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John Bunyan (Christian Encounters Series)
John Bunyan (Christian Encounters Series)
by Kevin Charles Belmonte
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.45
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great and Delightful Biography, November 1, 2010
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If you asked me before I read Belmonte's biography if "Pilgrim's Progress" was a unique achievement by a great man with long-lasting influence, I would have said yes. But I would not have been able to tell you why. Belmonte filled in my ignorance in this delightful, informative and easy to read biography of John Bunyon.

Belmonte begins with the influence of "Pilgrims' Progress" and works his way through Bunyon's tumultuous surroundings and his own redeeming life. Needless to say, Bunyon's most famous work is still a thing of theological, devotional, and literary influence. This is made no less amazing by the facts of his simple and uneducated life. After a normal childhood as a Tinker's son, a stint in the military, Bunyon found a transformative relationship with God.

Belmonte does a wonderful job of touching on the political and literary culture of Bunyon's day. Bunyon lived during confusing and difficult political times so it is not surprising to learn that the atmosphere around him works its way into the journey of Pilgrim as he overcomes difficulty on every side to find his way to God. We learn about his possible education, his family and religious influences, and then the alternating seasons of his imprisonment and freedom. The reader is impressed with Bunyon on every level, especially as we read of his time in jail for preaching in unapproved venues. Belmonte also spends a good deal of time reflecting on Bunyon's works, "Pilgrim's Progress" and "Grace Abounding".

I think this is a great introduction to the life and works of an influential member of the Christian world.

Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad about Feeling Good?
Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad about Feeling Good?
by Gary Thomas
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.98
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Joy To Read, September 7, 2010
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Gary Thomas is a wonderful and useful author when it comes to the matter of Christian spiritual formation, and "Pure Pleasure" is no exception. Taking his cue from the premises that we have a constant thirst for God's things and that we only find our ultimate fulfillment in God alone, Thomas proceeds to make his way through a kind of practical theology of pleasure.

And it is more than just finding some kind of temporary or elusive happiness here on earth, it is about deep and lasting spiritual fulfillment. In what is a kind of thesis statement of the book, Thomas notes, "Spiritual triumph begins and ends with finding our satisfaction in God above all things" (pg. 17). In this way it is a retooling of what we might normally conceive as happiness from an emotional state to something soulish and spiritual. It will include the emotional from time to time, but it is about the joy of lasting fulfillment in relationship with the God that made us.

Christians can sometimes be unnecessarily dower people. Thomas wants us to understand the joy that is available in the living of the Christian life. He is careful to warn us about various dangers and excesses in this pursuit, but he is clear - and he is right - that life with God can be a pure pleasure.

Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy
Six Questions of Socrates: A Modern-Day Journey of Discovery through World Philosophy
by Christopher Phillips
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.10
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Read, but Neither Socratic Nor Philosophical, June 25, 2010
Christopher Phillips set out to do something really exciting. He wanted to host several Socrates Cafés across the world and in radically different cultures. The result is a fascinating insight into all kinds of cultural points of view I have never considered or been exposed to before. Phillips arranges open discussions among these various groups, gathers people of different ages and in different circumstances of life, and asks them some of the great Socratic questions. I really enjoyed listening in on the conversations including Navajo Indians, Koreans, second generation Muslims in America, and life-long prisoners. In almost every instance there was a variety of opinions among the people in the group, which of course added to the joy of the read.

One interesting exception to the variety of opinion was the Manhattan crowd - every one of them was a morally and intellectually confused relativist (in my opinion). Another exception to what was standard in the rest of the conversations was the group of Catholic Christians near the end of the book. Instead of an open dialogue where every opinion was accepted, the conversation was steered toward dislike for the established Catholic Church.

One other detail deserves mention. That these conversations pass for Socratic is telling. At almost no time (with the possible exception of the Catholic Christians) did Phillips push back on any answer anyone gave. The guiding principle of these dialogues seemed to be, "all views are equally acceptable," which is to say these dialogues were not Socratic. Socrates did not ask questions because he was simply curious about what his fellow human being believed. He was after the truth, and Socrates was not above vivisecting an interlocutor to get to it. But, it seems we would rather sit, gab, and accept and call it philosophical.

The Principle of Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
The Principle of Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
by Andy Stanley
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.74
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3.0 out of 5 stars Despite the Claim, it is a Self-Help Book, June 25, 2010
Andy Stanley tells us at the very beginning that he didn't set out to write a self-help book, but a book about a principle. But in writing about what he calls the Principle of the Path, Stanley has succeeded in writing a self-help book. How does one avoid future personal problems? By following the principle. How does one make current decisions that may affect their futures? They follow the principle.

In its essence, I think Stanley's principle is right. In fact, as Stanley admits, it is almost ridiculously obvious and it almost seems silly to write about it. But I can testify alongside him that too many people lack the present-day common sense it takes to get from where they are to where they want to (or ought to) be. So it has to be said, and as far as that goes, I think he has written a useful book.

My primary issue with it is the same issue I have with all Christian leadership/self-help books: they tend to treat Scripture as a grab-bag of tips and tricks. He uses plenty of Scripture throughout the book, but mostly to help identify the problems of the human heart, and when he uses it to help solve the problem the solutions are a little simplistic. I am not sure how much good it does to suggest to someone who lacks the common sense to make good decisions now to make better decisions. Where is the much more needed work of how a person travels from a life of bad decisions and self-absorption to a life of godly wisdom? It is true we need to be told these things and have specific issues pointed out to us, but that can't be the basis for real change in the human heart.

I think the core of Stanley's book is right, but I think the solutions he offers are no different from the non-Christian self-help shelf just a few steps over in your local bookstore.

Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them
Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them
by Ed Stetzer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.22
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great and Informative Survey, March 23, 2010
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One of the enigmas in American church life today is the combination of young adults who tend to consider themselves spiritual while at the same time staying away from church in droves. In order for the evangelical church to move forward, we need to at least confront this issue and see what there is to be done.

The prolific Stetzer, along with co authors Stanley and Hayes, and his research company, has compiled a well-researched and relatively easy to read account of who American young adults are, what they tend to believe about Jesus, and an informative survey of churches who are reaching young adults.

Among the accounts of the religious beliefs of young adults, this is certainly one of the more readable. That being said, it is far from simplistic. The book spends the first few chapters in statistical reflection, moves to several of the major themes they discovered, then moves to specific churches and their work to reach young adults.

There were several surprises and very usable bits of information that came from the first and second parts of the research and analysis. Even though the third section was aimed at the practical applications of several ministries, I wanted to hear more about the return of young adults to specifically reformed churches verses non-denominational churches. The approaches tend to be quite different.

All in all, it is a great book that would make for great reflection and discussion among church leaders or those simply interested in the general directions of our current culture.

The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church
The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church
by Shane Hipps
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.34
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Started Strong..., March 19, 2010
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Shane Hipps' desire with this book is essentially two-fold. First, he wants to take a serious look at the effects of media technology in the lives of believers. Secondly, he works to take that analysis and apply it to the life of the church.

Using the powerfully prescient McLuhan as his touchstone, Hipps proceeds to remind us of the truth that the "medium is the message" and the subsequent analysis provided by McLuhan to help us understand the impact of any technology. Hipps moves fluidly from oral to written culture to projected sermons in video venue church services. As such, I think Hipps does a good job of reminding us of some very important reflection - the kind of reflection we so rarely do as evangelicals. At times Hipps is insightful, at times he is appropriately biting in his critique, but most of all the first half of the book provides analysis that needs to be heard. We live in a technologically saturated culture, and hence we tend to lose our ability to "step out" for a moment and think through whether it is any good for us or the message of the Gospel.

Where the book begins to lose its impact is the second half - the application to church culture. Several problems become fairly obvious as the book progresses. I was personally disappointed to discover that Hipps is squarely in the emergent theological fold. I know his book is endorsed by leaders in the emergent movement, but that didn't necessitate the theological problems with Hipps' analysis. As is becoming almost stereotypical of emergent writing, Hipps' history, philosophy and theology are rife with straw men, hyperbole, and unkind generalizations.

For example, Hipps simply assumes that epistemological foundationalism is dead. It isn't. The result from Hipps' point of view is that church life needs to look more at a "web of belief" way of presenting the Gospel, but that is not free from its own serious problems. If the foundation of your argument is a broad generalization, your conclusion is bound to suffer.

Hipps argues against the cultural captivity of seeker sensitive style churches and the prevalence of modernism in too many evangelical circles. Though this is true in some places, the emergent point of view has painted with a very broad brush and pigeonholed every church that doesn't look at things the way they do. Ironically, at this point Hipps falls into the same trap as so many emergent authors - while accusing the modern church of cultural captivity they have willingly become captives to a postmodern culture.

And then there are the ad hominem attacks. Hipps is not above mocking the "30 minute lecture" style of preaching or stating that top-down leadership models "inevitably" lead to corruption and abuse. I'm growing tired of hearing these kinds of obviously false and unkind generalizations from emergent authors.

Hipps' personal narrative is compelling and his work in McLuhan's theory is a great reminder for us, but the book would have been a lot more persuasive with better application to church life.

The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions
The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions
by David Berlinski
Edition: Paperback
Price: $14.29
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough, Insightful, and Enjoyable, December 15, 2009
Berlinski's book is a masterful romp through the pretentions of modern secular atheism and scientism. It is surprising on many levels. First of all, though Berlinski claims no religious affiliation, he is no water-boy for scientific naturalism or Darwinism. Then his broad grasp of the science involved is impressive. Someone who clearly keeps up with the literature (knows several Nobel laureates in the sciences) and who understands it all, Berlinski has a useful perspective as he critiques everything from gradual Darwinian processes to string theory to molecular biology. And on top of it all, his dry and cutting sense of humor adds to instead of detracts from his philosophical acumen.

As I progressed deeper into the book, I was reminded of the boy who famously cried out that the emperor had no clothes. Not only does Berlinski deny the general, and often unsupported, claims of the secular Darwinian project, he skewers it. He deals with the usual suspects - Dawkins, Harris, Dennett (he reserves special distaste for Dennett), and Hitchens - and he deals with the real mathematicians, biologists, physicists and so forth. Sometimes critiques of the New Atheists suffer from the vapidity of their subject matter. If the book you are critiquing is without real substance, what else can be said? But Berlinski has the capacity to discuss and analyze on every level.

As an interested follower of the subjects Berlinski covers, I appreciated his ability to make the complex understandable without making it sound simplistic. His firm grasp of the details enables him to talk of the grand scheme with authority and insight. If you are interested in the issues raised by the New Atheists or the Darwinian project, this is a wonderful and insightful read. If you would like to have a fresh perspective on the place of science in our culture from someone who considers himself "part of the church" of science, Berlinski's book will not disappoint.

Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
Why Johnny Can't Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers
by T. David Gordon
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.60
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important Concern, Good Prescription, November 18, 2009
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Written at a point of personal crisis, Why Johnny Can't Preach puts across ideas and arguments that reflect a crisis in the larger evangelical world. T. David Gordon decided to put these ideas on paper while facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer, so there is an air of urgency to the work. He wanted to discuss why preaching (specifically among evangelical and reformed circles) is so bad. I, too, feel his sense of urgency.

The book begins with the sobering revelation, "Part of me wishes to avoid proving the sordid truth: that preaching today is ordinarily poor." Drawing on his teaching, preaching, and academic background in media ecology, Gordon proceeds to lay out the case that most preaching misses all the foundational homiletical principles. The most glaring of which may be what is labeled "Evangelical Tone," or the sense that the preacher is proactively proclaiming Christ and Him crucified.

The middle two chapters make the case that Johnny can't preach because he can't read and he can't write. We live in a culture that creates a kind of "aliteracy": pastors can read, but they can't read for meaning or significance. In addition, pastors by-in-large can't communicate well in writing. And if our future pastors enter seminary lacking these foundational tools, all the theological and homiletical training in the world can't save future pulpiteering tragedy.

Gordon ends up arguing for training our missing "pre-homiletical sensibilities" in seminary and Bible colleges. He is most assuredly right. Without an analytical eye to deep reading for meaning and flow, and without the ability to sift through the insignificant to get to the significant, expositing a text becomes an exercise in futility.

While there is a lot to commend, Gordon fell a little short on treating Johnny's inability to write. His short chapter on this issue dwelt entirely on telephone conversations, and I am sure there is a lot more he could have said. I addition, Gordon placed a lot of weight on the usefulness of yearly reviews of the pastor's preaching by his congregation or peers. If the trained preacher lacks the necessary skills to tell good preaching from bad, how can the untrained public be any better?

All in all, however, Gordon's book is a tremendous work and deserves to be read by those who are interested in reviving the Church through Christ-centered and life-giving preaching.

The Year of Living like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do
The Year of Living like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do
by Ed Dobson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.82
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Majored on Many Minors, November 11, 2009
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The process of spiritual formation - the drive to live like Jesus - is becoming a deeper concern among evangelicals, and it is a good thing, too. More and more it is harder to distinguish an evangelical from a typical American atheist. So I was drawn to the premise of this book, wondering how Dobson would take on this ultimate question. If a person is a disciple of Christ, they are, by definition, trying (ought to be trying) to live like their master.

Early on I was intrigued by his attention to odd detail. The beard is just the beginning. His first sets of concerns are with things like kosher foods, clothing, prayer tassels, prayer beads (he even takes up the Rosary), alternate prayer traditions from the Eastern church, and so forth. In and of themselves these are interesting and even helpful things, but as matters of substance in service of his premise, I didn't catch the significance.

A lot of the book was like that for me. By its nature, the premise of the book is a little subjective, so I fully expected to find some of his answers in the book disagreeable. I wasn't disappointed. But I wasn't bothered by those things as much as I was by what was missing.

A serious reading of the life of Christ in the Gospels reveals a Messiah who began his ministry with the sermon, "Repent." His staunch stances on doctrinal matters bothered people, and he didn't put up with much from falsehood. Dobson's focus of attention is on the "good deeds" kind of Jesus. And while it is true that Jesus loved and touched the unlovable, Dobson's final portrait missed a significant and even necessary aspect of the life of Christ.

While there are challenging and even touching moments, the book is a bit laborious and ultimately not all that informative about the life of Christ lived out among us.

Between Wyomings: My God and an iPod on the Open Road
Between Wyomings: My God and an iPod on the Open Road
by Ken Mansfield
Edition: Paperback
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Than Just a Road Memoir, October 26, 2009
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Some memoirs can be a little too introspective and even shallow for me, but Between Wyomings strikes a wonderful balance between Mansfield's inner workings and the memories that come pouring forth from his years in the music industry. I was wonderfully surprised by how much I enjoyed both aspects of this book.

Mansfield, his wife (Connie) and his car (Moses) set out on the road to reach some resolution with God. Along the way I enjoyed the stories he had to tell about the characters he lived with for so many years. Some of the other reviews are far too jealous or smarmy to be trusted - Mansfield lived a fascinating life and has a lot of fascinating stories to tell.

I was especially moved by his sensitivity to God. He turns out to be a man who has much to be forgiven of, and feels the warmth and depth of the grace of God in his life. Don't pick up this book and be surprised by the role Christ plays in his life.

The book is easy to read, humorous at times, full of great tales, and replete with the goodness and love of Christ. May we all be this ready to hear the voice of God.

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