Category Archives: Book Reviews

proving the unseen

Review: Proving the Unseen

Rating: ★★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: This book is a rare glimpse into the spoken sermons of George MacDonald. Proving the Unseen was arranged and edited by William J. Petersen from sermons published in Christian World Pulpit in MacDonald’s lifetime. The sermons are reasonably short and have the same subject matter found in most of MacDonald’s books: The Fatherhood of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the obedience of faith.

Meat: This book’s strength is that it is significantly easier to read than Unspoken Sermons, which many—unlike me—find too abstract. MacDonald’s spoken ministry as found here is surprisingly straightforward, and yet, the material has the same depth and spiritual sharpness. I especially enjoyed the titular sermon, “Faith, the Proof of the Unseen,” and “Alone with God.”

Bones: The sermons here are pretty short, so you may get the sense that MacDonald could say a lot more on each topic.

Quotes: “Often the very things that lift us up nearer to God are viewed by us as misfortunes. ‘How sad,’ we say, and console one another on the means that the Father of our spirits is using to cleanse our souls and to make us the very children of his heart.” (p. 61)

Advertisements

Review: The Cobra’s Den

Who: Jacob Chamberlain was the first Westerner to live in Madanapalle, India, in the state of Tamil Nadu. He translated the Bible and study helps into Telugu; preached in the vernacular language; treated thousands of medical ailments; and was a great force for bringing support to the overseas missions of the Reformed Church in America. His ministry in India stretched over thirty-seven years.

Overview: The Cobra’s Den is a compilation of writings about various aspects of missionary life. It is a fast read with short chapters and mostly simple language. Most of the chapters, like “Those Torn-Up Gospels,” pertain directly to pioneer missions among the unreached. Others, like “How I Keep My Study Cool,” deal more with the eccentricities of Chamberlain’s life in India. The overall thrust of the book shows that India was in a time a great religious transformation, in which the old Hinduism, with its superstitions and pilgrimages, was largely being cast off.

Meat: Chamberlain, along with his many native teachers and preachers, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ in over a thousand villages in southern India, mostly in Tamil Nadu. He faced many dangers from men and beasts, and also persisted in literary work for decades. His stories are exemplary and encouraging.

This book has plenty of interesting insights about missionary life, pioneer preaching, and a lot to say about missionary finances from the perspective of someone living in an undeveloped economy.

Bones: Chamberlain can be somewhat sensational in his depictions. (The title itself, of course, is meant to draw attention!)  The financial appeals are a little strange to read, since they are directed at a 19th-century audience. Nonetheless, his life of pioneer work was nothing to sneeze at.

Quotes:

“At two o’clock we were to go to the weekly bazaar to preach to the people who came together from fifty villages to buy and sell. Before that hour, however, I was on my bed with a severe pull of my arch enemy, the jungle fever, and could not rise. My assistants went without me. About sunset they returned, finding me on my cot, with the fever still burning, and said, “O sir, we have had such an interesting time. We had a succession of large and interested audiences, and at the close two men came up and asked earnestly, ‘Are you the Doctor Padre’s people? And Is he here? He promised to come and see us, but has never come. We want him to come, for we are all of us ready to give up our idols and join his religion.” (“The Surgeon’s Knife Dethrones a Hindu Idol.”)

Related: The author of The Cobra’s Den also wrote In the Tiger Jungle, a similar book of missionary stories.

Lover of Life by F. W. Boreham

Review: Lover of Life (Man Who Saved Gandhi)

Rating: ★★★★½

Who: J. J. (Joseph John) Doke was a Baptist pastor and missionary who ministered in New Zealand and South Africa. As the original title suggests, he became coincidentally entangled with Mahatma Gandhi when an uprising nearly killed him; he afterward nursed him back to health in his own home, winning his lifelong friendship and respect.

The author, F. W. Boreham, was an English pastor and a prolific author who ministered in New Zealand and Australia for more than thirty years.

Overview: This little book is an uplifting and quick read that will stir you concerning the pioneer mission field. This book tells the story of Doke’s mentorship of Boreham in New Zealand, a relationship that was highly formative in his early career. Doke not only had a great impact on Boreham’s notorious reading habits, but he also connected Boreham to an editor that led to the beginnings of his writing career. The publisher makes a case that this book should be placed in the hands of budding pastors as an illustration of healthy mentorship.

Doke’s life itself is also fascinating. As the old title suggests, he did save Gandhi’s life before he had reached his present level of international fame. J. J. Doke’s brother was a pioneer missionary who lost his life in the Congo, and he wanted to follow in his footsteps. He pastored in New Zealand for a time, but later returned to the African mission field. Doke eventually lost his life, like his brother, while pioneering a new station in the region of present-day Zimbabwe.

For lovers of Boreham, this book tells you almost as much about him as it does about J. J. Doke. Although Boreham often tells personal stories, this book gives a new angle to how he became who he was.

Bones: My main beef with this book is that it was so short—I wanted more detail about his life as a missionary. The original title, The Man Who Saved Gandhi, led to me to believe it was a full biography; the newer title, Lover of Life: F. W. Boreham’s Tribute to His Mentor, is a little more fitting. It does trace Doke’s life through, but not in detail.

Related: George Augustus Selwyn: Pioneer Bishop of New Zealand is the only full biography that Boreham penned.

Doke himself wrote two adventure novels about lost races in remote Africa, The Secret City and The Queen of the Secret City. Both are extremely rare and out of print.

A new copy is available from John Broadbanks Publishing for $7.00.

Review: Missionary Tongues Revisited

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: Denzil (Denny) R. Miller, missionary to Malawi and director of the Acts in Africa Initiative. Miller saw that evangelism was alive and well in Africa, but very few African pastors were being discipled about the filling and gifts Holy Spirit, so this has been his primary ministry focus for some years. He has many books on the Holy Spirit and on Luke-Acts.

Overview: This brief book begins with Miller’s take on early Pentecostal missionaries, who thought that the gift of tongues was for the “regions beyond,” and that when they got to China, they could evangelize using the gift of tongues. Needless to say, they were mistaken; but, Miller says, the thrust of the idea was correct, and we need to return to a missional understanding of the Holy Spirit in general and of the gift of tongues in particular. He writes:

“While the early Pentecostals’ bold experiment with missionary tongues was a failure, they were, I believe, right to place speaking in tongues into missiological categories.” (Loc. 1129)

Meat: I thought that this book would deal primarily with “missionary tongues,” but, after Chapter 1, the rest of the book (six chapters) is about shifting our understanding of tongues and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For many Pentecostals, tongues are the “initial physical evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit.” Miller agrees with this, but he adds the following:

  1. Tongues are confirmatory evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Tongues are a missional sign that the believer is a Spirit-empowered witness.
  3. Tongues are a prophetic release for Christians desiring boldness to preach to the unreached.
  4. Tongues are an empowering element for Christians living in mission.

If we think of tongues only as a confirmatory evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit, we have missed the place of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in God’s global mission. “For Luke tongues were part and parcel of the empowering experience.” (Loc. 971)

Bones: Honestly I could not think of any criticisms. Miller is concise and biblical.

Quotes: “The Classical Pentecostal doctrine of ‘initial physical evidence,’ while true in itself, is an incomplete understanding of Luke’s missional presentation of tongues.” (Loc. 136)

“In Acts Luke presents Spirit baptism as a powerful missions oriented experience accompanied by Spirit-inspired prophetic speech in both unlearned and learned languages.” (Loc. 942)

This missional empowering takes place, not only when one is first baptized in the Holy Spirit signified by speaking in tongues, it occurs again and again each time the Spirit-filled believer prays in the Spirit.” (Loc. 1001)

Related: The 1:8 Promise of Jesus.

You can buy this book on Amazon for just $5.95 for a digital copy, or $10.95 for the paperback.

Review: When Heaven Seems Silent

Rating: ★★½

Who: Mark and Tammy Endres are Charismatic ministers connected with Randy Clark’s Global Awakening network, now over a ministry called Hand of Jesus. They both also have experience in special education and other fields.

Overview: Mark and Tammy have been in Charismatic teaching and ministry for many years, and have seen many people healed in various ways. But this comes with an ounce of disappointment for them, because Mark was born without a hand on his left arm. As you read their story, it becomes clear that multiple people have given them prophetic words about his arm being healed, without them prompting or asking for prayer on the topic. When Heaven Seems Silent is their journey in handling the discrepancy between these prophetic words and their reality.

Meat: When Heaven Seems Silent has some important Scriptural truths on what it means to avoid bitterness when God does not solve a problem for you, or does not bring healing when you ask for it. Chapters like “Trusting God’s Intentions” defend a high view of God and his justice on this earth. For the Endreses, there may be a variety of reasons that God doesn’t perform a miracle, but more important in the end is that God is our Father, and we are his beloved children.

Bones: This book comes from what I call the “Power” camp—the descendants of the Word of Faith movement, who generally believe that miracles are central to church life and devotional life. I can imagine that when you walk into certain churches with a limp, people want to pray for your limp immediately. But for most mainstream churches, limps are simply part of existence—not something that needs to be reconciled to your worldview.

The problematic question raised by this book is, “What are God’s promises, and how does God give them to us?” If I receive a prophetic word, a word of knowledge, or a dream, does that carry the same rank as God’s promises given to me in the Bible? If someone gives me a prophetic word, should I arrange my life around it? We “do not despise prophecies,” but they are not part of the bedrock of faith either.

An aside: There are also some teachings from “inner healing,” which include a series of buzz words like: “soul ties,” “generational sin,” and “inner vows.” These ideas, in my view, have only been harmful to the church and dredged up past guilt in exactly the way that a minister shouldn’t. Counseling can help Christians to see how their past problems affect them now, but I don’t particularly believe that we need to “renounce” our parents’ mistakes or past actions in order to receive either “inner” healing or physical healing. We cast down imaginations that exalt themselves against Christ by meditating on and obeying God’s Word, not by renouncing ties or vows in our primeval past.

Quotes: “Beneath the pain of delayed answers is the promise of God, which does not diminish through our suffering.” (p. 110)

“Not every promise is unconditional. Some promises must be carried tenaciously if we are to see their fulfillment.” (p. 68)

The book addresses how grief and disappointment can make it difficult to draw near to God. “Pulling away from God only increases our pain and deepens our disappointment.” (p. 36) “All of us face a crossroads when confronted with pain. We often respond one of two ways: we shut down, or we open up.” (p. 96)

“Miracles and the fulfillment of promises in and of themselves do not settle our faith issues. Our assurance must come from who Jesus is, and who we are in him.” (p. 56)

“For five years or so my prayer life was basically three words: ‘I love You.’ I don’t understand you, but I love you. Over and over I gave him my love in the darkest place of my life.” (Bob Sorge, qtd. on p. 67)

“My soul refuses to live in the badlands of abandoned promises. I am resolved to do whatever I must to keep his promise close to my heart.” (p. 69)

Related: The Fire of Delayed Answers (Bob Sorge).

Review: God in the Dock

Rating: ★★★★

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

Overview: God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics is a smorgasbord of Lewis’ short articles, mostly on theological topics. Many of them are responses to theological or literary controversies of the day, but they are written with the same cleverness and care for detail that he put into his other writings.

Meat: The strength of this book is that we can hear Lewis at length on topics that he loved, but were unworthy of a full book. Topics scattered throughout his writings come into full focus here. The essay, for example, on “Reading Old Books” is still particularly relevant and quoted often as an antidote to the worship of the “Idol of the Age.”

My favorite parts of the book, though, were Lewis’ thoughts on mythology scattered throughout. In short, Lewis believed that in Jesus’ resurrection was, in a sense, “myth became fact.” He mentions this in Perelandra, but he expounds it much more clearly in God in the Dock, especially in “The Grand Miracle” and “Myth Became Fact.” These two essays are the kernel of the book and are central to understanding to Lewis’ theology as a whole.

Bones: Some of the essays—a long-winded argument against ‘naturalism’ for example—may be opaque to modern readers. As the book goes on, some of the essays on ethical and critical topics, are for the most part yawn-inducing. (Some of the topics also have little or nothing to do with religion, by the way.) As a whole, it is definitely a book worth having, but I wouldn’t worry about reading it cover to cover.

An abridged collection, The Grand Miracle: And Other Selected Essays might be a quicker, more palatable alternative for less patient readers (and it looks like it has a closer focus on the Christian topics too).

Quotes: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another a new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” (“On Reading Old Books”)

“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.” (“The Grand Miracle,” p. 80)

Related: Several similar (though shorter) compilations of Lewis’ articles have sprung up. Confusingly, there is a compilation called God in the Dock that is shorter than this full book; The Grand Miracle is also a kind of “best of” taken completely from God in the Dock. Lewis’ other books of essays and speeches, such as The Weight of Glory and The World’s Last Night, are unrelated to this one and do not overlap.

This book is available in print, digital, and audio formats.

Review: Olney Hymns

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: John Newton was the Anglican minister at Olney after being cast away as a mutineer on the African coast and sold to black slave-traders. He later became one of the champions of the abolition of the British slave trade.

William Cowper became famous in his own right through his long poem The Task. Although Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” the most famous hymn ever written, Cowper wrote many of the more famous ones. Several of these are still regularly sung today, whether in older or modern forms.

When: Olney Hymns was published in 1779 in the context of an (local) revival of religious fervor and commitment in England. This revival, with the abolitionist Clapham Sect at its center, led to many of the most well known Christian efforts against the British slave trade.

Overview: Olney Hymns is one of the most famous hymnbooks ever created, and is connected to an evangelical revival that was occurring with John Newton, William Wilberforce, and William Cowper in the middle of it. Most famously, it is the hymnbook that introduced “Amazing Grace” (and several other classics) to the world.

(An aside: Hymnbooks were used differently back then; the tunes were memorized, and any hymn could be sung to any melody with the same number of notes. So the original tune used for “Amazing Grace,” for instance, is not the one we sing now. If you want to prove this, try singing the first hymn in the book to the same tune as “Amazing Grace.”)

Meat: I have read several classic hymnbooks in recent years, but this is easily the best. The poetry is simple and exemplary, and for the most part, it makes great devotional reading.

Many hymns that we still sing in one version or another are traced back to this classic book. I had been singing “There is a fountain filled with blood” for years before I knew it was written by one of my favorite poets, William Cowper.

Bones: Interwoven with what we consider classic hymnody are expressions of self-loathing and near despair. Newton and Cowper were prone to “worm theology” and sometimes make very little of themselves. (“Save a wretch like me.”) This is concomitant with their Calvinism and was part of the worship of several centuries of Calvinists; today, though, we find this self-deprecation to be self-focused and destructive to the atmosphere of worship.

I should add, the original index, with a title, and the first line, and a paired Scripture, is pretty confusing to modern readers. (This requires three indexes!) And different editions number the poems differently to boot.

Best Poems: 

Walking with God (“Oh! for a closer walk with God,” Gen. 5:24)

Joy and Peace in Believing (“Sometimes a light surprises”)

Light Shining out of Darkness (“God moves in a mysterious way.”)

Praise for the Fountain Opened (“There is a fountain fill’d with blood,” Zech. 13:1)

Old Testament Gospel (“Israel, in ancient days,” Heb. 4:2)

Faith’s Review and Expectation (“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound,” 1 Chron. 17:16-17)