Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: That Hideous Strength (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Overview: The third installment of C. S. Lewis’ Space trilogy is by far the most ambitious of the three. Set on Earth, That Hideous Strength begins with a new protagonist: This time a snarky academic is being reeled into a plot that could determine the fate of England—even Earth. But how deep does the intrigue go? And who else will resist the relentless expansion of the N.I.C.E.?

Meat: A few readers claim this as their favorite of the trilogy, but not many. It is replete with symbolism, and it may be in a different genre from that of the first two installments of the trilogy. Lewis tries hard to plant all three in the world we know—but in the third book, the cosmic crises of the first two books come crashing into England’s villages. The action comes home.

While the first two books deal with innocence and temptation, the third installment focuses on the advance of deception. For this reason, many reviewers take it as Lewis’ figurative eschatology.

Bones: The plot of the book was quite slow to pick up. Lewis sacrificed accessibility for literary flare. That Hideous Strength is a far cry from the universality of Narnia. If you don’t enjoy the esoteric, this book may be a bore for you.

A side point: In my opinion, Lewis was unduly influenced by Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion. Both are fantasy novels set in England with a long exposition involving a few cynical academics, eventually culminating in a conflict that combines spiritual, magical and historical elements.

Quotes: “Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.”

“Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.”

“This is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew. It will not be enough for always. He is very jealous. He will have you for no one but Himself in the end. But for tonight, it is enough.”

Review:  Candle in the Dark: The Story of Ion Keith-Falconer

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Ion Keith-Falconer, Arabic scholar, prominent cyclist, and pioneer missionary to Yemen.

When: 1856-1887.

Where: The book covers his training and travels in Scotland, England, Germany, Egypt, and Yemen.

Overview: This is the authorized biography of Ion Keith-Falconer, published within a year of his unexpected death by a friend who knew him at Cambridge. It is still the most complete biography of him available.

Keith-Falconer came from a noble Scottish bloodline. He was definitely a son of privilege; but to his credit, he used this privilege to support Gospel work. He liberally supported urban evangelistic work, not only with money, but with his own sweat.

He was an exemplary academic and excelled in Arabic and other Semitic languages at Cambridge. Before he went to Yemen as a missionary with the Free Church of Scotland, he was offered a lectureship in Arabic by Cambridge, and accepted, if only because the requirements were so light, and the benefits so obvious—he would only have to lecture once annually at the minimum.

He also exemplifies “muscular Christianity.” He stumbled into fame as a cyclist when the sport was just budding into existence on college campuses.

He began to seriously consider missions in late 1884, and left for Yemen in November 1885 for a trial visit. He returned with his family a year later, in November 1886, but within just a few short months, he succumbed to several bouts of malaria, and died at the age of 31.

Meat: Keith-Falconer is in many ways the prototypical missionary of the Arabian Peninsula. He taught that hospitals and academic work were an appropriate avenue for missionaries there, and many followed in his wake.

The announcement of his death coincided closely with the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, and as a result, many were moved to consider the mission field after he died.

Bones: The author, Sinker, was an academic and sometimes gives too much detail on Keith-Falconer’s academic life at the expense of his personal life. An ideal biography would give a better sense of Keith-Falconer’s habits and daily life.

A member of the Yemen mission, James Robson, later produced a bite-sized biography, Ion Keith-Falconer of Arabia (1923), which essentially abridges the material found here.

Quotes: “Still, it seemed as if some scheme ought to present itself in which Christian zeal and linguistic power might work hand in hand, or rather, shall I say, in which his intellectual attainments and his learning might be to him something more than a mere parallel interest, existing side by side with, but having no connection with, work for Christ.” (loc. 2116)

“The efforts already made to Christianize Mohammedan countries have produced commensurate results.” (loc. 2724)

“The heathen are in darkness, and we are asleep. . . . While vast continents are shrouded in almost utter darkness, and hundreds of millions suffer the horrors of heathenism or of Islam, the burden of proof lies upon you to show that the circumstances in which God gas placed you were meant by Him to keep you out of the foreign mission-field.” (loc. 2797)

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)