Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: The Solitary Throne

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: Samuel M. Zwemer was a pioneer missionary among Arabs along the Persian Gulf. His later career was spent writing, teaching and mobilizing for missions among Muslims while he was based in Egypt for many years, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Overview:

As the original cover shows, this book is composed of five addresses given at the Keswick Convention in 1937, “on the glory and uniqueness of the Christian message.” Their actual content is a little less focused than that, but more devotional and less apologetic than the subtitle implies.

Meat:

I have finished only a few of Samuel Zwemer’s books, but I have perused the lot of them enough to know that this may be his very best work. “The Glory of the Impossible”—a title also given to a chapter of Zwemer’s 1911 book The Unoccupied Fields and in an article by Lilias Trotter in the Missionary Review of the World—is a timeless and inspirational theme that resonates especially for apostolic missionaries. “His Ministers a Flame” was an equally compelling chapter on a disturbing but oft-neglected New Testament metaphor.

Zwemer was a voracious reader, and has a marvelous knack for compiling fascinating and rare illustrations and quotations from every imaginable source: history, biography, fiction, hymnology, poetry, and elsewhere. Several of the best are quoted below.

Bones:

The fifth chapter, “The Hinterland of the Soul,” fell a little flat for me because of its imperial language. I am rather certain than when it was written, this language was meant to be mainly spiritual; but here in the 21st century, it resonates more like a call to be united with fallen power structures of this world—an unequal yoke that the crucified Christ never called us to. Nonetheless, if I can take Zwemer’s call to “rule the world for Christ” in a spiritual sense, then I can see its merit.

Quotes:

The Solitary Throne:

Napoleon on St. Helena said: “I know men, and Jesus was no man. Charlemagne, Alexander the Great, and I, founded great empires upon force, and here is One who founded an empire upon love. And now I am alone and forsaken, and there are millions who would die for Him.”

Jean Paul Richter, of Germany, in a wonderful passage, said: “O Thou who art mightiest among the mighty, and the holiest among the holy, Thou with Thy pierced hands, hast lifted empires off their hinges, and turned the tide of human history!”

Jesus Christ is the only religious leader Who came to destroy all race barriers and class hatreds.

His Ministers a Flame:

You cannot keep your wood pile, you cannot keep your coal in the cellar, if you would have a fire on the hearth.

The very presence of Jesus always demands decision.

The Roman Catholic Church believes in Purgatory hereafter. We believe in Purgatory now.

I love to go to the University Library in Princeton. Over the fireplace in the library of that Graduate School there are carved these Latin words from the Vulgate Psalter: “In Meditatione mea exardescet ignis.” “While I sit meditating, the fire burns.”[See Psalm 39:3.]

Once I was to preach a sermon at an anniversary in a Methodist Church; there were a great number of ministers present, and I was greatly honoured to be allowed to preach there. We met in the vestry. And the sexton, whose work it was to take care of the comfort of the preacher, said to me: “Would you like a glass of water in the pulpit?” I said: “No, I would like a bonfire.” He smiled. That is what I felt that day.

Let us often read the Acts of the Apostles. It is a neglected Book amongst those who ought to be leaders of the Church of Christ.

May we never glibly pray the prayer that we may be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Photophobia:

Believe me, the principle of unbelief is not primarily intellectual, but moral.

This groping after the Light was the promise of full enlightenment. It always is, as we missionaries on the foreign field know; and our hearts leap with joy when some Nicodemus comes to us by night, saying: “Sir, we would see Jesus,” whether it be a penitent publican or an irreproachable Pharisee. Those who seek find; to those who knock, the door is opened.

There is no tragedy more real and more moving in all history, and in our own lives, than the deliberate rejection of Christ; because it is due, not to any extraordinary wickedness in the Jews, or the Romans, or the people of New York, or the people of London, but to the ordinary motives of men.

If you are neglecting your morning watch, if you are omitting your daily Bible study, if you are forsaking the assembling together of the saints as the manner of some is, you may be sure that all of these things are early symptoms of photophobia, and will end in spiritual blindness.

The Glory of the Impossible:

In 1923 I spoke on the patience of God in the evangelisation of Mohammedan lands from the text: “Master, we have toiled all the night and have taken nothing. Nevertheless, at Thy word I will let down the nets.”

The history of Missions in every land is the story of the achievement of the impossible.

One of the saintliest of British missionaries, Miss Lilias Trotter, of North Africa, wrote just before her death in Algeria; “We who are engaged in Moslem work live in a land of blighted promises. That is a fact that none of us who love its people best can deny; and the deadly heart-sickness of hope deferred, sometimes makes even the most optimistic of us almost despair of seeing abiding fruitage to the work.”

We need once again to face the glory of this impossible task. . . . There is only one thing that is impossible—it is impossible for God to lie.

It is daybreak, not sunset in the Moslem world.

The Hinterland of the Soul:

In the eighteenth century the future belonged to John Wesley; it did not belong to those influential ecclesiastics who crowded him out of their churches and forced him, against his own inclinations, to preach in the open fields. Now to whom does the future of the twentieth century belong save to those Christians who are already looking beyond the horizon, who can read the signs of the times, and who makes bold adventures for God?

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Review: Walking His Trail

Rating: ★★★★★

Authors: Steve Saint is the author of three books, including The End of the Spear, which bridges his father’s martyrdom to his own missionary calling. He also narrated the 2004 documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor. In 1995, Steve and Ginny Saint went to rural Ecuador with their four children to work as missionaries among the Huaorani people; they left Ecuador in 1996, desiring to foster indigenous independence, which led to the founding of ITEC for “Indigenous Training and Equipping”:

Steve Saint started ITEC in 1996 to develop tools and training to equip the indigenous Christ-followers to meet the physical and spiritual needs of their own people. [About ITEC]

 

Overview: The subtitle of the book is “Signs of God along the Way.” Steve recorded these stories of prayer and providence as encouragement—and also to encourage others to remember and record things God has done—like the stone pillars set up by Jacob in Genesis 28 and 31, and by his descendants in Joshua 4 and 7.

The stories in this book span many years and serve the purpose of recording many stories about the Saints that are not in Steve’s memoir, End of the Spear, or the many related documentaries or biographies. It is worth noting that the chapters can be read in any order. In many ways, this book acts as a complement to End of the Spear.

The book is also beautifully designed, with a thick matte softcover and rounded corners (pictured above).

Meat: Although I enjoyed the whole book, my favorite stories from the book were chapters 2 and 7. In chapter 2, “Out of the Sky,” Steve meets a bitter and backslidden man in a tiny town in southeast Texas, and ministers to him in a way that, providentially, only he could.

In chapter 7, “Timbuktu: To the Ends of the Earth,” Steve is on a short-term trip to Timbuktu, Mali, and he meets the one Christian in the area—a man who was profoundly affected by the story of the Palm Beach Five. If you know anything about Mali and the western Sahara, this is a very impressive story.

As someone who could merely be capitalizing on his connection to the most famous missionary martyrdom of the twentieth century, Steve writes and speaks with humility and self-effacement.

I also discovered while reading this book that I have been to many of the locations mentioned in the book: southwest Minnesota, southeast Texas, and even—unwittingly—to the hospital where Steve was born and Ginny worked as a nurse, in Ecuador. There is almost no one famous that I would say this about, but I would really love to meet Steve Saint because of his unique story and his simple heart.

Review: When the Swans Fly High

Who: F. W. Boreham, British pastor and author of 49 books. He spent most of his life pastoring in New Zealand and Australia. (See the article “Who Is F. W. Boreham?”)

Genre: On Boreham’s spiritual essays: F. W. Boreham is difficult to place into a genre. A reviewer wrote in Preacher’s Magazine, “There is only one Boreham.” His writing is a mix of essay writing and what I call “literary preaching”—preaching that is intensely informed by both Christian and classic literature. In the main body of his work (“classic Boreham”), some chapters were originally sermons; others were culled from his 3000 biographical essays. In any case, most of his 49 books are a goldmine of suitable (if light) devotional reading. (See my list of his published works.)

Overview: This is a great book of essays, and very hard to obtain. It is definitely one of my favorite volumes from the pen of F. W. Boreham. Thanks to my collaborators, it is now available for Kindle.

“The Order of Melchizedek” illustrates in several ways the meaning of the somewhat enigmatic figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews: “without beginning of days or end of life” (Heb. 7:3).

“Rainbow Gold” compares the human longing for eternity to the search for the gold at the end of the rainbow.

“The Rainbow” speaks of the meaning of the biblical symbol of the rainbow in its several uses (Genesis, Ezekiel, and Revelation), and also tells the fascinating tale of a etiological myth about the rainbow among the Maori where Boreham spent his first pastorate. (On the rainbow, see also this fine passage from missionary Temple Gairdner.)

“A Pair of Spectacles” is about the tendency to see things, not through your own eyes, but through the eyes of the crowd.

Quotes:

“One of the highest forms of courage is cold-blooded courage, four-o’-clock-in-the-morning courage, the kind of courage that is born of no excitement, is witnessed by no spectators and evokes no cheers.”

“In his Areopagitica, John Milton says that a man may hold an orthodox creed and yet be the worst of heretics.”

“God committed to paper the choicest thoughts of His divine heart.”

“‘Come, wander with me,’ she said,
‘Into regions yet untrod;
And read what is still unread
In the manuscripts of God.'” (quoted from Longfellow in “A Midwinter Holiday”)

“Each man’s individuality is itself a message to mankind, a message which he, and he alone can faithfully deliver. And the whole art of life lies in giving such genuine and accurate and rational expression to that unique individuality of mine that, by the things that I do and the way in which I do them, men may receive a message from my Father that could have come to them in no other way.”

“He cares, we feel, for certain things—the making of worlds, the control of the universe, the destinies of mighty empires. But does He care for the individual soul with its individual needs? Does He care for Barbara with her passionate prayer for the boon of a quiet night? Does He care for John Ridd? Is He prepared, not only to steer the planets on their fiery courses, but to guide John’s heart amidst its complicated entanglements? Does He care for ordinary mortals? Does He care for me?” (“The Doll’s House”)

Review: Rubble and Roseleaves

Author: F. W. Boreham, British pastor and author of 49 books and thousands of articles. He spent most of his life pastoring in New Zealand and Australia. (See our article “Who Is F. W. Boreham?”)

Genre: On Boreham’s spiritual essays: F. W. Boreham is difficult to place into a genre. A reviewer wrote in Preacher’s Magazine, “There is only one Boreham.” His writing is a mix of essay writing and what I call “literary preaching”—preaching that is intensely informed by both Christian and classic literature. In the main body of his work (“classic Boreham”), some chapters were originally sermons; others were culled from his 3000 biographical essays. In any case, most of his 49 books are a goldmine of suitable (if light) devotional reading. (See my list of his published works.)

Best Essays:

“The Fish-Pens” is my favorite in the book. He describes fish kept muscular for the market by a predator fish in the fish-pens—”an animated compliment”—so that they are forced to struggle and swim. Though this is certainly inspirational for believers in adversity, it also points toward the possibility of a theodicy:

I am the prey of antagonisms of many kinds. . . . Life is full of irritations. . . . I am not my own master. Like Paul, I find a law that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. . . . Paul found it extremely exasperating, and so do I.

In the same essay, he quotes from Martin Luther:

It was my temptations and my corruptions that best prepared me for my pulpit. The devil has been my best professor at exegetical and experimental divinity. Before that great schoolmaster took me in hand, I was a suckling child and not a grown man. It was my combats with sin and with Satan that made me a true minister of the New Testament.

“Whistling Jigs to Milestones” recounts an outback pastor’s feeling that his work and preaching had no results. In the end, the feeling shows how seriously he takes his call, but his pessimism might not be the most accurate reflection of reality.

“Achmed’s Investment” tells of an Egyptian casting seed abroad in a floodplain (the Nile). Like “Whistling Jigs to Milestones,” it deals with feelings of futility in ministry. This essay is an incredible exhortation to risk and unselfishness.

The only way to keep a thing is to throw it away.

“A Box of Blocks”, describing Jesus as Alpha and Omega, asks:

Which, I ask myself, is the greater—the literature or the alphabet? And I see at once that the alphabet is the greater because it is so inexhaustible. . . .

As the disciples discovered on the road to Emmaus, I cannot understand my Bible unless I take Him as being the Key to it all.

“Be Shod with Sandals” also has an interesting take on ministry and work”

The ox is ready for service in the field or for sacrifice in the temple. . . . “Be shod with sandals;” so that, whether the Revelation or the Road shall call you, you are ready for either. The ministry is neither mundane nor monastic; the minister wears sandals that he may keep in touch with two worlds.

Review: Zigzag Journeys in the Camel Country

Rating: ★★★★½

Authors: Amy E. Zwemer is the co-author of Topsy-Turvy Land and Zigzag Journeys in the Camel Country. A native Australian, she met Samuel M. Zwemer while she was serving as a pioneer missionary in Basra, present-day Iraq.

Samuel M. Zwemer was a pioneer missionary among Arabs along the Persian Gulf. His later career was spent writing, teaching and mobilizing for missions among Muslims while he was based in Egypt for many years, and later at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Overview:

Where Topsy-Turvy Land was focused on daily life in the Arab world—which has, needless to say, changedZigzag Journeys has a narrative basis. Although it’s not always clear who is narrating (whether Amy Zwemer or her husband), the chapters that recount journeys are easy to read and fascinating in their detail.

Meat:

There is a wealth of interest and irony in the Zwemers’ accounts of their journeys, such as “A Pioneer Journey on the Pirate Coast” and “Along Unbeaten Traces in Yemen.” “The Jews in Kheibar” is a particularly interesting and seldom-told tale of the Jews who once inhabited the Arabian Peninsula.

Bones:

This book maintains everything that’s best about Topsy-Turvy Land but in a much less childish style. Adult readers who felt patronized by Topsy-Turvy will find this book much more engaging.

Review: Topsy-Turvy Land

Authors: Amy E. Zwemer is the co-author of Topsy-Turvy Land and Zigzag Journeys in the Camel Country. A native Australian, she met Samuel M. Zwemer while she was serving as a pioneer missionary in Basra, present-day Iraq.

Samuel M. Zwemer

Full Title: Topsy-Turvy Land: Arabia Pictured for Children

Overview:

This is a book designed to introduce the Arab world to children in an off-kilter setting but with a missional mindset. For one characteristic example, the Kaaba in Mecca is called “The Square-House with the Black Overcoat.” After a description of Muslim practices around the Kaaba, readers are reminded:

For thirteen hundred years Moslems [Muslims] have come every year to Mecca, and gone away, with no one ever to tell them of the Son of God, the Saviour of the World. Thirteen hundred years! Don’t you think it is time to go and tell them?

It is rare to find materials that introduce cross-cultural missions to children, so that may be one of the most important things about this book.

Meat:

This little book that can be read in an hour or two presents numerous aspects of daily life in the Arabian Peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century. Although the book is dated, it is usually obvious when the authors’ accounts are no longer reliable.

I might not recommend it to people with no experience of the Arab world, because so many of the chapters—while they bear a relation to modern practices—no longer reflect the way daily life is. I don’t see Bedouin women grinding at the mill, Arabia no longer has coins that look like clothespins, slavery is no longer openly practiced, and, praise God, it is no longer true that “few can read and even those who can read, are able to read only the Koran and the Moslem traditions. ”

Bones:

Zwemer’s mode of introducing Arabia, as “topsy-turvy,” clearly would not pass muster in any modern anthropology class. The introduction presents several practices in Arabic culture and Muslim cultures as inherently negative, but modern missiologists would take issue with this mode of writing:

The women wear toe-rings and nose-rings as well as earrings and bracelets. Everything seems different from what it is in a Christian country.

In its worst sections, this book is patronizingly juvenile toward its audience; at its best, it shows the wealth of fascinating detail about the Arab world that was curated and represented in the lives of its authors.

Review: Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral

Rating: ★★★

Author: Phyllis Wheatley became the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry in 1773.

Overview: 

Wheatley’s book of poetry was quite at home in the 1770s, but time has not been as kind to them as to the works of Cowper or Watts. Many of them are devotional in content. The compilation includes several funeral poems—writing a poem for a funeral is an ancient custom no longer well kept in the West—including one written at the time of George Whitfield’s death, which is still highly regarded. The paraphrase of Isaiah 63 is also wonderful. But many of the more Classical poems will today induce yawning rather than fawning.

In the 1770s, Phyllis Wheatley’s poems made such a sensation, that Wheatley herself had to be attested by Boston’s illuminaries to prove that she was not a fraud—no one believed that a black woman could write such stirring, intelligent, and beautiful poetry. Wheatley wrote the following reminder to such people (“On Being Brought from Africa to America”):

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Wheatley was emancipated after their publication, and, from the age of 20, she was paraded around the highest social circles in Boston and London, meeting leaders like George Washington and the Lord Mayor of London among many others. The Countess of Huntingdon, benefactress of the early Methodist movement, was the patron of Wheatley’s book.

Meat:

The chief value of this little poetry compilation, in my opinion, is found in the personal poems dealing with grief. The poems themselves are of course beautiful to read, but most of them would bore modern taste.

Wheatley reminds her readers that the body of a dead saint is only “the cold shell of his great soul” (loc. 194). She always presses us toward a biblical view of dead saints: they are better off than us!

Bones:

The shortcomings of this collection include tedious Classical (mythological) references. As a whole, the theology here is not especially profound. Nevertheless, for devotional content and poetic value it rivals most of the great Christian poets I have read.

Quotes:

On grief:

“Let grief no longer damp devotion’s fire.” (loc. 385)

“She feeds on truth and uncreated things.” (loc. 581)

On other topics:

To him, whose works arry’d with mercy shine,
What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!

(“Thoughts on the Works of Providence.” loc. 355)

Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

(“To the Right Honourable William, etc.”, loc. 507)

Enlarg’d he sees unnumber’d systems roll,
Beneath him sees the universal whole,
Planets on planets run their destin’d round,
And circling wonders fill the vast profound.

(“A Funeral Poem on the Death of C. E. an Infant of Twelve Months.” loc. 469)

Why thus enrob’d delights he to appear
In the dread image of the Pow’r of war? . . .

When all forsook I trod the press alone,
And conquer’d by omnipotence my own;
His eye the ample field of battle round
Survey’d, but no created succours found;
His own omnipotence sustain’d the right,
His vengeance sunk the haughty foes in night.

(“Isaiah lxiii. 1-8.”)