Category Archives: Books

Quick review: 40 Rockets

40 Rockets40 Rockets by Craig Josling

“40 Rockets which, when translated, means 40 short and punchy tips on sharing the message of Jesus with people at work.” (With apologies to verses like John 1:42.)

Lots of good tips. And easy quick read, but not designed to be read quickly. Each tip is for thought and reflection. Preferably with someone else.

This is not a theology of the message of Jesus, nor of the reason to share Jesus’ gospel. It’s not a listing of all the blessings Jesus’ death for the world. This is not an academic treatise. But none of these things are a problem – for 40 Rockets does not aim to be any of these things.

So what is this book? Words from an experienced, but far from perfect, Christian to help us all do better at promoting the news of Jesus.

Here are some chapter headings to give a feel for the topics/rockets: Be convinced that the workplace is a great place to share Jesus; Be gracious in conversation; Don’t let work define your value; Memorize Romans 6:23; Give honest and sincere appreciation.

I’m thinking how to use this book, because it strikes me as totally usable. Some ideas:
* pair up, and have a 5 minute phone chat each week to discuss that week’s tip
* give a copy to every member of a Bible study group, spend a few minutes each week at the start of your group looking at that week’s rocket
* for two months of Sunday church, pick a rocket a week for someone to summarise
* include a rocket a week in the church bulletin
* read a chapter each day with housemates (in a share house, with family, whatever)
* read a chapter on the bus to work, and summarise it in an email for fellow believers in your business

Undoubtedly there are many more.

And I want to get on with using 40 Rockets when I am. From Matthia Media.

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Review: A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture

A Reformed Approach to Science and ScriptureA Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture by Keith A. Mathison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good thing about buying a book that really is a book is that you get a sense of what kind of book it wants to be. A 600 page treatment is a different beast from an 80 page piece – neither is necessarily better, but the aims will differ.

With an ebook, this is harder. And, perhaps, easier to be disappointed. ‘I thought this was going to be in-depth, but it’s only a brief guide.’ Or, ‘I just wanted something simple, not the history of the universe.’

So let’s explain the intangibles of this book. A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture is a big title, huge. Science! Scripture! Reformed! Wow. Yet it’s not broad, deep, and exhaustive. It is a short work, so does not aim to cover all things.

Even more important, it’s not even really trying to be a reformed introduction to the philosophy of science. (Which I thought it might be – my mistake.) Instead, it is an expansion on some comments made by R.C. Sproul. At a conference, Sproul was answering the question, ‘How old is the universe?’

Sproul’s answer is wonderful. He did not merely indicate young or old, but in a few sentences touched on science, Christianity, and the relation between them.

The answer is quoted in full (tidied up a little for publication purposes). Sproul notes some of the issues:
* The Bible does not state how old the earth is, but some hints suggest it’s young
* Science has plenty to say that is relevant: expanding universe, astronomical dating, etc
* All truth is God’s truth, scripture and nature
* God’s revelation in scripture is infallible as also God’s revelation in nature is infallible
* We know times when natural revelation has corrected the church’s understanding of special revelation
* Nonetheless, that which is definitively taught in the Bible is never overthrown by science
* That is, scientists can be wrong, theologians can be wrong, and we privilege neither
* In conclusion: ‘I don’t know how old the earth is.’

This book by Mathison expands on these points. It has some theological points (eg, Augustine, Aquinas). It has some history (eg, Calvin and Luther on the geocentrism). It does not have much science or philosophy of science.

The crux of the book – and of Sproul’s answer – is the double infallibility of God’s double revelation, special and natural. This is, I think, both the strength and the weakness of the book’s argument.

It is strong, because it highlights the unity of all truth in God. Let God be true, though all men be liars (Romans 3:4). The saying catches it nicely: all truth is God’s truth.

Yet there are problems with the book’s argument. I think these are in the theological terminology used, as well as it’s application in the book. Imprecision is introduced: it does no real damage to this book’s argument, because it has a narrow focus. But such imprecision is problematic if it flows through the (huge) scope of science-theology understanding.

The problem: Mathison persists in speaking of natural revelation, when I think he would do better to speak of truth.

In speaking of natural revelation, Mathison has in mind the knowledge of God accessible to all humans through creation. As Romans 1:19-21 indicates, this knowledge is about God, and it makes us without excuse, because natural revelation cannot save. He helpfully quotes and alludes to Romans 1.

But the book then slides from this knowledge about God to science, without any reason put forward for the connection. Yet it is not evident that knowing more about the planets’ arrangement adds anything to natural revelation. We know more truth, certainly, but no more about God.

In other words, Mathison makes no convincing argument that the theological category of natural revelation also applies to science.

This imprecision has other effects. I note just one – the use of infallible.

Mathison return more than once to a group of seminarians asked two questions by Sproul.

“How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” They all raised their hands. I then asked, “And how many of you believe that God’s revelation in nature is infallible?” No one raised his hand. It’s the same God giving the revelation.

Two helpful and provocative questions to put! Natural revelation is, indeed, infallible – it does not fail but achieves its purpose. The purposes of natural revelation succeed: people of faith praise the Lord (Psalm 19:1), and rebels against God find they have no excuse (Romans 1:20).

Infallibility is a term of theology, and relates to God’s purposes in his revelation. But Mathison, having assumed a tight link between natural revelation and science, has thereby partly imported infallibility into science, where it does not belong.

Now, that’s a long discussion about being precise in terminology. So let me emphasise this: I think this work well worth reading. Have a read, think well, and thank God that all truth is his.

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Quick review: Captured by a better vision

Captured By A Better Vision: Living Porn FreeCaptured By A Better Vision: Living Porn Free by Tim Chester
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The prevalence of pornography in our electronic age is an important matter for the whole of society, and even more so for Christians who know that sexuality is a wonderful gift from God that can be awfully twisted into ugliness.

Chester is not all about ‘a technique’ to stop porn in one’s life. But he does not mock techniques, either, but places them in a better whole-of-life context. Use the skills (like accountability software, etc), but use them as tools in the bigger picture of life with Christ.

Chester’s five broad topics are, in my words: hate porn, love God, trust God, actively avoid porn, get help. As is clear, there are reasons why, and there are tips how. And both are important.

Chester quotes extensively from people who completed an on-line survey for him, and this illustrates his points nicely while introducing a chatty feel to parts of the book. This complements the parts which are more solid sections of thoughtful argument.

I have a few criticisms, but none of them are major.

    • Though a shortish book, about 160 pages, I think it could have been edited a bit more. The chapters seem to have long introductions before getting to the major point. And those intros don’t always really tightly connect to the main point, in my view.

 

    • Chester acknowledges that porn is a problem for both men and women, and can be expressed in ‘non-porn’ ways (like romance novels, or underwear junk mail). But I certainly had the sense this book was more about blokes with porn problems. If there was some editing out (above), then the book could edit in more on women’s experiences of porn.

 

  • Chester takes the line of Genesis 2:18 – that it was not good for the man to be alone – to mean he was lonely, needing companionship. That’s a tempting preaching point, believe me!, but is probably not the point of the text.

 

But to finish with negatives would be way off – this is a good book, on an important topic, written with gospel-shaped truth, which shows love to all touched by the damaging scourge of pornography.

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Quick review: The search to belong

The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small GroupsThe Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community, and Small Groups by Joseph R. Myers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wavered between two options when it came to choosing a star rating for The Search to Belong. Because there are some powerfully helpful ideas, I considered four out of five. But everything else moved me towards two from five.

No matter which way I went, I knew that I disliked reading the book – even the bits I liked. So that decided the matter: **/*****.

What’s valuable: Myers picks up the analysis of Edward T Hall that society consists of four “spaces”: public, social, personal, and intimate. Each space has its own character, strengths, and modes of operation. And each is valuable in its own right, not as a mere stepping stone to the “really real” relationship of intimacy.

So, applied to churches, Myers urges readers to make sure people have room to relate in any and all of the social spaces. Excellent!

What I disliked does not undermine the benefit of those valuable thoughts. But what I disliked I really disliked. Some examples.

Myers has an ear for how people feel. He frequently speaks of how he felt in different situations. That’s a wonderful skill. But Myers turns how we feel into obligations: “people feel this therefore we must act in the following way.” There is apparently no possibility of people feeling the wrong thing, or entertaining awful desires.

Similarly, we are told people at churches can only lead themselves. “Only you can lead you.” It’s imperative, therefore that ‘leaders’ in churches get out of the way. They can supply a framework for people to grow, but must refrain from trying to lead people. The irony: Myers forcefully tells us – leads us – to the only possible truth, that there is no such thing as forceful leading.

The irony is one thing, but more significant to me is the biblical insistence that there are leaders (in church, home, and society) and that these leaders have God’s commission to lead. (See all the biblical language of authority and submission, to investigate further.)

For a third and final criticism, I think the book is a touch confused. In the first two chapters, for instance, Myers frequently spoke of the need to define connection, or community, or belonging. But I never found the definition. So I was not surprised to read a free interchange of terms: with loose definitions it’s easy enough to use any term that feels close enough. But that’s not good enough if you are trying to present a clear case.

My recommendation, then, is to read this book but to pare back the emergent packing and enjoy the thoughtful idea social spaces.

 


 

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Quick review: The mind’s eye


 

The Mind's EyeThe Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another enjoyable read from Oliver Sacks, this time on sight and the brain.

Seeing is not merely – or even primarily – a matter of the eye, but of the brain. The eye may experience all sorts of problems, and this book represents a number of them through the cases described. But Sacks’ work here is the written record of his fascination with perception, distortion, neural processing, face recognition, depth of view, three-dimensionality, imaging, and a number of related issues.

The longest chapter is on Sacks’ own visual medical problems. Naturally he has more information on himself as a ‘case’, but I suspect his greater interest in his own case led him to extend that chapter more than required.

This book is not, however, a clinical guide. It is more of an exploration of questions raised by various clinical observations. What is perception?, How does the brain cope with visual disturbance?, Can we truly communicate subjective experiences?

I love the way Sacks is fascinated with people – not diseases or pathologies, but people. It is in facing illness that he seems to detect the uncovering of character, of humanity.

Sacks’ writing also reminded me that we can’t assume much about the people we interact with, or that when we do we will often miss what is very significant for those people. The guy on the footpath might be struggling with one eye almost blind and a correspondingly huge blind spot to one side: it does not have to be that’s he’s a footpath hog. The workmate whose habits are a joke to the rest of the office might just be employing strategies to survive a visual degenerative condition that would paralyse us.

We simply cannot know what troubles people endure. So why not make allowances, and ask them, and make room for all the odd people of the world? After all, someone as high-functioning as Oliver Sacks was once numbered among such odd bods.

Sacks says, essentially, nothing about God-stuff. Yet he is not rude or dismissive of these points of view. He quotes extensively from at least a couple of Christian individuals (about their insight into blindness, rather than Christianity), all the while allowing that their trust positively shapes their experience.

As a Christian, I hope I can demonstrate such person-focussed interest and practice listening to people no matter what their views. And, again as a Christian, I am convinced that the reason we value such behaviour is due to Jesus and his summary of the law into the two love commands (Matthew 22:36-40).

It’s not that behaviour gets us to God. It is that when God got to us, he told us that trust has its behaviours. He/Jesus told us this, and we can be sure it’s a powerful truth – because in Sacks we have the example of a fine Western mind steered (perhaps unconsciously) by the words of Jesus.

For those of us who do follow Jesus, let’s deliberately show such gentle, inquisitive love.

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Quick review: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

The Atheist Who Didn't ExistThe Atheist Who Didn’t Exist by Andy Bannister
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Science is the only sure method for knowing things.

Faith and reason are opposed.

People believe in God because they’re needy.

Atheism is not a belief at all – it’s just non-belief.

You can discover goodness without God at all.

If you’ve heard statements like these then you and I are living in the same world. They’re relatively common in the so-called ‘New Atheism.’

But if you’re convinced by any of these statements, then you’ve been duped. These arguments, and others like them, are all bad arguments, according to Andy Bannister. Note the alternate title for his book Or: the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments.

This book is all about the arguments of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens. And written in an accessible and light style. If you like quirky British humour – and I do – then you’ll find it even better (as well as find plenty of jokey distraction in the hundreds of footnotes).

Bannister is a Christian, but this book does not aim to present the Christian Gospel, I think. The news of Jesus is there, in brief snatches (especially the last chapter on Jesus and history). But the aim of this book seems to be what comes before presenting the Christian message: to convince us that it is worth looking at the message.

That is, Bannister urges readers not to prematurely write off the question of God and Jesus. And if it’s Dawkins and his buddies who have convinced you not to go near the God question, Bannister’s warning is that you’re really a victim of empty argument.

So The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist is apologetic and pre-evangelistic. Apologetic: for it gives reasons why it’s worth considering Jesus. Pre-evangelistic: because it opens the door to an honest reading of the Bible.

I loved the humour (except for Bannister’s disdain of goat’s cheese – he’s definitely wrong there). And I’d definitely give this book away to people entrapped by the empty arguments of Krauss, Dawkins, et al.

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Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History Of Nearly EverythingA Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson’s affable style can work for more than travel – science, it turns out, is just as whimsical and revealing as any other human activity.

When I first heard of A Short History of Nearly Everything I did not know it was about science. At a guess, I thought that it would be about the broad sweep of human history: empires and cultures and languages. Wrong!

Instead, it includes a history of science and current thinking on plenty of topics. The solar system and the universe, the weird world of the sub-atomic, continents that move around on an earth filled with hot liquid metal, dinosaurs and their bony evidence, the life of cells, the history of hominids, and much more (sorry, no steak knives).

In short, it a great example of popular level big history.

Bryson introduces this book as written by a science noob. Maybe that was true, but he hides it well with impressive chapters covering the whole sweep of many complex arguments. And, when possible, he tells us the fun details that – I believe – should be more central to all science education.

Some stories are old. I think people might be more interested in all the stuff Isaac Newton did if we mention the experiment of shoving a leather-working needle in his eye socket and jiggling it around to see what would happen (page 41).

Some stories are more modern. Did you know, for example, that the man who developed leaded petrol (thus spawning a very profitable industry who lied through their teeth about the ‘non’ damage of lead toxicity) also developed chlorofluorocarbons? Thomas Midgley, therefore, not only poisoned the air and earth, but also burnt holes in the ozone layer with a greenhouse gas 10,000 times more efficient than carbon dioxide. (See chapter 10.)

Quite often the tales reveal a lot about the paradox of humanity. Take the story of a US songbird, Bachman’s Warbler.

…by the 1930s the warbler vanished altogether and went unseen for many years. Then, in 1939, by happy coincidence two separate birding enthusiasts, in widely separated locations, came across lone survivors just two days apart. They both shot the birds.

As a vaguely science-interested guy, I only found a couple of slightly questionable parts to the book. I reckon that’s an acceptably low number of potential ‘errors’ for such a wide-ranging work, although I know my science knowledge is very limited. (But I was disappointed that Bryson seems to have gone for mythology of the famous but misrepresented debate between T. Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce.)

But some other reflections are in order. Particularly this: why is this book history, not science?

‘History’ makes the whole of physical reality a story, it seems to me, rather than mere events. Bryson never imposes a meaning on anything, he’s much too genial to force worldviews on people. But he has chosen a style that inherently assumes a story going somewhere – and this even when when (correctly) identifying that genetic modification and evolution as non-directional.

The Bible, of course, also has a history of everything: an extremely short history of everything, in one verse. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

I don’t believe Bryson’s book has any conflict with God’s book, in this regard. It’s just that God’s summary is even more concise. And God goes on to explain the story itself: the reason and purpose of creation, the why and who questions, and the answer to all questions in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).

It’s great to enjoy knowing some of ‘the all’. It’s essential to know Jesus, who is the one who ‘fills the all’ with life purpose and certainty.

 


 

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Quick review: One Forever

One Forever: the transforming power of being in Christ (Guidebooks for Life)One Forever: the transforming power of being in Christ by Rory Shiner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How do I feel about this book? Answer: I wish I had a whole pile of copies to give to my Christian friends (as well as to non-Christians interested in this whole Jesus-business).

This is a short work, written after the material initially appeared as conference talks. So my rating is for that kind of book – a relatively quick but oh so important read. (It would be unfair to rate it for what it never tries to be.) One Forever is a book for any reader.

One thing I have found among all Christians, myself included, is the slip in grooves of language. Take the example of prayer. We know that he will always start, ‘Dear God’, while she says, ‘Loving Father’, and yet another invariably says, ‘Lord and Saviour …’ None of these are wrong, but words can lose meaning by being uttered without reflection.

The same is true, even more true, for the way we discuss our connection with God. I suspect one reason we become stale in our walk of faith is that we become stale in the descriptions we use for our walk of faith.

This need no be so. God’s word uses many beautiful colours and powerful patterns to describe how believers know God.

Being united with Christ is one such description. We should treasure it, and Shiner’s book is a tool to help us do precisely that.

Unity with Christ, or being ‘in him’, is a wonderfully all-encompassing description of the Christian life. One Forever, in eight short chapters delves into some of these. For instance, being one with Jesus in his death, or being one with Jesus in his resurrection, or being one with Jesus in his body.

I won’t include much more detail, because I don’t want to write one of those reviews which allows us to think: Great, that’s helpful and now I don’t need to read the book. Please do read it! And I think you’ll be encouraged by thee content, as well as the practical changes that follow a serious commitment to living in the light of union with Christ.
 


 

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Quick review – Compared to her …

Compared to herCompared to her by Sophie de Witt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good and very short look at the problems that follow compulsively comparing ourselves with others. Not all comparisons are bad, just most of them.

If comparison-itis is the negative, the positive is contentment, found only in the sure blessings of Christ. De Witt explains all of this around three axes: significance, satisfaction, security. These three, helpfully, crop up again and again as de Witt explains cause, effect and treatment of the curse of comparison.

This is a book aimed at women, with plenty of women’s voices quoted throughout, but I’d say it is just as valuable for men.

There is one omission, or neglect, that I consider worth comment. De Witt’s method appears to focus on understanding and comprehension (of ourselves, of Jesus, of the hope we have in God). But there is little – perhaps nothing – on trust, or faith. I would expect an explanation that confidence and contentment flow from trust in Jesus, not just comprehension.

Nonetheless, recommended!


 

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The Christianity of Les Mis

Les MiserablesLes Miserables by Victor Hugo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a huge novel. Imagine how much was left out for the stage musical. And imagine how much is left out in any review.

And I am also a leaver-out. Because, apart from enjoying the storyline, my reaction to Les Miserables is to ponder the kind of Christianity it presents. Everything else I will leave out.

This novel’s Christianity has high regard for Jesus, but not for the gospel. It loves the practice and consequences of Christianity, but not the heart of Christianity.

Consequently, I think, it is deficient. But more than deficient – this deficiency is also misrepresentation.

Time for some detail, to see if my impression fits the details.

Firstly, the high regard for Jesus. This is from the start to the end. The first primary character is a humble, servant-minded bishop. He lives on almost none of his stipend, in order to give it away – he copies Jesus. It’s the encounter with this bishop that transforms the life of Jean Valjean, Les Mis’ central character.

In the final pages, Jesus and the cross appear again. A crucifix features, with subtle significance, and Jesus is named as the true martyr.

But secondly, I think there’s no gospel. Jesus is good as an example to follow but no more. The bishop imitated and sacrificed, Valjean sacrifices too. Therefore they are demonstrated as real Christians.

They sweat and toil in efforts to copy Jesus. They do not seem to have any time to joyfully rest by faith in the grace of God’s forgiveness. There is no grace, and therefore no ‘faith apart from works’.

Valjean’s immense strength is physical, but I believe it’s also a symbol of his spiritual status – he’s a hero because of what he does. He’s an impressive man, and it feels like it’s all his own work.

It’s telling that the frequently-used divine name – the good God – is perfectly austere and distant. The God of the Bible is not Immanuel, God with us in the grace of Christ’s gospel. He is, rather, the mysterious force who ordains, and desires that we turn ourselves into good people.

Finally, this is not just a deficiency but misrepresentation.

It is perfectly possible to talk truly about God, but never possible to say everything about him. There is a point to God-talk, despite our limits! This is, we might say ‘deficiency but truth’.

Unfortunately, Les Mis is so lacking that the omissions twist God into a lie. The God of Valjean is not Father, gracious, forgiving, welcoming. He is instead austere, stern, and clinically pure. This God is not quick to condemn, thankfully – not judgemental over minor error. Yet neither is he the Abba, Father of Romans 8:15.

Going back to the plot, I think this deficiency drives one of the features of the novel. Valjean is decidedly committed to following his conscience (which is actually called ‘God’ at one point). But he remains disconnected from people, hiding facts and ‘protecting’ those he cares for. I think, in the end, Valjean’s relationships with people are all duty and not really love. In this, the hero relates to people just as he relates to God.

So, let’s enjoy Les Mis! It’s rightly a classic. And let’s enjoy the fact that it does not disparage God, but places him at the centre of concern for the miserable of the world. But do not be tricked – this novel does not present to us the God of the Gospel, the true God whom we meet by faith in the Lord Jesus.

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