Readers' Reviews

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:

Public Library / Barnes and Noble / Amazon / IndieBound /

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.

Unbroken: Path to Redemption

Reviewed by Carol Hamilton

I want to get the word out to everyone at Stone Hill Church to see the movie Unbroken: Path to Redemption, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. My husband Sut and I saw the film after church last Sunday at the AMC Theatre in Hamilton. (Spoiler alert: Billy Graham’s grandson, Will Graham, plays his grandfather in the film.)

Some of you may have seen the movie produced in 2014 by Angelina Jolie, which, like this sequel, is based on the book by Lauren Hillenbrand (Random House, 2010). Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner whose B-24 bomber was shot down over the Pacific during World War II. I couldn’t put the book down. Zamperini spends 47 days on a raft and then survives two and half years in three of Japan’s most brutal camps, where a sadistic officer known as “The Bird” psychologically tortures and beats him daily, which leaves him with post-traumatic stress syndrome. But he survives by using the skills he had picked up as a teenager, when he was an unrepentant thief and delinquent who liked to flout the law.

And that’s where this sequel picks up. The 2014 version left off the most important part of his story—the start of the road to redemption he found. Unbroken is a powerful testimony to how someone’s life can change 360 degrees once you make the commitment to have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The film reveals the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

When Zamperini comes home, he handles his demons by drinking. His life falls apart, and his wife Cynthia files for divorce. But one day a neighbor, an African-American woman, invites Cynthia to Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles Crusade, and she asks her husband to go with her. He finally relents, but runs out the back door when the evangelist starts talking about forgiveness. He goes home and grabs a bottle instead.

But the next night, he returns, and the movie shows him coming into the crusade and going forward and getting on his knees. He had accepted the message of forgiveness, prompted by his memory that when he was in the raft, he had promised God that if He would save his life, he would live for him.

After he accepted Christ, he goes home and pours out the alcohol out of all of the bottles he has hidden around the apartment. Then he starts walking the long road to forgiveness, and finally frees himself of the demons that had almost broken him.  

This movie will be a real encouragement in your faith walk. It’s distributed by Pure Flix, the faith-based outlet best known for the “God’s Not Dead” film franchise. As Christians, we need to support these kinds of efforts. This wonderful story is also available as a young adult novel and a DVD.

Learn more about the book:

Public Library / Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound

“New Zamperini movie shows ‘how Christ can change someone’s life,” an interview with William Graham, Billy Graham’s grandson.



Inside Out & Back Again

Reviewed by Charlotte Wells, Age 10 I just finished reading the book Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (HarperCollins, 2011), and I recommend it to other young readers from eight to 12 years old.

The novel is written like a poem, which expresses the thoughts of the main character. This made the book unique, and different, from other books I have read.  Being able to “hear” what was going on inside the mind of the main character Hà helped me to understand her better. 

The author, Thanhha Lai, based the story on her own life. Like the 10-year-old girl named Hà who is forced from her home in Saigon because of the Vietnam War, the author also immigrated to the United States after the war.

The book showed me how hard it might be for kids who move to a new place. Because of the war, Hà had to movve to the United States, where she faced many challenges. She had to adjust to new foods, new ways of doing things, and learn a new, confusing language. She also had to deal with bullies who made fun of her because she didn’t speak English well, and because she looked different from everyone else. “No one would believe me,” she says, “but at times I would chose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”

The story takes place over the course of one year in Hà’s life and describes how she continues to learn and adjust to her circumstances with the help of her family and friends. When Hà was missing fresh papaya, a neighbor gave her some dried papaya to try. Hà didn’t like the sweet, chewy dried fruit at first, but after her mother soaked it in water for her, she decided that while it was different—it was also good.  This was how she come to think of many things in her new home, as different—but also good.   

Can you imagine not being able to speak the language, or having to learn all new things in school that you can’t even understand? I couldn’t. I never knew that immigrants might have such a hard time adjusting to a new place. They must often learn a new language, they may have a hard time making friends, and sometimes they must face unkind classmates who make fun of them. I really liked this book because it helped put me in somebody’s else shoes.

I’m glad I read this book. Hà’s story reminds us to think about the struggles in other people’s lives, and to care for them.

To learn more about this book:





Hinds' Feet on High Places

Reviewed by Amelia Ray

Hannah Hurnard’s beloved allegory, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, originally published by the Christian Literature Crusade in 1955, has encouraged readers in their Christian journeys for decades.

The story begins in the Valley of Humiliation when timid, crippled Much-Afraid, a servant of the Chief Shepherd severely oppressed by members of her family, accepts an invitation from Him to go to the High Places and the Kingdom of Love.

To reach the High Places, however, the Shepherd warns Much-Afraid that she will have to undergo a physical and spiritual transformation that will, at times, be painful. He gives her two companions, Sorrow and Suffering, and He promises to be near to her when she calls. Together, Much-Afraid and her two companions travel through the highs and lows of the path to the High Places of Love.

More than once, they are afflicted by Much-Afraid’s family members who seek to discourage their noble pursuits and take them back permanently to the Valley of Humiliation. Pride, Bitterness, Self-Pity, and Resentment also seek to harm Much-Afraid while she is still within the borders of their land but, every time, she calls out to the Chief Shepherd, who rescues her as He promised, and she continues on her journey.

Although Much-Afraid has Sorrow and Suffering as her constant companions throughout her journey, she still faces daunting challenges: loneliness, injury, detours, loss, tribulation, and danger. At one point—and nearly at the end of her journey—she contemplates giving it all up and returning to her old, “safe” life.

“For one black, awful moment Much-Afraid really considered the possibility of following the Shepherd no longer, of turning back. . . She had been following this strange path with her two companions as guides simply because it was the Shepherd’s choice for her. Now she can make her own choice. Her sorrow and suffering could be ended at once.” Her discouragement is so intense that it seemed the Shepherd had not led her on this journey out of love, or certainly not for her good.

How many of us have felt this way at some point in our spiritual journey? The desire to give up seems so much more appealing than the hard path of following the Shepherd. But when faced with the reality of life without the Shepherd, Much-Afraid quickly realizes that He did have her best interest in his heart and calls on Him to rescue her from her despair.

When Much-Afraid finally reaches the High Places, she finds that she has completely transformed from the timid, lame little girl from the valley. The obstacles along her journey, in fact, changed her into a strong, confident person with a new name—Grace and Glory! The Shepherd truly gave her “hinds' feet” to be able to reach the High Places of Love.

This story resonated with me at so many points in my life. There have been times of triumph and of pain, of joy and sorrow, but through it all, the Chief Shepherd has always been there to guide and shape me to be more like Him. Hinds' Feet on High Places is a quick—but an encouraging and challenging—read for the Christian at any stage of their spiritual journey.

To learn more about the author and this book:

Read her inspiring testimony.

An audiobook about the author.

Public Library/Barnes & Noble/Amazon/IndieBound


The Complete Father Brown Stories

Reviewed by Marcus Gibson

It's not very often that Netflix leads me to do something worthwhile with my time, but that is precisely what happened when I started watching the British Broadcasting Corporation's recent series based on G.K. Chesterton's short detective stories. I was inspired to go back and read The Complete Father Brown Stories (Penguin Classics, 2012), which I had serendipitously borrowed from some literary friends a year earlier. As much as I loved the BBC series, Chesterton’s original stories are irreplaceable for their quickness and wit, and their clear distinction between good and evil, and truth and falsehood.

Read just a couple of Father Brown stories (there are 53 altogether), written by the author from 1910 to 1936, and you will see why Chesterton is ranked with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as one of the greatest and most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century. Indeed, his influence on the work of those authors, and other “Inklings,” who taught at Oxford University and met to read their works in progress to one another, is no doubt why reading his work—like theirs—feels like a breath of fresh air.

Chesterton's Father Brown looks like an ordinary, nondescript Roman Catholic priest clad in his black habit, trademark shovel-hat, and bicycle. But armed with his umbrella, intellect, and wit, he is the physical embodiment of Jesus's command to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves." As a priest who hears confessions, nothing shocks him. As a man who knows the depths of sin in the human heart, he not only figures out crimes, he often even knows the criminals personally.

As a defender of the One True Faith, Father Brown fearlessly mocks the silliness of atheism, condemns the evils of materialism, rebukes the demonic, and encourages the penitent. He is a man to love for all those who love Good, and a man to fear for all those who only love themselves.

For those of us struggling to find how our faith is relevant in our modern world, Father Brown is a lamp to light our path. Be encouraged—and challenge yourself to read The Complete Father Brown Stories.

Learn more about the book:

Public Library/Amazon/IndieBound/Penguin Classics

A reading of the Father Brown stories on YouTube.

A profile of the author G.K. Chesterton in Christianity Today.


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