Book Reviews

Short Reviews – A Review of My Recent Reading List (2020 – 4th Qtr)

On the right side of this blog, I provide my current reading list. Usually, the reading list (and these short reviews, relate directly to my strategy of which is comprised of the acrostic LEARN.* However, I am currently in the process of “upgrading” my doctorate, and have put my usual reading schedule on hold to focus on the books (and work) related to that process. So, this review is based (mostly) on those books.

Please note, this is not a formal review, but I will state if I recommend the read. My goal here is to simply provide a few key insights from each book.

*See the recent series on this blog about developing a personal SYSTEM for details. The series started June 26th, 2020 and ended October 2nd, 2020.

Christ & Culture (50th Anniversary Edition) by H. Richard Niebuhr

This book is considered by many to be a classic in Christian literature (at least for 20th Century writings – it was originally written in 1951). The premise is to consider Christ and culture from five different perspectives – Christ against Culture, Christ of Culture, Christ Above Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ Transforming Culture. I have been aware of the perspectives for years with what I assumed was a reasonable understanding of each. However, the details are important.  Although the book was on my list of books I would read someday, that someday came now. I am glad I read it, but it was not as easy of a read as I thought it might be. Niebuhr does provide a helpful starting point, but unfortunately, the categorization is not as easy as the author proposes.

Key Takeaway: I did appreciate Niebuhr’s attempt to characterize certain biblical writers (e.g. Paul and John) as well as Christian thinkers throughout history into certain categories. The attempt was to help the reader have a clear example for each category. However, after reading the book, I understand much better that categorization is not neat and tidy. In fact, the most important aspect I gleaned from this book was that Christ and Culture weave between most of the categories rather than the categories being separated.

Recommendation:    Strong. I do believe the book is beneficial, particularly for those who desire to understand the general relationship between Christ and culture. However, I suggest that the two following books to gain a more complete understanding.

Christ & Culture Revisited by D.A. Carson

This book is a necessary complement to Niebuhr’s book. This book could stand on its own, but it really makes the best sense if read as a companion to Niebuhr (as the title suggests). Carson’s approach is different (because it can be, and in some ways must be to make it relevant) as he not only applies biblical theology to/against Niebuhr’s categories, but he also extends the thinking by applying it directly to certain areas such as church and state, secularism, power, etc. Niebuhr hints at some of these ideas, but his categories are more broadly defined and thus encompass all aspects of each of those. That is not a knock against Niebuhr as much as it is a possibility that Carson could approach because he was writing in response.

Key Takeaway: Finding a good definition of culture from which to refine mine. I had developed a nice draft, but after reading Robert Redfield’s short definition – culture is the “shared understandings made manifest of act and artifact” – I was able to adjust mine. (Redfield’s definition is located on page 2.)

Recommendation: Strong, IF you have/choose to read Niebuhr’s book.

Culture Making by Andy Crouch

This book was the best of the quarter. It was deep, but very accessible. By deep, I do not mean difficult. I mean it was not fluff. Crouch shows that God is the ultimate culture maker (culture began in the Garden) and He invites us to join Him in making culture. Mankind has been making culture since, but Jesus showed us how to make it correctly (again). Regardless, God has invited mankind to make culture within His overall creativity (p109), but making culture takes time; it must be cultivated. And time and cultivation is not something that most people want to give/do. However, in making culture, we do not have control over where it will lead. This idea is not an excuse not to engage in making culture, but we must be persistent in making culture for the good (as best we can define that) because humanity adapts all culture for its own and distorts God’s intended purposes.

Key Takeaway: So much of this book is enlightening, but the discussion on postures (our unconscious position or natural stance on issues – such as what types of movies are appropriate) and gestures (the responses was have that often become habits – and may then become postures). When we allow our gestures to become postures we may limit our engagement in culture. (An example that came to my mind was a college that forbid all students and faculty seeing any “R”-rated movies – and then The Passion of the Christ was released with an “R” rating.) Gestures are important. And postures may be. But we must be cautious to make our gestures into postures when the mandate is not biblical.

Recommendation:    Very Strong. Highly recommended for everyone. Best book of the quarter, and one I will read again soon.

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

This book is about education. This book is about love. It about moving our understanding of education from the dissemination of information to the shaping of our hopes and passions (p18). It is about the role of liturgy in moving us from thinking that our minds are more important than our bodies to understanding that our minds inform our bodies what to do. Ultimately, Smith’s topic is interesting and convincing enough. It is challenging in the sense that most of us (at least in the West) have been taught that we what we know is paramount. But Jesus said that love is the most important (love God, love neighbor), and that loving our neighbor is predicated, in part, on loving ourselves. One of the challenges then, is to focus our aim of love because what we desire will largely dictate our love, and if our desires are impure, our love will be too.

Key Takeaway: The Latin phrase – lex orandi, lex credenda: what the church prays is what the church believes – is convicting, and is worthy of more reflection.

Recommendation:    Strong, for those in education and even for those who may teach in a Christian setting. However, this book is written by a philosopher for Christian educators and students in a (mostly) scholastic setting. If you are not in that setting, the book still has relevance, but I would change the recommendation to Medium.

Everyday Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer (editor)

I have to admit, I have only read one other Vanhoozer book from cover to cover and it was probably the most difficult book I have read to date (although it was a good book!). Thus, I had a sense of dread in approaching this book, particularly within the timeframe it was to be read. However, this book was less Vanhoozer and more of his students. The book is mostly a compilation of papers submitted by students reflecting on different elements of culture (from the information at a checkout stand in a store, to Gladiator (the movie), human rights, Eminem (the artist), etc. The book provided a good approach to look at various topics from a biblical worldview. It was not formulaic (the last chapter is moreso), but in reading through the book, the reader can discern how to be more structured in approaching culture topics of all kinds.

Key Takeaway: The first essay (not first chapter) set the tone for engagement (the one about the checkout line at Safeway). It was imaginative, well-written, and engaging. More importantly, it prompts the reader to think differently about items we otherwise take for granted. And that is the point of the book.

Recommendation:    Very Strong. I really liked this book. I think the concepts in the essays will resonated well with any reader and cause most anyone to consider (if not apply) more theological thinking to their day.

Look Before You Leader by Aubrey Malphurs

This book is for those who lead (or will lead) in a church (or perhaps ministry) setting. It is specific in that regard, and thus the audience is focused and limited. That said, it is an extremely practical book. The book helps the church leader define and/or discover the church’s culture, understand the culture, and reshape the culture. The content is helpful, but the resources in the back of the book are superb. The resources include several surveys, one of which required me fifty pages (double-spaced) of writing to answer suitably (I know because completing the survey was part of the requirements for one assignment in my course).

Key Takeaway: Churches do (behaviors) what they value. The behaviors are what is seen (like the skin of an apple). Our values (the flesh of the apple) are both actual (what we do) and aspirational (what we want to/know we should do). The values are based upon our beliefs (represented by the core of an apple).

Recommendation:    Very strong – IF you are (or desire to be) a leader in a church. But this book is not just for reading. Without application, it is a waste of money and time. It is written to be a guiding resource.

Other Books I Completed This Quarter:

The ESV Hear The Word Audio Bible (Audible)

I have read the Bible several times. I had listened to part of it in the past. So this year, I determined to listen to the Bible (in its usual order) with the idea that “faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10). In some ways, I found it refreshing. I certainly do not have the Bible memorized, but I do know where certain concepts and chapters “lie” on a page.  That is, I know exactly where Genesis 2 and 1 Kings 8 and Psalm 145 among many others from the Old Testament  and Mark 10 and Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 5 (among many others) begin on their respective pages without looking. I don’t say this to brag, but to state that sometimes when reading, I know what I am about to read which can cause me to miss the impact if I am not careful. Listening to Scripture removed that aspect from the mix. However, I did not enjoy the experience as I thought I might. I listened almost exclusively while driving, and almost all of that was when alone. This works well for me when listening to books, but that was not as true for the Bible. That is likely because the Bible is more important than a biography, history, or other informative book I may read, but nonetheless, I did not appreciate the experience as much as I thought I might. It was ok, just not great. One day, I may read along while listening, but that will be a few years. I want to re-read the Bible first, but will do so more slowly than usual to ask new questions of the text as I seek to engage it more deeply.

Recommendation: Of course, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND reading the Bible. And, if listening is best for you, then I recommend that approach.

Classical Mythology (The Great Courses on Audible with Professor Elizabeth Vandiver)

I wanted to “take this course” because I am currently preaching through Paul’s letter to the Romans. The course (i.e. Audible “book”) covered both Greek and Roman mythology (and discussed the overlap between them) which provided me with some insights beyond just the traditional gods such as Zeus (Jupiter), Heracles (Hercules), etc. The most interesting takeaway was in the last “chapter” when the speaker noted that most of the mythological foes (often beasts) were located at the outermost realms of the earth (i.e. distant lands, where few, if any, had travelled). The myths were about their heritage (looking back in time) but often reflected these far away places and the heroes that overcame the challenges in these distant locations. In today’s world, the earth is fully explored (except the depths of the ocean), so the myths of today relate to our “heroes” (future humanity) going into space to overcome challenges in distant “locations” against unknown (and fictional) creatures. It was an obvious insight once it was shared, but it was a concept I had not connected to “classical” mythology.

Recommendation: I will not recommend this particular course unless one has a need (or intrigue) in mythology. But I have listened to a couple of courses offered by The Great Courses and will certainly listen to more. I do recommend them, and am thankful that many are available on Audible.

My 1st Quarter (2021) reading list will be available on Friday, January 1. Click on Reading List on the banner at the top of the blog’s home page and you can track with me what I am currently reading.

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