Friday, January 9, 2015

Book Review: The Wonder Working God by Jared Wilson

The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “of making many books there is no end…”  (Ecc. 12:12)  That is especially true it seems, regarding books about Jesus.  It seems to me that every time I turn around there is another book published by another author with another view of Jesus.  While I would be the first to admit that we will never fathom the depths of who Jesus is and what He has done this side of heaven, my cynical side wonders how unique all these books about Jesus can be.

That said, a few days ago I finished Jared C. Wilson’s The Wonder Working God:  Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles.  While Wilson’s perspective on Jesus is not necessarily completely unique, I would not chalk this book up as “just another book about Jesus.”  Focusing on a number of his miracles, Wilson digs deep into each situation with a purpose to reveal how the glory of Jesus is revealed in the event.

There are various miracles portrayed in the book.  Jesus turning water into wine.  Jesus feeding the 5000.  Jesus calming the storm.  Jesus casting out demons.  Jesus healing the sick and giving sight to the blind.  Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and others.  Each tale is told with heavy reliance on the Bible’s words, yet also with a dose of humor and insight.

Now, I can hear you saying – “but Jeff, there are a lot of books out there about Jesus’ miracles.  What makes this one special?”  The thing that is especially good about Wilson’s book is his effort to define what the miracles mean, and more specifically what they say or reveal about Jesus.  For example, when Jesus turned water into wine, what did that say about His identity, His power, His purpose and His glory?  This is the type of question Wilson seeks to answer in his book.  In doing so, he gets beyond the miracles to deeper theological truths regarding Jesus as Creator and Savior.  He wants us to see the Jesus who is our provider and the one who gives us life in Him.  He sets out to reveal the glory of Jesus as it was and is displayed in His earthly miracles.

Is The Wonder Working God the last word on Jesus?  Nope, not in any way.  Wilson himself does not think so, especially since he has a companion volume entitled The Storytelling God:  Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables.  (I hope to get into this book in 2015.)  Wilson’s book may not be the last word, but it is a good word.  It is a kingdom oriented word.  It is a word that will draw those who read it to glorify Jesus in an increasing measure.  And that, I believe, is what Jared Wilson is after.  So, if you want to know your Savior better, especially as He is portrayed in His miracles, read this book.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Book Review - The Daring Heart of David Livingstone

David Livingstone.  The name brings many images to our minds.  Pioneer missionary.  The darkest jungles of Africa.  Surviving a lion attack.  Discovering the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls.  “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”  The man was a legend in his own day and even today his name is still well-known.

In his book, The Daring Heart of David Livingstone:  Exile, African Slavery and the Publicity Stunt that Saved Millions, author Jay Milbrandt presents us with another side of the famous man.  Many people over the years have seen Livingstone as a missionary or an explorer, but Milbrandt reveals Livingstone also as a man on a God-given crusade to end slavery in East Africa.

Livingstone lived at a time when slavery in the British Empire had come to an end.  William Wilberforce and his allies had freed the slaves and ended the slave trade in England.  America was on the cusp of our own Civil War which brought an end to slavery.  England and the United States had been involved in buying and selling slaves from W. Africa, a practice which had mercifully come to an end.  But slavery was still alive and well in E. Africa.  The slaves were captured in what are now the countries of Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia and were marched to the coast where they were sailed to the island of Zanzibar and sold to primarily Islamic buyers.

During his explorations in Africa, David Livingstone had come face to face with the horrors of this trade.  The Daring Heart of David Livingstone picks up the story after his first, great African exploration.  Livingstone cut ties with the London Missionary Society and joined forces with the Royal Geographic Society.  His vision was to establish a British outpost in the interior of East Africa with the dual goal of exploring the area and ending the slave trade.

The rest of the book is how David Livingstone’s desire unfolded, or rather failed to unfold in the way he had planned.  It is a story of grit and determination in the face of brutal terrain and tropical disease, of strong personality and deep devotion to God.  Above all, it is a story of persistence in keeping to the vision Livingstone believed God has given him.  Livingstone comes across both admirable and disappointing.  There are times when his godly character is very much on display, and other times, such as when the author describes his family life (or lack of it) that Livingstone presents a disturbing picture.

When Livingstone’s initial plans for a British outpost fail and after spending years in a futile search for the source of the Nile River, Livingstone finds himself stranded and sick in the heart of Africa.  At that point, Henry Morton Stanley enters the story.  Sent by American newspaperman James Gordon Bennett, Stanley braves the heart of Africa and finds Livingstone, surviving the return journey to declare to the world that Livingstone was alive.  With him he carries letters from Livingstone; letters which are meant to challenge the conscience of the British Empire and push it toward using its power to end the scourge of slavery, which is exactly what they do.  Livingstone passed on before his dream was realized, but his words and his challenge to the people of Britain were vital in bringing his vision to reality.

The Daring Heart of David Livingstone is a wonderful read.  It is a well-told story of the God-given vision of one flawed man to end African slavery.  Livingstone persisted in pursuing that vision, and a result our world was changed.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Best Books of 2014, part 3 - Fiction

This is part 3 of my listing of the best books I have read this year.  This list is fiction.  Truth be told, except for two superb exceptions, most of the fiction I read this year was good, but not great.  It kept me entertained, but not necessarily immersed.  Here is the best of what I read, and the rest of what I read.  As you can see, fantasy is still my favorite genre.

Heartstone by C. J. Sansom.  The year is not complete without reading another fine Shardlake mystery set in Tudor England.  Once again hump-backed lawyer Matthew Shardlake finds himself embroiled in the mystery and politics of Reformation-era Britain.  I cannot wait for Sansom’s next installment – Lamentation, due out in February.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  (Stormlight Archive, #1) Brandon Sanderson is one of my favorite fiction writers.  This is book 1 of his latest epic fantasy series.  I read it a few years ago, and read it again this year as a prequel to book 2.  Very rarely do I think a book is better the second time, but this one was.  Amazing world-building!

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson. (Stormlight Archive, #2)  Book 2 of Sanderson’s series is even better than book 1, if that is possible. (To give you an idea, my 17 year old son read this 1000 page book in about 48 hours!  He literally could not put it down.)  Sanderson returns with the characters you have grown to love and adds new ones you find yourself fascinated by.  The book leaves you waiting for book #3.  Definitely the best fiction I have read this year.

Natural Ordermage and Mage Guard of Hamor by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Saga of Rescluce) I admit, I have a strange fascination with the books of L. E. Modesitt Jr., as you can see below.  Out of all of Modesitt’s fantasy series, the original Recluce series is still my favorite. These two related books take the Saga to a new continent with new characters and provide an enjoyable change of pace. 

The Skin Map, The Bone House and The Spirit Well by Stephen R. Lawhead. (Bright Empires series, #1, #2, #3)  I have been a Lawhead fan for a long time – he is one of the few Christian fiction writers I can stand to read.  While this series is not his best – I reserve that for his Song of Albion series – it is enjoyable, intriguing and finally finished.  I am reading #4 right now and have #5 in the hopper after that.

2nd Tier reads – very good, not great.
Imager’s Challenge by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Imager Portfolio, #2)
Arms Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  (Saga of Recluce series)
Imager’s Intrigue by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Imager Portfolio, #3)
The White Order by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  (Saga of Recluce series)
The Magic Engineer by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Saga of Recluce series)
Colors of Chaos by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Saga of Recluce series)
Scholar by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Imager Portfolio, #4)
The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

3rd Tier read – books I finished, but were mildly disappointing.
Scepters by L. E. Modesitt Jr.  (Corean Chronicles, #3)
Forever Odd by Dean Koontz

Best Reads for 2014, part 2 - Ministry and Faith-Oriented books

This is part 2 of my review of the best reads of 2014.  In this list, I highlight the ministry and faith-oriented books I read in the past year.

I read some really good books in this category this year – so many good ones that I found it difficult to choose a few to provide capsule reviews for.  Here are the best, and the rest.

The Hole in our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung.  This was my first time reading DeYoung’s stuff –and he has quickly become a favorite.  He has a wonderful way of communicating deep truths with great mix of humor and conviction.  The chapters on repentance and what it means to be “in Christ” are especially powerful.
Found in Him:  The Joy of the Incarnation and our Union with Christ by Elyse Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick spends about equal time on two profound topics – first, the incarnation of Jesus Christ in human flesh and second, the doctrine of our union with Christ.  This is not dry theology, but a book that takes theological truths and explains how they should change our lives.

The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson.  This book unpacks the gospel in two distinct ways.  Chandler looks at the good news from a personal level, aptly describing how it impacts us.  Then he looks at the gospel from a cosmic level, showing how it affects all of creation.  He saves the best for last – the last chapters about the importance of viewing the gospel in these ways and about the dangers of moralism are especially worth the read.

The Pastor’s Justification:  Applying the Work of Christ in your Life and Ministry by Jared C. Wilson.  Wilson is another author I discovered this year.  Like Kevin DeYoung, he has quickly become a favorite.  This is easily the best book for pastors I have read this year.  Humble, honest and gospel-oriented, it is both convicting and encouraging at the same time.
Spirit-Empowered Preaching by Art Azurdia.  Dr. Azurdia has spoken at 2 conferences I have attended.  His messages are always powerful and incisive.  In this short but deep book, he probes the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the work of preaching.  These truths have changed how I approach the pulpit each Sunday.

Delighting in the Trinity:  An Introduction to the Christian Faith by Michael Reeves.  I have read a lot of theology, but I have never had the Trinity explained to me better than I have in this book.  Using Scripture and many historical testimonies, Reeves does a wonderful job bringing the doctrine of the Triune nature of God home to the reader.
The Meaning of Marriage:  Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy and Kathy Keller.  I try to read a marriage book each year.  This is one of the most sane, well-thought out, balanced and biblical books on marriage I have ever read.  This is a book I would not hesitate to give as a gift, even to a young adult who is not yet married but struggling with what marriage really means.

2nd Tier Reads – very good, not great.
Deep and Wide:  Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend by Andy Stanley
Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor:  The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson by D. A. Carson
Making Spiritual Progress:  Building Your Life with Faith, Hope and Love by Allen Ratta
The Gospel as Center:  Renewing our Faith and Reforming our Ministry Practices by D. A. Carson and Timothy Keller, eds.
Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung
Forever:  Why you can’t live without it by Paul David Tripp
The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones by Iain H. Murray
Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung
AHA:  The God moment that Changes Everything by Kyle Idleman
Real Peace: What we Long for and Where to Find It by Andy Farmer
Idols of the Heart:  Learning to Long for God Alone by Elyse Fitzpatrick
To Live is Christ, to Die is Gain by Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson
The Great and Holy War:  How World War 1 became a Religious Crusade by Philip Jenkins
Radical:  Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt
Broken-down House:  Living Productively in a World Gone Bad by Paul David Tripp
Church Elders:  How to Shepherd God’s People like Jesus by Jeramie Rinne
Church Discipline:  How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus by Jonathon Leeman
Autopsy of a Deceased Church:  12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer
When I Don’t Desire God:  How to Fight for Joy by John Piper
7 Men and the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas
The Wonder Working God:  Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles by Jared C. Wilson
The Peacemaker by Ken Sande
The Daring Heart of David Livingstone by Jay Milbrandt

3rd Tier Reads – books I finished but were mildly disappointing.
Rewiring Your Preaching:  How the Brain Processes Sermons by Richard H. Cox
Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Pure Desire:  How One Man’s Triumph can help others break free from Sexual Temptation by Ted Roberts

Best Reads of 2014 - History/Biography

The New Year is upon us and, as I did last year, I want to look back on the best books I read over the past year.  As I have done in the past, these lists will be divided into three separate posts – history/biography, fiction and ministry/faith-oriented books.

I read a lot of book history/biography books this year.  I always have at least one book in this genre going at all times.  Here are the best (listed in no particular order), and at the end of the post, the rest. 

Paris 1919 by Margaret McMillan.  World War 1 ended in November, 1918, but that did not mean the fighting stopped.  It just moved inside.  McMillan’s book is a fascinating account of the political machinations behind the treaty that formally ended World War 1.  She carefully crafts portraits of men like US President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George and others.  Especially interesting to me were the discussions and decisions about dividing up Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the defunct Ottoman Empire.

How the West Won:  The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity by Rodney Stark.  I am a Rodney Stark fan, and in this book he has served up another historical treatise seemingly meant to drive the political correct crowd nuts.  Looking at history from a sociologist’s viewpoint, he gives a convincing picture of why the West is modern and other cultures are still catching up.

The Bully Pulpit:  Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  This is a fascinating book about 2 US Presidents and the ground-breaking journalists of McClure’s magazine who covered them.  The contrast is stark between Roosevelt, who was a favorite of those journalists and shared their progressive views, and Taft, who was unable to relate to the press and as a result, got skewered by them on a regular basis.

Into the Silence:  The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis.  Probably the best history book I read this past year, it is the story of the multiple attempts by British mountaineers to conquer the highest peak in the world.  The grit and determination of these men, even in the face of tragedy and death, was unbelievable.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides.  Hampton Sides’ ability to tell a story just gets better and better.  This is the story of the polar voyage of the USS Jeannette, their effort to reach the North Pole and their dramatic struggle to survive after the sinking of their ship.  Powerful story – just don’t read it in the winter.  BRRR!

Mission at Nuremberg:  An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend.  Townsend tells the tale of Henry Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor and US Army Chaplain who was assigned to provide spiritual care to the worst of the Nazi war criminals during the Nuremberg trials.  As Gerecke leads some of these men back into communion with the church, the book explores the meaning of repentance and forgiveness for some of the worst offenders in history.

Paradise Lost:  Smyrna 1922, the Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance by Giles Milton.  Usually when I read a history book, I have some basic knowledge of the story being told.  Not with this book.  Milton tells the story of Smyrna, a city in western Turkey that had long been an example of true tolerance between Christians, Jews and Muslims.  In the aftermath of World War 1, ignorance, greed, militant nationalism and intolerance led to its destruction.  Paradise Lost is a sad story with real life application today.

2nd Tier Reads – very good, not great.
Gold Diggers: Striking it Rich in the Klondike by Charlotte Gray
The Lost Patrol:  The Mounties’ Yukon Tragedy by Dick North
The First Tycoon:  The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles
Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
A Hanging Offense:  The Strange Affair of the Warship Somers by Buckner F. Melton Jr. 
The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel (much better than the movie)
The Wolf by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen
Curse of the Narrows by Laura M. McDonald (Canada's greatest disaster)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power by Victor Davis Hanson
Adopted Son:  Washington, Lafayette and the Friendship the Saved the Revolution by David A. Clary
The Envoy:  The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate closing Months of World War 2 by Alex Kershaw
A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-62 by Alistair Horne
Catherine the Great:  Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Shooting Victoria:  Madness, Mayhem and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy
Dark Invasion:  1915, German’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America by Howard Blum
Escape from North Korea:  The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick
Failure in the Saddle:  Nathan Bedford Forrest, Joseph Wheeler and the Confederate Cavalry in the Chickamauga Campaign by David A. Powell
Cavalryman of the Lost Cause:  A Biography of J. E. B. Stuart by Jeffry D. Wert

3rd Tier Reads – books I finished, but were mildly disappointing.
The Abacus and the Cross:  The Story of the Pope who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages by Nancy Marie Brown
When America First Met China by Eric Jay Dolin
Vanished:  The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War 2 by Wil S. Hylton
Prairie Fever:  British Aristocrats in the American West by Peter Pagnamenta
Midnight Rising:  John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz
Killing Patton by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (not sure I buy their ultimate premise)
Wild Bill Donovan by Douglas Waller
Alexander II – the Last Great Czar by Edward Radzinsky