I read a couple thousand pages this past spring semester, my first at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I made a promise to myself before I started school that I would attempt to read all of my assigned reading. Even though I didn’t quite finish by the time exams concluded, I trudged on in my quest to finish, and I finally did a few weeks into summer.
I enjoyed & gained so much from so many books this past spring that I decided to write a brief(ish) literature review of the fourteen books I got to read. I’ve given each book a rating and described a few strengths & weaknesses (and I’ve also provided Amazon links to each book–just click on the book-covers!). Okay, here we go–starting with my favorite book from the semester:
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗∗∗∗
- Strengths: It’s God-breathed. Phenomenally, you don’t just read the Text: the Text reads you. One such text that read me was the ending of Revelation: the imagery is beautiful and puts the longing of my soul on the page. Truly, I did not know the longing of my soul until I read about it in these God-breathed, God-illumined pages.
- Weaknesses: The ESV includes that weird variant at the end of Mark’s Gospel lol.
- Bottom-Line: Those with open ears will be able to hear.
Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction
by John Jefferson Davis
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗∗∗
- Strengths: Most books on biblical meditation focus on its history (St. Benedict & Guigo II) and methodologies (lectio divina & centering prayer), but this book is “utterly unique” because, instead, it spends most of its pages constructing a Scripture-saturated-theology for the practice. Davis does this by laying biblical meditation on the foundation of communion with God; most of the book is given over to explicating this important doctrine.
- Weaknesses: The jargon gets a bit on the technical/creative side (e.g. “trinitarian-ecclesial self”, “logopneumatic epistemology”, “inaugurated eschatology”). This isn’t an inherent weakness (I personally found the jargon helpful), but it does limit Davis’s audience.
- Bottom-Line: Dr. Davis is actually one of my professors at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and his heart is truly in his work, be it lecture or publication. Learning theology from lived theology is crucial, and you get that with Dr. Davis. And his academic expertise, systematic theology, brings something unique to the conversation on biblical meditation. One might typically expect a book on this topic to be written by a professor of spiritual formation or church history, so that is why his unique contribution is a welcome addition to the existing literature.
Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling
by Andy Crouch
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗∗∗
- Strengths: Crouch does a masterful job of engaging the reader with interesting information, insight, & style. His contribution to the study-of & reflection-on culture is significant, for he synthesizes & systematizes a wealth of information & discussion related to the topic (among original insight). Crouch spends many pages talking about “how culture works” before getting into “engaging the culture”. I was blown away by his demonstration of the traces of culture in the beginning in Eden & continuing on into the Eschaton.
- Weaknesses: Every so often it seems like he is stretching to make his point. But, to his credit, he didn’t stretch where I expected (and dreaded) that he would. When he started talking about the Bible, I thought, “Here we go, let’s see how he shoves the Scripture to fit into this culture-box of his.” To my surprise, he did not stretch–in fact, he drew out fascinating, legitimate insight.
- Bottom-Line: I learned a ton from this book. I began the book quite uninterested in “culture”–but now “culture” is an indispensable word in my vocabulary & heart.
The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming
by Henri J.M. Nouwen
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗∗½
- Strengths: Nouwen gets more out of a painting than I thought was possible. He delves deep into the painting, its painter, its parabolic referent, its God, & its viewer (i.e. Nouwen). His insight into each are integrated smoothly into this work, producing a clear line of thought from a miscellany of sources.
- Weaknesses: Because Nouwen is a master at organizing the content of his books (one need only to study his tables of contents to see this), sometimes his insights are a bit of a stretch. In other words, sometimes he is a slave to his preconceived organization, causing him to force ideas into it. Also, Hillary Clinton really likes this book.
- Bottom-Line: When I read Carson & Moo’s An Introduction to the New Testament, I trust in their exegetical work. Sure, they provide citations that defend their conclusions, but I don’t feel the need to check them because I trust in them & their work. Likewise, there is a similar trust one must have in Nouwen, but it is a trust in his spiritual work. This is not to say that he hasn’t done his exegesis (I believe he has) or that his insights aren’t based upon reason (I believe they are), but that much of his insight must be accepted on the basis of trust in his spiritual maturity, born from his spiritual journey. Nouwen was truly a remarkable man. I’m always humbled when I remember the life-path he chose: after teaching at numerous Ivy League schools (Yale & Harvard), he obeyed the call to minister at a L’Arche community where he pastored intellectually disabled persons. His path of downward mobility inspires me. It is that man who wrote this book: he is trustworthy, and he offers much wisdom in this thoroughly creative work.
An Introduction to the New Testament
by D.A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗∗½
- Strengths: I am not a New Testament scholar and I am not well-read in New Testament scholarship. Thus, I have very little authority to speak on the conclusions of this large book. As such, it is hard to evaluate it on a critical level. But my impression is that Carson & Moo are trustworthy, for they present their conclusions while giving generous space (& often charity) to counter-conclusions. Aside from their conclusions on debated issues, they present a wealth of background information in this introduction. Little space is given to interpretations of particular passages; they are only given insofar as they pertain to historical-critical issues (e.g. authorship, sources, provenance, date, structure). This introduction takes you through each book of the New Testament (with a few extra chapters to boot) and explains in great detail (often times greater than I wished!) a sample of issues.
- Weaknesses: There were numerous places throughout the book where an intermediate knowledge of linguistics & historical method was required in order to follow along (rending the word “introduction” in the book’s title a bit misleading).
- Bottom-Line: This is not a commentary, so don’t expect it to be one. The attention is almost entirely focused on historical backgrounds of the New Testament and contemporary debates surrounding them. That being said, Carson & Moo succeed in what they set out to do in this book.
Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church
by James K.A. Smith
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗∗
- Strengths: Let’s be honest: postmodernism has freaked evangelicals out for a while now–so Calvin College professor of philosophy James K.A. Smith sought to un-freak us out in this book. He doesn’t simply give postmodernism his stamp of approval, but he engages some of its hallmark ideas with charity–something many Christians (myself included) have been unwilling to do. This book isn’t about “going liberal” or becoming a relativist–it’s about shedding the shackling aspects of modernism and clothing ourselves in the truths that postmodernism offers. It’s about discerning which ways we ought to be postmodern for God’s glory.
- Weaknesses: I’m still pretty new to studying this whole post/modernism-thing, and the only Derrida, Lyotard, & Foucault I’ve read has come from this book. Lack of knowledge notwithstanding, I can’t shake the feeling that Smith softens these thinkers. Simultaneously, he subtly caricatures those who are wary of postmodernism. In other words, he only gives one side the benefit-of-the-doubt. My hunch is that the postmodernism he is advocating for is a watered-down postmodernism–this, in my opinion, betrays the title of the book.
- Bottom-Line: This book is engaging because 1) it deals sympathetically with an evangelical-no-no (i.e. postmodernism), and 2) it uses movies as examples! (He explains Derrida’s deconstructionism through Memento & The Little Mermaid.) If the “p-word” scares you as a Christian and if you have an elementary knowledge of philosophy, consider picking up this book to face your fear.
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology
by Eugene H. Peterson
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗½
- Strengths: Peterson’s chief strength is that his theology is clearly lived; his second is that he is fascinating. Just by looking at the book’s table of contents, one can see how creatively systematic & playful Peterson is–and it is for this reason that he is especially qualified to write a spiritual theology such as this book: he is able to be comprehensive & creative, academic & himself. The section “Christ Plays in History” really expanded my concept of salvation.
- Weaknesses: I don’t know why, but his writing style often annoys me. Peterson intends for his writing-voice to be the same as his talking-voice, but if this is how he talks in real life, then I probably wouldn’t want to be around him for too long (lol). In terms of the organization of content, he is like Nouwen: creative & probably brilliant, but he at times stretches his ideas to fit his preconceived organization.
- Bottom-Line: I’ve read Peterson’s autobiographical The Pastor, and I enjoyed it much more than Christ Plays…, probably because his writing style is more conducive to narrative. I mention this because I think I was spoiled with my first Peterson book. I’m sure that if I read Christ Plays… first, then I would’ve enjoyed it much more, but my expectations were a bit high from reading a superior work of his prior. All-in-all, Peterson is a wonderful cure for those suffering from spiritual dryness–his writing will leave you drenched!
Churches, Cultures & Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities
by Mark Lau Branson & Juan F. Martínez
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗
- Strengths: I can’t tell you how many times I read something in this book & thought, “Oo, I wanna try this in a church someday!” I also had many thoughts of, “Oo, people do/think/feel this different than I do?” The authors paint broad strokes to construct a fairly comprehensive practical theology for multicultural churches, synthesizing lots of ideas from various disciplines.
- Weaknesses: The first eight chapters are pretty boring. The authors try to squeeze too many concepts into their practical theology’s framework. As much as I’d just like to delete these chapters and skip right to chapters 9-11, these later chapters would suffer without the framework that chapters 1-8 erect. So, I say with a sigh, “Fine.” to their inclusion. Another drawback is that the authors generalize a lot. I was especially annoyed at how “Euro-Americans” were treated as a homogeneous group (though I probably felt that way because I’m a Euro-American, I s’pose).
- Bottom-Line: This book is full of practical wisdom for multicultural (& hoping-to-be-multicultural) churches–you just have to wade through the barrage of conceptual debris to get to it.
Invitations from God: Accepting God’s Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More
by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗∗
- Strengths: This book would suffice as an introduction to the Christian spiritual life. It weds reflections on spiritual discipline, ordinary life, & God’s loving presence skillfully. Calhoun also brings some good insights to the table from familiar passages of Scripture.
- Weaknesses: Throughout the book Calhoun seemed to constantly be asking me to forgive someone or to reconcile with someone or to think about how I’ve been hurt by persons X, Y, & Z, etc. I just don’t relate to that language in the way that she clearly does. That being said, some people might feel right at home with the language of this book. I went through this book with a small group, and it seemed to me that those who had experienced more oppression in life tended to like the book more.
- Bottom-Line: This book isn’t incredibly anything–good or bad, wise or foolish, long or short. I highlighted a number of fine insights, but I have little incentive to recommend this book to anyone. It’s just…”another book”.
A Many Colored Kingdom: Multicultural Dynamics for Spiritual Formation
by Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, S. Steve Kang, & Gary A. Parrett
- Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗∗½
- Strengths: That this book about multicultural dynamics was authored by three people from different ethnic & cultural backgrounds is helpful & attests to its legitimacy. The book’s treatments on prejudice & marginality were eye-opening to me. The engagement with secular educational theorists was interesting, contextualizing their ideas for Kingdom-purposes.
- Weaknesses: In regards to reading-level, some chapters are easy to read while others are fairly difficult; the imbalance is jarring. But the content doesn’t seem to flow either–I often didn’t know where the book was going or what glue besides the physical binding was holding the chapters together. The audience for this book is extremely limited, for many of its chapters are too technical, I’d wager, for most pastors/ministry-leaders to deal with. Finally, somehow I got tired of hearing the word “justice” over & over & over & over… (And, hey, I love justice.)
- Bottom-Line: I would only recommend certain chapters of this book. I found half of it pretty helpful, and the other half pretty unhelpful. While it offers a mixed bag, it overall proves to be persuasive: I closed the book feeling more passionate about the goodness of diversity than when I opened it.
Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way
by Stephen A. Macchia
Rating (out of five ∗‘s): ∗½
- Strengths: To start, I should mention that this book is a workbook (which means it involves as much writing as it does reading). As regards the writing portions, Macchia asks a few though-provoking questions and also provides helpful grids to write-in life-goals. As regards the reading portions, Macchia methodically draws on numerous sources for his content, mainly from biblical accounts & church history.
- Weaknesses: Firstly, this book is poorly formatted: there is hardly any room to write-in answers to satisfy the lengthy questions, which was frustrating for me because much writing was required throughout. Secondly, many of Macchia’s examples (including examples from Scripture) were stretched to fit his ideas.
- Bottom-Line: I really wanted to like this book, and maybe that’s partly why I ended up severely disliking this book: my expectations were too high. So, if this mini-review somehow prompts you to want to read this book, then at least your expectations are set low!
Three of my books for spring semester were only to be read in part. Since I have not finished any of them, I can only give you my impressions of them:
Christian Theology: Third Edition
by Millard J. Erickson
- Impression: Erickson is a pretty conservative theologian (so you often know where-ish he is going to land doctrinally), but he gives decent air-time to counter-views. There are times when he seems to simplify the Text in order to support his position (but he may do this for the sake of brevity). Overall, it seems to be a solid, well-thought-out systematic theology. (I should note that aside from me having merely an impression of this book, this book is also my first impression of a systematic theology, so I can only evaluate it on its content & not on how it succeeds or fails as a systematic theology.)
Foundations of Evangelical Theology
by John Jefferson Davis
- Impression: I bought this book used on Amazon for less than $1. Best <$1 I’ve ever spent. There is nothing groundbreaking in this book, but what it does present is a concise, readable summary of evangelical theology. “Evangelical” & “evangelicalism” are nebulous terms (even to the evangelical him/herself!) to which Davis helps bring clarity. For me, it was encouraging to learn about the roots & hallmarks of my tradition.
Handbook of Basic Bible Texts: Every Key Passage for the Study of Doctrine & Theology
by John Jefferson Davis
- Impression: When I first got this book, my thought was, “Why do I need this book? Isn’t there basically a ‘handbook of basic Bible texts’ at the beginning of every Bible these days anyways?” But then I found out what this book actually is. Yes, it is essentially an annotated “Where to go in the Bible when…” resource–but here is what makes it distinct: it is organized like a typical systematic theology. Systematic theologies generally cover several key doctrines in roughly the same order (e.g. doctrine of God, doctrine of Scripture, doctrine of creation, doctrine of Christ). This book is of little help if you’re wondering “Where to go in the Bible when you need help with depression.”–but it is of great help if you’re wondering “Where to go in the Bible to learn about God’s omniscience.” I hadn’t seen a resource like it before; I am glad to now have it on my bookshelf.
Well, that’s that. I hope you’ve maybe found a book that you might want to check-out. Feel free to comment with any questions/thoughts you might have–I’d love to hear ’em!
pits & skits,