Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Dr. Grenfell’s Parish

Rating: ★★★

Who: Sir Wilfred Grenfell was an Oxford-trained physician who founded a medical mission to help the deep-sea fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador. He established hospitals and rural medical stations, later gaining international status because of his pioneer work. He wrote many books about his work, and was knighted in 1927.

The author, Norman Duncan, was a famed novelist. Most of his books involve pioneer preachers in Canada and the northern United States.

When: Grenfell was active in his mission from 1892 to 1936. This pamphlet was published in 1905.

Where: Newfoundland and Labrador, the frigid northeastern coast of Canada.

Overview: Norman Duncan gives a brief but useful overlook of the setting of Wilfred Grenfell’s famous pioneer medical mission. Duncan is a novelist and writes with all the flare of a novelist of the period. He describes the danger and abject poverty of the fishermen of eastern Canada, as well as their spunk, optimism, and hardihood. Duncan peppers these pages with many strange and hilarious anecdotes of the place.

Meat: Grenfell’s work was innovative, charitable, and fraught with danger. (For danger, see Adrift on a Ice-pan.) He met the medical needs of many thousands of fishermen and their families, navigating treacherous waters in the summer—without radar or GPS of course—and reaching remote villages by dogsled in the winter. Duncan points out that his work was neither ignorant of his patients’ souls, nor neglectful of their bodies. Grenfell is a great example of medical work and evangelical work done at the same time and for the same purpose: to do the will of the Father in whatever we put our hands to. As the Salvation Army motto says, “with heart to God and hand to man.”

Bones: Readers seeking a missionary biography will have to look further, since this little book doesn’t tell much about Grenfell himself. It only gives a brief look at who he is and what he does, focusing rather on the scene of his work. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating introduction to Grenfell’s work, which is no longer well known.

(For further reference, Grenfell published an autobiography (A Labrador Doctor) in 1919, with the help of his wife Anne. Genevieve Fox also published a biography (Sir Wilfred Grenfell) after his passing.)

Quotes: “He is of that type, then extraordinary but now familiar, which finds no delight where there is no difficulty.” (ch. 5)

“In the spring of 1892 he set sail from Great Yarmouth Harbour for Labrador in a ninety-ton schooner. Since then, in the face of hardship, peril, and prejudice, he has, with a light heart and strong purpose, healed the sick, preached the Word, clothed the naked, fed the starving, given shelter to them that had no roof, championed the wronged—in all, devotedly fought evil, poverty, oppression, and disease; for he is bitterly intolerant of those things. And—’It’s been jolly good fun!’ says he.” (ch. 5)

Related: Vikings of Today, The Harvest of the Sea, A Labrador Doctor: The Autobiography of Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, Forty Years for Labrador, The Romance of Labrador

Review: Heroic Bishop (Arab World Pioneers Book 4)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Thomas Valpy French, missionary bishop in Lahore (present-day Pakistan). He lived a long life and pioneered in a wide region in ministerial education and preaching.

Eugene Stock, a member of the (Anglican) Church Missionary Society who wrote many volumes of missions history, narrates the story.

Overview: Bishop French pioneered the Anglican bishopric of Lahore in present-day Pakistan. He helped establish a cathedral and a theological school there, in which he taught in several languages. Amazingly, in his eighties, French chose to pave a way to Oman, where he interacted with James Cantine and Samuel Zwemer. He died trying to secure passage into the interior of Arabia, which today we know as Saudi Arabia. Stock’s retelling of French’s life story is concise and inspirational.

Meat: Missionary biographies almost always impress us with the uniqueness of God’s calling and preparation in the individual life. What’s impressive about Bishop French’s life is his evangelistic zeal and his pioneer passion.

Bones: The author leaves the reader to wonder at French’s linguistic prowess—however, Zwemer points out in his own autobiography, that French’s literary Arabic was very difficult for native Arabs to understand. Christian biographies of the period (the early 20th century) tend to be brief and overwhelmingly positive, skimming over any details that might put a damper on the theme.

Review: Five Great Affirmations of the Bible

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, later president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Overview: In 1958, Criswell preached and published Five Great Questions of the Bible, and in 1959, he followed up with a similar series, Five Great Affirmations of the Bible. The book deals with foundational truths of the Bible: the reality of God, the sonship of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the second advent of Jesus.

Meat: As in its prequel, Criswell’s chosen headings are doctrinally centered, but the outcome is stirring, devotional, and evangelistic. The third sermon has a great way of dealing with the resurrection of Christ in a way that shows to what lengths God went to remove any shadow of a doubt regarding the truth of his bodily resurrection. The sermons are simple and accessible.

Review: St. Francis of Assisi (G. K. Chesterton)

Rating: ★★★

Who: St. Francis of Assisi, Italian friar who lived in voluntary poverty, and founded several religious orders. He felt deeply connected with nature and tried to bring peace to the Crusades. He was also credited with several miracles in his lifetime and is now venerated as a “saint” in the Catholic church.

The author, G. K. Chesterton, was an English writer and journalist. He wrote biography, literary criticism, novels, poetry, and lay theology, and has been aptly named “the Prince of Paradox.”

When: St. Francis lived from around 1181 to 1226. Chesterton published this biography in 1923.

Where: Francis was raised in Assisi, Italy, but also travelled widely in the Mediterranean, meeting with the Sultan in Egypt, and visiting Palestine.

Overview: Chesterton gives us a somewhat fanciful introduction to the life of St. Francis. He deals with issues surrounding the life of St. Francis but does not delve into problems of historiography or attempt to untangle the plethora of legends about Francis. Rather, he focuses on St. Francis’ sublime life of worship and the meaning behind his great influence, seen through a few key decisions and events. This short book is suitable as an introduction to the life of St. Francis and is not written solely for Catholics.

Meat: Chesterton’s historical and biographical books read more like essays than stories. After finishing this book, it might be hard to reconstruct an orderly account of St. Francis’ life and influences; instead, Chesterton dissects key events of Francis’ life in his rambling, lavish style, often stepping off the beaten track to offer perspective on the meaning of these events. For example, Chesterton does not give us a medical analysis of the stigmata—rather, he tries to show that Francis’ ironic desire for martyrdom is a major key to understanding his work, and the stigmata were one scene in that panorama.

Chesterton presents St. Francis as a figure out of time, more contemporary than the most progressive moderns. He envisages Francis’ monastic life as joyous, effusive, worldly, and charitable. He brings out all that is childlike and sublime in Francis’ worship. He praises Francis’ “marriage to poverty” out of a middle-class Italian life, though he points out that some of Francis’ followers may have missed the sublimity of his monastic poverty.

Francis’ intentions to preach to the Saracens (=Muslims) and make peace from the Crusades makes him, for this reviewer, a beam of light in an otherwise dark and turbid age in which religious identity and nationalism walked hand in hand.

Bones: The only disappointment of this book is the many interesting stories that it leaves out. Tales surround the life of St. Francis, as one of the most interesting and influential saints of Catholic tradition. Perhaps Chesterton was trying not to write a fabulous hagiography, distanced from real life by its many unverifiable legends; he places the biography in the context of true history, and tries to maintain that context fully.

Quotes: “To this great mystic, his religion was not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.” (ch. I)

“A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfill the law of their being. He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness. He will do things like this, or pretty nearly like this, under quite a different impulse. He will do these things when he is in love.” (ch. I)

“He was penniless, he was parentless, he was to all appearance without a trade or a plan or a hope in the world; and as he went under the frosty trees, he burst suddenly into song.” (ch. IV)

Review: Who Really Sends the Missionary?

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Michael Griffiths, former director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. Before becoming director of OMF, Griffiths did student work in the UK, and served as a missionary in Japan for several years. (He has a number of paperbacks on missions, but this is the first I’ve read. You can read more about his story here.)

Overview: Griffiths has practical experience in vetting missionaries, and has profound biblical insights about missions. Griffiths desired to see  The first half of this book deals primarily with the missionary call, dispelling the idea that only missionary candidates can hear from God and know if they are “called.”

The second half of the book explains how he believes pastors should be ministering to missionaries who are on furlough, by giving them space and continuity to practice ministry. This part of the book is less applicable to non-traditional missionaries or those who are not doing directly pastoral work, but it is nonetheless interesting.

Meat: Griffiths says that the missionary call in the Bible is not a command issued directly to one person. Nor is “volunteering” on its own sufficient grounds to leave for the mission field. According to the New Testament, the church shares in choosing and sending the missionary, and in some ways, should be more responsible for this than the missionary himself.

We focus on an individual sense of call, but at the same time we realize that many who claim to be called are not fit or ready for life on the mission field. Griffiths’ little book is a much-needed corrective for a naive, individualistic view of missions and the missionary call. (See the quoted section below from pages 12 and 13.)

He adds later in the book that, instead of running themselves ragged on a deputation trail, missionaries should spend furloughs ministering continually to one or a few churches, and the church should reciprocate by supporting them on their furlough. “Here is another ministry for pastors and congregations—retreading tired missionaries!” (p. 33)

Bones: As mentioned, the second half of the book primarily targets church pastors; it was interesting and biblical, but mostly irrelevant to me.

Quotes: “Ministers and congregations have the chief responsibility for the selecting and sending of new missionaries.” (p. 11)

“In practice, we recognize that the subjective conviction of a call is not in itself sufficient.” (p. 15)

“… The emphasis made by Scripture is never upon an individual volunteering or upon his own subjective sense of call, but always upon the initiative of others. Saul goes to Antioch because Barnabas takes him there (Acts. 11:25-26). It is the whole group of prophets and teachers in Antioch to whom the Holy Spirit says ‘Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’ (Acts 13:1-4). Later, when Barnabas and Paul parted company, we are told that Barnabas ‘took Mark’ (Acts 15:39) and Paul ‘chose Silas’ (Acts 15:40) ‘and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord.’ Subsequently, Paul ‘wanted’ Timothy ‘to go with him’ (Acts 16:3), though we are pointedly reminded that ‘he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium,’ so that the congregations were consulted and involved in his going out. …

“Whereas we seem to have emphasized exclusively the individual’s subjective sense of a highly personal call of God, and often reinforced this by emotional appeals for individuals to volunteer, the New Testament by contrast stresses either the corporate initiative of congregations or the informed initiative of missionaries in selecting suitable people.” (p. 12-13)

“The call of an Old Testament prophet should not be regarded as normative for a New Testament missionary.” (p. 13)

“… Both the Bible and common sense, therefore, suggest that the best method is not to call for volunteers but to set up a draft! The most that an individual can do is express his willingness. Others must determine his worthiness. The individual may be free to go, but only his church knows if he is really fitted to go.” (p. 15-16)

“We all want to see a vital and exciting relationship restored between churches and mission societies, and this can be effected practically where there is increased living contact between individual Christians and individual missionaries.” (p. 6)

Latent Power of the Soul book cover

Review: The Latent Power of the Soul

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Watchman Nee, Chinese church leader and teacher.

Overview: Watchman Nee takes literally the Scripture about “dividing soul from spirit.” Several of Nee’s books teach that man is composed of body, soul and spirit—but God only inhabits spirit. Nee, along with G. H. Pember and a few others, taught that the human soul (not spirit) has true supernatural powers which are demonstrated in cult and occult practices. He believed that as a result of the Fall, man’s “soul power” was latent, yet open to provocation and exploitation by demonic forces. As examples, he cites stories of people seeing events from a distance, reading another thoughts, or healing themselves using only positive thinking. He sees these as true—though human—miracles that will only increase in the end times. Nee warns Christians against practices that could bring out “psychic” power, rather than the true spiritual power of the Holy Spirit.

Meat: Nee’s explanation of the practices of Christian Science and similar cults seems spot-on. The Bible is very specific about true miracles falsely worked in the end times by the Antichrist and his servants. This has at least two applications: 1. We should not assume that all miracles are false if they are not worked in the name of Christ; the devil has his miracles too. 2. We should test even miracles that are worked in the church. We should never allow Christian workers that have miracles, but do not honor Christ; and we should take care what means we employ in praying for miracles. Power for miracles is not a valid end in itself, if it is not submitted to the will of the Father.

Bones: Nee’s warnings are probably overdrawn here and can lead to imbalance. For instance, he warns against praying “towards” people so that we don’t focus on healing them by psychic aspects, rather than by the Holy Spirit. But the New Testament talks all the way through about the laying on of hands, and doesn’t provide any special warnings about this. He seems to be giving human influence a little too much credit.

I think that Nee’s warnings about revival are very pertinent. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t try to remove my “soul” from worship; that seems unreasonable, even impossible. Rather, I would try to focus on the Lord, and not on creating a certain kind of feeling in those I am serving, whether by preaching or leading worship. I would also avoid revivalists who preach to create a feeling, rather than a conviction.

Quotes: “If Adam was capable of managing the earth, his prowess was most certainly superior to ours today.” (p. 5)

“All who develop their soul power [i.e. psychic power] cannot avoid being contacted and used by the evil spirit.” (p. 15)

“The meditations of many people are simply a kind of psychic operation. Not so with the Christian faith. … We can know Him in our intuition, regardless what our feeling may be.” (p. 31)

“Whoever aims at better and deeper work ought not to speak of power. Our responsibility is to fall into the earth and die. … What we need is not greater power but deeper death.” (p. 52)

Review: Captain Allen Gardiner of Patagonia

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Captain Allen Gardiner (1794-1851) was a British Navy officer, explorer, and pioneer missionary to several indigenous people groups. He spent some time among the Zulus in South Africa, founding a mission station there. When the mission was no longer viable, he turned to the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego.

Captain Gardiner is best known for the tragic end he met with his mission crew in Tierra del Fuego, but his exploits before that time were numerous and interesting.

The author, Jesse Page, authored a number of interesting and readable missionary biographies around the beginning of the 20th century.

Overview: Adventure stories captivated Allen Gardiner as a child, and his mother once found him sleeping on bare floor boards, “to accustom himself to roughing it some day” (loc. 205). In adulthood, he entered the Navy and travelled all over the world. He had a hairbreadth escape from death off the coast of Peru, in which he had to swim to shore.

Gardiner came to true faith after being impressed by missions work among the indigenous people of Tahiti. The transformation taking place there led him to reconsider his life, and eventually use his sailing skills for pioneer missions work.

His first few years of mission work (1834 to 1838) were spent among the Zulu of South Africa, and he published a narrative of this time. He founded a mission a Port Natal, which later became Durban. He left South Africa because of political turmoil and tribal issues.

His appeals for funding to the Church Missionary Society, the Wesleyan Missionary Society, and the London Missionary Society were all rejected. As a result, Captain Gardiner founded the Patagonian Mission in 1844, which later became the South American Mission. Although American missionaries are extremely active now in Latin America, it was then a neglected field, as Jesse Page takes pains to show.

The situation slowly increased in desperation until one by one his crew died of starvation over the course of a two-month period. The missions work, however, continued, and Allen Gardiner’s son also worked in missions in Patagonia.

Meat: The most impressive aspect of Gardiner’s life is his fortitude against material obstacles. He survived a number of treacherous voyages and shipwrecks. His missions lacked funding and were hedged in by political obstacles. In South Africa he dealt with tribal conflicts; in Tierra del Fuego he dealt with theft and treachery; finally, his crew of eight were stranded, but held out hope until the bitter end.

Bones: This book is concise and interesting but doesn’t provide any information about Gardiner’s pioneering strategy.

The author also seems to treat indigenous peoples as one unit, with one simplistic language, following the stereotypes of the time period. But we now know these stereotypes to be false, and their languages and customs to be more complex than a brief tour can justify.

Quotes: The most interesting passage from the book is undoubtedly the poem that Captain Gardiner penned while slowly dying on Picton Island:

“A moral desert, dark and drear;
But faith descries the harvest near,
Nor heeds the toil—nor dreads the foe,
Content, where duty calls, to go. …
The troubled sea, the desert air,
The furnace depth, the lion’s lair,
Alike are safe, when Christ is there.” (loc. 78)

The author’s words about South American missions are also prophetic:

“Some day the Church will wake up to its responsibility in this matter, and an impetus of zeal, something like that which created the China Inland Mission, will send forth the labourers by hundreds into this field, which is white with opportunity and need.” (loc. 1688)