Readers' Reviews

ReSET: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray (Crossway, 2017)

Some of the best books I’ve read deliver hard medicine. They provide real soul care. That’s the case with David Murray’s ReSET. It brings necessary gospel medicine to all those who are crazy busy and feel overtaken by a burnout culture.

You would think that a pastor like me would already have the “grace-paced life” of the author’s subtitle. Sadly, my profession—and often my personal ministry—demonstrates the problem. ReSET was written after a life-threatening crisis that Murray, himself a pastor, faced. But Murray paid attention to God’s kind discipline, and this book is the result.

I am a David Murray junky. I read as many of his books as I can. He is biblically smart, incredibly balanced, and eminently practical. Books like Christians Get Depressed Too deal with real issues. Murray writes clearly, he makes cultural connections, and he holds a kind, pastoral posture toward the reader.

So, here are three reasons why you should read ReSET:

  1. It deals with hard stuff well. One reviewer, Jemar Tisby, commented, “Murray pries our fingers from the death grip we have on the idol of activity.” There are plenty of books that deal with this idol by slinging guilt and putting you under some new law. Not so with ReSET. The book is premised on understanding forms of grace that can shape life patterns and rhythms.
  2. The book has a grand purpose. It’s not just about getting your schedule under control. Its purpose is self-care with a view to loving your neighbor. Self-care, as Murray observes, is “the first step in caring for others.”
  3. Murray lays out a step-by-step path toward resetting your life. Like bringing a car into the shop, he walks you through nine different “repair bays,” including: Reality Check, Re-Create, Relax, Reduce, Refuel, and Resurrection. Knowing about these bays is, itself, worth the price of the book.

ReSET is especially, but not exclusively, intended for men. It easily lends itself to group discussion and Lenten self-examination. A sequel coauthored with his wife Shona, ReFRESH: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands, might be similarly encouraging for women.

Learn more about the book:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books, 2014)

Paradoxically, though perhaps not surprisingly, Christians often do not cope any better than anyone else when it comes to facing their own mortality. When illness or infirmity strikes, they are taken by surprise and do not always make the decisions that they would have, had they thought through things well in advance.

One might think that since the medical profession has to deal with terminal illness and death on a daily basis, it would be well equipped to help patients navigate these difficult waters. But the truth is quite the opposite. In his extraordinary book Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande puts the point this way:

"I am in a profession that has succeeded because of its ability to fix. If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it's not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity, and extraordinary suffering."

Gawande approaches the subject of mortality from multiple perspectives. From the fascinating history of nursing homes and assisted living centers, to the decline of geriatrics as a field of medicine and the benefits of palliative care, Gawande takes an unflinching look at how we currently deal with these difficult issues, as well as how we got to where we are now. The most powerful section of the book is the intensely personal story of his own father's terminal illness and how his family collectively faced the many challenges.

I do not know what Gawande believes about God. But for those of us who are Christians, I believe that the many questions raised by his book should prompt us to ask: what are we doing, both as individuals and as a community, to craft a better roadmap for the last years of our lives? The message I have taken away from Gawande's book is that outsourcing this final stage to the medical profession is a mistake. Obviously there are no easy answers, but we should start by discussing these questions within the Christian community. The hope that we have in Christ means that we should not be afraid to confront our mortality, and so we should live and think and talk as people who, indeed, have no such fear.

An expanded version of the review can be found here on Tim’s blog.

Learn more about the book:

Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stephen B. Oates (Harper Perennial, 2013 reissue)

“…  the church has been like a weak and ineffectual trumpet making uncertain sounds,

rather than a strong trumpet sounding a clarion call for truth and righteousness.

If the church of Jesus Christ is to regain its power, and its message its authentic ring,

it must go out with a new determination not to conform to this world.”

- From King’s sermon “Transformed Nonconformist” (1962-1963)

April 4, 2018 marks fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. It seems fitting that in the month that we honor Dr. King, I review a biography about his life and impact. Let the Trumpet Sound, by American historian Stephen B. Oates, presents King as a very real and admirable leader, showing his challenges and triumphs and detailing how, against great odds, he changed American history.

Choosing what book to read about King’s life is no easy task. First of all, King wrote a number of exceptional autobiographical works. In addition, King biographies abound. In fact, in my quest to learn more about King, I started by reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, the first volume of a 3000-page trilogy that is as excellent as it is formidable. For this review, however, I wanted to recommend a shorter volume. Having tasted Branch’s breadth, I found this 592-page biography to be accessible and, at least by comparison, “concise.”

Oates’ biography is a well-researched, chronological study of King’s life, starting from his birth and moving steadily through his non-violent campaigns, all the way to his untimely death. We meet King’s friends and foes. We see the relentless schedule he kept as he battled prejudice in South and North, stood against both black and white violence, and wavered between doubt and confidence, depression and elation. We also see how the backdrop of national and personal events – Vietnam War politics, Civil Rights legislation debates, family needs and concerns, and a growing Black Power movement – influenced King’s campaigns.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man who heard the call of God and continued relentlessly towards the goal of bringing justice to his people and equality to his nation. Fifty years later, King’s vision is closer but not yet achieved. We would do well to listen to his heart and to follow his example.

Learn more about the book:

 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (David Fickling Books, 2006)

In a mere 200 pages, John Boyne stunningly captures both the best and worst sides of humanity. This deceptively simple fable portrays the horrors of the Holocaust through the innocent eyes of its nine-year-old protagonist, Bruno, the son of a commanding Nazi officer. 

Bruno knows little about the war – and nothing about the persecution of the Jews – when he arrives at Auschwitz. He only knows that his family has been forced to leave their home in Berlin on account of his father’s job. He finds himself in an isolated town, living in a cheerless house that borders something very mysterious. On the other side of a tall, barbed-wire fence, he sees hundreds of men, from young boys to the elderly, all wearing identical striped pyjamas and forlorn expressions. When Bruno asks about his new neighbors, he is told to ignore them, that they really aren’t “people at all.”

Despite his father’s explicit instructions, Bruno walks along the fence for hours each day and befriends a boy on the other side named Shmuel. Over the course of a year, the two boys meet nearly every day, although Bruno cannot understand why they can never be on the same side of the fence to play.

The stark juxtaposition of the narrator’s guileless, childlike observations with the appalling realities of Auschwitz and World War II make this book utterly unique and unforgettable. Shmuel and Bruno form a lasting, affectionate friendship, unsullied by the prejudices tearing their families apart. In viewing the Holocaust through Bruno’s perspective, the reader grapples with the complexity of the human condition, the atrocities of war, and the evil that conceived of and permitted the Holocaust to occur. In writing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Boyne challenges us all to closely examine ourselves, to recognize our common humanity, and to guard vigilantly against anything like the Holocaust from ever happening again.

In an age rife with divisiveness, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is particularly relevant for Christian audiences. It urges us to recognize all people as bearers of the Imago Dei and reminds us, in hauntingly simple prose, that we must become like little children in order to possess the Kingdom.

Note: This review uses the original UK spelling of “pyjamas.” US editions have changed the title to reflect the common American spelling of “pajamas.”

Learn more about the book:

How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs

How to thing cover image

Our culture seems more divided than ever, many of us hardened against any idea that contradicts our particularly held narratives of how the world works. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, experiences this division first-hand in navigating two very different groups that often view one another as an RCO – the Repugnant Cultural Other (a term borrowed from anthropologist Susan Friend Harding). Jacobs has spent his life working in academia and is also a committed follower of Jesus Christ. He has experienced a hardened animosity between these groups, which seem unable to have constructive and civil dialogue together. This is the reason for his book How To Think, on the art of learning to think in our cultural moment.

In chapter one of his book, Jacobs recounts the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was part of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. This church was founded by her grandfather and is probably best known for its public statement: “God Hates Fags.” After Phelps-Roper is befriended by someone holding very different views from herself, she begins to think outside the narrative with which she grew up. Her thinking begins to change. This journey illustrates some of the ways that the author calls us to engage, in order to navigate the hardened silos of narrow thinking in which we are all prone to operate.

Jacobs carefully crafts a vision for thinking that, I believe, we all hope to live out in our own lives but are often ill-equipped to do in our divided cultural moment. At the end of the book, he summarizes a 12-point Thinking Person’s Checklist. Two of those points are:

  • Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.
  • Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing.

As believers, we of all people should be people who engage with others with this kind of mindset. As Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your Mind.”

Learn more about the book:

Waiting on the Word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany by Malcolm Guite

Waiting on the Word cover image

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, 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

Learn more about the book:

 

The Carols of Christmas by Andrew Gant (Thomas Nelson, 2015)

The Carols of Christmas cover image

Here are some odd and ends of Christmas carol trivia:

  • The first line of a best-known carol originally read, “Hark, how all the welkin rings! Glory to the King of kings.” (So what’s a welkin?)
  • The words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” can be traced back to seven prayers, the Advent antiphons, that were in use during the early 500s. (That’s long ago? But what’s a welkin?)
  • The tune to “O Christmas Tree” has popped up in all kinds of unlikely places, including the stadium of the Manchester United football team and the state capitol of Maryland. (Interesting, but I still want to know what a welkin is!)
  • The words to “O Holy Night” were revised and revised and revised again in a way that parallels the course of theology during the 19th century. (Yes, but…)

It’s no surprise that there are plenty of books providing background to Christmas carols. For almost two months every year, carols are everywhere! You hear them when you shop at MarketFair. You can listen to them non-stop on Pandora, Spotify, and Sirius XM. During Advent, you sing them on Sunday mornings. So it’s easy to take these familiar songs for granted. But in terms of their origins, carols are hardly ordinary. And that’s why there is always a market for books that tell their backstories well.

Andrew Gant teaches at Oxford and is a renowned British composer. Not surprisingly, his contribution to the literature about carols, The Carols of Christmas, includes stories about 21 well-known tunes as well as their words. It makes for an enlightening read, especially since the music for some carols involve so many different people and countries and classes. While reading the book, I developed a deeper understanding of the extent to which carols are a gift of the whole church to the whole church. As a result, the book is well worth the read.

Oh, and as for “welkin,” it’s an archaic term that means the sky or the heavens.

Learn more about the book:

 

Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan

Mary Through the Centuries Book Cover Image

In the 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation, few issues continue to divide Protestants from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians like the doctrine of Mary, mother of Christ. Where the latter two groups see Mary as the one who is “Full of Grace,” “higher than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim,” even the “Mother of God,” Protestants tend only to see idolatry. And while much progress has been made to bridge theological divides in other areas, with respect to Mary, both sides continue to caricature the other.

Into this void of understanding steps Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries, a readable overview of the development of thought and doctrine about Mary in the East and the West, Catholicism and Protestantism, Old World and New World. One of my favorite things about this book is that it is not a catechesis meant for dogmatic instruction. Rather Pelikan, considered the greatest Church historian of the 20th century, simply presents the historical facts: what doctrines mean, where they came from, how widely they are acknowledged, and how they influenced the life of the Church. For example, Pelikan notes how the Virgin Birth has historically been a matter of crucial importance for Christian doctrine: Mary’s virginal conception by the Holy Spirit is the assurance of Jesus’s divinity; that Jesus takes on Mary’s flesh is the assurance of His humanity.

In addition to offering theological analysis, each chapter looks at how ideas about Mary have been incorporated into art and culture at various times and places. He also looks at how Marian doctrine has played an important role in the lives and faith of the poor across the centuries, and how Mary has been, since her “Magnificat” in Luke 1, the earliest Christian proponent of social justice.

Whether you believe Mary is the “Great Example” or the “Great Exception,” there is much to be learned about how Christians over time have understood and honored her. There are opportunities to grow in our own faith, especially as we move into the Advent season, waiting alongside the expectant mother of the coming Emmanuel.

Learn more about the book:

“Jesus on Safari: The Legacy of Jaroslav Pelikan” (First Things)

“The Mary We Never Knew” (Christianity Today)

Preview Chapter 1 of the book

Public library / B&N / IndieBound / Amazon

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

The book called Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick is amazing. In this story, starting in 1977, Ben is deaf and is traveling to New York City in a search for his dad but finds someone else instead. At the same time, the book tells about another character, Rose, who is also deaf and traveling in New York City. Rose’s story begins fifty years before Ben’s story. Even though they come from different time periods, they have a larger connection than you think. Eventually they cross paths, and many secrets are revealed.

This story is fun and intriguing and has many mysteries you have to figure out. I also like it because half of the book, Rose’s part, is told in detailed pictures like a graphic novel, and the other half, from Ben’s point of view, is told in words. I think that is very unique. The story also shows that God is with everyone, even in the hardest times. This is a great book, and I think you should read it.

Wonderstruck has also been made into a major motion picture just like the author’s earlier book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It is in theaters now, but you should always read the book first!

Learn more about the book:

Book site

Book trailer

Discussion guides for the author’s books

Public library / B&N / IndieBound / Amazon

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart Cover Image

Father Gregory Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart, is a Jesuit priest who has devoted his life to working among the urban poor in Los Angeles. While serving at Dolores Mission Church and watching his community be ravaged by gang violence, Father Boyle mobilized his parish to found Homeboy Industries in 1988. Through offering jobs and social services such as child care and tattoo removal, Homeboy Industries has become the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world. Central to their approach is providing hope and self-worth to the “homies” by treating them as full human beings, loved by God.

Tattoos on the Heart exposes the incredible hardships of life in an East LA community: broken families, substance abuse, high teenage pregnancy rates, brutal gang violence, to name a few. Father Boyle tells story after story of the real people with whom he has built relationships, through his efforts to help young people leave the gangs and live for peace. The book is not the author’s memoir, nor is it his sociological evaluation of the neighborhood and its challenges. Rather, it is meant to be devotional reading, with each chapter centered on a spiritual theme. Through stories and quotes from a wide variety of spiritual leaders, Father Boyle shares lessons learned and invites readers to adopt them as their own. He manages to teach much about communities plagued by gang violence and the best ways to help.

Those who read this book should know that the people encountered in its pages often use offensive speech, as the author shares candidly the language of his neighborhood. Additionally, the tragic violence may discourage or shock you. Many of these stories do not have happy endings. But I kept reading because Father Boyle’s point is how to live with this violence and how to work for change amidst it. You need to hear about it to appreciate the work being done.

Finally, I found myself wishing I could hear more from Father Boyle about his theological perspective on evil, suffering, and God’s wrath. Does his view of God’s transforming love include wrath towards what is hateful and evil? I am not sure. Nonetheless, I am inspired by Father Boyle’s sacrificial ministry and the power of his boundless compassion to bring about change and hope.

Note: Father Boyle recently published a follow up to this book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (2017).

Learn more about the book:

Author interview in 2010, with book excerpt (NPR’s Fresh Air)

A short film following an ex-gang member on a typical day at Homeboy Industry’s bakery

“House of Second Chances,” about Homeboy Industries (Fast Company)

Public library / B&N / IndieBound / Amazon

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Readers' Reviews