Wild At Heart (Book Review)

Every now and then I get asked whether I’ve read such-and-such a book.  Usually it’s a popular Christian book, sometimes a bestseller. (Hey, I’m a pastor, so I’ve come to expect people will ask about these.)  Unfortunately for these folks, I rarely read any of those “It” books that every evangelical Christian is talking about all at once.  You know which ones I mean: The Purpose Driven Life, Jesus Calling, The Gospel According to Veggie Tales.  You get the idea.  Not that there isn’t anything valuable in these sorts of mass-market volumes.  It’s just that they often have significant flaws as “lower common denominator” books.  In order to aim for a wide audience, they have to minimize doctrinal distinctives, focus on motivation and practice, and sugar-coat the materials so it goes down easy.  Not all high print volume books have these flaws, but I’ve read a few of them to know their common characteristics.  And I’m not alone either.  Plenty of reviewers have noticed that the huge number of evangelical readers out there have created a market for this kind of Christian publishing.  Even though I don’t fancy myself as a watchblogger, I do enjoy critically engaging with Christian books.  I prefer to read stuff I suspect I’ll want to recommend for my readers.  That’s why I commit to reviewing (nearly) everything I read here at Dangitbill!  It’s not for me (although I do enjoy and profit-without-“profit” from the exercise), but for you.

And so, every now and then I get asked by friends about the same book.  When that happens, my interest in reading a bestselling Christian book goes up.  Such is the case this time with John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart (WAH).  As a book that has been out there for a while (16 years and counting), it was probably about time that I pulled it off my shelf and looked into it.  Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past 15 years, you know the basic premise of WAH.  It’s a famous book; over 1 million copies sold.  Its topic is biblical masculinity in contemporary evangelical Christian culture and teaching.  What I found didn’t surprise me.  More than a few positives that make it captivating and useful.  But even more problems that make it difficult to recommend.  The remainder of this review will be my reflections on the positives and problems as I see them. Continue reading

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God’s Glorious Symphony

What maxim will be used to describe us? If you’re a Truth person—as doctrinally sound? Or a Beauty person—as humble, and loving? Or a Morality person—as lovers of good? In the world’s eyes, religion is all about teaching morality and cultivating virtue, but that sounds like kindergarten to a lot of people. Religion, they say, is like childhood: “When you grow up, you outgrow it and move on.”

If religions are fundamentally a set of rules of do’s and don’ts, then it is no wonder people want nothing to do with religion. As Christians, we are quick to point out that Christianity is totally different—instead of being saved by keeping religious rules, we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But if that is what the Bible teaches (and it is), then why do we find ethical and lifestyle commands (not suggestions) interwoven with doctrinal teaching? Is Christian living optional, or required, for the Christian? If living the Christian life is required by God (and it is), what is its purpose? What function does the Christian ethic serve?  The Bible provides an answer in Titus 2:1-10 where the apostle Paul teaches that God calls pastors, elders, and other mature Christian leaders in the church to teach everyone in the household of faith (regardless of age, sex, or vocation) to live in such a way that beautifully harmonizes with biblically sound doctrine and glorifies Christ our Savior. Continue reading

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According to Plan (Book Review)

according-to-planWhen I was in seminary I distinctly remember something my professor said.  It was an off-hand comment (aren’t they always the ones we remember?), but one I’ve been able to verify over the years.  It was a class on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), and a student sitting at the back of the class raised his hand to ask a question.  It was a little unusual, because he built his question from the text of a book not on the syllabus.  The question was forgettable, but my teacher’s comment stuck.  “Is that a Graeme Goldsworthy book?  Read everything he writes.”  As a first-year student still wet behind the ears, that exhortation sunk in and is still lodge somewhere in my brain.  And after reading several Goldsworthy books, and leading study groups through them as well, I can attest to the wisdom of that recommendation.

Certainly not his most well-known (that would be Gospel and Kingdom which is the first of three books compiled in The Goldsworthy Trilogy), but probably his most influential book is the author’s introductory Biblical Theology.  According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (ATP), is the next step to understanding the Bible as God’s revelation after the simpler Bible Overview by Steve Levy.  ATP is a book that attempts to find unity in the massive diversity of material found in the Bible.  It succeeds by organizing the main plot of the Bible around the theme of the kingdom of God.  Goldsworthy argues that every other biblical theme—whether major or minor—rightly fits into the overarching theme of Kingdom.  That means macro-subjects like covenant, temple, creation, Israel, sacrifice, and sin are all connected through the lens of God’s kingdom.  The kingdom theme itself can be helpfully summarized as God’s people, living in God’s place, under God’s rule. (I think this saying came from Goldsworthy, but I haven’t been able to locate a reference.)  The organizing principle of kingdom makes Goldsworthy’s account of the Bible’s story significantly different than most other arrangements of biblical theology in one respect.  Whereas the high point for many is Moses and the Law—thus contrasting Law (OT) and Gospel (NT)—Goldsworthy argues that David’s kingdom is the apex of the OT.  This has the effect of subsuming the theme of covenant underneath the kingdom theme, and therefore he reads the Bible as one unified story about the kingdom of God rather than two competing stories about the Mosaic covenant vs. the New covenant.  Such a difference is important because it moves the covenant theology discussion forward and away from the sticking point of the Mosaic law in relation to Christ’s salvation where theologians often get entangled in heated debate.  A kingdom-centered story provides some relief from this tired controversy that sometimes feels mired in minutiae at a theological Maginot Line. Continue reading

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Bible Overview (Book Review)

bible-overviewYears ago I remember hearing Bible teacher R.C. Sproul respond to one of his fans.  The man said he was so thankful for Sproul’s teacher because he made the Bible “come alive” for his students.  Nothing too unusual there.  Gifted teachers in most any subject are able to transfer their enthusiasm for their subject to listeners.  But this time, the teacher wanted to make a point about the unique nature of the Bible.  Sproul replied with a smile, “I can’t make the Bible come alive.  The Bible makes me alive!”  So it is with the Book of books.  And yet, lots of people feel boredom, dryness, and confusion when they read the Bible.  Its message seems incoherent, or at the very least vaguely moralistic.  Its relevance appears almost entirely outdated.  It has an ancient, foreign feel to modern sensibilities.  For people who sympathize with such complaints, closing the Bible and asking “What’s the point?” is probably the last and lingering thought they share about the Bible.

I am convinced that one of the main problems modern people have when it comes to reading and enjoying the Bible is the problem of understanding.  Because once you understand the nature, the purpose, and the plotline of the Bible, you can begin to sense deep down that its message is truly the Greatest Story Ever Told.  The Bible has managed to transcend time and place because it has proven to be a timeless epic and a priceless treasure trove of wisdom.  Most of all, it remains the most printed, owned, and read book of all time because it addresses humanities fundamental questions with satisfying answers: Continue reading

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A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 2 (Book Review)

phmw2Published in 2013, A Patriot’s History of the Modern World: Volume 2 (PHMW2) is the continuation of a story begun in 1898.  Volume 1 (reviewed here) narrated the story of the world from a conservative American perspective from the turn of the 20th century to the end of World War 2.  Authors Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty pick up right when they left off, narrating the baby-boomer era from birth to the year 2012.

It’s best to see Volumes 1 and 2 as one massive work of history, and thus they are best read one after the other so as to feel the force of what has happened over the past 100+ years.  I do not have much to add by reviewing Volume 2 except to remind the interested reading that these volumes are written from a conservative, American, and unapologetic patriotic perspective.  The authors are no fans of modern political liberalism.  Whereas in the first volume the villainous duo was undoubtedly Presidents Woodrow Wilson and FDR, in the second volume the bad guys are JFK and “Barack Hussein Obama.”  It is difficult to argue with documented historical events.  They either happened or they didn’t.  But it is not so obvious to me that the “bad guys,” although they may have been guilty of many disastrous missteps, committed their “political sins” with malicious intent.

One aspect I find particularly insightful (if not a bit personally disturbing) is the vitriol reserved for President Obama and his administration.  PHMW2 can only comment on the first 4 years of Obama’s leadership.  Yet even half-way through it is clear the authors understood that controversial social engineering and profligate federal spending were gaining speed.  So much so that reading the assessment of Obama’s first term prepares the reader for a more intense second term of unilaterally implementing a liberal agenda despite a nation deeply divided along conservative and progressive lines.  Conservatives would do well to learn this lesson.  Policy and law which are implemented along simple-majority partisan lines are ripe for repeal when the simple-majority shifts and the opposing political party is in power.  Better to work through gridlock toward the venerable goal of political compromise.  That way neither side feels defeated, demoralized, and disrespected. Continue reading

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Making Sense of God (Book Review)

msogWhen I first learned that Tim Keller would be writing a book on helping skeptics, doubters, and otherwise secular-minded people to begin “doubting their doubts” and give Christianity a second look, I determined to read it carefully.  You see, as I’ve listened to Keller preach over the years, it has become increasingly more obvious that his approach to addressing the most frequent “defeater beliefs” is worth a hearing.  While he has written and spoken before about these beliefs that function as stumbling blocks to faith in Christ, never have these resources been collected in a single volume or linked together into a sustained coherent case for Christianity.  Published near the end of 2016, his book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (MSOG) is the best book I’ve seen for comparing the secular and Christian worldviews in order to make a rationally-, emotionally-, and culturally-sensitive case for the plausibility and attractiveness of the gospel.

Regarding the author’s purpose, he writes: “The material in this book is a way of offering to readers—especially the most skeptical who may think the “good news” lacks cultural relevance—the same food for thought [i.e., that “believers and nonbelievers in God alike arrive at their positions through a combination of experience, faith, reasoning, and intuition.”].  We will compare the beliefs and claims of Christianity with the beliefs and claims of the secular view, asking which one makes more sense of a complex world and human experience.” [p. 2]

The method of comparison is a close examination of our culture’s most prevalent defeater beliefs, surveying the best secular answers to these problems and then showing how Christianity offers alternative answers that are quite reasonable, emotionally satisfying, and culturally appropriate.  Here are a few of those defeater beliefs as Keller phrases them.  Perhaps you believe a few of these yourself!  From page 5:

  • “You don’t need to believe in God to have a full life or meaning, hope, and satisfaction.”
  • “You should be free to live as you see fit, as long as you don’t harm others.”
  • “You become yourself when you are true to your deepest desires and dreams.”
  • “You don’t need to believe in God to have a basis for moral values and human rights.”
  • “There’s little or no evidence for the existence of God or the truth of Christianity.”

No, these aren’t the typical issues tackled in traditional Christian apologetics, but that is the point.  Keller understands these are first-order questions that require a satisfactory response before many people will even consider taking the message of Jesus seriously.  In other words, in the late modern world where it now seems impossible to actually believe in God, we have to first help people make sense of God.  Why?  Because to more and more folks, the very idea of God in general and Christianity seem totally disconnected to reality—like Grimm’s fairy tales in a world without witches and dragons. Continue reading

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Defeating Darwinism (Book Review)

defeating-darwinismSometimes a specialized subject matter expert is actually not the most qualified person to critique a related idea.  Case in point: Who would you trust more for advice on a difficult end-of-life decision for a loved one?  A life support machine technician or a medical ethicist?  Theoretically you would probably want a qualified mediator who is able to listen to the technician and the ethicist, like a family doctor.  But with only two choices, who is more qualified to counsel you on the right thing to do?  The mechanic or the theologian-philosopher?  I think many reasonable people would choose the ethicist.  But then again, many others would be more comfortable with the technician.  In all probability these two groups would condemn each other as wrong, foolish, ignorant, and maybe even evil.  Alas, such is human nature.

When it comes to the subject of science and origins, this kind of fighting is common.  Neo-Darwinism is the only respected scientific theory of origins in Western culture.  Any acceptable critique of this theory must come from inside the camp and must be kept away from the public eye to foster the illusion of unanimous agreement.  If any scientist outside the camp criticizes Neo-Darwinist theory or questions its foundational assumptions, they are treated as heretical troublemakers and denied access to the guild.  And if any non-scientist outside the camp dissents from the evolutionary orthodoxy, they are denied access to the table as unqualified, uneducated, and undeserving of a response.  The problem with this response to the questioning dissenter should be obvious.  In order to make a wise decision regarding a subject, wouldn’t it be best to hear from the mechanic and the philosopher?  Wouldn’t you want to hear the criticisms of the intelligent outsider?

Which brings us to Phillip E. Johnson (not to be confused with Phillip R. Johnson), a distinguished legal mind, professor of law, and aspiring philosopher of science.  Johnson is the grandfather of the Intelligent Design movement challenging the Neo-Darwinist status quo.  His strategy is named “The Wedge of Truth” which seeks to split the log of scientific orthodoxy by focusing on the known and acknowledged problems associated with evolutionary theory, namely the question of evolutionary mechanism, the cause of the Big Bang, and the contrary evidence in the fossil record.  As far as I can tell, The Wedge strategy is first explained in print in his third book on the subject: Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (DD).  I first read DD as a recent college graduate as a helpful and simplified summary of the issues the author first laid out in considerably more details his books Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance.  Recently I reread it to my oldest daughter who is a freshman in high school.  DD is a little over her head (and for that reason she didn’t much enjoy it), but I came to appreciate how this book crystallizes the issues for a target audience of upper high school and college.  The second time through it also surprised me at how relevant the book continues to be.  The only thing that feels dated about the book is its optimism for Intelligent Design (ID) theory for the near-term.  What has actually happened in the last 20 years is that ID has been barred from the public schools and scientific academia with a stroke of power.  Contrary to popular opinion, it is not another brand of biblical creationism meant to sneak Genesis into the science curriculum at your local public school.  Rather it is a centuries-old alternative scientific theory to naturalistic materialist macro-evolution.  ID has a long history of support by many esteemed scientists, philosophers, practitioners in the STEM fields, and academics.  In the computer age and the explosion of information in the last 30 years, ID has become a formidable challenger to the followers of Darwin.  And boy has it been a wild ride. Continue reading

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