfect little girl who seems to be there to say something cute or spiritually poignant. 3) The spiritual content in this book takes a turn into the “personal messages from Jesus” and “dreams and visions” area, particularly when it comes to Lilly. Depending on your theological beliefs about such things, your mileage may vary. However, for this 93% cessationist, it really took me out of the story.

Final Analysis:  Y’all, I’ve been avoiding doing this review (which is why I’ve kept putting it off for about 2 months). Mike Dellosso seems like a really nice guy, and I will definitely keep reading his stuff. I honestly wanted to like Kill Devil, but by the last page, I was left disappointed. Centralia was a nail-biter of a novel that kept you guessing. Kill Devil felt more paint-by-numbers. The obvious bad guy is obvious, the final act plot twist was telegraphed, and the overall story felt derivative. I liked particular story beats, like the Alcatraz sequence. Dellosso writes great action sequences. I was glad to get another Jed Patrick story. But if this were my introduction to the Jed Patrick novels, rather than Centralia, I wouldn’t be as motivated to look forward to more.

 

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Please Note: I was provided a free copy of the book by the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed above are my own.

The4thDave Reviews: “The Pastor Theologian” by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson

When it comes the world of pastoral ministry, I’m a civilian, or at best a reservist. I have experience teaching Bible studies for several years, and very occasionally stepping behind a pulpit during a Lord’s-Day or mid-week service. I am also a very-part-time seminary student who still holds out hope of one day transitioning to some sort of bi-vocational or full-time pastoral ministry. I note all this to say, I am more interested in the pastoral office than the average churchgoer. Books about ministry interest me both practically and aspirationally.  For this reason, I started reading The Pastor Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson.

In The Pastor Theologian, the authors identify a trend in the church that concerns them: namely, that “pastors aren’t theologians and theologians aren’t pastors.” This unhealthy division of labor, they argue, results in spiritual anemia in both the church and the academy.  After outlining the problem in the first few chapters, the authors then examine the relationship between the pastorate and the role of theologian throughout the history of the Church. They note that until the time of the Enlightenment, the Church was closely involved with education, and there was close cooperation between the university and the church, not only in Europe but in the United States, as the earliest universities and colleges were primarily begun as seminaries. However, with the advance of the Enlightenment, the academy pulled away from the Church and began critiquing and opposing it. In the US, the years after the Second Great Awakening found the same thing happening: academia asserted its independence from the Church. The result of this, the authors suggest, is that “theology” has become “ecclesially anemic, and the church has become theologically  anemic.”

The solution, according to Hiestand and Wilson, is a return of the pastor theologian, and particularly the ecclesial theologian. In Chapter 6 (in my opinion, the most useful of the book), they present a taxonomy of pastor theologians. In this chapter, they address 3 types of pastor theologians:

The local theologian is a pastor who provides theology to the local congregation; the popular theologian offers more widely accessible theological reflection for a broader swath of the church; and the ecclesial theologian gives theological leadership to other theologians and scholars, all the while keeping a close eye on genuine ecclesial (as opposed to academic) concerns.

They suggest that this last type, the ecclesial theologian, is “indispensable to the reshaping of the theological identity of the pastoral vocation.”

These three types are contrasted against the academic theologian, who is thinking and writing within the academy. Academic theologians, the authors suggest, are bound to the expectations and limitations of secular academic publication, and cannot write from a pastoral or church-centric position. Thus, academic theology is largely bound to a level of neutrality and disinterested separation that ecclesial theology is not.

What Worked

First, the authors unambiguously put the responsibility of theological leadership on the shoulders of the local pastor. Throughout the book, there is a call for the local pastor to labor in study and research so that he may preach and teach with a robust theology. This idea cannot be said enough, in my opinion.

Second, this book really helps to clarify the different tracks and approaches one can take in a pastoral setting. While the main thrust of the book is a call for ecclesial theology, they give honor and regard to each type of theologian, and discuss the benefits of both local and popular theology. I found this to be refreshing as well.

Third, the book is clearly intended to be inspiring, rather than merely descriptive. Rather than merely critiquing the intellectual shift in pastoral theology in the past 200 years, the authors are seeking to do something about it. It is clearly an area where they are passionate, and that comes through in several places.

What Didn’t Work (at least for me)

I had a few concerns about the book, as I read it, and some of them grew a bit over time.  First, I’m not as widely read as some. So there were times when the authors would refer to academic theologians in a positive manner, and I wasn’t able to recognize most of the names. It would have been more helpful to me personally if I were more familiar with academic theology, so that I can understand better where the authors were coming from, doctrinally and ideologically.

Second (and again, this may just be me), the book struggled to hold my interest in a few sections.  The early chapters that detailed the history of each type of theologian throughout the first 1700 years of church history began to drag on, and I found myself tempted to skim over paragraphs more and more. The latter chapters, in which the authors detailed ways to promote the development of ecclesial theologians, also lost my attention. There were lots of practical suggestions and case studies for church administration approaches in this area, but it started to feel a bit repetitive. This information might have been better saved for an appendix, with fewer case studies or more targeted questions and answers. I am fully willing to admit that I may not be the target audience for this type of material, so others who are more directly involved in these scenarios may benefit more.

Finally, the thing that confused me most was that the goal the authors spent the entire book calling for is already happening. They seem to treat the idea of an ecclesial theologian — a church theologian writing to church theologians — as a kind of unicorn, lost long ago but perhaps one day re-discovered.

Maybe it’s just that my experience is within a particular niche of the Church (conservative, reformed or reformed-ish evangelicalism), but I’m seeing several examples of ecclesial theology happening already. Places like Southern Seminary are producing pastor-theologians who are doing deep theological research. Men like Dr. Jim Hamilton and Kevin DeYoung are producing works of ecclesial theology while still ministering to local congregations. Journals like Themelios feature peer-reviewed articles by pastor-theologians. (Incidentally, Themelios reviewed this book very favorably!) All in all, I think the authors should be more encouraged that the very thing they are calling for is really happening, in many circles.

Final Analysis: The Pastor Theologian is a clarion call for the return of serious theology that is grounded in the realities of church ministry. Their taxonomy of pastor theologians is extremely helpful in understanding the different circles of influence a pastor might have, and I benefited from their considerations of the impact of vocation on thought process as well as their understanding on the differences between ecclesial and academic theological writing.

On the whole, I don’t think The Pastor Theologian is bad in any particular way. (I know, that sounds like “damning with faint praise.”) It just wasn’t for me, I think. However, those theologians that the authors are calling for may well benefit from their work here.

 

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Please Note: I was provided with a free electronic copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding thoughts are entirely my own.

 

The4thDave Reviews: “Onward” by Dr. Russell Moore

I have to admit: my relationship with Dr. Russell Moore’s work has been…evolving. Dr. Moore’s book Tempted and Tried was a challenging book that I have recommended to others in the past. I heard the man speak during a lunch for prospective seminary students, and his words stirred me and confirmed my desire to pursue full-time Christian ministry down the road. To be honest, it was Drs. Moore and Mohler that clinched Southern Seminary as my school of choice. But then, over the last few years, Dr. Moore has said and done things that left me scratching my head. I have found myself disagreeing more and more with Moore’s tendency toward coalition-building across denominational and even religious lines.

So when I had the opportunity to read and review his new book Onward, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do so. Having finished it, I can say that I’m glad I did. Onward is, above all else, an incredibly hopeful book about the opportunities that lay before the American church in the coming century.

Commendations

The heartbeat of the book is the idea that the Church must accept that it is becoming more and more counter-cultural in America. Moore repeats the refrain that the days of “traditional Judeo-Christian values” and the Moral Majority are at an end, but that this is ultimately a good thing for America and for the American Church. As Christians let go of any perceived cultural power, we are freed to act like the ordinary radicals we were called to be–people who hold to “bizarre” sexual and relational ethics of chastity and monogamy, people who seek to overcome through weakness and sacrifice instead of strength, people who are marked by a strange grace and compassion for those that society deems irrelevant. This truth is sorely needed in the American Church today.

Dr. Moore is sometimes criticized for being too ideologically or politically liberal. While I think his positions are closer to the middle than the left, I will acknowledge that I disagree with him on more than a few political issues. However, it is crystal clear in Onward that Moore upholds the authority of the Scriptures, the lordship of Jesus Christ, and the primacy of the Gospel message in the mouths and hearts of the American Church. Whatever knocks Moore’s opponents have on him, he is still a brother in Christ, and his work elevates the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is certainly material to commend in this book. The chapters on human dignity, family stability, and convictional kindness are strong and convicting.

Concerns

While I agree with many of Moore’s arguments and solutions, I can’t accept all of them. In recent years, Dr. Moore has demonstrated a growing comfort level with ecumenism (the linking of arms with people of different faith backgrounds) for the sake of social causes. This type of coalition-building is recommended throughout Onward. However, I’m still not convinced that linking arms with people of other faiths to address topics like same-sex marriage or human trafficking is the right answer. No matter with whom we lock arms outside of Christianity, we will ultimately disagree with our co-belligerents on both the cause and the solution for any societal ill we seek to remedy.

Dr. Moore writes in several chapters about how the Church should have a prophetic voice in the public sphere and the political process. Yet, he also decries how Christians have politicized their moral campaigns in the past. This seems to be a disconnect. If the use of political influence to accomplish a moral agenda was wrong then, why is it more acceptable now? It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood Dr. Moore’s intention here, but this just seemed like a logical disconnect for me.

The fifth chapter in the book, “Mission,” was problematic for me for both of the reasons described above. Dr. Moore argues that Christians should be engaged in actively seeking righteousness and justice in their culture. However, he argues that “the new birth itself is not the stand-alone remedy for the work of righteousness and justice. We cannot simply assume that ‘changed people’ will ‘change the world.‘” He goes on to suggest that Christians have the responsibility to seek good actively in the world, rather than passively hope things will get better.

While I agree on some level with the second half of that quote, I have to disagree strongly with the first. It is precisely the New Birth that brings about true change in cultures. When the Holy Spirit brings a spiritually-dead person to life, it is only then that they can seek true righteousness and justice. Apart from that, there may be some temporary improvements, but the fruit wouldn’t last. The most powerful force in all of human existence is the proclamation of the transforming Gospel. Cultural change without spiritual change is hollow secular piety at best, a cultural morality that will change and “evolve” with every passing generation. In this chapter, Moore misconstrues the counter-arguments he is facing. The issue is not that Christians refuse to alleviate suffering and injustice in this life. The great concern that I and others like me have is that we must be careful not to stifle the eternal message of the Church through a primary focus on this life alone. The message of the Church is that Christ came to save sinners from the divine wrath they have justly earned. The Church’s call to the ends  of the earth is not, “We will save you from injustice!” but “Christ can save you from condemnation!”

In these and other moments, I feel like Dr. Moore has misunderstood or mischaracterized the arguments and concerns of those who he is trying to argue against or persuade. The issue for many believers is not that we don’t realize doing good for others is good. Rather, we are seeking to address first what we feel may be the most urgent need for that person.

Final Verdict: While this book is far from perfect, there are some really helpful and challenging ideas that Christians in the American Church should consider and wrestle with. While I obviously disagree with several parts of it, it would be worth reading and discussing with mature and discerning believers.

On the whole, Onward was a challenging work for me, on a few levels. First, it challenged me to reconsider Dr. Moore and reminded me of the areas where we have common ground. Second, it forced me to think through the way that I respond to the vast cultural changes taking place in my country. Third, the book helped me reevaluate the ways my Christianity had been influenced by my political ideology, so that I might not make the same mistakes my spiritual predecessors did. Finally, Onward reminded me that we Christians are to be a people characterized by hope–hope that is not found in political influence or cultural cache, but hope in a resurrected Savior who defeated death by death and rose again to triumph forevermore. Whatever our political or cultural fates in this age, we await a better country, a secure and unshakeable city, and a righteous, just, and triumphant King.

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Please Note: I was provided a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. The preceding comments are purely my own.

The4thDave Reviews: “The Last Con” by Zachary Bartels

[I’ve noticed that my book reviews differ depending on genre. With novels, I’ll give a synopsis or pitch before reviewing–something I don’t do with non-fiction. I don’t know why that is, truth be told. If you like it, or don’t, let me know below. Now, for the review…]

The Pitch: Fletcher Doyle is trying to stay on the straight and narrow. After serving six years in prison, this career con-man is working hard to restore his relationship with his family, though things aren’t going too smoothly. While in prison, Fletcher became a follower of Jesus, but even he is now starting to have doubts about whether or not he really is a changed man. During a church mission trip back into his old stomping ground of downtown Detroit, Fletcher is suddenly pulled back into the game, as an old associate and a mystery involving the treasures of an ancient, mysterious sect tempt Fletcher once more to become the man he’s trying so hard to leave behind.

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The Review: The Last Con by Zach Bartels is like a great heist movie. The characters are interesting and likeable. The background of the “Macguffin” is  interesting. The action is fast-paced and thrilling. As the reader, you’re happily munching popcorn as you follow the adventure. This book has all the necessary elements for this kind of story: the set-up, the small heist, the complication, the big heist, the plan breaking down, the shocking reveal. That’s not to say the book is formulaic–at least, not in a negative way. If the book follows tropes, it does so only to suddenly shift your expectations. You realize at a few key points that you’ve been duped as well. While the ending of the book wasn’t a complete surprise, that’s only because I had about 5 different theories in my head about who the “big bad” was. Still, I was not disappointed at all with how the book resolved.

Bartels has created a caper that could easily work on-screen, though such an adaptation would probably lose the fascinating historical elements of the story. There are actually two main narratives at work: Fletcher’s story and the history of Count Cagliostro, a legendary (and infamous) master thief and con-man from the era of the French Revolution. (I’ll leave you to find out how the two stories intersect.) I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because I’d hate to spoil anything else.

Another satisfying element to this novel is how the themes of redemption and identity are woven  throughout the story. It’s almost as if you as the reader fall for the misdirection of the “heist” narrative, until you suddenly recognize the spiritual themes unfolding before you. Just as with Mike Dellosso’s Centralia, the book avoids the preachiness that sometimes plagues Christian fiction, while still presenting Biblical truth in a moving way. So it’s not an evangelistic book, as such, though it could provoke some Gospel conversations for those with ears to hear.

A quick note on “content”: Unlike mainstream crime/caper novels, this one avoids lewd sexual content and profane language. The violence is clear but understated, aside from a few brief descriptions of fatal head-shots. The only notes I’d make on coarse language are one use of a coarse slang term and one instance of innuendo–but nothing overt or gratuitous. Just wanted to mention it for those who would share this book with kids/teens.

Final Verdict: The Last Con by Zachary Bartels is great fun. Definitely worth a read if you’re looking for the literary equivalent of Oceans Eleven or The Sting or another film of that type. It’s available now at Amazon and other retailers, and would be a perfect “end of summer” read.

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Please Note: I was provided a physical copy of the book by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The preceding thoughts are wholly my own.

The4thDave Recommends: “What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?” by Kevin DeYoung

One of the big cultural conversations of the summer has centered on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. While the arguments surrounding this issue have shifted in different directions, the key positions have remained pretty much the same: acceptance/approval of a homosexual lifestyle versus disapproval of the lifestyle. Some have tried to carve out a “third way” of same-sex acceptance in the Church, but this third way seems to follow the shape and pattern of the newer way, the path of acceptance, approval, and endorsement.

The conversation about homosexuality has shifted away from the abstract and become more personal, anecdotal, emotional. It’s no longer a social discussion of general morals or traditional beliefs; it’s now a discussion about your neighbor or co-worker. Proponents of “gay rights” have focused on stories about individuals who have suffered mistreatment and abuse, and these stories are meant to tug at the heartstrings and sway those who are ideologically undecided.  As a result, some Christians who at one time held to the traditional, orthodox understanding of sexuality are being swayed by these heartbreaking stories and tear-jerking anecdotes, and slowly abandoning their once-firmly-held beliefs about human sexuality.

If you are experiencing this convictional drift, or you want to be able to encourage those who may be drifting, I would like to recommend Kevin DeYoung’s new book, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (hereafter referred to as “WDBRTH”). In this short volume, DeYoung provides a straight-forward, readable groundwork for understanding homosexuality through a Biblical lens. He doesn’t argue from feelings or mere opinions or even the natural and social sciences. His arguments are grounded fully in the pages of Scripture.

From the very beginning, DeYoung makes clear that he is not impartial in this discussion; rather, he fully admits that he is writing “a Christian book, with a narrow focus, defending a traditional view of marriage.” Undoubtedly, this would lead some critics to dismiss his work here outright. While I can understand that response, I would suggest that even those who are predisposed to disagree with DeYoung’s conclusion should at least engage his arguments, if for no other reason than to encounter a well-written, thoughtful example of the traditionalist position.

In Part 1 of WDBRTH, DeYoung examines 7 Biblical passages that address human sexuality. He compares the traditional interpretation of these passages to what he calls the “revisionist” interpretation. He employs a grammatical-historical hermeneutic of the original texts (even addressing some of the Hebrew and Greek terminology in a lay-friendly manner), and cites a substantial number of authors on both sides of the discussion.  Throughout this section, DeYoung makes his case that the traditionalist position is consistent with an orthodox interpretation of the Bible.

In Part 2 of WDBRTH, DeYoung then addresses 7 common arguments against the traditionalist position. This section includes questions about the evolving meaning of “homosexuality” (and whether there was a Biblical understanding of sexual orientation), the Church’s perceived inconsistency regarding other sins, and the nature of God as a “god of love.” DeYoung doesn’t dismiss these questions, but sincerely addresses them as legitimate concerns. Through this section, the reader gets a glimpse of DeYoung’s pastoral side. His tenderness and genuine concern for people comes through in how he deals with these sensitive issues, while still affirming the traditional interpretation of Scriptural truth.

WDBRTH includes 3 appendices that are worth a look as well. The first was clearly written back before the Supreme Court’s recent decision, as it weighs the prospect of legal sanction for same-sex “marriage.” The second appendix addresses how the Church can minister to those who wrestle against same-sex attraction but seek to walk in holiness. The last appendix suggests ten commitments the Church can make as we seek to speak to this issue.

One more quick note about the material at the end of the book: the Scriptural index is pages long. Whatever critique one might have for DeYoung’s arguments, he cannot be cited for lacking Biblical grounding. This is the sign of a well-considered theological text. Books about the Bible that don’t consistently cite the Bible always concern me. I have no such concerns about DeYoung’s work here.

What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? is a powerful volume for anyone who wants to understand what the traditional evangelical understanding of homosexuality. It’s not intended to be a deeply academic book (though it is surprisingly well-cited), nor is it meant to be an exhaustive apologetic. DeYoung has provided a straight-forward refresher that will confirm the convinced, lovingly confront the contentious, and correct the confused. In the coming years, such a direct, Biblical treatment of the subject will become more and more vital if the Church seeks to argue a consistent, compelling vision of God’s design for human sexuality.

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Please Note: I was provided an electronic copy of this book by the publisher, in exchange for an unbiased review. The opinions expressed above are my own.

The4thDave Reviews: “Praying the Bible” by Dr. Donald Whitney

I struggle with prayer. I don’t pray regularly or as much as I know I should. I don’t have any excuses for this; it’s the fruit of busyness and laziness and distraction. When I do pray, I sometimes run out of things to say, or my mind wanders. .

If you struggle with prayer like I do, Dr. Donald Whitney has a possible solution to help your prayer life. His upcoming book, Praying the Bible, describes an incredibly simple yet effective method for focusing our prayer using Scripture. This short and practical book lays out a simple method for praying through Scripture:

  1. Select a passage of Scripture (usually a Psalm) and read it.
  2. Read the first verse. If a subject for prayer comes to mind, stop and pray. Use the words of the Scripture to help guide your prayer.
  3. When you’re done with that verse, move on to the next verse.
  4. Repeat until you run out of time.

It’s really that simple. Dr. Whitney advises that the Psalms are the easiest Scriptures to pray through, and are most easily applicable to this method (though, with some modifications, you can pray through epistles and even some of the narrative portions of Scripture).

What Works

Dr. Whitney has been teaching this method of prayer for years as part of his “Personal Spiritual Disciplines” course at Southern Seminary, which is where I first encountered it when I took his course online. This method of praying through a Psalm is simple to do but I have benefited greatly from it. When I actually follow these steps, I don’t have any problem finding things to pray for, and tend to have a rich prayer time. It’s pathetic how little I actually put this into practice, because it really is beneficial.

Dr. Whitney says of this method:

“I have enough confidence in the Word and the Spirit of God to believe that if people pray in this way, in the long run their prayers will be far more Biblical than if they just make up their own prayers. That’s what people usually do: make up their own prayers. What’s the result? We tend to say the same old things about the same old things. And without the Scripture to shape our prayers, we are far more likely to pray in unbiblical ways than if we pray the thoughts that occur to us as we read Scripture.”

I have to agree with this assessment. When I pray through Scripture this way, I find that I am turned outward more, focusing more on the attributes of God and the needs of others than on my own list of petty requests.

I also appreciate that Dr. Whitney avoids the trap of mystical language that is creeping into Evangelical/Baptist thought on prayer. He doesn’t attribute this type of praying to an altered state of consciousness in which we are moved to pray in ways we don’t intend as we get a “word.” He is clear to say that we hear from God through His Word, rather than waiting for some mystical nudge that we attribute to the Spirit.

However, as much as I appreciate the method and approach of this book, I have a few concerns.

Possible Issues

First, there are a couple of quotes or stories that could be misinterpreted. Dr. Whitney quotes Joni Eareckson Tada, who says that when we use God’s words (“God’s dialect”), we are “bringing God’s power into our praying.” I have no concerns about Tada’s doctrinal soundness, and I think I know what she means here–praying God’s Word leads us to pray God’s Will, and when we pray God’s Will, He works to bring it to pass for His great glory. However, in a day when Word-Faith heresy has been running rampant in Christianity, this statement can easily be misinterpreted as using God’s words as totems and incantations to get what we want.

Another questionable quote is when Dr. Whitney recounts how a woman was “prompted” to pray for a friend who lived on the other side of the country, only to be contacted by that friend soon after and asked about spiritual matters. While Christians are hesitant to dismiss such stories, they are at best happy providences, not proof of getting a divine “word.” (After all, what about all the times we are prompted to pray and “nothing” happens as a result?)

The bigger concern I have about this book is more about the intended audience. As I said, I first encountered Dr. Whitney’s prayer method through his seminary class, and for seminarians (especially those like me who have a lot of head knowledge but need more passion in prayer sometimes), this method is perfectly appropriate. However, for new believers or those who have been taught/influenced by weak Bible teachers, this could be a bit risky. Why? Because there is a danger of narcissistic eisegesis (or, as Chris Rosebrough calls it, “Narcigesis.”) Eisegesis means to read meaning into the text, instead of pulling the intended meaning out of the text (exegesis). Narcissistic eisegesis means to read oneself into the text, usually in the role of the hero of the story. What results is the terrible preaching of many popular megachurch pastors, in which every Bible story becomes an analogy for you and your challenges. You are David facing your personal “giant.” You are Daniel, working or going to school in your own “lion’s den.” You are Joshua, staring down a Jericho of work success or personal fulfillment.

What does this have to do with Dr. Whitney’s book? Dr. Whitney says in the description of this prayer method that praying the Bible is different than studying the Bible. While Bible study involves mining the meaning and context of the passage in order to properly interpret the text, praying the Bible is not as focused on right interpretation as much as on using the language of the text for inspiration. To his great credit, he does provide several examples of how to pray through a text using proper interpretive approaches. However, if the reader has been trained to see the Bible in this narcissistic way, then even using Scripture in prayer becomes an exercise in pursuing selfish goals. David’s prayers for the protection of Zion and the joy of God’s people will become prayers for personal success and advancement. Psalms that point to the coming Messiah-King will be turned into cries for success over one’s personal enemies. In short, if the reader doesn’t understand what/Whom the Bible is really about, then praying the Bible may not produce the results Dr. Whitney hopes.

Final Analysis:  Praying the Bible is really a great little book that can be a very useful tool for Christians who have a good basic understanding of the story of Scripture, and know how to read the text in context. With this knowledge in place, praying the Scriptures becomes a powerful tool in personal holiness.  And even new or untrained believers can benefit from this book, as long as there is a more mature believer who can provide some practical guidance on the Scripture interpretation issue.

“Praying the Bible” will be released on July 31st. You can preorder it here.

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Please Note: I was provided a complimentary electronic review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The preceding thoughts are my own.

The4thDave Reviews: “Strange Fire” by Dr. John MacArthur

Polemical writing has been part of church life since the very beginning, as the early church fathers addressed heresy and misunderstanding that had crept into Christian thinking. This kind of direct, passionate debate and critique served to clarify unclear doctrine, mark false teaching, and warn the Church of error and its potentially disastrous consequences. Part of the reason polemicists were effective was that they were trustworthy witnesses. If you try to critique or correct a trend of teaching or thinking, it serves your purpose to have a track record of faithfulness and to demonstrate that you “have some skin in the game.”

In recent years, however, the skins of Christian pastors and laity have thinned, and polemical writing is no longer seen as a bracing but necessary corrective. These days, the genteel constitutions of church folk have moved them to call such writing “unhelpful,” “over-critical,” “divisive,” “hateful,” even sinful! “Discernment” has transformed in the minds of the American church from a necessary and praiseworthy Christian trait to an epithet, slapped on writers and teachers who dared to criticize the Top Men of the church denomination or theological “tribe.”

I bring this history up, because when it comes to books like Strange Fire by Dr. John MacArthur, there are mainly 2 reactions from Christian readers: those sympathetic to his message will uncritically approve it, and those opposed will write Dr. MacArthur off as an angry, old-fashioned critic without giving him a fair hearing. If you find yourself in this second group, I ask you to hold your fire and give the author a fair hearing, out of respect for the fact that he has proven himself faithful for four decades.

In Strange Fire, Dr. MacArthur takes a hard look at the Pentacostal/Charismatic movement and how its influence has spread into parts of the Evangelical church. He looks at the key elements of charismatic teaching (specifically, modern apostleship, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and healing) and painstakingly compares modern examples of these “signs” to the Bible’s account of such signs in the early church. He cites hundreds of sources and a host of direct quotations from notable figures in this movement. Throughout the book, Dr. MacArthur makes the case (rather convincingly) that the Charismatic movement is rotten down to its roots, riddled with false teaching and plagued by a legion of liars, frauds, and fools.

After unmasking the strange fire of Charismatic phenomena, Dr. MacArthur then takes the last section of the book to explain from Scripture the office and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. Rather than simply tearing down what is broken, Dr. MacArthur builds a solid foundation in its place to edify the reader and teach true doctrine. This section is particularly strong and very encouraging.

The “cessationist vs. continuationist” debate rages on in Evangelicalism, and Dr. MacArthur weighs in firmly in the Cessationist camp. Even so, he doesn’t see continuationists as his enemies, but he entreats them as brothers to reconsider the implications of their beliefs. The last chapter of Strange Fire is actually entitled “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends,” and he does treat continuationist readers with a friendly and fatherly affection.

The book has a few weak points or deficiencies. (Am I allowed to say that about a MacArthur book?) First, I struggled a little bit with the tone of the book, early on, as Dr. MacArthur savaged false teachers. However, I realized that this tone was Paul’s tone, and Peter’s, and Jude’s, so it is appropriate to bluntly call out wolves. However, it would be easy for the tenor of some of Dr. MacArthur’s writing to distract or discomfit weaker or more sensitive readers. Second, I wish more time could have been taken in addressing the “Jesus-dream” phenomena that continuationists point to in places with little Gospel influence, such as parts of the Middle East. I think readers would have benefited from Dr. MacArthur’s take on this issue, since it comes up regularly in debates about modern sign gifts. Finally, during some of the stories of past Charismatic figures, Dr. MacArthur at times engaged in a bit of lurid speculation and seemed to dwell on the details of their sins a bit too much. His intention was to demonstrate that their words were not consistent with their lifestyles, but a few points may have crossed the line of good taste. Again, it’s important to understand who and what we’re dealing with when it comes to some of these false teachers, but such writing also gives easy excuses for critics and doubters to put the book down.

Final Analysis: Strange Fire is a powerful critique of Charismatic theology and certain continuationalist assumptions. It is grounded in faithful Scriptural exposition and detailed scholarship. Critics of this book will, at best, be able to argue with Dr. MacArthur’s tone and perhaps some of his conclusions, but the bulk of his argument is sound.

If you have wrestled with the Continuationist vs. Cessationist argument, or have wondered about Charismatic beliefs, Strange Fire presents a clear and well-considered position on these issues.

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Note: The sponsor (Thomas Nelson) provided an electronic copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. The preceding thoughts are my own.

The4thDave Reviews: “The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo” by Jared C. Wilson

Full Disclosure: I’m a Jared Wilson fan. While I wouldn’t call myself a full-on “fanboy,” I have told my wife on at least one occasion that I want to be Jared when I grow up. (He would be appalled at that statement, for the record.) What I mean is: I want to be a faithful expositor, a gentle and loving pastor, a skilled and challenging writer, and a faithful husband and father. When Paul tells Timothy to put into practice what Timothy sees in Paul’s life, I think of men like Jared Wilson.

With that on the table, then, you’re probably inclined to think that I am incapable of fairly reviewing Wilson’s book, and as a result, my review can’t be trusted. Well, I hope that won’t keep you from taking seriously my next statement:

The Prodigal Church is one of the best books I’ve ever read about ecclesiology, and it needs to be put into the hands of every pastor and seminary student. Full-stop.

In The Prodigal Church, Wilson examines the shift in the American evangelical church toward an “attractional” or “seeker-sensitive” church model. In a measured and fully Biblical manner, Wilson examines the theological and ideological underpinnings of these approaches to “doing church.” He praises what is praiseworthy and critiques what is deserving of criticism. Wilson raises questions that need to be raised and challenges assumptions we in the Evangelical church make about how we conduct ourselves in corporate gatherings. (In a sense, he’s pulling an “Ian Malcolm”–pushing past the question of “if we could” to ask “if we should.”)

One of the sections that I thought was particularly powerful was his examination of the role of pastor-as-shepherd, and how the “CEO model” of church leadership completely misses the power and weight of the Scriptural office of pastor. When talking about Jesus’ instruction to Peter to “feed My sheep,” Wilson writes:

Jesus is referring to a shepherd’s personal care for the flock, and specifically He is helping Peter see that his (Peter’s) role must reflect the work of Christ Himself. “If you love me,” in other words, “you will do for others what I have done for you.” And we do not see Jesus simply handing out resources and programs to His disciples, but sitting with them, walking with them, eating with them, praying with them, touching them and correcting them. He does not hide behind His office door labeled, “Messiah for Preaching and Vision.” He is sweating and crying and sleeping in front of them. And He dies for them.

Wilson goes on to say that this means “we ought to put an end to the notion that The Program is the key to spiritual growth… Systems may aid the discipleship process, but discipleship is not a system.”

I really appreciated that the subtitle bore out in the content of the book: The Prodigal Church is most definitely a manifesto–but it is truly and sincerely gentle. Wilson writes with honesty and directness, but also with a disarming humility. He gently and pastorally pleads his case, and does so convincingly.

I also appreciated Wilson’s final chapter, in which he shares some very honest and painful stories from his own life. At first his account might seem irrelevant and perhaps even inappropriate, but Wilson does this to demonstrate how the true message of the Gospel provides hope for people who are struggling, and how the Church’s mission is to be a beacon of that Gospel hope.

Who Should Read This:

If you are not interested in questions of how the Christian Church functions, then this book won’t interest you.

However, if you have concerns about church growth and methodology, or you want the local church to function in a healthy and holy manner, this book is incredibly important and applicable.

So here’s my pitch:

  • If you are in full-time ministry, buy and read this book immediately. It will bless you and challenge you.
  • If you are a lay-person and a church member, buy this book and give it to your pastor. Write a nice note letting him know that you appreciate his ministry and faithfulness and want to encourage him, and include that note with the book.
  • If you’re a Christian but not a church member, get connected to a Bible-believing local church. Seriously, I shouldn’t have to remind you.

I’m serious about this: Read the book. I’m planning on buying several copies for pastors I know, as an encouragement to stay faithful to the Scriptures when it comes to serving the church of God.

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Please Note: I was provided a free electronic copy of the book under review from the publisher, Crossway, in exchange for an unbiased review. The above comments are my sincere opinions of the book reviewed.