Here’s a rundown of the 10 books I read in May. It is a really strong selections of books that includes a few favorite books of the year candidates. Happy reading!
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Way son God formed by the Words of God by Eugene Peterson
By looking at my bookshelves (and stacks of books on the floor and triple stacks of books shoved into my office cabinets), I’ve read more Eugene Peterson than any other author. As Kingfishers Catch Fire is the 16th Peterson book I’ve finished. It is another gem. Last year a Peterson book earned the title of my favorite of the year. This is a contender for the 2018 crown.
Along with a stunningly beautiful cover, this volume is easily the best sermon collection I’ve come across. While that is a pretty low bar … I was truly stunned by the depth of the wisdom in Peterson’s printed sermons. His Old Testament sermons are especially noteworthy. He fixates on certain phrases and turns them over and over as he views them from various angles. Each sermon lands upon incredible pastoral insights that only come from deep study, a healthy relationship with God, and healthy relationship with the people in the pews.
This book, paired with Peterson’s The Pastor, provide a great introduction to pastoral ministry.
Paul: A Biography by NT Wright
I struggled with this one. It’s a monster book that left me frustrated time and time again. In about 400 pages Wright tells the story of the Apostle Paul. The writing is engaging and the arguments are profound. Yet … I was left with questions.
The book is billed as “A Biography” and perhaps this is what causes me frustration. Wright takes subtle references from Bible passages and devotes pages and mountains of words to describe something that seems highly speculative. If it is not highly speculative, it must be based on some unnamed or referenced source. Page after page I asked myself, “Where is he getting THAT from?!” Of course, I fully recognize that Wright is a world class scholar. His credentials and genius are well established. This humble pastor merely begs for a footnote or two.
The strengths of the book include Wright’s tracing of Paul’s missionary journeys and imprisonments. Reading the book provides a timeline for the bulk of the New Testament.
A Spirit-Empowered Church: An Acts 2 Ministry Model by Alton Garrison
Due to my recent doctoral studies, I have an veracious desire for the book of Acts. If I find a book on Acts for cheap … it will be purchased and devoured.
Garrison’s book is helpful but a bit pollyanna. While giving great information, he tends to make everything seem a bit too idealistic: Put this into practice and things will turn out great. Here’s an example of someone doing these these … look at the great results. The highlight of the book for me was a quote from John Perkins: “We have over-evangelized the world too lightly.” This quote alone is with the price of admission. Garrison uses it as a launching pad into his chapter on “grow.” He stresses serious discipleship over superficial evangelism.
The book is built upon Garrison’s framework which he calls the Acts 2 model: connect, grow, serve, go, worship. Great principles but anyone in ministry longer than a few minutes can see that things are much more difficult than they appear in much of this book.
Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching in Worship by John Piper
I was unprepared for how much I enjoyed this book. I was expecting a dry, theological argument a heavy focus on Piper’s favorite topics. While the book did beat the drum of God’s glory (the focus of Piper’s ministry), I was surprised by Piper’s pastoral insights and focus on subtle areas of preaching.
Piper’s book on preaching is unique in that he sets preaching in the context of worship. He devotes part one to making an argument for the essence of corporate worship (savoring what we see of God) and discussing the Biblical and beautiful nature of corporate worship. Part two discusses how preaching is integral to corporate worship. The reaming five parts discuss various aspects of preaching to include the supernatural role of preaching, the text of preaching, and preaching the Old Testament.
My favorite chapter of the book was Piper’s chapter on “The Perils of Christian Eloquence.” I fully expected him to rant against current trends in preaching and rail against preachers attempting to win an audience over with words. Instead I found an insightful chapter filled with pastoral sensitivity. Piper rightfully rebukes those seeking eloquence for the sake of eloquence by keeping his focus on Paul’s statement, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of power.” Yet, he does not stop at a mere rebuke. Piper goes on to discuss how the Bible itself is eloquent and the preacher should seek to preach the Bible with humility and a desire to exalt Christ. With that two pronged criterion in mind, a preacher should seek to place hope in Christian eloquence. Piper then get down on the practical level and touches on titling sermons and turning phrases.
Surprise the World!: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael Frost
There is much to like in this book but in my opinion it is fundamentally flawed. Frost argues that the Apostle Paul affirms a twofold approach to the ministry of evangelism. First, he affirms the gifting of the evangelist. Second, he writes as though all believers are to be evangelistic in their general orientation. This seems correct at face value but Frost takes it further in how he describes the “general orientation” of the majority of the church. The biblical model is for church leaders to 1) equip gifted evangelist who take responsibility of the church’s evangelism and 2) inspire the rest of the church to live questionable lives. Yes, “questionable lives.” That’s Frost’s phrase for living a life that leads unbelievers to ask questions (See Colossians 4:2~6).
Not only do I think “questionable lives” is a bad turn of phrase, I think it also lets the vast majority of church members off the hook. In contrast to Frost’s idea, I argue that the entirety of the church are preachers of the gospel. I counter the theme of this book with Acts 6 and 7. In Acts 6 Stephen is selected to wait tables so the apostles can focus on the preaching and prayer. Yet, in the very next chapter Stephen becomes an early Christian martyr and preaches the gospel to his very last breath. So much for just waiting tables.
Frost’s book details how to live “questionable lives” with the acronym BELLS: Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, Sent. I often discuss similar concepts when teaching my church to reach out to others. Not a bad framework but Frost rests it on a faulty premise.
Born Again: What Really Happened to the White House Hatchet Man by Charles Colson
File this one under “What in the world took me so long to get to this book?” Nixon White House scandal plus religious conversion … count me in. Colson served as President Nixon’s special counsel during Nixon’s first term. In 1974 he served 7 months in prison in Watergate related charges. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for attempting to defame Pentagon Papers defendant Daniel Ellsberg.
Leading up to the Watergate trial, Colson met with Thomas Phillips, chairman of the board of the Raytheon Company. Phillips shared his recent devotion to Jesus Christ and invited Colson to give his life to Jesus as well. Initially unpersuaded by the presentation, Colson left Phillips’ home with a copy of CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and broke down in tears in his car. Colson eventually submitted his life to Jesus Christ and joined a prayer group that included other big name Washington insiders.
Born Again is Colson’s memoir of the time leading up to Watergate and his 7 month stint in prison. It is a great lesson on the power of evangelism and discipleship while also providing a great perspective on a dramatic time in US history. I love the book and my old copy with a vintage cover. Another favorite of the year contender.
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
Massive preorders. Monster book tour. Endless media blitz. Even with insane book sales, this book doesn’t break much ground or news. Yet, that is not to say it doesn’t have value.
Despite media coverage, this is not a book about President Trump. Rather, it is a Comey bio through the lens of ethics and leadership. Comey shares lessons learned from his varied career that consisted of putting the mafia behind bars to chasing after Hilary Clinton’s emails. While extremely well written and engaging, it does seem like revisionist history at certain points. Throughout each narrative, Comey portrays himself in a positive light. He always finds himself standing on the moral high ground. Time will tell.
With all that said, I really appreciated the focus on ethic and leadership.
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
I picked this one up off a podcast recommendation, which is one of my favorite ways to be introduced to new books. McPhee has had a long association with The New Yorker and is known as a pioneer of creative nonfiction. Draft No. 4 is a book on the writing process that is not really about the writing process. It is a rambling book filled with bits of McPhee’s biography, writing pieces, and occasional instructions on writing. But it all works.
If you are looking for a writing manual ~ look elsewhere. In many chapters McPhee will force you to ask, “Where is this going?” but by the final period of the chapter you grasp the bigger picture. He has fairly straight forward chapters on structure and frame of reference that give great examples of such things from his own writing and the writing of others. But he also includes rambling chapters on editors and publishers and the writing of drafts. I prefer the ramblings. While giving subtle writing instructions, McPhee also displays his own creative brilliance.
Running for My Life: One Lost Boy’s Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games
This has been sitting on my Amazon Wishlist for a number of years. A birthday Amazon gift card last month was just the incentive to finally make a purchase. Lopez Lomong offers his story of moving from a lost boy of the Sudanese Civil War to a US Olympic runner.
It is a heartbreaking yet inspiring story. It is the heartbreak that sticks out the most. The opening chapters detail Lopez, as a six year old boy, being ripped from the arms of his family while in the middle of a church service. He’s loaded up with hundreds of other boys and taken to a camp to begin life as a soldier. After a significant amount of time, a few older boys plan an escape and take the young Lopez with them. They fight through a hole in a fence and run for days. Thinking they’re headed home they arrive in Kenya. Lopez is quickly transferred a refugee camp that becomes his home for the next 10 years.
I was unaware when purchasing the book that it would have a heavy theme of faith. Lopez becomes a follower of Jesus while in the refugee camp and leans on his faith through the rest of the story that finds him accepted into a government program and living in the US.
The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, and Other Appreciations by John McCain and Mark Salter
I fully expected this to be a “puff” piece. John McCain (with Mark Salter) has written a number of books that are autobiographical looks at certain time segments of his life. With McCain fighting a very public battle with cancer, I expected a breezy reflection of career highlights. In stark contrast to a puff piece, McCain delivers a serious look at a few areas of interest since his run for the presidency in 2008.
McCain handles a few issues and handles them with serious study and reflection. He begins with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He voices very clearly how he has agreed and disagreed with strategic decisions while fully supporting the war effort. His views are laced with memories of trips to see troops face to face. He then adds a chapter on is run for the presidency against Barack Obama. He defends is choice of Sarah Palin for a running mate while also admitting his first choice was Joe Lieberman. His reflections about running against his popular opponent seem honest.
Moving further along in the book he adds a chapter about the Arab Spring. I was surprised at how little attention he gave to the Benghazi scandal. He also added a chapter about the documented cases of the US using torture tactics in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His absolute rebuke of torture carries extra weight knowing that McCain himself spent 5 years as a POW in North Vietnam. He also even adds chapter about his relationship with Ted Kennedy, a friend but frequent political opponent. It is a worthwhile read for those interested in this time period in American politics.