Archives For Book Reviews

Tomorrow, my friend Jonathan Merritt is going to release his third book, Jesus is Better than You Imagined, which will expel a breath of fresh air into the lungs and souls of many weary Christians.

Jonathan is a senior columnist for Religious News Service and has written a couple

great books and over 1,000 articles for USA Today, Christianity Today, and many other news outlets. Jonathan was cool enough to give me an advanced copy of his latest book, which I devoured over the last few days. I don’t often blog about Merrittbooks, but I wanted to blog about this particular book simply because you need to read it!

Jesus Is Better than You Imagined is a creative blend of memoir and theology. Jonathan puts theology to story and story to theology as he reflects on God, Christianity, suffering, grace, and the joys and frustrations he has experienced with the evangelical church. This is what I love about Jonathan’s book. On the one hand, he’s bold enough to identify and bemoan the shortfalls of the church, and yet he’s biblical enough to acknowledge that the church is Jesus’s bride. The church is a whore, Augustine once said, but she is my mother. We’re not perfect. We’re hypocritical, judgmental, and we often argue over weird and insignificant issues. But Christ died for us. Unconditionally. The Just for the unjust. And Jesus has empowered us—a pack of inadequate misfits—to turn the world upside down (Acts 17).

Unlike many celebrity Christians whose platform alone attracts piles of book contracts, Jonathan Merritt is an actual writer, and his creative command of the English language glimmers from every page of this book. Jesus Is Better is a smooth read—tough to put down by anyone who enjoys a good book. Merritt is also a skilled theologian. With two masters’ degrees in theology, he’s able to maintain theological precision while proclaiming truth to the populace. He’s not just waxing eloquent with rhetorical flourish, but unleashing the depth of God’s word with meticulous artistry.

What I love most about this book, and Merritt’s work in general, is his ability to speak to the millennial generation with biblically saturated honesty.

For instance, he’s not afraid to find Jesus through solitude at a monastery (ch. 1), or in jesus is betterwandering through the cathedrals of creation (ch. 2). Merritt describes his encounter with Jesus through suffering (ch. 3), sexual abuse (ch. 5), and in the church (ch. 10). Merritt is clearly committed to the authority of God’s word; he’s also determined to weep over pain and suffering in God’s beautiful creation.

There are too many nuggets in this book to list in one blog, but here’s a brief sampling:

“Faith in God isn’t irrational, but it is sometimes suprarational…faith often transcends logic” (pg. 50).

What I love about this statement—and the chapter as a whole—is that it interacts compellingly with the delicate balance between faith and reason. We can’t rationalize our way to heaven, but neither should we believe in stuff that contains no evidence. Biblical faith doesn’t require us to check our God-given minds at the door, but neither do we elevate (fallible) reason above revelation.

Merritt often acknowledges the discontinuity between what we’ve always believed and what the Bible actually says.

“As an overchurched youth growing up, I along with my friends often cited Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ’…but we didn’t believe it. We couldn’t speak in tongues, and we couldn’t get our virginities back. If there was even an ounce of sin in our lives, we believed we couldn’t have a relationship with God…Like many God followers, we claimed to serve the God of impossibility, but we confined Him so tightly, the belief could never be tested” (pg. 68).

This whole chapter, subtitled “Encountering Jesus in the Impossible,” is worth the price of the book alone. As is chapter 5: “A Thread Called Grace,” where Merritt feeds hungry souls searching for honesty and authenticity. Merritt, the son of a famed Baptist minister, was sexually abused as a kid and this messed with his own sexual identity. But conservative Baptist churches aren’t known for soothing the pain and fear of socially unacceptable sins, especially for sons of preachers.

But they should be. And Jonathan boldly calls the church to quit talking about grace and start believing it. Yet Jonathan still loves the church. I can’t tell you how much I resonate with Jonathan’s perspective (stated long ago by Augustine). The conservative Christian church can be so goofy, with its worship wars, hypocrisy, and sometimes out-of-touch sermons that sound like a merritt 2foreign language to the rest of humanity. But Christ died for the church. Merritt is critical both of the church’s shortcomings, but also of independent spiritual vigilantes who think they can love Jesus without loving Jesus’s bride. (Imagine telling someone that you love them but can’t stand their spouse, whom they love. Would that relationship last very long?) Merritt rightly says that “spiritual fulfillment” can’t be found in “waiting in a cynical wasteland of religious criticism and freewheeling spiritual pursuits…If God died for her [the Church]…I should find a away to live with her” (pg. 168). Again:

“Being a part of a faith community forces me to coexist with people I didn’t choose, to follow a God I can’t prove…If I love God, I should at least try to love what He loves. Attempting to have communion with God and not His bride would be an act of cosmic divorce, to separate what God has put together. Unlike me, Jesus isn’t flighty and fickle” (pg. 170).

Merritt’s book is filled with such brutal honesty filtered through a zealous love for God’s word and His bride. It’s not just a series of sermons spun into print, but a prophetic and personal proclamation to the church that we should never stop pursuing the Jesus who will always be Better than You Imagined. 

Check out his book trailer here or order it here.

 

Thank God for J. K. Rowling

Mark Beuving —  January 27, 2014 — 4 Comments

“Christians should thank God for J. K. Rowling and for her clear presentation of the central values that are at the core of Christian faith and practice.”

That’s not my statement, though as I’ll explain I agree with it enthusiastically. That statement comes from Jerram Barrs, in his excellent book Echoes of Eden. Barrs is not an immature culture junkie. He’s not a hipster twenty-something trying to convince teens that Jesus is cool and so is he. No, Jerram Barrs is an older gentlemen. A scholar. He’s the Resident Scholar at the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary, where he teaches apologetics and outreach. So one might ask how a serious scholar can honestly thank God for books that many Christians have denounced as satanic.

I’ll address the concerns about occultism in a moment. First let me explain why I love these books so much, and why a scholar like Jerram Barrs is equally enthusiastic. I read the whole Harry Potter series twice in 2013. They were good for my soul. They were entertaining, yes, and millions of children and adults lugging these lengthy volumes around and becoming passionate about reading for the first time proves this fact. But these books are deeply touching and inspiring.

I have been asked if I can honestly say that I love Jesus more after having read these books, and I don’t hesitate to answer: absolutely! The books don’t use Jesus’ name, but by living within these stories I am a better person and a greater lover of Jesus Christ.

Jerram Barrs read the last book six times in the six months following its release and says:

“I found myself weeping with joy many, many times as I read and reread this wonderful reflection on the work of Christ.”

Here’s a brief rundown of the storyline that will show why this book is more overtly Christian, in my opinion, than The Lord of the Rings series and more powerfully Christian, in my opinion, than the Narnia series. [And by the way, serious spoiler alert!]

The Dark Lord, Voldemort, rises to power, himself consumed with evil and spreading evil throughout the world, turning the wizarding world from the good use of magic to the evil abuse of it. Intriguingly, Voldemort is connected with the image of a serpent. Then a prophecy is made, declaring that a child would be born who would be Voldemort’s demise. Voldemort tries to kill this child, Harry Potter, in infancy, and in trying to destroy the child he loses his own powers.

Voldemort eventually regains his power and tries repeatedly to kill Harry, only to find that Harry is powerfully protected by the self-sacrificing love of his parents, his friends, and even the lowly and marginalized toward whom Harry directs his own self-sacrifical love.

Harry eventually discovers that the only way to destroy the Dark Lord is to willingly offer himself as a sacrifice for the sake of his friends. When Voldemort kills Harry, Harry finds (in a chapter that is entitled, remarkably, “King’s Cross”) that he can now return to put the nail in Voldemort’s coffin. He returns and defeats Voldemort—not by issuing the deadly killing curse, but with the use of a disarming spell that causes Voldemort’s own killing curse to rebound upon himself and thereby rid the world of his evil presence.

The Christian parallels are unmistakable. And this shouldn’t be a surprise: J. K. Rowling has acknowledged that she is a Christian, and she worships at the Church of Scotland. If Christians could only come to terms with their suspicions regarding the fictional presence of magic, they could find themselves greatly enriched by these wonderful stories.

I am sympathetic towards those who choose not to allow their children to read these books out of concern over the use of magic. But J. K. Rowling insists that she is not interested in the occult and had no intention of promoting it through Harry Potter. I think we should take her seriously, and I do not think these books promote the use of magic in the real world. I encourage you to take a look at my thoughts on the matter.

But here’s the point. Fiction is powerful stuff. Everyone is eating up these powerful stories. Seriously. The last of the Harry Potter books sold 11 million copies within 24 hours of its release, making it the fastest selling book of all time. The books have reportedly sold over 400 million copies. The last of the Harry Potter films also became one of the highest grossing films in box office history.

People can’t get enough of these stories. They may not know why they find Harry Potter so compelling, but we as Christians know a powerful part of the answer: at their core these stories relate integrally to the greatest story ever told. Do not violate your conscience, but if you find yourself compelled, I encourage you warmly to pick up book 1, read it eagerly and with discernment, and see if you find the Christian nature of these books as compelling as Jerram Barrs and I do.

Death by LivingI’m particularly excited about this month’s recommendation: Death by Living by N. D. Wilson. And this time, you’ll have a chance to win one of three free copies of the book. (But you’ll have to wait till the end. Unless you know how to scroll.)

Last year I read, loved, and recommended N. D. Wilson’s first nonfiction book (he writes excellent children’s—and let’s be honest, adult’s—fiction) Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl. Wilson aptly describes that book as a “whirly-gig,” a characterization that fits Death by Living as well.

What you need to understand about Wilson’s nonfiction writing is that it doesn’t read like nonfiction. It’s a lot more fun than virtually anything else you’ll read. In short, Death by Living is insightful, playful, serious, whimsical, emotional, reflective, challenging, and whatever other fun adjectives you want to throw its way.

If we can learn anything from broccoli, it’s that what’s good for you and what’s enjoyable don’t go together. But Wilson’s fiction exposes broccoli’s lie. I can simultaneously affirm that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and that it was very, very good for me. This is the kind of book you can finish reading and then immediately turn around and read again (which I did).

Death by Living covers a lot of ground. Wilson takes his readers on a journey through the lives of his grandparents, his family vacations and parenting strategies, his growth as a fiction writer, and how all of it relates to the way we live. And die.

The idea behind the book is that life is meant to be spent. If you try to hold onto your life, you’re not truly living (sounds like something Jesus said…). And yet we hold on tight, trying to preserve our feeble, fleeting selves rather than using every drop of strength we are given for the right things. Wilson writes:

Your heartbeats cannot be hoarded. Your reservoir of breaths is draining away. You have hands, blister them while you can. You have bones, make them strain—they can carry nothing in the grave. You have lungs, let them spill with laughter. With an average life expectancy of 78.2 years in the US (subtracting eight hours a day for sleep), I have around 250,000 conscious hours remaining to me in which I could be smiling or scowling, rejoicing in my life, in this race, in this story, or moaning and complaining about my troubles. I can be giving my fingers, my back, my mind, my words, my breaths, to my wife and my children and my neighbors, or I can grasp after the vapor and the vanity for myself, dragging my feet, afraid to die and therefore afraid to live. And, like Adam, I will still die in the end. Living is the same thing as dying. Living well is the same thing as dying for others.

N.D. Wilson

N.D. Wilson

Wilson explores a concept that has often be turned cliché—life is a story—and shows that it holds more power than we can imagine. Life is indeed a story. It’s a story spoken by the God who spoke this universe into existence. My life is a story, but I shouldn’t assume it’s a light-hearted comedy. It’s a story wrapped within the near-infinite narrative threads that together comprise God’s unparalleled story.

Clear your throat and open your eyes. You are on stage. The lights are on. It’s only natural if you’re sweating, because this isn’t make-believe. This is theater for keeps. Yes, it is a massive stage, and there are millions of others on stage with you. Yes, you can try to shake the fright by blending in. But it won’t work. You have the Creator God’s full attention, as much attention as He ever gave Napoleon. Or Churchill. Or even Moses. Or billions of others who lived and died unknown. Or a grain of sand. Or one spike on one snowflake. You are spoken. You are seen. It is your turn to participate in creation. Like a kindergartener shoved out from behind the curtain during his first play, you might not know which scene you are in or what comes next, but God is far less patronizing than we are. You are His art, and He has no trouble stooping. You can even ask Him for your lines.

If you choose to read Death by Living, expect to find storytelling elements that don’t make immediate complete sense. That’s Wilson’s style. But as you read, you’ll find that he weaves these elements together, revisiting earlier threads and adding greater significance as the book develops. It’s a quick read, and one that I highly recommend.

Now for the free book part. As part of a blog tour promoting the book, N. D. Wilson’s “people” have graciously provided us with three copies of the book to give to our wonderful readers. If you want one, just enter your information below anytime between now and 5pm PST on Thursday (Aug 29). Once you enter your email address below, I promise to send you only one email, which will announce the contest results. If you’re one of the winners, I’ll ask for your mailing address. After that single email, I will delete your information and never spam you again.

—Update—

The book giveaway is now over, but don’t worry. Amazon will still give you a copy of the book if you give them a specified amount of money. And it’s worth it.

FightRegular readers of our blog will know that Preston Sprinkle has just published his book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence with the help of Eternity graduate Andrew Rillera. While Preston has said enough about the subject matter of the book to make most readers uncomfortable and/or angry (jk, jk, jk—sort of) and to turn father against son and son against father, I’m going to take a moment to officially recommend the book and give a brief review.

I suspect that some potential readers will be hesitant to pick up Fight because they’re sure they’ll disagree. For a few reasons, I encourage you to read it anyway.

We should always be looking to sharpen our understanding of Scripture and challenge our opinions. I know of respectably mild-mannered American patriots, skeptical biblical scholars, and full on gun-nuts with second amendment tattoos who are all reading the book. Good for them. Even if they don’t find their views changing, they will find their views sharpened and will be more biblically knowledgeable in terms of why they believe what they believe.

But that’s the beauty of Fight. Preston isn’t sharing his opinion in the book. At times, he will tip his hand and let the reader know what he would do in a given situation. But throughout the book Preston is concerned with exploring what the Bible says about violence.

Throughout Fight, Preston asks several questions of the biblical text:

  • Was warfare God’s solution to Israel’s problems in the Old Testament?
  • Did Jesus really teach nonviolence?
  • Won’t Jesus’ return mean a violent battle?

I think most readers will be surprised at how much time Preston spends interacting with the Bible. Fight isn’t about the second amendment, foreign policy, or World War II. It has implications for each of these issues, but the book is about what the Bible says about the way Christians respond to their enemies.

Though the book addresses questions we can’t help but be fascinated with (Wasn’t Bonhoeffer right to try and assassinate Hitler? Shouldn’t I use violence to protect my family against an intruder?), it addresses them only after having surveyed the biblical teaching on violence. Even then, Preston only answers them reluctantly. In each case, he lays out the biblical teaching that comes to bear on the issue, lays out a few responses that would fit within the Bible’s framework, and cautiously offers the way he thinks (or hopes!) he’d respond.

The strong point of Fight, however, is not the answers it offers to these specific questions. Even though we fixate on them (who doesn’t want to know how they should respond to the midnight intruder?), you’d be misreading Fight to skip directly to those sections. It’s not that Preston’s answers are weak here; it’s just that they’re not the point.

What Fight gives us is careful and insightful teaching on crucial biblical passages. The question is not how much we love our nation, our military, or our right to bear arms. Nor is the question how effective we think a shotgun would be in deterring a rapist or how far Hitler would have gone had the Allies not used military force.

The most important question we can ask here is how Jesus would have us fight against evil. And this question raises other important questions about violence in the Old Testament, the relationship of the Christian to the government, the example of the early church, etc.

These are the issues that Fight addresses. So while you may not find yourself agreeing at every point, Fight will help you think through the most important passages of Scripture that relate to the use of violence. I’m biased, of course—I found myself convinced by nearly everything in Fight—but I urge you to give it a shot (no pun intended). The American church would be so much healthier if we all gave this issue the careful thought it calls for.

There are a lot of children’s Bibles out there. As parents of two girls, 3.5 and 1.5 years old, my wife and I have been trying out a number of these Bibles, plus a handful of devotional books. So for this month’s book recommendation, I’m going to give our take on some of the children’s Bibles we’ve tried out. Each of the following descriptions was written by my wife, Laura.

Keep in mind that I’m only sharing my opinion based on what my wife and I have experienced with reading these books to our 3.5 year-old daughter, Abigail. Every kid is different, so you might hate something that we liked, or vice versa. I should also mention that I’m not making any effort to be comprehensive here. These are just some of the books we’ve tried out. If you have thoughts on any of these books, or if you’d like to recommend a different book, leave a comment.

 

Beginner's Bible The Beginner’s Bible: Timeless Children’s Stories by Zonderkidz

This Bible features short 2-6 page Bible stories with cute illustrations on each page. The stories are well written and make the Bible stories easy for kids to understand. This children’s Bible also contains a lot of stories (it’s over 500 pages long), many of which are left out of other children’s Bibles.

 

Read and Rhyme Storybook BibleMy Read and Rhyme Bible Storybook by Crystal Bowman & Cindy Kenney

Crystal Bowman is one of my favorite Christian children’s book authors. She writes stories that are full of rhyme and rhythm, which (like Dr. Seuss) are always fun to read and hold the attention of a little one. My Read and Rhyme Bible Storybook brings Bowman’s flair for rhyming storytelling to Bible stories. Each story is followed by sections called “I Can Read These Words,” which gives a few words your child can recognize in the story; “I Can Find the Words That Rhyme,” which gives a list of rhyming words in the story; “I Can Answer These Questions,” which asks a few comprehension questions about the Bible story; and “I Can Do These Activities,” which gives activities that you can do with your child that tie into the Bible story. This Bible is probably best for an older 3 year-old to a 7 year-old.

 

Jesus Storybook BibleThe Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones

This Bible comes highly recommended by those that I know. The pictures are very well done, and the stories are descriptive. This Bible also ties the stories together and shows how Jesus’ name is “whispered” throughout the Bible. I haven’t yet used this Bible with Abigail because I feel it’s a bit over her head at this point, but I plan to use it in the next year or so.

 

big-picture-story-bibleThe Big Picture Story Bible by David Helm

This Bible also comes highly recommended by those that I know. We began reading it with Abigail, she loved the creation and Garden of Eden story, but as soon as we got to Cain and Abel, it was a little over her head. We will pull it out again in a year or so.

 

Beginner's Bible DevotionalThe Beginner’s Bible Book of Devotions: My Time with God by Zonderkidz

This is a little devotional book with the same cute illustrations used in The Beginner’s Bible. This little book has a short story or scenario that leads directly into a two-page Bible story that relates to the main idea of the story. This is then followed by a suggested activity (a song, craft, prayer, etc.). Each devotion closes with a short memory verse.

 

Crystal Bowman BookCrystal Bowman Holiday Rhyming Books

Crystal Bowman, whose My Read and Rhyme Bible Storybook I mentioned above, also has many books that go along with the holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Easter). These books find a way to tie in the message that God loves children and cares for them. They are big board books that come in all shapes and sizes. We love them and I have purchased just about every holiday-themed book she has written.

 

Big Thoughts for Little PeopleBig Thoughts for Little People: ABC’s to Help You Grow Giant Steps for Little People: The Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments by Kenneth N. Taylor

I remember sitting with my mom when I was Abigail’s age as she read me these devotional books. Abigail loves these books—they’re perfect for her age right now (3.5 years-old). Each two-page spread presents a Christian virtue beginning with a letter of the alphabet. Kids are encouraged to find the lesson being modeled (or violated) in the illustrations, which are laid out to tell the story. Each lesson also includes application questions, along with a prayer and a short memory verse.  There is a little prayer to pray and a memory verse. As a bonus, each illustration has hidden ladybugs that our daughter loves to find.

My ABC Bible VerseMy ABC Bible Verse: Hiding God’s Word in Little Hearts by Susan Hunt

This devotional book uses a Bible verses for each letter of the alphabet and applies it to everyday real-life situations through a little story. A little paragraph helps explain what the verse means or “big” words found in the verse that little ones may not understand. Each story also includes a “Let’s Talk” section with questions and a “Let’s Pray” section. I started this with Abigail, but some of the terms/ideas were a bit over her head. I will bring it out again around age four.

My Big Book of 5 Minute DevotionsMy Big Book of 5-minute Devotions: Celebrating God’s World by Pamela Kennedy

This book is perfect for children who are animal lovers. Every two-page spread tells about a different animal and its amazing trait. These easy to understand facts are immediately connected with the everyday lives of children. Comprehension questions and a key Bible verse help focus the child on the story and what God thinks about it. These devotions are perfect for 3-5 year olds.

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If there’s another children’s Bible or devotional book you’d like to recommend, or if you’d like to add a note about any of the books mentioned here, leave a comment below.