The Two Towers (Book Review)

Last summer I delved into the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) book trilogy for the first time since high school.  Previously I told the tale of how my 12th grade self read the first of three installments (The Fellowship of the Ring) but wasn’t focused or mature enough to really appreciate it.  But now that I’m an adult who has come to appreciate the beauty and value of fiction—in this case mythological fantasy—my dive into the trilogy is a completely different experience.

Just like my second go-around with part one of LOTR, part two (“The Two Towers,” hereafter LOTR2) took me two months to finish.  But with the foundational plot established and main characters developed in part one, LOTR2 didn’t take much time to get me going.  Actually the action begins immediately, picking up right where the story left off—with the fellowship separating into two parties.  Frodo and Sam continue on their predestined journey to the heart of Mordor in order to fulfill Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.  The others, including the dwarf Gimli, the elf Legolas, hobbits Merry and Pippin, and the human Aragorn, head off to battle.

As the second episode in a trilogy, LOTR2 obviously and primarily serves as a bridge to the epic conclusion when the king will return to Middle Earth to rule and restore peace.  But there are compelling plot developments that make this part of the story interesting in their own right.  Like LOTR1, LOTR2 is divided into 2 “books” (Book 3 and Book 4), each following one of the two plot threads.  Book 3 details how the others decide to take up a new goal in the adventure to defeat the forces of the evil wizard Sauron and his wizard henchman Saruman.  Early on in the narrative hobbits Merry and Pippen are captured by Orcs while the rest make their way to Gondor to warn their king of the coming armies of Sauron.  Eventually both parties and reunited as the hobbits escape and make their way to the first tower with the help of the Ents (ancient mobile tree-like creatures).  When the hobbits finally catch up with their friends they find that Gandalf has returned from the dead more powerful than before.  Now it appears this party that makes up a subset of the severed fellowship just might have a fighting chance against the evil one. Continue reading

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The Message of Galatians (Book Review)

Man, is it ever true!  You can’t judge a book by its cover.  Another truism: wonderful books are finally being adorned—at least occasionally—with appealing cover designs they so often deserve.  Back in the day many books looked so blah.  And Christian book covers were certainly not exempt.  But hey, computer artistry has come a long way.  Be thankful.  Because the content of some great books were obscured by, for lack of a better term, “meh.”

Speaking of content, not many Bible commentary series can boast superior readability, brevity, profundity, and faithfulness.  That’s a tough mix of goals to meet.  But “The Bible Speaks Today” series has proven itself in these respects over the decades.  The first volume in this series is John Stott’s The Message of Galatians [MOG], and it ably sets the bar others to follow.  Published in 1968, Stott’s exposition remains one of the best short treatments on the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. Continue reading

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Galatians For You (Book Review)

What’s your favorite book of the Bible?  To some, that might seem an odd question.  For me, I’ve always said Galatians.  Ever since my late teens, when the church my family attended spent considerable time preaching and studying this earliest epistle of the apostle Paul, Galatians has been for me a “Declaration of Independence” of sorts.  Chapter 5 verse one reads, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  For years that sentence summarized how I felt about the book.  But now?  After recently leading a group study through Galatians with a roomful of men and women in my church—Christians who are ever-eager to read, study, discuss, and apply God’s Word—my favorite book of the Bible is now my favorite for more than one reason.  What I discovered in a closer look at Galatians is that IT’S ALL THERE.  The gospel shines forth in such brilliant clarity that I can’t imagine any follower of Jesus not being caught up in excitement by Paul’s defense and presentation of the good news of salvation in Christ.  In that group study, we utilized a study book (a devotional commentary of sorts) that guided us through our reading of Galatians.  Tim Keller’s Galatians For You (GFY), in the God’s Word For You series, proved to be a clear, deep, incisive, accessible, and trustworthy resource for personal or group study of Paul’s first gospel masterpiece. Continue reading

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Good Faith (Book Review)

Most people in America have heard of the Barna Group.  It is a Christian sociological research organization with expertise in statistical polling of the population.  Fewer folks have heard of Q.  “Q” is a community devoted to learning and education by hosting interactive talks with speakers on a variety of cultural topics.  Q seeks to mobilize Christians to think through complex and controversial issues by cultivating dialogue and the forgotten disciple of good listening—all for the advancement of society’s common good.  Both Barna and Q make it their mission to equip Christians to engage our neighbors and cultural gatekeepers with the truth, goodness, and beauty of the historic Christian faith.

The heads of both organizations, David Kinnaman (Barna) and Gabe Lyons (Q), teamed up for an ambitious book project aimed at helping Christians in postmodern America live “good faith” during our present cultural moment when it seems society thinks we are no longer assets but liabilities.  Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme (GF), is the book that distills their research into a compelling philosophy of life for Christians living the world today.

Both authors function as a new generation of thinkers and leaders.  Kinnaman is a Gen Xer and Lyons is a Millennial.  Their ages are significant because, unlike their Boomer parents, they represent two generations of Americans who have grown up in a multicultural, multiracial, religiously pluralistic society that is very different from previous eras in the USA.  We ain’t livin’ no more in the 1950s, 1960s, or even the 1970s.  So by experience the kinds of things they observe and are willing to consider for cultural engagement in order for Christians not only to survive but thrive are refreshing. Continue reading

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Peace and Human Flourishing

How would you define the word “peace”? When most people think of peace, the first idea that comes to mind is the opposite of war—the absence of fighting. In other words, peace is for many a negation—a lack of something bad, sort of a blank slate indicating not much else except the possibility of a fresh start. You get a glimpse of this view of peace from the feeling a sunrise or sunset stirs in you. But peace is much more than a feeling or lack of conflict. There is a reason why the Bible’s words for peace—shalom in Hebrew and eirene in Greek—are carried over into English as greetings and names of ministries. But the reason is not always obvious.

Many universal human longings we take for granted. Love, belonging, righteousness, work, and rest. These all lie close to our hearts and are unavoidable. Others lie under the surface or function like the air we breathe. Peace is that kind of longing. It’s rare for people’s hearts to ache for peace and human flourishing until war, hardship, alienation, oppression, or other aching frustrations wake us up to our profound need for deep and lasting peace. Perhaps the best way to grasp what I mean by this kind of peace is by tapping into your imagination. Try this: what do you wish out of life for your great-grandchildren: people you love but may never know. Your answers are likely very similar to everyone else’s. Unless you wish for them world domination or to win the lottery jackpot, I bet you imagine things like happiness, freedom, health and prosperity, good education, a safe neighborhood, marriage and family, friends, time for leisure and recreation, community service, devotion to God, a vibrant church. Those are what peace looks like. But peace is also allusive. Whether you pursue it alone or in cooperation with others, hard-won gains seem like sand slipping through your fingers. Just when you get a glimpse that life is truly beautiful, Murphy’s Law comes crashing down, reminding you this world is profoundly out of step with the way things ought to be. Are we doomed to this cycle of life’s frustrations, crying out “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace? Is it even rational to long for peace, or are we just deluding ourselves? Is it responsible and realistic to just steer clear of the stubborn problems “out there” and salvage a measure of comfort for our individual lives, homes, families, and neighborhoods?

This passage in the book of Ezekiel, chapter 34, verses 11-31 provides us answers to these perplexing questions.  What will it show us?  That the LORD will rescue his lost people and shepherd them in justice as their healer, protector, provider, and ever-present God. You can only experience the kind of soul peace that buttresses human flourishing and sustains you through times of trouble by reconciliation with God through Christ the Good Shepherd. Continue reading

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Theology of the Westminster Confession: Church Censures & Synods and Councils

My church is nearing the end of an extensive adult Sunday School class.  The topic is the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).  The idea is that each teacher will develop a set of slides to aid in presentation and discussion.  We hope the completed set of slides (the goal is to cover all 33 chapters of the WCF) is a valuable resource not only for our folks at church, but also for individuals, other churches and schools to use (and modify) for their own purposes.  Here is the set of slides that present chapters 30-31 of the WCF on “Church Censures & Synods and Councils.”  Enjoy and let me know what you think.  Are these helpful?  How could they be improved?

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Praying the Bible (Book Review)

Prayer is like rowing.  It’s hard, tedious work.  And you don’t feel like you’re going anywhere if you don’t do it consistently.  Even so, there is a definite benefit to it.  Sometimes it’s even enjoyable.  But when the wind catches the sail, what wondrous elation you know and feel when you’re caught up in the current, ease, and the vistas of beauty.

I love that analogy of prayer!  It’s original to Tim Keller as his hard-won conclusion to his quest for God in prayer.  Many Christians, including me, know it to be true by experience.  And yet.

We still struggle with the motivation to put our oar in the water.  Don’t you?  If you say no, then…I’m not calling you a liar, but chances are you’re either not being honest with yourself or you’ve set the bar so low for prayer that it takes little effort to clear it.  Again, you may have a vibrant prayer life that regular, powerful, sincere, humble, and satisfying.  Only you and God know.  But most sense they’re missing out on the riches of prayer.  Why is that?  Why do believers who love God and truly desire to know him with great intimacy have such a hard time with prayer?  It’s probably not laziness for the otherwise diligent Christian.  It cannot be lack of maturity for the one who is growing in Christ.  Can’t just blame it on sin without labeling what kind of sin it is.  So what in the world is wrong with you and me?  This question perplexes and often defeats sincere believers.  Is there a solution?

Don Whitney, author and a professor of biblical spirituality at SBTS, contends we won’t find an adequate solution until we accurately diagnose the problem.  Whitney can be brutally honest because he is in touch with regular Christians and also those who are pursuing a call to pastoral ministry.  What he’s found is that the problem with our motivation to pray is like the proverbial elephant in the room—everybody knows it but no one dares admit it.  (Well, except for the village atheist!)  So what’s the problem?  Brace yourself.  It’s profound! Continue reading

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