Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Letters to a Devastated Christian

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Gene Edwards is a pastor and spiritual writer who primarily addresses issues related to church life and humility. Many of his other writings are allegorical; his 1980 book A Tale of Three Kings is considered a classic on Christian authority and humility.

Edwards has also worked to put Christian mystics—namely, Brother Lawrence, Madame Guyon, and Fenelon—back into print by creating and managing his own publishing house, SeedSowers.

Overview: This book of nine brief letters de-allegorizes Edwards’ earlier thoughts on humility and authority depicted in his bestseller A Tale of Three Kings. Both books deal with life under unjust authority—an experience that almost everyone goes through at some point in time. The “devastated Christian” of the title is someone that has been “sold a bill of goods” by becoming overcommitted to an unhealthy Christian movement, one where the leader demands more than he gives, and seeks to make overreaching decisions about believers’ personal lives. Sadly, this is not uncommon, since, Edwards points out, no one has unlocked the key to instantaneous sanctification (though a few have tried).

Meat: Many Christians go through this experience of disillusionment coming out of their youth. After spending a few years serving a thriving church movement, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we ripen enough to spot the weaknesses in our leaders. What do you do when you see weakness in your leaders? When should the weakness be a red flag that you are in a truly unhealthy church?

Edwards’ counsel is to look for a few keys which I believe are quite telling:

  • “Specialism”: Beware anyone who says, “We are the move of God in this generation.”
  • “Unity”: This is the idea that, “If anyone doesn’t choose to meet with us, they are damaging Christian unity.”
  • “Covering”: All decisions have to be approved by the elders. After all, every believer needs “covering.” This can easily lead to leaders overreaching in believers’ personal lives—not just issues of holiness, but issues of personality that should be left to Christian liberty.

Later in the book, he also mentions leaders with defensive attitudestreatment of women, and the longevity of a movement.

In the course of the book, Edwards also tackles the idea of following a “New Testament pattern”—an idea fraught with danger when divorced from its cultural context and taken to extremes.

In the last chapter (p. 41-45), Edwards gives concrete counsel to his “devastated Christian,” most of which resonates with his advice in A Tale of Three Kings:

  1. Broadcasting bitter experiences with everyone you meet is an unhealthy way of seeking release. It would be better to seek not to dishonor Christ by bashing those who have served him in an unhealthy way.
    Edwards has right motives here in advising discretion; however, as other reviewers have pointed out, survivors of significant abuse need to find significant outlets to better understand their pain. He only lightly touches on this—
  2. Christian counseling is healthy for those who have undergone significant or long-lasting psychological abuse.
  3. Don’t give up on structured Christianity. For all the weaknesses, there is a lot of good to be found.
  4. Don’t surround yourself with bitter people. Try to find some positivity.
  5. Finally, “You are going to have to start believing. You are going to have to believe that there are movements born of God. You are going to have to trust Christians and [Christian] workers again.” (p. 44)

Bones:

There doesn’t seem to be space, in such a short book, to offer an alternative vision of Christian gathering. As F. W. Boreham says, “The hunger of the human heart can never be satisfied with denials.”¹ So, given Edwards’ repeated advice against authoritarianism doesn’t really give a sense for where to go instead. (In point of fact, Edwards is a supporter of house churches.)

Another criticism pointed out by other reviewers is the grave possibility of victim-blaming. He advises almost total discretion, which is often great advice for walking out forgiveness, but is not always advisable. Edwards also writes, “I believe the Christian who has joined the worst possible group, if he gets out of it, should take what he learned and treat the lessons he learned as gold.” (p. 32) But this would come across as awfully fatalistic to someone who was sexually abused under a pseudo-Christian cult. I would repeat as a caveat that Edwards’ advice in this book, in general, pertains to unhealthy Christian movements, and not to abusive religious communities or heretical cults.

Quotes:

“Head for the door when a man or a people declare: ‘We are the work of God for this generation.'” (p. 4)

“If a movement is ten years old, you can tell a lot more about it than when it is two years old.” (p. 23)

“Every Christian worker has certain weaknesses, failures, and inabilities, so you can’t hang a man for that. But here is a good yardstick of a man’s internal spiritual strength: When his work is under attack, when pressure has mounted, when a split threatens his work, how does he react?” (p. 24)

“If you cannot totally get healed, I do not think that it is healthy for you to sit around forever, licking your wounds. . . . You are going to have to start believing there are decent and honest workers out there. You are going to have to believe that there are movements born of God.” (p. 44)


¹ F. W. Boreham, “All Fools’ Day.” The Crystal Pointers. 1925. p. 142.

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Review: Psalms (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Rating: ★★★★★

Alternate title: The Prayer Book of the Bible.

German title: Das Gebetbuch der Bibel: Eine Einführung in die Psalmen.

Who: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who became a leader in the Confessing Church, an evangelical anti-Nazi movement which supported several plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. After two years of imprisonment, he was executed at Flossenbürg in 1945, just as World War II was coming to a close.

Bonhoeffer’s book on the Psalms was his last popular work to be published (after Creation and FallThe Cost of Discipleship, and Life Together). It is sometimes given as a companion to Life Together, since both books are brief and suitable for devotional reading.

“Soon after this little book on the Psalms appeared, the Nazis prohibited him from further publishing and dissolved the seminary at Finkenwalde” (p. 78), presumably because the book gave great honor to the Old Testament, the sacred book of the Jews. (See also Metaxas, p. 367.)

Overview: Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible is a brief, Christocentric guide to the Psalter. Bonhoeffer introduces the Psalms as a guide to praying in the name of Jesus. He sees the Psalms as through and through a Christian collection, capable of reorienting a believer’s thinking and prayer life toward the cross of Christ.

Bonhoeffer himself prayed through several psalms a day, and inculcated the same practice at his innovative seminary in Finkenwalde.

After finishing his introductory points, the largest portion of the book tackles major categories of psalms under expected headings such as “Creation,” “Suffering,” and “The Messiah.”

Meat: This little book is extremely useful as an introduction to the Psalms for devotional use, of which Bonhoeffer was an important proponent. Although he in no way attempts to cover every psalm, he covers major interpretive pitfalls such as: Is David praying in the Messianic psalms or Jesus? How can one pray through instructional psalms like Psalm 1? Why do the psalms seem repetitive? How can a Christian make use of imprecatory psalms?

The biography of Bonhoeffer included in my Kindle edition, written by Eberhart Bethge, is also a very useful introduction to his life and work—and much shorter than that tome by Metaxas!

Bones: Bonhoeffer was quite demanding for the men he discipled, and in his other books he has a tendency to be prescriptive in explaining Christian practice. In Life Together, for example—an outstanding book—Bonhoeffer argues that congregational singing should always be in unison (not harmony).

More to the point, in Psalms, Bonhoeffer enjoins the reading of several psalms a day by every Christian believer. He believes this is the intended use of the psalms, as a “prayerbook.” I take no issue with this, but with the headstrong prescription of practice for spirit-filled believers.

Quotes: 

On praying the Psalms:

“The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” (p. 15)

“The Psalms are given to us to this end, that we may learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ.” (p. 15)

On the creation psalms:

“The creation psalms are not lyrical poems, but instruction for the people of God. The creation with all its gifts is there for the sake of Jesus Christ.” (p. 29-30)

On the psalms of lamentation:

“Even in the deepest hopelessness God alone remains the one addressed.” (p. 47)

“There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions, as there are none in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ.” (p. 48)

On imprecatory psalms:

“The crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly.” (p. 60)

Review: To Die Is Gain (Morgan)

Rating: ★★★

Who: G. Campbell Morgan, prolific English expository preacher, known as the Prince of Expositors.

To Die Is Gain is a scarce booklet made from a conference address by G. Campbell Morgan in 1908.

Overview: The first half of the sermon was a straightforward explanation of Paul’s words, showing why death is in fact “gain.” This part was interesting: Jesus (and Peter) call death a “departure,” implying that it is in no sense a completion, but more of a beginning. Morgan compares several interesting poems and hymns with opposing views of death.

Later in the booklet, Morgan begins discussing what it means that believers will “serve the Lord” day and night in heaven. He speculates for several pages on this topic; however, the Greek word for “serving” in that passage seems to imply a kind of worship, and not that believers in heaven could in any way do what we might call “Kingdom” ministry or earthly ministry.

Bones: I was surprised, first of all, that an expository preacher like Morgan would waste time on such a topic, and secondly, that someone cared to publish it. Morgan has dozens and dozens of sermons much better than this one, preached near the beginning of his pastoral ministry.

Christmas Carol

Review: A Christmas Carol

Rating: ★★★★★

Full Title: A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Dickens divided the original story into “staves” (i.e. stanzas), with the title likewise being an analogy to verse or song.

Who: Charles Dickens, the most famous English novelist of the 19th century.

Overview: A Christmas Carol is Dickens’ compelling and imaginative story of the life of a miser reformed by a tour through time in which he is visited by Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. In all three tenses, Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth that he had been missing about his own life, the life of his employee, and the effects of his miserable—pun intended—lifestyle on others.

Meat: This story, which many learned growing up from various adaptations such as those of Disney, is much more than a children’s tale. Like the story that follows it, it has elements of horror and fantasy woven into a simple story. And Scrooge is reformed by the vision of the results of his selfishness; in that sense, the story parallels a Christian conversion, and this is clearer in the original book.

Quotes:

“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

“For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”

“Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.”

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

You can read A Christmas Carol for free on Kindle, Project Gutenberg, or listen on LibriVox.

James Gilmour of Mongolia review

Review: James Gilmour of Mongolia

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: James Gilmour, pioneer missionary in China and Mongolia.

Richard Lovett arranged these memoirs using Gilmour’s journals in the year after Gilmour’s death.

When: Gilmour was active in the mission field from 1870 until his death in China in 1891.

Where: Gilmour spends much of the book training and equipping in northern China before making various excursions into Mongolia.

Overview: A few pioneers had translated the Bible for the Buryat people (a Mongol people group) in Russia in the early 1800s with permission from the Russian Emperor, but they had been sent home after many years by the same. At the time Gilmour began work among them, the Mongols were an extensive and widespread people group with no church and no missionary.

Mongolia at the time was so wholly untouched by Western influence that Gilmour could say, after just a few years of excursions, that he knew more of Mongolia than any European he was aware of. This is the unromantic record of a very difficult missionary life on a pioneer field.

Meat: Gilmour’s writings here on the missionary call (quoted below) are very well known. He ate, slept, and travelled as a low-class Mongolian; he experienced bereavement on the mission field and nearly drowned in flash floods; but he wrote that all this was merely obedience to the Great Commission.

Gilmour deals pretty extensively with grief, depression, and disappointment on the mission field, and this is reflected much better in this firsthand account than in modern retellings. Lovett writes, “The most constant force acting in the direction of mental depression was what appeared to him like the want of immediate success.” (p. 225)

Bones: The original edition has some repetitive letters and journal entries that could easily be abridged. In spite of this, it is very inspiring to read his own words, rather than some romantic modern summary of his life.

Quotes: “I feel quite ready to go anywhere if only He goes with me.” (p. 177)

“Where is now the Lord God of Elijah? He is waiting for Elijah to call on Him.” (p. 59-60)

“I go out as a missionary not that I may follow the dictates of common sense, but that I may obey that command of Christ, ‘Go into all the world and preach.’ He who said ‘preach,’ said also, ‘Go ye into and preach’, and what Christ hath joined together let not man put asunder. This command seems to me to be strictly a missionary injunction, and, as far as I can see, those to whom it was first delivered regarded it in that light, so that, apart altogether from choice and other lower reasons, my going forth is a matter of obedience to a plain command; and in place of seeking to assign a reason for going abroad, I would prefer to say that I have failed to discover any reason why I should stay at home.” (p. 42-43)

On missionary depression:

“In the shape of converts I have seen no result. I have not, as far as I am aware, seen anyone who even wanted to be a Christian.” (p. 97)

“In terrible darkness and tears for two days. Light broke over me at my stand to-day in the thought that Jesus was tempted forty days of the devil after His baptism, and that He felt forsaken on the cross.” (May 9. 1888; p. 224-225)

“The only trouble that haunted him was that the results of his long journeys and of his various missionary enterprises had been apparently so few.”

Related: Among the Mongols, More about the Mongols.

This biography is available for free on Kindle, Project Gutenberg, and the Internet Archive.

Review: Whyte’s Bible Characters

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Alexander Whyte (1836-1921), Scottish preacher and prolific author. He published a variety of sermons and biographies, but his most famous books since his death have been his Bible Characters.

Overview: Each of these sermons is usually a brief and balanced treatments of a biblical character; for some characters—such as Moses or Paul—there are several sermons, dealing with the chapters of Scripture in which that person is found. If the character is controversial, he will weigh the positives and negatives before expressing his conviction and the lesson that he gains from the character’s life.

Meat: Whyte is an excellent writer. Like F. W. Boreham and A. J. Gossip, he drew on the best English and Classical literature, not just to pepper his sermons, but to illustrate biblical truth in the most meaningful way. He held many prestigious positions and was no mean scholar.

Many of these sermons were cited by scholars as authority for many decades after Whyte’s death. If you found a biblical character confounding, it was always a helpful plan to visit Whyte and see, first, what was his opinion of the character, and second, what lesson did he glean from their story. On a controversial character like Jephthah, for instance, he will weigh the interpretations and then pursue a definite course, which you may or may not agree with.

His sermons have value as a pastor’s resource, but they are also great devotional reading. I really enjoy being able to pick it up on a whim and have a solid sermon on almost any prominent Bible character, whether from the Old or the New Testament.

Bones: I enjoyed many of these sermons, but some of them were absolute duds. The sermon on Eve, while it was interesting, seemed to quote line after line of John Milton. While I love Milton, I was much more interested in understanding the basics of Eve’s story. A few were dull and moralistic; the sermon on Esau, for instance, takes on the sin of gluttony—an unexpected turn, to say the least. I will, however, continue to consult this set of sermons when I am studying Bible characters, because it is unmatched in that regard.

Related: Herbert Lockyer has similar works like All the Men of the Bible, All the Women of the Bible, etc. These works are exhaustive in their inclusion of characters. The individual entries are usually brief, but still directed towards a devotional application.

Whyte’s sermons on Bible Characters were originally published in six volumes, but they are now available cheaply in one large volume, or free as an PDF (in separate volumes).

Begin Here review

Review: Begin Here: A Wartime Essay (Sayers)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Dorothy Sayers, 20th-century novelist, linguist, and essayist; Sayers is most famous for her mystery novels, but I will be reviewing her non-fiction. I should add, Sayers is known as an “honorary” Inkling (the club was men-only) and could probably hold her own in an arm-wrestling match with C. S. Lewis.

Overview: Begin Here is a 1940 “wartime essay,” as the British subtitle states, putting World War II in its historical context in terms of how the Brits got there and what attitude they should have towards the war. Although this makes the book sound ephemeral, Sayers is broad enough in her analysis to give her book lasting relevance. Her writing is also impeccable.

The six essays included are “The Serial Drama of History,” “By the Author of ——?”, “Synopsis of Preceding Installments,” “What Happened in the Last Chapter,” “Brief Outline of the Characters,” and “Begin Here.”

Meat: The meat of the book is Sayers’ explanation, in Chapter III, of how our philosophy of man has progressed. She divides it this way, starting from what she calls :

  1. The Whole Man, the image of God — theological man.
  2. The Whole Man, a value in himself, apart from God — humanist man.
  3. Man the embodied Intelligence — rational man.
  4. Homo Sapiens, the intelligent animal — biological man.
  5. Man the member of the herd — sociological man.
  6. Man the response to environment — psychological man.
  7. Man the response to the means of livelihood — economic man. (p. 72)

“The first structure of Western-Mediterranean-Christian civilization which presents itself for our examination was theological. . . . It differs in two ways from any succeeding theory of civilization: it referred all problems to one absolute Authority beyond history and beyond humanity; and as a scheme for the satisfactory fulfillment of the individual and the world-community it was and remains complete and unassailable.” (p. 29-30)

Sayers elaborates one how different understandings of man have successively set up Reason, Life, the State, the individual, and money as absolutes to which all else must bow. None of these had an absolute basis for authority outside itself, and therefore every attempt to substitute an absolute fails.

Likewise, man has languished, she says, in the presence of so much wartime entertainment, all of which is shallow, none of which is devised to capture the reason or imagination of man. Such passive entertainment is derived from an underestimation of man as man. “For man is never truly himself except when he is actively creating something.” (p. 15) Attempts to find inner peace in passivity, then, are unfounded, she says; we are like a cyclist on a tightrope over Niagara Falls; the only recourse is to keep going.

We cannot complain of totalitarianism when we have sat in front of the television, hamstrung our reasons, complaining without creating. Germany, she says, succumbed to Hitler because they were crestfallen, restless, and unproductive; and Hitler appealed on a basic level, not as an elite.

Spoiler: As the final suggestion of the book, Sayers suggests the following:

“There are only two ways to move the world: the way of the Gospel and the way of the Law, and if we will not have the one we must submit to the other. Somehow we have got to find the integrating principle for our lives, the creative power that sustains our balance in motion, and we have got to do it quickly. The task is urgent; we must not push it into the future; we must not leave it to others: we must do it ourselves, and we must begin now and here.” (p. 155-156)

Bones: (I almost forgot to put a critical section, I was so fastened by my first Sayers read.) This book shoots over my head sometimes, as it sweeps along through Communism, the medieval era, the rise of Hitler, and occasional details of wartime Britain. But then, Harry Conn would say you should only read books that you don’t fully understand.

Quotes:

“Seeing that these principles, left to function on their own, produced so strange and insoluble an antinomy, the logical mind could come to only one conclusion: without the theology, the principles have no authority. There is no reason whatever why, having abandoned the theology, we should not abandon the principles. We shall then be free to make our own absolute.” (p. 76)

“We keep on thinking that the German state is the old-fashioned Christian kind of sinner that knows what is right but does what it knows to be wrong; we are unable to conceive that more desparate condition of sin that honestly believes the wrong to be right.” (p. 89)

“”We are like a man riding a bicycle on a tight-rope across the Niagara Falls: we cannot go back, we dare not stop, we must go forward and keep our balance if we are not to fall into destruction.”

“There is one foe within his own gates that every tyrant fears, and that is the Rational Man.” (p. 115-116)

“Peace is not a static thing: it is the supreme example of balance in movement.” (p. 135