Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Orthodoxy

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”

Overview: Orthodoxy is Chesterton’s vision of the world, and it is a vision that does not shy away from paradox. Chesterton unapologetically challenges the zeitgeist as he sees it—he sees an age being overrun by philosophical materialism and biblical criticism. Almost every chapter turns a stereotype on its head: “The Maniac” (ch. 2) challenges the idolatry of logic; “The Flag of the World” (ch. 5) fuses optimism and pessimism and finds the Christian doctrine of the Fall to be the perfect synthesis; “The Romance of Orthodoxy” (ch. 8) challenges the cliche that holiness is necessarily boring.

As an economic liberal and a theological conservative, Chesterton constantly spins around the idea that conservative theology is somehow connected to niggardliness, lifeless moralism, or unsociableness.

Meat: Perhaps the best thing about this book is that few theologically interesting books are such a pleasure to read. Chesterton is always entertaining, but this book is remarkably readable. I went through it in only a few days, and immediately decided that I must re-read it as soon as I can.

I could not possibly summarize here what was profound in this book, but I could note two things:

First, his statement, that “you must love someone for them to be lovable,” has had a tremendous impact on the way we do evangelism in my organization. It frees us from looking for a certain type of people to minister to; it pairs with Schaeffer’s universal statement, “There are no little people. There are no little places.”

Second, the chapter on “The Paradoxes of Christianity” has only grown in relevance as we now live in an information economy, where every passing generation is technology-native. Academics positively fidget at the concept of paradox; it is like trying to swallow a bundle of firewood sideways. Because so many worship information on weekdays but Jesus on Sundays, we struggle intensely at the Bible’s statements about lions and lambs. If Chesterton is right, finding not a balance, but violent synthesis between such paradoxes, may be an important key for building our faith in an age that is, if anything, even more subservient at the altar of reason.

Orthodoxy is, in a way, a culmination of Chesterton’s non-literary essays (The Defendant, All Things Considered, Triumphant Trifles, Alarms and Discursions, etc.), which likewise often involve humor, modern metaphors, parables, paradoxes, and the artful breaking of dichotomies and stereotypes. All of these books are good, but Orthodoxy is by far the best.

Bones: The one struggle of this book is the references. Chesterton played the part of journalist and critic as well as lay theologian, so he often references current trends which are dated, or peculiarly British. I would like to see an edition of this book that uses endnotes to make the reading a little smoother.

Quotes: “I did try to found a little heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”

“The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”

“Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Read: You can read this book for free over at Amazon, Online-Literature, Internet Archive, or Project Gutenberg—better yet, listen to it for free at LibriVox.

Related: The Lion and the Lamb by Gerald Kennedy.

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Review: Recapture the Wonder

Rating: ★★★

Who: Ravi Zacharias, modern apologist and speaker. Ravi is the author of Can Man Live Without God? and many other books.

Overview: The subtitle, “Experiencing God’s Amazing Promise of Childlike Joy,” shows that the publishers intended this book for a popular Christian audience. Less than half of Ravi’s books have made the long passage from the Christian philosophy to the Christian living shelf: Cries of the Heart (1998), I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah (2004) and Has Christianity Failed You? (2010) being some of them.

Ravi deals with the concept of wonder here for a primarily Christian audience, then. There is no attempt to shoehorn “wonder” into the language of his philosophy books, which I can appreciate. And although he doesn’t say so, I expect that “wonder” is awfully close to what he calls “meaning” in some of his other books. (Meaning, purpose, origin and destiny are four keys to life provided by a Christian worldview.)

If we take the title as it is, the book takes a while to reach its object; the first chapter is about what wonder is, and the second and third are mostly cautionary, against seeking wonder in impersonal pursuits like wealth or sex. It is not until the fourth chapter that Ravi begins to spell out positive steps towards “recapturing the wonder.” Still, there is plenty to gain along the way.

Meat: The second half of the book is where he begins to spell out how to maintain wonder. Wonder, he says, is not something that comes or goes in our lives unbidden. It is something that must be “maintained” with thought and discipline. In the fourth and fifth chapters, Ravi calls for some self-examination: Are we living in gratitude? Are we grounded in the truth? Do we daily meditate on God’s love?

In the last chapter, maintaining wonder climaxes in a call for the Christian disciplines. Here, Ravi makes a case for thoughtful reading and patient reflection, giving examples from the lives of Henri Nouwen and his own life. This section is unique in that churchgoers are often called on to simply “read” and “pray” without much thought given as to why and how. The final section calls for a life of prayer, noting that worship is the highest function of wonder.

This is by no means Ravi’s best book, since he is stretching himself in terms of his audience. In the second half of the book, though, he has a wealth of straightforward advice towards living life in wonder.

Review: Poems (C. S. Lewis)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: C. S. Lewis, British scholar and lay theologian.

Overview: This little volume of poems was arranged posthumously from sundry sources, including many plucked from The Pilgrim’s Regress. There is in general a strong overlap in subject matter with both Lewis’ fiction (“Narnian Suite,” “Wormwood,” “The Dragon Speaks”) and his nonfiction (“Love’s As Warm As Tears,” “Divine Justice”). Walter Hooper has arranged the poems along the lines of their themes, beginning with the most ambitious.

Though enjoyable, it will never enjoy as wide an appeal as Lewis’ fiction or Christian living titles, since much of the material is written for a literary audience. If you enjoyed his excursions and ramblings in God in the Dock, or The Pilgrim’s Regress, or George MacDonald’s poetic works, you would probably enjoy this book.

In terms of form, all of the poems are very short except for two or three, and almost all of them rhyme, sometimes incorporating sonnets, other times incorporating classical metrical schemes.

Meat: There are several hidden gems in here whose original sources are no longer available. “The Turn of the Tide” is a favorite, which conceptualizes Bethlehem in terms of spiritual combat. The poems from The Pilgrim’s Regress—which, like The Lord of the Rings or Phantastes, mixes poetry with its prose—stand alone quite well.

Not surprisingly, Eden is a major theme: see “The Future of Forestry,” “Adam Unparadised,” and “Eden’s Courtesy,” for a few. Other Old Testament characters are dealt with (“Solomon,” “The Late Passenger”), though none so seriously or so often as Eden, which is seen as a hint of the new creation that will be:

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell. (“What the Bird Said Early in the Year”)

Lewis’ intellectual independence is also seen in some of the more sarcastic works, like “An Exposulation: Against Too Many Writers of Science Fiction” and “Evolutionary Hymn.” His odes to Andrew Marvell and John Milton are also notable in the context of his academic position.

Bones: Christian readers expecting didactic theological insights would feel for the most part short-changed by Lewis’ poetry. The book is, for the most part, a literary effort, and therefore has little in the way of moral imperative. Part I especially—pages 1-49, more than a third of the book—is replete with classical references (“And Peleus took the Nereid Theris …”) which are lost on almost all modern readers.

Overall, this collection is well worth having, but most people will prefer to cherry-pick poems with intriguing titles rather than read the whole book.

Affliction by Edith Schaeffer book cover

Review: Affliction (Edith Schaeffer)

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: Edith Schaeffer, co-founder of L’Abri, American missionary to Switzerland with her husband, Francis Schaeffer. Edith and Francis Schaeffer spent many years serving the Presbyterian church in Missouri and in writing children’s materials as missionaries before they stumbled into a mission to reach Europe’s intelligentsia, which became their full-time vocation and lifelong focus. Edith’s books are very different in tone from those of her husband—and they are at least as good, if not better.

Overview: Edith Schaeffer’s book tactfully and compassionately explores human affliction. Rather than presenting a central “theodicy” to explain evil or suffering, Edith focuses on practical, devotional thoughts that are central to biblical thought about suffering.

Meat: The chief insight of Affliction is that we are given a unique role in human history, a role that no one else can fill, and that suffering cannot take that away. The most important ingredients in life, its meaning and destiny, and the chief end of man, are unaffected by suffering.

A central metaphor for Edith Schaeffer is that of the tapestry: God is weaving our lives together into a redemptive history, and every unique story of faithfulness presents a special proof of God’s love and care—whether that faithfulness occurs in plenty or poverty, in joy or suffering.

Bones: I can add no criticism of her book, except that it took me so long to chew on all the material. It is dense with anecdotes, like its twin book, L’Abri.

Quotes: “Our personal afflictions involve the living God; the only way in which Satan can persecute or afflict God us through attacking the people of God.” (p. 27)

“The compassion and the tenderness of our loving heavenly Father will take forever to learn about.”

“Death is not to be taken as a ‘normal, beautiful release’ but as an enemy. It spoils the beautiful creation of God.”

Related: L’Abri.

Review: The Resurrection (E. M. Bounds)

Rating: ★★★★

Alternate title: The Ineffable Glory: Thoughts on the Resurrection (1921)

Who: E. M. Bounds (1835-1913) was a chaplain in the Confederate Army and held a pastorate in Franklin, Tennessee. During his time in Tennessee, he led a spiritual revival and eventually began an itinerant ministry. He only published two books during his lifetime (The Resurrection (1907) being one of them), but nine others were arranged from manuscripts and published after his death—most of them on prayer. He spent three hours a day in prayer and emphasizes a life of prayer as the one essential of the Christian life.

Overview: The Resurrection is not about the Resurrection of Christ, as readers might expect, but about the bodily resurrection of the dead at the end of time, which is hinted at in the Old Testament but confirmed and prefigured in Christ’s resurrection. This important Scriptural topic is often neglected but provides a wealth of understanding and comfort for believers.

Meat: Bounds shines here as an expositor of the Word in a way not seen in his books on prayer. He writes in the same poetic, forceful style used in his beloved books on prayer. He defends the bodily resurrection of Christ, and of the dead in Christ, mostly on theological grounds within an assumption of biblical authority. This is meant to arm believers against liberal arguments current in his day (for instance, Swedenborgianism) which sought to deny the bodily resurrection and spiritualize the afterlife.

Bounds handles key Scriptures, especially 1 Corinthians 15, by expositing, comparing scripture to scripture, and giving key quotes from commentators.

For those wanting a biblical view of the afterlife, I would point out this little book by Bounds and another title similar in length and content called The Christian After Death by Robert Ervin Hough.

Bones: Especially towards the end of the book, Bounds has a theological axe to grind against the modernism of the day. He loses his biblical thread somewhat in his passion to defend the faith. Nevertheless, I would highly recommend this book as a whole for its unique subject matter and accessibility.

Quotes: 

“The deathless nature of the soul has been taught in the philosophies of earth, pagan and Christian, but the resurrection of the body is distinctively a Christian doctrine. It belongs to the revelation of God’s Word. It is found in the Bible, and nowhere else.” (loc. 86)

“The resurrection of the same bodies which we put in the grave is the doctrine which pervades the Bible through and through.” (loc. 572)

“With another sweep of that terrible scimitar He broke death’s scepter, smashed his crown, captured his keys, then plunging through the ashes of damnation and lunging on the gates of hell, tore them from their sockets, cutting the bars of iron in pieces and ascending the throne of his imperial majesty the devil, He hurled him into the burning marl and sulphurous flame, then placing His right foot upon the neck of the devil and His left foot upon the jaws of death, He lifted his hand to heaven and shouted through the gloom of eternal night ‘I am He that liveth and was dead; and behold I am alive forevermore and have the keys of death and hell.'” (loc. 1168)

Review: Shadow of the Almighty

Rating:

Who: Elisabeth Elliot first became famous as the wife of Jim Elliot, missionary who was killed in Ecuador in 1956. After publishing the bestselling story of “Operation Auca” in 1957 (Through Gates of Splendor) and Jim’s story in 1958 (Shadow of the Almighty), she returned to the Huaorani with Rachel Saint to serve as a missionary until 1963, and became a respected devotional author in her own right.

Overview: Shadow of the Almighty is “the life and testimony of Jim Elliot,” one of five men who were killed in the Ecuadorian interior while trying to make contact with an unknown tribe, then known as the Aucas, now known by their endonym, Huaorani (also spelled Waodani).

Elisabeth Elliot had already shared the thrilling story of Operation Auca in her other bestselling book, Through Gates of Splendor, so this book acts as a prequel in some respects. Chronologically, this book ends where Through Gates of Splendor begins.

Meat: Shadow of the Almighty is essentially a journal of missionary consecration. That is the one secret of its impact. Numerous people first encountered the truth of the missionary call through Elliot’s books. The Elliots may come off to some people as traditional or perhaps stodgy, but no one can doubt this: their story has become a living link between the crucifixion and the Great Commission.

Almost the entire narrative happens in the United States, which emphasizes Elisabeth Elliot’s firm stance on missionary preparation. The story weaves together Jim’s early life, his consecration to ministry, his college days, and rather distanced courtship with Elisabeth. Only in the last few chapters is he on the mission field.

The Elliots’ strong roots in the Holiness movement give them a very countercultural stance, which must increase the notoriety of their books. Shadow of the Almighty‘s popularity has now continued unabated for more than half a century. At the time of this review, Elisabeth Elliot has three books in Amazon’s top 50 books on “Christian Missions & Missionary Work,” which is more than any other author.

Although this book, like many others, could stand to be salted with the grace of tolerating other viewpoints, the Elliots’ no-nonsense speaking style is tempered by plenty of humorous stories and interesting anecdotes both in America and in Ecuador.

Bones: Jim Elliot’s journals, which make up a large percentage of the book, are often a very private space in which he vents his disappointments and criticisms about himself and about the church. At some points, I felt that Elisabeth could have spared us so much detail, or at least so many criticisms of the modern church, which fall short of providing for her a better way.

One case in point is the story of their courtship and marriage, which was very protracted. Elisabeth has made much of their story not only in this book but in several others (Passion and Purity, Quest for Love). She shares Jim’s very negative opinions on marriage ceremonies as a cultural institution, an opinion likely stemming from their background in the Brethren, a nonconformist group with tame anti-establishment leanings. Jim was also flabbergasted when a colleague decided to marry ahead of joining the mission field—not sharing his joy or surprised merely, but actively disappointed. Elisabeth and Jim seemed to see Christian marriage first and foremost as a hindrance to missions, and have presented it that way to many young people.

Quotes:

“Missionaries are very human folks, just doing what they are asked. Simply a bunch of nobodies trying to exalt Somebody.” (p. 46)

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” (p. 108)

“The command is plain: you go into the whole world and announce the good news. It cannot be dispensationalized, typicalized, rationalized. It stands a clear command, possible of realization because of the Commander’s following promise. . . . Rest in this—it is His business to lead, command, impel, send, call, or whatever you want to call it. It is your business to obey, follow, move, respond, or what have you.” (p. 150)

“In my own experience, I have found that the most extravagant dreams of boyhood have not surpassed the great experience of being in the Will of God, and I believe that nothing could be better. . . . That is not to say that I do not want other things, and other ways of living, and other places to see, but in my right mind I know that my hopes and plans for myself could not be any better than He has arranged and fulfilled them.”

Review: Now and Then (Buechner)

Rating:

Full Title: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Who: Frederick Buechner, preacher and writer of novels and spiritual nonfiction.

Overview: Buechner divides this book into three places he has lived: New York, Exeter (New Hampshire, not England), and Vermont. He gives us a tour through several unspectacular events and places in his life, yet draws the truth out of them like an unlooked-for flavor in a meal prepared by a master chef. The book is along the line of a spiritual autobiography, not giving many details about his life and work, but piecing together the truths he learned along the way.

This book carries forward particularly an idea present in Buechner’s other books, about seeing God as the main character in your own autobiography. “Listen to your life,” he says more than once.

Meat: Buechner is consummately skilled as a writer. He speaks truth more unobtrusively than almost any other author I have read, and in that I would see him as a predecessor to Donald Miller. (Or, others would say Donald Miller is a successor of his.)

The main theme, repeated at the beginning and the end, is stated thus:

Here and there, even in our world, and now and then, even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope both for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.

He also shows a great appreciation for “the dark night of the soul”—an idea I’ve written about elsewhere—and shows that preachers and theologians (such as those he studied under) are not exempt from being mystics to a certain extent. Intellect does not guard us from doubt.

Bones: Where I was less impressed is his theology proper. I sense a deep sympathy in some paragraphs where he mentions times of doubt or depression, but at other times it simply felt like he was hedging with his language. Occasionally I felt that Buechner was betraying more skepticism than is becoming of a preacher, and perhaps that is why he is so popular in theologically mainstream-to-liberal circles.

As just another instance, when he cites examples from Buddhism, they are, for the most part interesting, but I can’t help but feel that it is a ploy to keep less religious readers engaged, especially when he backpedals and says that the Christian view is more encompassing.

Of course, Buechner himself mentions this dillemma of audience, which tries to straddle the line between those who are “in” and “out” of this club we call religion. He is neither the first nor the last to experience this dillemma, but all in all I feel that, whoever his reader is, Buechner truly has something to say, and says it powerfully—not so much like a trumpet, but more like rising string overture, a gentle reminder that your soundtrack is already playing, the camera is running. This is your life. What is God saying through it?

Quotes:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

“I try not to stack the deck unduly but always let doubt and darkness have their say along with faith and hope, not just because it is good apologetics – woe to him who tries to make it look simple and easy – but because to do it any other way would be to be less true to the elements of doubt and darkness that exist in myself no less than in others.”