Readers' Reviews

Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany

By Emily Lo Gibson

It is the second week of Advent, and December has already been a tough month. The Christmas season can be a grief-filled time, without the cheer so often promised. Yet Malcolm Guite’s Advent devotional, Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany (Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd., 2015), uses the expansiveness of art and language to quietly help us make room for hope, in the midst of these challenges.

Some friends recommended this devotional for its marriage of poetry, essay, and scripture. Each day (Advent through Epiphany) presents a poem by both classic and contemporary poets, Christian and secular. One day it might be an earthy piece by contemporary Christian poet Luci Shaw. Another day it might be an offering from well-known bards like Keats and Milton. Some poems are lighter in tone, embracing the joy of a crisp snowy day or the warmth of an embrace. Others are darker in nature, reflecting on the cold and the broken. They all reveal the complicated facets of the human experience.

In each case, Guite, a British priest and poet, chaplain at Cambridge University, walks the reader through the poem, offering literary analysis and his reflections on themes like darkness and light, hope and redemption, the divine and lowly humanity. While his essays are sometimes more on the technical side, I have found Guite's insights to be thoughtful and fruitful – always with an invitation to explore the poems further, investigate our faith deeper, and see how these ponderings apply to our daily lives.

This is the second year my husband and I are reading through this devotional. We read these poems aloud before bed: once through as an introduction, the second time for better understanding. Even if we have no clue what the poem means, Guite’s musings do an admirable job of showing the way. Sometimes my heart feels heavy at the start of a reading, but I am lifted by the end – guided back to the profound beauty that is Emmanuel, God with us, in this broken world.

“Though winter night will soon surround us here,

Another Advent comes, Dayspring is near.”

- From today’s poem,

“Launde Abbey on St. Lucy’s Day” by Malcolm Guite

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Perfectly Human: nine Months with Cerian, by Sarah C. Williams

Editor’s Note: As Advent begins, and we ponder the mystery of the Incarnation, this week’s book review is an especially timely one to ponder.

By Matt Ristuccia

The unforgettable story told in Perfectly Human: Nine Months with Cerian by Sarah C. Williams (Ploughing Publishing House, 2018) is based on a premise that could change the world if wholeheartedly believed; specifically, that the intrinsic worth of every human being is prior to and irrespective of anything else about them.

That premise is basic Biblical truth. All human beings, from the moment of conception onward, are made in the image of God and therefore infinitely precious. Our worth is independent of anything else about us. Imagine—if you can—a world in which everyone believed and lived that. Evils such as intolerance, murder, racism, bullying, elitism, human trafficking, and abortion would rapidly melt away, like ice under an August sun.

Perfectly Human is the true story of a family in Oxford, England, that was called to live out that very premise at great cost. Sarah Williams, her husband, and their two daughters were thrilled with the news that another Williams was on the way. But during her routine 20-week ultrasound, Sarah’s joy turned to horror:

The technician put her hand on my arm and said the words that every expectant mother hopes she will never hear: “I am so sorry. There is something wrong with the baby. We need to fetch the consultant.”

“But there can’t be,” I responded immediately. “I saw the face. The baby looks fine to me.”

In several minutes, the diagnosis was delivered, with kindness but terrifying clarity:

This baby has thanatophoric dysplasia, a lethal skeletal deformity that would certainly result in death shortly after birth.

Some children survive, but, as the story plays out, the doctor, technician, and consultant were correct: Cerian Williams did indeed die immediately after her birth.

But the death of Cerian is not the main subject of this short book. Instead, this book is about the noble and godly choices Sarah and her family made to carry little Cerian to term. After all, she was already a “perfectly human” being inside her mother’s womb. And because of her family’s faith, Perfectly Human is an uplifting and inspiring book. It affirms the value of the unborn, the handicapped, the dying, and all those who do not fit the standards of a vicious culture that insists on strength, not weakness, as its ticket for admission. Through all the twists and turns of its narrative, the book builds courage to believe and live afresh the Christian conviction that every human being is made in the image of God.

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Public Library / Barnes & Noble / Amazon / IndieBound

YouTube interview, “Finding Christ in the Ups and Downs of Life.”

Plough Publishing House.

Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been, by Jackie Hill Perry

Reviewed by Katie Trainor:      

Sexuality, a topic kept hidden and quiet for a long time, has now surfaced and been brought to the attention of the church.  

Jackie Hill Perry, a 29-year-old, African-American hip-hop and spoken word artist, boldly addresses sexuality in her memoir Gay Girl, Good God: The Story of Who I Was, and Who God Has Always Been (B&H Publishing, 2017).  Her testimony is raw, real, and encouraging. She is unafraid to discuss homosexuality and encourages the church to become more involved in the conversation.  

Jackie also tells her testimony in the beautifully-crafted movie, The Heart of Man, a modern-day retelling of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, where she talks about some of her struggles with sexuality and entering into a heterosexual marriage. The movie is available to Stone Hill church members on RightNowMedia.

Jackie gives her testimony of growing up as a woman with same-sex attraction, entering into a committed relationship with a woman and then ending that relationship to take on the best relationship of her life—one with Christ. Jackie’s book does more than discuss sexuality: Gay Girl, Good God shows the deep call of the Savior to His people. No sin is too great for Him not to work in and through.

Gay Girl, Good God is an encouraging and inspiring story for both those struggling with same-sex attraction and those looking to love these individuals.  Jackie, who was abused as a child, grew up in a fatherless household. The book tells the beautiful story of redemption that occurred in Jackie’s life, from her struggles with same-sex attraction to her marriage in 2014 to fellow hip-hop artist Preston Hill and the birth of their daughter.

I personally enjoyed reading this book after being a fan of her music and ministry, which focuses on inspiring women within relationships.  Hill’s openness and honesty provides a platform that allows for discussion, which is critical to encouraging others to commit their lives to Christ.

To see how the Lord cares for His children and can change any and all circumstances is beautifully shown through Jackie’s story. The road God brought her along was difficult, but there’s something to encourage everyone in Jackie’s testimony about the transformation that took place in her life. If you’re looking for a story about someone who overcame adversity and endured many twists and turns in life, but rose above it all as a result of the awesome power of Jesus—this is the book for you.  

Gay Girl, Good God will not disappoint. Once I picked up Jackie’s book, I had a difficult time putting it down. This story of redemption shows how great, and powerful, and perfect is our God. Truly, nothing is too small for Him.

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YouTube Videos from Jackie

Jackie’s website


Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia

Over the past 50 years, Christianity has truly become a global faith. While in retreat in the West, Christianity is blooming and advancing in the global South and East: Africa, Asia, and South America.

On Nov. 10-11 at Stone Hill Church, Christel Lamère Ngnambi, who works with the European Evangelical Alliance representing more than 50 national and international evangelical Protestant organizations in Europe,  will speak about Africa. Reader’s Review recommends two books by Regent College historian Mark A. Noll to read:

This year’s global ministry conference rounds out the picture that we began looking at during our 2017 global ministry conference, which focused on Asia. Reader’s Review challenges you to read Noll’s books this weekend, followed by Eastern Voices: Volume I, a collection of stories written by 15 leaders of the Christian church in Asia and published by the ministry Asian Access (2011), reprinted here.

Eastern Voices allows us to listen to, and learn from, godly Christian leaders who serve in Asia and for whom a country in Asia has always been home—whether Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Myanmar, or Sri Lanka. The challenge in Asia is huge: Almost 60 percent of the world population lives in Asia, and its backgrounds are, as one missiologist puts it, “complicated, diverse, and spiritually overwhelming.” Here are some highlights on how God is at work in Asia and what the people of God are learning:

  • Learn about a Gospel awakening in Japan from Pastor Yoshiya Hari of Saikyo Hope Chapel, who describes the spiritual impact of the 2011 tsunami.
  • Ponder the prophetic assessment of so much of today’s worship in Sri Lanka by Adrian De Visser, founder of Kethu Sevana Ministries. He raises questions about worship in his cultural context that relates directly to us in ours.
  • Be inspired by the chapter written by Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Women of WorthThank God for using our sister to stand up to the evil of skin-color bias in India.

Read all 15 leaders’ stories. Be instructed. Be transformed.

Learn more about the book:

The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher

Reviewed by Tim Chow

Being theologically conservative doesn’t necessarily imply being socially or politically conservative, but Rod Dreher identifies himself in both these ways.  In his recent book, The Benedict Option, A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Penguin Random House, 2017), which David Brooks of The New York Times called the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade, Dreher describes the sense of disillusionment and shock he has experienced in reaction to various social and political movements, notably but not exclusively the L.G.B.T. (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) movement, which have increasingly marginalized and stigmatized the views of conservatives such as himself. Dreher believes that we can no longer rely on politics and law to solve the ills of our society. What he calls the “Benedict Option” is his suggestion for what Christian churches should do now.

The Benedict Option is named after St. Benedict of Nursia, who responded to the collapse of Roman civilization by founding a new monastic order. Though Dreher does not advocate monasticism per se, he draws inspiration from the Rule of St. Benedict, which prescribes a rigorous and even ascetical way of monastic life that puts God at the center of everything. In the context of the American church, Dreher warns against the easy comforts of modern technology and a consumer-oriented attitude towards church.  He recommends building tight-knit Christian communities around which we center our lives. He also emphasizes preserving our Christian heritage via classical Christian education and being willing to sacrifice our preferred vocations, if necessary, in order to hold fast to the Christian faith.

Depending on your political leanings, you may or may not sympathize with all of Dreher’s concerns, but he is right to warn us about what he calls “liquid modernity,” which threatens to take over our lives and values if we do not push back and form intentional communities to resist the tide. Is the time ripe for Stone Hill Church to take the Benedict Option seriously and build a deeper and more Christ-centered community right here in Princeton?

Learn More About the Book:

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The review in the New York Times by David Brooks.

Tim’s full-length review of The Benedict Option.

The New Yorker interview.

White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided By Privilege, by Amy Julia Becker

Reviewed by Sylvia Kocses

Like others at Stone Hill, I am also seeking to understand what "privilege” means, and I want to be part of a solution because of the social and political issues that are deeply dividing our country today. For that reason, I was anxious to read White Picket Fences: Turning Toward Love in a World Divided By Privilege, by Amy Julia Becker (NavPress, 2018 ), because I briefly knew Amy when she and her husband Peter attended Westerly Road Church. Could this book help me to open up the conversations I want to have, answer the questions I am hesitant to ask, and lead me away from fear and toward love?

I already respected Amy Julia as an author. When their first child, Penny, was born,pre-natal tests and sonograms didn’t detect that she had Down's Syndrome. In her award-winning book A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny, Amy Julia explains how Penny experienced social disadvantages, obstacles and exclusion based, not on her worth as a person, but on genetics over which she had no control. White Picket ­Fences takes that same theme of disadvantage and privilege, but expands the definition of privilege to explore the unwarranted benefits accrued to many of us by virtue of race, place of birth, educational opportunities, and other factors.

In the first seven chapters of her new book, Amy’s aim is to help us to acknowledge that privilege exists and to identify its wounds. She repeats often that privilege harms everyone, both those who are excluded from it and those who benefit from it. For Amy, the wounds of privilege meant expectations of perfect performance and high achievement, which led to self-destructive behaviors. Thankfully, a confident and lasting belief in God that started in high school began to change her life. 

The remaining seven chapters urge the reader to respond to privilege by contributing to its healing. Amy longs for a way to understand identity that allows for diversity and particularity without necessitating division. She believes it will require love as the foundation, sacrifice in the process, and a response to the call of Jesus for repentance from the sins of tribalism, the blight of envy, the destructiveness of incivility—and a huge dose of humility, listening, forgiveness, and trust.

This book will resonate well with women. Amy Julia provides 22 questions for discussion, which makes it ideal for book clubs. For further reading, there are extensive sources cited in the notes. But a word of caution: Some theologically conservative readers may be disappointed by few statements that reflect liberal theology. The author treads lightly on presenting the person and work of Jesus Christ and the Gospel.

The African-American novelist and social critic James Baldwin, who wrote searingly about racism, says of writing that "The point is to get your work done, and your work is to change the world,” and in that regard, White Picket Fences exceeds that goal by adding much to the ongoing conversation about privilege.

Learn more about this book:

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A podcast with the author.

A selection of books on compassion and justice.

The author’s website.

Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression, by Zack Eswine

Reviewed by Wes Samuel

“How are you doing?” is one of the basic questions we learn from a young age. Yet, as we grow older, it is somewhat difficult to honestly answer. It almost feels harder to answer this question as a Christian. We want to show to everyone “Everything is okay,” but the reality may be that we hurt more deeply than we show. 

Charles Spurgeon is a man synonymous with the Christian faith, a believer who showcased great strength and conviction from the pulpit. At the age of 22, the evangelist was preaching to thousands. What wasn’t known as much, however, were Spurgeon’s struggles with depression that began at 24.

In Spurgeon's Sorrows: Realistic Hope for Those Who Suffer from Depression, by Zack Eswine (Christian Focus, 2014), the author takes a deeper look at how Spurgeon dealt with his bouts of depression.

We see a man considered by many to be a spiritual giant, and a man of great faith, go through depression. As Christians, we strive to want to get better in all facets of life. We want to be able to be a light to a dark world, but what happens when we are not in the best place mentally or emotionally? How do we remedy that? 

“We plead not ourselves, but the promises of Jesus,” answers Eswine, “not our strengths but His; our weaknesses, yes, but His mercies. Our way of fighting is to hide behind Jesus who fights for us. Our hope is not the absence of our regret, or misery or doubt or lament, but the presence of Jesus.” 

It is never of our own strength that we can do anything. The answer is summed up in Philippians 4:13, my favorite quote. St. Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” That’s a simple verse that can help us deal with the complexities of mental health. The journey will never be an easy one, but when we cling to the truth of the cross like Charles Spurgeon did, we will always have the strength to carry on.

Learn more about the book:

Public Library /Amazon / Barnes and Noble / IndieBound

Christian Bookstore

“Spurgeon’s Battle against Depression,” The Gospel Coalition

“When Christians Suffer from Depression,” The Gospel Coalition 

“8 Lessons Learned from a Long Battle with Spiritual Depression,” The Gospel Coalition

What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen, by Kate Fagan

Reviewed by Brandt Wong

I first came across Madison Holleran’s story when it ran as an extended piece on ESPN. I wasn’t alone in sharing Maddy’s story with family and friends. So many readers identified with the story that it became the most-read feature in the history of ESPN’s website, which prompted staff columnist Kate Fagan to write What Made Maddy Run (Hachette Book Group, 2017).

Madison Holleran, who grew up in Allendale, NJ, was talented, beautiful, athletic, and intelligent. She was a model student supported by a large and loving family and many friends. After years of hard work, she had just been accepted into UPenn, her dream school. To outsiders, it looked like a charmed life. Her social media accounts said as much: hundreds of pictures with friends and family, always smiling, always having a good time.

Tragically, January 17, 2018, marked the fifth anniversary of her death by suicide. When faced with only the bare details, the final outcome seems more than tragic; it is inexplicable. This book helps us understand what happened.

Fagan focuses on Maddy’s first semester at Penn and her secret struggles with depression as she faced difficulties in the classroom and on the track, both places where she had thrived her entire life. She had become accustomed to only seeing positive results and legible road markers of progress: How was she to cope with these newly-perceived failures? Her concerns became doubts which, in turn, became lies that she believed.

As a former student athlete, the author writes with great empathy about Maddy’s struggles and navigating the early years of adulthood, particularly the new challenges presented in this new social media age. When teenagers are constantly considering how their self-presentation on Facebook and Instagram is being received, it makes it increasingly difficult to share their lives honestly. Even to those closest to her, Madison struggled to express the depths of her feelings. Fagan concludes that one can’t assume that a person’s social media profile tells us anything about their inner life.

This book should be of great interest to high school students and their parents, especially in such a performance-driven culture as Princeton’s. What Makes Maddy Run does what I think is the most important thing for any person learning about mental wellness: confront them with a real person.

I can relate strongly to Madison, both in the pressure she felt to perform and in her inability to communicate any weakness: I graduated from Penn the year before Maddy was admitted.

When the book came out, I bought and read it within hours the same day. The story was alive and close to me; I could visualize the streets she walked, the dorm she lived in, the bookstore where she bought the final gifts for her family, the building where she jumped. The book mentions that Maddy started going to church to look for answers and I can even guess which churches she visited. A month before she jumped, Madison changed her Instagram bio to include Matthew 17:20. It reads: “He said to them, “…For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” This verse is now featured prominently on the Madison Holleran Foundation website as a call for hope among the hopeless.

As I turned the final page, I felt numb, grieved that the story of Madison’s life had nothing left to be written and surprised I could feel so strongly. I read this story at a time when I was in a vulnerable position; recently graduated, frustrated with my inability to interview well or land a job. Often, I felt discouraged and meaningless. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but I was showing anxiety and symptoms of depression. Thankfully, it never became anything worse. I was showered with extravagant love from my family, especially my (then) two-year-old nephew who couldn’t wait to see me every day.

Madison’s story sticks with me even now. In the months since, I’ve donated to foundations supporting suicide prevention and I’ve discussed art projects with other creative individuals regarding mental wellness. I believe that storytelling helps eradicate the worst lies that depression can spread; that we suffer alone and that no one cares.

Even though our paths never crossed, I sometimes wonder what I could have said or done for Maddy to prevent her fate. Since she died, 16 more suicides have happened at Penn—and that’s just one college campus. Our awareness needs to change. Equipped with Maddy’s story, this book should remind how valuable life is, how much people can hurt, and how relationships and honest conversation are the beginning of hope.

Learn more about the book

Public Library/Amazon/Barnes and Noble /IndieBound

The ESPN feature on Madison Holleran.

“How Madison Holleran’s death has shaped discussions on mental health in Ivy League athletics,” The Daily Pennsylvanian, University of Pennsylvania.


Raising Cubby, by John Elder Robison

Reviewed by Paul Harrison

Raising Cubby (Broadway Books, 2014) is the first of three book reviews focusing on the topic of mental health during October. As a person on the autism spectrum, I found Raising Cubby interesting and entertaining, as well as providing useful examples of how hard it often is to relate to the normal world.

Raising Cubby is a memoir of how John Elder Robison, a recognized expert on Asperger’s Syndrome, a very high-functioning form of autism. Robison, who was diagnosed at the age of 40, discovers that his son has the same condition, too. “Cubby,” his nickname for his son, gets into all sorts of trouble, which gets more and more serious as the memoir progresses. Things do seem to improve by the end of the book, but I don't want to give away any spoilers.

The author and his son struggle with Asperger’s, but that doesn’t deter them from finding a niche in society.

That message is especially encouraging to me and to others who live with this disorder. With Asperger’s, a person has an extreme interest in one or several subjects, but lacks the ability to understand and react to many social cues. I notice, for example, that I have a deep interest in classical music and railroads, but I am not good understanding facial expressions, which can make life awkward for me, even with my best friends.  

Some may question the relevance of discussing a topic like Asperger’s to religion. In my opinion, it is helpful to relate to me, and to other churchgoers like me, without being judgmental with regard to our social difficulties. Not all of our social blunders are malicious, and we should not be condemned as being worse Christians because of our conditions. In the end, God loves each one of us just the way we are.

Learn more about the book:

Public Library/Barnes & Noble/ Amazon /IndieBound

The author’s website.

Evangelism in a Skeptical World, by Sam Chan

Reviewed by Tracy Troxel

As we prepare for our conference on “Gospel-Shaped Mercy” at Stone Hill on Friday and Saturday, October 5 and 6, I want to recommend a book for you to read.

I grew up in Miami, Florida in the 1970’s. Most of our neighbors went to some kind of religious service every week.  When we discussed our different understandings of God, Jesus, and Scripture and how one could get right with God, we argued from facts, logic, and evidence as modern believers:  “This is true.  If it’s true, then you must believe it.  If you believe it, now you must live it.”

But the evangelist Sam Chan argues from a uniquely different perspective. The GenX evangelist, who’s 42 years old, points out in his incisive book Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News about Jesus More Believable (Zondervan, March 2018), we must argue for our faith from a radically different logic today.

Today we live in a post-modern context.  Truth claims are suspect.  And so, Chan writes, we must approach differently: “The Christian life is livable.  If it livable, then it is also believable.  If it is believable, then it’s also true.”

This is the heart of Chan’s work.  He is arguing that we must adjust our approach in sharing the Good News of Jesus even as we continue to hold onto the Biblical Gospel.  And he shows quite convincingly that the Bible gives us examples of how to share the message of God in the different contexts that we find ourselves today. 

The Gospel is able to give a multi-faceted description of how to get right with God that can speak to each culture’s greatest need. The Bible is trans-cultural. In Chapter Three, in the West, forgiveness speaks to a right/wrong culture for the West.  In the Middle East, forgiveness speaks to the need for cleansing in those cultures. And in the East, listeners understand forgiveness as restoration from shame.

For anyone desiring to share their faith in our multi-ethnic context, this is a relevant book to read.

Learn more about the book:

Public Library / Barnes and Noble / Amazon / IndieBound /a

Sam Chan’s blog on communicating the Gospel today.

A YouTube interview with Sam Chan.


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