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The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit
The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit
by David F. Ford
Edition: Paperback
Price: $20.00
43 used & new from $2.43

5.0 out of 5 stars ONE SENTENCE IS WORTH THE PRICE OF THE BOOK!, August 23, 2016
My subject line sounds ridiculous, but one sentence is full of so many implications I felt comfortable putting it down. I have never read anything quite like it in my thirty plus years of reading theology books. The sentence comes from the author’s doctoral supervisor, Donald MacKinnon: “He speculated what Christian theology would have like if in its formative centuries it had paid more attention the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides than to the philosophies of the Stoics, Plato, and Aristotle.” Chew on that for a few moments.

Fortunately, David Ford’s book, The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit, is full of many arresting insights that you still ought to consider reading the entire book.

Ford has two conversation partners in this book: the Gospel of John and the poetry of his dear friend, Micheal O’Siadhail. It is a lively exchange throughout this marvelous work.

I should say up front that my high praise for this book does not mean I agree with everything Ford writes. When it comes to working out a distinctly Christian theology, Ford strikes me as too deferential to other religious traditions. Granted, we can learn much from those with whom we disagree, something that Ford has modeled himself. However, the scandal of the cross gets lost amid Ford’s irenic and inclusive approach. Nevertheless, there remains much to gain from a discerning read of The Drama of Living.

Ford models what he talks about with respect to lingering over important texts. Words should not be consumed (here Ford quotes Paul Griffiths), but we should “savor the words on the page…return to them ever and again.” It is akin to the point C.S. Lewis made in saying we have not read a book until we’ve reread it. Spurgeon reading Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress a hundred times is a good example. Ford’s book is written in such a way that I found myself wanting to slow down from my usual pace. Having O’Siadhail’s poetry peppered throughout was a constant reminder that The Drama of Living is unwise to speed-read.

Though Ford is a well-respected Cambridge professor, his interaction firsthand with the suffering gives him an added credibility. Ford does not escape from wrestling with this thorniest issue of all. Indeed, David Ford and his wife have been closely involved with the L’Arche community for several years. The Fords love and care for the “least of these” is beautiful and adds a deeper layer to this terrific book.

Another dimension to suffering is wonderfully laid out: that of aging and our eventual dying. Here he shares poignantly about his own father-in-law who happened to be a well-known theologian himself. Ford also shares insights from the death of Micheal O’Siadhail’s wife to Parkinsons. The insights on the power of love in these sections are truly breathtaking.

Even though I find Ford exaggerating the multiple layers of meaning in John’s Gospel due to his underscoring its “dramatic” presentation, and even though I think Ford underestimates the scandal of the cross, reading his book was indeed time well spent.

J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone
J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone
by Iain H. Murray
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $28.00
36 used & new from $18.16

5.0 out of 5 stars CONVICTION, COURAGE, AND COMPASSION, August 20, 2016
Years ago, I read Holiness by Ryle. I have also read a few of Ryle's shorter works: How Readest Thou? and Addresses to Young Men. All are full of golden insights.

Ryle's style is penetrating, accessible, and courageous. His life was marked by clarity about the gospel, courage amidst opposition, and yet maintaining compassion with those from whom he differed. He truly embodied the twin commands of Jesus to be both "shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove."

Ryle knew heartache. He was married three times due to the first two wives untimely deaths. Ryle's own father experienced devastating financial loss. This would impact JC Ryle for the rest of his days.

There are many endearing and compelling things about Ryle, but let me underscore just one: JC Ryle was candid about the difficulties of following God. Leaving his beloved rural parish to become Bishop of Liverpool is one example, yet he modeled an unwavering trust in the goodness and sovereignty of God.

Ryle is not well known today, but Murray's fine biography can go a long way in correcting that ignorance.

Redeeming the Great Emancipator (The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures)
Redeeming the Great Emancipator (The Nathan I. Huggins Lectures)
by Allen C. Guelzo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.02
66 used & new from $12.00

5.0 out of 5 stars LINCOLN: GREAT OR EVIL?, August 17, 2016
Lincoln brings forth both vilification and adulation. Guelzo is decidedly on the latter side and makes a good case for why in his latest book.

Guelzo is among the top rank of Civil War historians (McPherson, Blight, Gallagher, Faust, Ayers, and Rable would be other names).

Guelzo's book does a good job of laying out the case for why Lincoln had no other option, but war. It is a brutal conclusion, but Guelzo makes the undesirable decision make sense.

There are fascinating sections throughout. One in particular are those pages dedicated to Lincoln's view and use of the Bible.

As Guelzo underscores, Americans hate complexity. This book is a solid step in convincing the doubters that the Civil War for all its awful destruction was the only option to preserve the Union.

A shout out to Harvard University Press for taking the time and effort to publish beautiful books!

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel
Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel
by Russell D. Moore
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.24
68 used & new from $9.82

Russell Moore’s latest book is a note of sanity in the midst of rampant confusion. And I am talking about Christians. Thankfully, Moore (no relation) also has the church in his gracious crosshairs.

Onward is a good reminder of what should be central (God, His kingdom, and the good news of gospel) and what should be secondary (American politics in this case, but everything else by way of implication).

Moore is crystal clear and compelling in the variety of ways he describes an American church being coopted by many influences and straying from the scandal of the cross. Moore is not an advocate for being foolish for foolishness sake, but he reminds us that there is an otherworldly sound to the gospel. This unusual sound is arresting to non-Christians, but as Moore does a nice job of showcasing, it can also be surprising to those of us who align with the Christian faith.

The tone of this book is respectful, loving, and hard-hitting. That triad may seem contradictory, but Moore pulls it off.

Highly recommended…and if you know Falwell or Jeffress make sure to buy them a copy!

Psalms by the Day: A New Devotional Translation
Psalms by the Day: A New Devotional Translation
by Alec Motyer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.99
39 used & new from $14.65

5.0 out of 5 stars WORTH A WHOLE SHELF OF COMMENTARIES!, July 27, 2016
Take a careful, but clear writer with a lifelong devotion to the study of Scripture. Add that this writer can satisfy both the scholar and the beginning student of the Bible. Alec Motyer is such a man.

Christian Focus has published a wonderful commentary/devotional on the Psalms. You get the great benefit of Motyer’s careful scholarship (nicely laid out in notes to the side which makes them easy to follow) coupled with life-giving insights on the Psalms.

Motyer is best known for his commentary on Isaiah and Christian Focus also published his Isaiah by the Day devotional commentary.

Motyer’s book on the Psalms is not a conventional commentary as the author desires to “not try to tell you what the Psalms mean, but to try to offer you a few helps towards discovering for yourself what they mean.” I think Motyer has offered more than a “few helps.”

Highly recommended!

Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters
Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters
by Iain W. Provan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $49.95
47 used & new from $42.67

5.0 out of 5 stars NOT YOUR GRANDMA'S RELIGION...BUT IT SHOULD BE, July 25, 2016
There are many things to like about Provan’s book.

The writing is lucid and engaging. Provan is an author who wants his readers to understand his arguments. You don’t scratch your head wondering what he really means. This seems rather basic, but if you read a lot you learn it is not something you can always assume.

Provan is certainly tethered to Scripture, but I appreciated his integrative approach. Provan uses a wonderful array of sources from history, philosophy, and popular culture.

One of my favorite things about the book are the contrasts Provan teases out between Christianity and other world religions. These insights are worded in a way that I have not seen in any other book. They provide compelling testimony to the uniqueness of Christianity.

I don’t agree with the author on some matters, such as the extent of the Fall’s effects. However, even when I did disagree with Provan, it got me thinking in new ways that were beneficial.

Last, I read this book because I thought it would show how the more difficult claims of/about God, especially in the Old Testament, were compatible with His grace. There is some of this for sure, but I would have liked to see more interaction with the thornier issues in the Old Testament.

All in all, an extremely worthwhile read.

Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious
Life's Too Short to Pretend You're Not Religious
by David Dark
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.91
61 used & new from $11.13

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I WANTED TO LIKE IT..., July 20, 2016
I really wanted to like this book. It contains several of the elements I appreciate: eclectic use of sources, showing old truths from fresh angles, and probing insights.

So why the two star rating?

My frustration throughout was trying to determine what the author actually thinks is non-negotiable when it comes to the Christian faith. There are needed critiques of silliness, but I kept wondering what the author believes is solid. I imagine Dark would retort that this kind of approach did not fit the goals of his book. However, a book which seeks to dismantle much of the goofiness should offer some sense of the theological boundaries he finds wise and unchanging.

There are writers working from a Christian framework who seem to gravitate towards the enigmatic and provocative, but don't seem interested in making known what they believe are core claims of the gospel. Dark may not be one of these writers, but this book has that tendency.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 14, 2016 7:25 AM PDT

Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
by Gordon T. Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: $24.12
14 used & new from $15.10

5.0 out of 5 stars WHAT MATURE CHRISTIANS LOOK LIKE, July 15, 2016
I lead an intensive "course of Christian study for life change" with about twenty men. When I conceived of the three-year course, I wanted the first two months to be about how to trust God in the midst of suffering. I approached it this way because too many books on discipleship avoid the topic. Gordon Smith is one who doesn't. He well understands that suffering is integral to growing as a Christian. It is one thing, among many others, that I appreciated about his book, Called to be Saints.

Smith also has a deep appreciation for the life of the mind. He does not make the radical distinction between knowledge and wisdom that so many do. Rather, he gets that Proverbs underscore that knowledge is indispensable to wisdom. Knowledge does not automatically lead to wisdom, but it is essential to living wisely. My only bugaboo of sorts is that Smith warns how "knowledge puffs up" as if knowledge is somehow intrinsically problematic. I Cor. 8:1 is commonly misunderstood to mean this, but a closer look will reveal that it is dealing with the specific knowledge of those who feel the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Pride, not knowledge is in Paul's cross hairs.

There are wonderful insights throughout this book from an eclectic group of other writers.

Highly recommended!

Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering
Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering
by Makoto Fujimura
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.17
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5.0 out of 5 stars COMMENTARY BETTER THAN CLASSIC?!, July 15, 2016
I am writing a book on how to trust God in the midst of suffering. Recent reads were Endo's Silence followed by Makoto Fujimura's Silence and Beauty. I made over 200 marginal notes in the pages of Endo's Silence. It is an extremely important work for Christians to digest deeply.

Usually a commentary on a great book may be helpful and illuminating, but hardly of the caliber of the classic. This book may break this regular rule.

Fujimura's reflections on Endo's classic work are simply stunning. Silence and Beauty is a wonderful companion to Endo's Silence. In fact, I would argue that Fujimura's Silence and Beauty is indispensable to reading Endo's work. Silence and Beauty takes you into the heart of Japanese culture and rituals. It helps you understand why Christianity is such a threat to its cultural ethos.

Silence and Beauty is wonderfully conceived and full of compelling insights. Highly recommended.

Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis
Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis
by Chris R. Armstrong
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.27
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, June 17, 2016
Moore: Many will be surprised to see medieval and modern juxtaposed in such a favorable way. Shouldn’t we Protestants move past the superstitions of the Middle Ages?

Armstrong: Well, I just disagree with the premise. So let me answer this way: The superstitions we need to move past are our own modern ones. I take “superstition” to refer to any kind of magical thinking that makes connections between causes and effects where there is in fact no demonstrable connection. Just one example will have to do here: many still believe, against overwhelming evidence, that rational ideologies will work better than traditional arrangements in the realm of statecraft.

What else can we call this but superstition or magical thinking, when this principle of rational ideology has resulted in 20 million killed in WWI, 65-80 million killed in WWII—including upwards of a quarter of a million annihilated by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—plus possibly as many as 85M – 100M killed under the Communists’ attempt to rationalize national life? This is just an extreme example of the case made by James Davison Hunter, that the belief that all our public problems will be solved when the right ideas are accepted and acted upon through political process is not Christian and it is not even truly rational—however much we (modern American Christians) want it to be. This, too, is an instance of magical thinking or “superstition.” It is a belief that does not comport with reality.

Now, were there abominable crusades, inquisitions, and thumbscrews in the Middle Ages—an era which believed that our ultimate answers are to be found not in rationalist political ideologies but in the revelations of an invisible God who came to earth as a human and lived and then died and then lived again? Certainly. Did those sinful errors of a society attempting to “live unto God” cause devastation on anything like the scale of modern superstitions such as those named above? No – not even close. And at the same time, the Middle Ages birthed the hospital and all its associated modes of medical charity; the university and its institutionalized pursuit not only of knowledge but of wisdom for living; the framework of what would become the scientific revolution (by individual believers studying to “think God’s thoughts after him”), and so much more that has blessed us even up to this minute.

Nobody’s hands are clean here, but when “superstition” caused more devastation in the hundred years between 1900 and 2000 AD than in the thousand years between 500 and 1500 AD, then perhaps it’s time to go back and study the light of wisdom enjoyed in that supposed “Dark Age.” I would even put it this way: the only reason we haven’t complete destroyed ourselves as a species is that we’re still living on the fumes of medieval wisdom.

Moore: Your book is permeated with the works and insights of C.S. Lewis. When did Lewis become such a formative figure for you? Would you mention a few of the ways his writings have been most influential?

Armstrong: I’ve known Lewis’s fictional works since I was small – my theologian father read them out loud at the table to me and my younger brothers, along with Tolkien, George MacDonald, and many others. His Perelandra deeply impacted my imagination as a young man, and when I became a Christian in my twenties, his Screwtape Letters balanced some of the wilder theories about demons in my charismatic church with the deeper and more insidious workings of our Enemy (his insight that the devil works as much by keeping things out of our minds as by putting things in by whispering in our ears is an important one).

But it was pulling the thread of his medieval understandings that led me into the depths of Lewis’s more explicitly theological and spiritual writings. I’ve found spiritual works such as Letters to Malcolm, Reflections on the Psalms, and A Grief Observed – along with his letters of spiritual advice – to be nourishing for my own spiritual life.

And I’ve come to the conclusion that the primary reason we find Lewis so illuminating for our faith and life today is not that he is a theological genius or a literary master (I actually don’t think either of these thing is true). It is that he made himself a channel of traditional Christian wisdom – a kind of living repository and transmitter of the tradition.

Moore: We Evangelicals seem to think spirituality mostly means non-material. What kinds of things can we learn from the medieval age about the tactile nature of Christian growth?

Armstrong: There are two ways modern Christians tend to approach living in our bodily, material reality. One might call these the super-spiritual and the materialist ways. They are in some senses opposite, but we fall for both of them. The super-spiritual way is to see spiritual things as higher and better and more important than material things, and therefore to find all our life’s value in what we see as the spiritual realm. In this mode, we understand Sunday worship to be a holy time, where we connect with God in all his truth, beauty, and goodness. But the ordinary, Monday-through-Saturday world in which we live as parents and workers and neighbors—we can find very little meaning or value there.

The materialist way is the way in which we live largely for material pleasures and material accumulation. We may not seriously believe that “he who dies with the most toys wins.” But we are quite capable of working long hours to ensure that our families have all the comforts of middle-class life, while falling into subtle idolatry of our suburban lifestyles, and our regular vacations, and good schools and future good salaries for our kids. Oddly enough, this materialism devalues the material world just as much as the gnostic approach. Because, as Augustine taught (and he was the premier theologian for the entire medieval period), when we treat material goods as ends in themselves, we disconnect them from their true value and meaning in God.

The medieval way stands against both of these: Its sacramental approach to the material world understands both that material stuff is not evil and meaningless, and that it is not our ultimate end and fulfilment. Instead, the material has the glorious function of pointing us to the spiritual – to God. God meets us in nature, community, work, art, science. So to live authentically as Christians, we must live in our bodies and our worlds gratefully and with wonder and openness to God working in the midst of it all. This is sacramentalism. And on this point, as on so many others, we may find real help in medieval faith.

Moore: Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory lays much blame at the feet of the Protestant Reformers for things today like our rabid individualism. To what extent, if any, would you agree with him?

Armstrong: I don’t go all the way with this argument, but I will say this: I don’t see how we can avoid the conclusion that the Protestant suspicion of tradition inserted a theological and ecclesiastical crowbar between revelation and community. And that led straight to the radical Enlightenment’s insistence that if we want to know who we are, who God is, and how we can live well in God, our only reliable guides are our own individual reason and experience. If that is really true, then we must believe only what our individual reason and experience teach us, and never the wisdom of our own community, or the wisdom handed down through past communities (which is what the word “tradition” means).

What modern, Enlightenment-influenced Christians don’t fully grasp is that if they really believe that, they must now dismiss not only such “medieval” doctrines as the Trinity, transubstantiation, and the atonement of the God-man for our sins, but also the entire canon of Scripture. For that canon was both formed and passed down in and through human community—as led (the church has always believed) by the Holy Spirit who Jesus promised would come after he left, to “guide us into all the truth.” The ball of individualism did indeed start rolling in the Reformation, and now it’s crushing all in its wake. We’ve even reached the point where evangelical seminaries figure they can do without a full-time faculty member in church history to help future ministers connect their people to the Christian past! (No, no personal bitterness or bias here!) And conservative evangelical radio personalities seriously argue that if you read church history or study the tradition, you are endangering your salvation (seriously, I’ve heard it).

Moore: You helpfully correct several misunderstandings Christians have today. One in particular for us Protestant Evangelicals is the important role of the Church’s tradition. Unpack that a bit for us.

Armstrong: I think I’ve just started to answer that, but I’ll add this:

In the book I treat this whole question of evangelical anti-traditionalism with more nuance than I can do here – but I sum up my argument in the term “immediatism.” By “immediatism,” I mean that evangelicals have long believed that the only thing that really matters to us as Christians, in the end, is that each of us can go directly, individually, to the throne of God. Because the ultimate arbiter and authority in our religion is the reasoning of our own individual minds and the experiencing of our own individual hearts, we believe we don’t need time-honored liturgies, doctrinal statements, or church polities or disciplines. We believe we don’t need to read past theologians to interpret and understand the truths God communicates to us in Scripture.

If we had time, we could talk about how unlike the church of the first 1800 or so years – really, including the earliest Protestant churches too – this modern “immediatism” is. But let me cut to the chase: if we are to live well as humans in relationship with God and each other, then we simply do need communal wisdom, both modern and traditional. For we are irreducibly social creatures whom God meets in an irreducibly social way.

From infancy, we are helpless without the love and nurture of others. A human child cannot survive as recognizably human without community (viz: feral children and the Tarzan story). And when God (who is himself a Trinity – a community) wanted to show himself to us, he did not do so through a mere communication of rules and principles to be understood and practiced through individual reason applied by individual will, nor through a mere mysticism to be experienced in the cloister of our hearts and savored in private. He did so through a relationship with generation upon generation of people-in-community – first, as the invisible God in special covenant relationship with the community of the ancient Israelites, and then as the visible God who became Immanuel, the Incarnate, embodied One—living and healing and teaching among the community of first-century Judea, sharing every inch of their humanity.

Thus the kind of individualistic religion we practice in the evangelical movement is inconsistent with the very nature of revelation – the kind of communal God-experience and God-understanding that the Old and New Testaments describe, and the ways that that communal God-experience has been handed down and studied and lived ever since. We are communal beings, and therefore God does business with us through community – and when the community transmits that God-experience and God-understanding from generation to generation, we call that “tradition.”

Moore: What are three things you hope your readers take from your book?

Armstrong: Alright, I’ve been going on too long in answering your other questions, so I’ll be brief here:

1. There is such a thing as medieval wisdom.
2. We need to reconnect ourselves to it.
3. C. S. Lewis is a very good model and guide for how to do that.
There, how’s that?

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