Monday, August 31, 2009

Sweetgum Knit Lit Society by Beth Pottillo Book Review

It’s a small town outside of Nashville where a group of women gather together once a month to knit while they discuss a book, the Sweetgum Knit Lit Society. The members: a spinster librarian being forced into retirement, a woman pregnant with an unplanned child right when her husband informs her they will have to declare bankruptcy, sisters who have been vying for the same man (bitter, yet silent about it), and a young woman having an affair with the married son of another member of the group. Throw into the mix an angry teen whose mother is a prostitute in everything but name and an elderly preacher, newly arrived to Sweetgum, who had jilted the librarian decades ago.
Patience, forgiveness, and reconciliation mark the events happening in Sweetgum.
Award winning Beth Pattillo has introduced us to a town just like yours, with hurts and secrets that need to be made right. The characters and situations are all too real. For me, missing what a more clear influence of Christ as events progressed. While some of the characters attended church, Christianity was not an essential aspect of the process of change. Since some of the situations remained unresolved, perhaps the sequel (which I read shortly for a book group) will provide the lacking spiritual influence.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

John Calvin ed. by Burk Parsons Book Review

This year marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. This book introduces a new generation to Calvin. As stated in the forward: this best purpose of the book will be served if readers of this book will want to read Calvin himself.
Each chapter is written by a different author and the list is like a “who’s who” of the Reformed branch of Christianity. Due to the variety of authors, the reader will note some repetition and overlap of topics that could have been eliminated with better editing.
Burk Parsons begins by revealing that it was his studying of the Word of God that convinced him Calvin’s theology was the correct interpretation of Scripture. Derek Thomas next gives the reader a
short biography of Calvin. Sinclair Ferguson reminds us of Calvin’s heart for God with his life a marriage of learning and piety.
D. G. Hart addresses Calvin’s role as Reformer and encourager of Protestants in various countries. Harry Reeder notes how Calvin restored the role of church leadership with the offices of pastor, teacher, elder and deacon. Steven Lawson says Calvin was the most prolific of all the Reformers, systematically preaching through books of the Bible.
W. Robert Godfrey emphasizes Calvin in the pastoral role, comforting and admonishing based on the sovereignty of God. Phillip R. Johnson claims that Calvin’s writings, such as the Institutes (published when Calvin was only 27 years old), has secured him a place in history. Eric J. Alexander reminds us that Christocentric is the one word description of Calvin’s theology, preaching and thinking. Thabiti Anyabwile shows us Calvin understood the working of the Holy Spirit in salvation and in the union of Christ and the believer.
John MacArthur explains the first of the “five points of Calvinism,” total depravity. Richard Phillips brings light to the second point, predestination. Thomas K. Ascol defines redemption, recognizing the serious nature of sin. Keith Mathison explains the Remonstrance (opposing the teaching of Calvin) with the Canons of Dort answering the five points. He also gives a good summary of the doctrine of irresistible grace. Jay Adams rounds out the points of Calvinism with an explanation of the perseverance of the saints.
Philip Graham Ryken addresses Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ where, through the Holy Spirit and by faith, we receive Christ and all His benefits. Michael Horton clarifies Calvin’s teaching on salvation and what union with Christ really means. Jerry Bridges explains how Calvin’s theology is worked out in everyday in holiness through self-denial, cross-bearing and hopefulness. Joel Beeke ends the collection with a description of Calvin’s teaching on prayer as a holy and familiar conversation with God.
Calvin has received a lot of bad press over the centuries. If you would like to read what Calvin really wrote, what he really preached and how he really addressed his pastoral roles, this book is for you. As a Calvinist myself, I am glad to see such a readable and understandable book presenting Calvin to our generation.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Master of War by Suzanne Simons Book Review

I had previously read a book on Blackwater (by Jeremy Scahill) and wanted to know more about its founder, Erik Prince. When I started reading Master of War (subtitled: Blackwater USA’s Erik Prince and the Business of War), I thought I was reading a biography. The first fifty pages were biographical but the rest of the book is merely a rehash of the activities of the Blackwater company. Simons, an executive producer at CNN, was also interested in Prince as she asks in her prologue, “What makes him tick?” (p. 5). I’ve read Simons’ book and I cannot answer that question. If, in her investigation, she found out what made him tick, she didn’t let her readers know.
One of the reasons I was interested in Prince was because I know people from Michigan who speak very highly of the Princes as a strong Christian family of the Christian Reformed Church. Prince also has Dutch ethnic roots, as do I. Simons does say Prince was raised with a deep belief in God. Friends of the wealthy and influential Prince family included James Dobson and Charles Colson. But there is no mention of Prince’s later conversion to Catholicism. While Prince’s wife was dying of cancer he had an affair with their previous nanny, got her pregnant and married her shortly after his wife died. “The affair was a disturbing revelation for some close to Prince. They knew him as a deeply religious man dedicated to his family, and the affair was inconsistent with the man they thought they knew.” (p. 75). Perhaps Simons tackled an impossible task. Maybe the only person who knows Prince is Erik himself.
Not only is this book not a biography of Prince (I learned about him from Wikipedia than this book), it has some other problems. Simons says Prince had a military ID that he flashed in 2001 when he went to “ground zero.” Prince had been in the Navy (he had left the Naval Academy after three semesters then had done a subsequent tour in the Navy Seals) but for fewer than five years (p. 199). His ID certainly could not have been current. Simons also says Prince “retired” from the Navy as a SEAL (p. 44). This is inaccurate as one does not retire from the Navy with fewer than twenty years of service.
Simons never mentions that Prince was intern in the White House under George W. Bush, that he campaigned for Pat Buchanan, interned at the Family Research Council (which his father co-founded), that his sister married into the Amway family… What little is revealed about Prince’s character comes near the end of the book, When Blackwater is under congressional and FBI investigation for the killings in Nisoor Square (Sept. 16, 2007). “His mood could turn from bad to worse at the drop of a hat…” (p. 232). He admitted he was not a patient man. “He was not convinced patience was, in fact, a virtue.” (p. 232).
The book was disappointing and Erik Prince does not appear to be the “Christian” my Michigan friends want me to think he is.
If you want to read about Erik Prince, skip this book. If you want to read about the 70% of the U.S. intelligence budget being spent on private contractors (p. 115), some to analyze data, or how the contractors were not under the same oversight as state department employees or those in the military, then this book is for you.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Convergence by Sam Storms Book Review

There is a breach between the Word-based evangelical cessationists and their more experience oriented charismatic cousins. (Cessationists are convinced the gifts of the Spirit ceased at the close of the New Testament while charismatics encourage the use of the gifts of the Spirit in worship and daily life.)
Each judges the other. Cessationists are said to be afraid of a spiritual encounter, are dull in worship and are more interested in defining doctrine than evangelism. Charismatics are said to succumb to the love of experience, elevating experience over biblical truth. They are flashy rather than humble and forget 2,000 years of church history.
Sam Storms attempts to bridge this divide. He begins by giving his own story: raised a Southern Baptist, trained at Dallas Theological Seminary, pastured a non-denominational church, began to experience the gifts of the Holy Spirit, then went to the Kansas City Vineyard Church (1993) and later to Wheaton College (1999). Storms tells several experiences he had, convincing him the gifts of the Spirit were current today.
Storms notes that some call for “balance.” If by balance some mean pulling back from biblical truth and what the Spirit is doing today, he rejects it. “[B]lical balance is pursuing everything the Bible demands with the degree of emphasis and energy that the Bible commands.” (P. 105) He follows British pastor David Pawson who argues that the convergence of evangelicals and charismatics is not between the two but above them both.
Both groups agree that worship should be theocentric – God is to be glorified. “Cessationists believe God is most glorified when biblical truths about him are accurately and passionately proclaimed in song, liturgy, and recitation of Scripture. The focus of worship is to understand God and to represent him faithfully in corporate declaration.” (P. 153) “Charistmatics, on the other hand, believe God is most glorified not only when he is accurately portrayed in song but when he is experienced in personal encounter. Charismatic worship … insists that he is truly honored when he is enjoyed.” (P. 153)
Storms wants Christians to both learn and feel. He notes Paul had both rational and transrational (not irrational) experiences (1 Cor. 14:15).
This book was of particular interest to me as the subtitle, Spiritual Journeys of a Charismatic Calvinist, mirrors my own story. Storms has a good message but I don’t think there is as much interest in this topic as there was a decade or two ago. That may explain why his sources and references are mostly from the 90s. This book would be a suitable one for discussion by a group wanting to understand the issues.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Read and Share Toddler Bible by Gwen Ellis

What a delightful book! The 40 stories included are short, have only a phrase or two on each page and are accompanied by great illustrations. At the beginning of each story the Bible section from which it is taken is identified, allowing adults to read the original story for context and answering children's questions. At the end of each five or six page story are suggestions for activities to help reinforce the Bible stories and provide time for parent/child interaction. The activities vary so the adults and children will not get bored with the book.
The text of the stories contains words the reader can emphasize to add drama to the story. For example, “One day a s-s-s-sneaky s-s-s-snake came s-s-s-slithering up to Eve.”
While the book part of this book/DVD combination is fitting for young toddlers, the DVD part is well suited for older ones. The illustrations are similar so children will see continuity between book and DVD. The stories on the DVD are much longer so require a longer attention span, hence suitable for older toddlers. Various voices are used which helps keep the child’s attention.
As with any children’s Bible story book, I suppose, a little freedom is taken with the Bible text but nothing that I should think would cause alarm.
All in all, a superb little book and DVD combination.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Shelf Life by Suzanne Strempek Shea Book Review

Shea is an author of several novels. A few years ago she had cancer and rather than sit around in her pajamas, responded to a friend who needed help in her bookstore. She went to work for a few hours twice a week. Shelf Life is her account of an ongoing love affair with working at a bookstore.

Having owned a bookstore myself for over 30 years, I loved this book. She reveals the excitement of opening up a new shipment of books - clean, unmarked and unread. There is the anticipation of a new title.

And then there are the quirky aspects to working in a bookstore. There is the person who wonders why there isn't a fourth book in a trilogy. A customer wants the book that's green and was over there last year when they were in and how come you don't know what it is? And one that always amazes me: the customer who asks the clerk to choose the best one of the three cards he has for his wife's birthday.

Unlike products in many other retail stores, books can be returned to the publisher. Shea talks about taking it personally when books she had ordered in did not sell and had to be pulled from the shelves and returned. I know exactly how she feels.

If you have wanted to know what it is like to run a bookstore, Shea's book is for you. Take it from one who knows.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

never the bride by Cheryl McKay & Rene Gutteridge Book Review

Jessie Stone is almost 35 and in not married. She dreams of being married. She writes journals about being married. She does just about everything in the world to hear her own wedding bells... except let God write her love story.

And then God appears to her, in the form of a handsome man. He wants to write her story but she fights Him all the way.

The story is fun and contains some deep thoughts about letting God direct one's life. But I have some severe reservations with the book. God appears as a character in the book. In my opinion, His portrayal leaves much to be desired. Oh, it's a fun book. But should God, the very sovereign Ruler of the universe be portrayed in such a way? After the flack about the portrayal of God in The Shack, I would have thought authors would be very careful. Perhaps there is no outright heresy in this book, but putting words into the mouth of God is always a risky adventure. Some of the dialogue in this book makes me nervous.

On the positive side, I did like the message of God's great patience with us even when we turn our back on Him. He continues to love us. I am just not sure it is in such a light hearted manner.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Feast of Saint Bertie by Kathleen Popa Book Review

Bertie's husband has died from complications of Parkinson's Disease and while at the funeral her house burns to the ground. She hasn't seen her son for months. Life as she knew it is gone. What is her future?

Bertie returns to the visions she had as a youth. She leaves an affluent life and chooses to live in a gardener's shed on her property in the hills. As she struggles with her relationship with God and attempts to find her son, her good friend and various neighbors come alongside to help her find her way. While Bertie is being helped, she also helps others, befriending a pregnant witch, seeing her through her pregnancy.

There are lots of thought provoking ideas in this book. Just what does it mean to be a successful Christian? Is money important? Is one's relationship to the Father worth giving all the money away? How does one finally come to that point of feeling deeply loved by God?

The Reader's Guide at the end will help those who read this book in their reading group.

Be prepared to come to grips with a type of Christianity that is a little different. Bertie never goes to church during the course of the novel, although she was active in church earlier. She learns her deepest spiritual lessons from a homeless person, a former theological professor. And she never shares the "gospel" with the witch although they do have some interesting spiritual discussions.

Every once and a while a novel crosses my path that really makes me think and inspires me. This was just such a novel. It will make you think as well. It is a "Good Read Guaranteed" from David C. Cook (you get a free book if you don't like it.) So give it a try.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Deadlock by Robert Liparulo Book Review

The adventures of John Hutchinson continue as Brendan Page, owner of Outis, tries to eliminate him. Page is the father of the trouble making Declan who had tried to kill Hutch in Canada. Page uses the star wars type technology and mercenary soldiers of his (Blackwater style) company to hunt Hutch and his loved ones.

This is the second in the John Hutchinson novels (see my earlier review of Deadfall) and like the first is a combination of intense action and long periods of thought and musings. Just when the action is moving well, a character thinks...for a long time. Pages later, when the reader is returned to the action, the intensity has been lost.

Also like the first in the series, there is nothing really Christian about the novel. Oh, Hutch is a moral man and keeps his beers to two, but the novel would have been much better suited for the Christian market had at least one of the characters exhibited the thoughts and concerns of a believer caught up in a deadly situation.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Andrew Jackson by H. W. Brands Book Review

Andrew Jackson is known as the President of the people. He ran for president in the 1824 election and won the popular vote by a large margin (Jackson: 154,000; Adams: 109,000; Clay and Crawford: about 47,000 each). He had the majority of the electoral votes (Jackson: 99; Adams: 84; Crawford: 41; Clay: 37). This was the first election where a “popular” man or a man of the people had won the popular vote. Would the politicians follow the popular vote or would they lead toward the seasoned (and the elite) among them? It seems that Adams made some arrangement with Clay (he became Secretary of State) and the House of Representatives, voting by state delegations, selected Adams for President. Jackson waited out his opponents, however, and was elected in the 1828 election (647,000 votes to Adams’ 508,000 with the electoral votes being 178 to 83). He won a second term in 1832 with a great majority.
Brands writes nearly four times as much on Jackson’s life before being president as he does on the presidential years. Also, the majority of the text dealing with Jackson as President is on the “bank issue.” Jackson opposed the renewal of the charter for the Bank of the United States. When the congress passed the charter Jackson vetoed it and pulled federal funds out of that bank and placed the money in state banks. The head of the Bank fought back by freezing the funds that remains and financial hard times followed.
If you are interested in finding out about Jackson the military hero, this is the book for you. If you want to find out about Jackson the President, you will be very disappointed (as I was).