Here’s a rundown of the 7 books I read in January. Happy reading!
Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund
This is an extremely early candidate for my book of the year. It pushes all the right buttons for me. It tackles a Biblical subject with great depth and purpose, yet it is highly readable and leads one to further devotion to Jesus. My one criticism is the tendency of heavy-handed reliance on Puritans writers. Ortlund quotes them – a lot. It is always helpful but also disrupts from time to time.
From the introduction: “This is a book about the heart of Christ. Who is he? Who is he really? What is most natural to him? What ignites within him most immediately as he moves toward sinners and suffers? What flows out most freely, most instinctively? Who is he?” The book then proceeds, chapter by chapter, looking at biblical passages that allow us to see the heart of Jesus, who welcomes sinners like you and me. Along the way you get a quick tour of the character of God in both the Old and New Testament.
The book is just over 200 pages in a 5.5 X 8 format. It’s small and readable. Pick it up, read it, and then pass it along to someone else.
The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision by Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan
I’ve read this book a handful of times. The topic is dear to my heart since I consider myself to be both pastor and theologian. Yet, due to my interest in the topic, I’m prone to passionate agreement and disagreement.
Overall, I agree with the premise and the desire to see the pastor as a theological office. Yet, I think the book makes things a bit cloudy by adding more definitions rather than simplifying the role of pastor. I also dislike the lack of engagement with the pastoral epistles. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus say a great deal about the role and characteristics of the pastor. Is that not a good place to start and a good place to find common ground?
Vanhoozer and Strachan argue for the pastor as “public theologian.” Their understanding of this term includes: First, pastors are and always have been theologians. Second, every theologian is in some sense a public theologian, a peculiar intellectual, a particular generalist. Third, the purpose of the pastor-theologian being a public intellectual is to serve the people of God by building them up in the faith. This definition is best demonstrated in the section of the book describing practices of the pastor-theologian as disciple maker, evangelist, catechist, liturgist, and apologist.
The book also contains small segments at the end of each chapter from various contributors who add pastoral perspectives like Gerald Hiestand’s article “Six Particle Steps toward Being a Pastor-Theologian” or Kevin Deyoung’s “A Place for Truth” or Guy Davies’ “The Drama of Preaching.”
The Preacher’s Portrait: Some New Testament Word Studies by John Stott
This volume is an expansion of the ninth series of Payton Lectures delivered by John Stott April 10-14, 1961 at Fuller theological Seminary. Through these lectures Stott looks at the various portraits of a preacher provided by words used in the New Testament. The chapters are as follows:
- A Steward: the preacher’s proclamation and appeal
- A Herald: the preacher’s message and authority
- A Witness: the preacher’s experience and humility
- A Father: the preacher’s love and gentleness
- A Servant: the preacher’s power and motive
I’ve always loved Stott’s work and this deserves a spot next to his other classics. Ultimately, this is a great study that makes use of biblical exegesis, the original Greek, and pastoral insight.
My one slim criticism is that Stott addresses some big issues but does not give them a full treatment. The very second paragraph of the book says, “First, the Christian preacher is not a prophet.” Of course, I would agree. Yet, Stott goes on to say, “Prophecy is mentioned as a spiritual gift (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10, 29; Eph. 4:11), but this gift is no longer bestowed upon men in the church. Now that the written word of God is available to us all, the word of God in prophetic utterance is no longer needed. The word of God does not come to men today. It has come once for all; men now come to it.” Stott oversimplifies the situation. This would have been worthy have a chapter not merely a few lines in a paragraph.
Alive by Piers Paul Read
“On October 12, 1972, an Uruguayan Air Force plane carrying a team of rugby players crashed in the remote snowy peaks of the Andes. Ten weeks later, only sixteen of the forty-five passengers were found alive.”
Perhaps these lines from the back cover of the book bring up memories of the new story or images from the popular motion picture (Alive!, 1993). I watched the movie in grade school after getting the required parent signature. As a 10-year-old, I missed the most of the poignant moments of this book. It merely seemed like a story about a crash and incredibly determined people. As a man quickly approaching 40-years-old, this book seems more like fiction than real life. I often put the book down and asked out load, “How did they maintain hope?”
Admittedly, not everyone can make it through this book. It has scenes that are beyond gruesome – both in regard to injuries but also the steps taken by the sixteen survivors in order to make it through each day. The story was already headline news in its time but became even more sensational when the world learned that the survivors resorted to cannibalism.
The survivors had extremely little food: eight chocolate bars, three small jars of jam, a tin of almonds, a few dates, candies, dried plums, and several bottles of wine. They stretched these meager supplies as far as they could go. They even attempted to eat parts of the plane (cotton inside of seats) but it merely made them sick. The group, mostly Catholics and a few atheists, grappled with the decision to eat dead friends – to include in spiritual ways. The book documents how the Catholic church responded to the story in the aftermath.
If you enjoy book of Jon Krakauer, you’d enjoy this one.
Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home by Nando Parrado
Reading “Alive!” my me jumped right into another account of the plane crash in the Andes, this time from a survivor. In “Miracle in the Andes,” Parrado gives his first-person account of the crash and subsequent 72 days. It provides for a gripping and difficult read. As a pastor, I was fascinated by the spiritual conversations between Parrado and other survivors. I was deeply moved by Parrado’s reflection on death. The following paragraph might be one of the most moving accounts I have ever read:
“When Roy surrendered and lay down in the snow I knew he had reached the end of his struggle. He had found the place where death would take him at last. Thinking of Roy lying still on the slope, slowly disappearing beneath the snow, I was forced to wonder how close my own moment of surrender might be. Where was the place where my own will and strength would fail? Where, and when, would I give up the struggle and lie down, frightened and defeated like Roy, in the soft comfort of the snow?
This was the true source of my anger: Roy was showing me my future, and in that moment I hated him for it.”
Parrado was one of the survivors strong enough to make the trek that eventually lead to the team’s rescue. He fills in gaps left wide open by “Alive.”
Barnum: An American Life by Robert Wilson
Ever since I watched ‘The Greatest Showman” I’ve wanted to read up on the life of PT Barnum. This month I finally hit the buy button on a biography. Before I mention the book, let me say that “The Greatest Showman” is an all-time great movie (even if it gets the story wrong on many fronts). Watch it and watch it again.
Barnum was a large-than-life figure. Wilson details that life fairly well in what ends up being an uneven book. Throughout the book, Wilson gives page after page of attention to small aspects of Barnum and merely glances over others. Often I wanted to hear less about Wilson’s focus and more about the topics of which he merely mentioned. For instance, the book does not cover enough about the faith of Barnum but instead chooses to focus more on Barnum’s crusade against alcohol.
Wilson provides an overview of the life of Barnum, which includes riches, tragedy, bankruptcy, fires, and reinvention. He spends most of the book covering Barnum’s circus acts. He spends significant time covering General Tom Thumb. I would have loved more on ‘The Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind.
In the last two years, I’ve made considerable effort to only keep the books I love or the books I will read again or use as a resource. This book will be sold for cash.
President McKinley: Architect of the American Century by Robert Merry
As a reader of presidential biographies, this was my first on McKinley (but I already have a few others lined up). Since I knew fairly little about McKinley, this book was an incredible source of information even though I’m sure better McKinely biographies can be found.
Prior to this book I could have told you that McKinley was assassinated at the Pan American Exposition and he acquired Hawaii for the United States. Yet, the book walks you through how McKinley truly established the US as an imperial power. He kicked Spain out of the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War, acquired the Philippines through war and diplomacy, moved the country to the gold standard, developed “fair trade” doctrine, and established relationships with China and Great Britain. The success of Theodore Roosevelt was clearly built on the foundation and hard work of McKinley.
McKinley die an extremely well-loved and admired president. Yet, over time he has been overshadowed by Roosevelt. Today he is rarely mentioned. I was recently in conversation with someone and mentioned the McKinley assassination. They were shocked at the reference. I don’t think they knew of McKinley nor his assignation.