Book Review: Fatherless Generation by John Sowers

Fatherless Generation by John Sowers (Cover)


It’s a word that brings to mind either some of your happiest memories… or some of your deepest resentments. For too many kids (and young adults) in North America and around the world, “Dad” is a shadowy figure, a fading memory, a hurt feeling; but never someone they knew deeply.

Some boys look for approval in gangs; others channel their resentment toward an unhealthy work ethic, wild behavior or excessive competitiveness. Many young women seek out affection from boys (and “men”) who are only too happy to oblige.

This fatherless generation has never been more unsure of their place the world and the results have been devastating

That’s why John Sowers, the president of the Mentoring Project, wrote Fatherless Generation. In this short book, Sowers relates the tragic experiences of fatherless boys, girls, men and women (including himself), while showing readers that there is hope to change their stories; to be a part of transforming their lives and helping them discover the God who is the Father to the fatherless.

Throughout the first half of the book, Sowers shares his experience growing up without a dad, along with those of several others who originally shared their story on his MySpace page. And the damage that’s been inflicted, the pain that all have suffered, is palpable. Young women share how they were Daddy’s princess—until he left. Some write that they don’t hate their dads, but they can’t forgive them either. Hopelessness and despair are the undercurrents of every story.

What I appreciate about how Sowers presents these stories, including his own, is that it’s not sensationalized, manipulative or voyeuristic. He is careful to protect the dignity of every person whose story he shares, as raw and often heart-wrenching as they are. This is extremely difficult to accomplish as, too often, in seeking to protect the individual’s well-being, their story can be reduced to emotionless propositions.

As careful as he is with the stories he shares, his use of statistics is equally so. Rather than overwhelming readers with data, he uses it to support the stories shared—the lives affected by not having a father in the home. They’re effective and disturbing.

For example, Sowers writes on pages 36-37 (perhaps the only really stats heavy section of the book), that children from fatherless homes account for:

  • 63 percent of youth suicides
  • 71 percent of pregnant teenagers
  • 90 percent of all homeless and runaway teenagers
  • 70 percent of juveniles in state-operated institutions
  • 85 percent of all youth who exhibit behavior disorder
  • 80 percent of rapists motivated with displaced anger
  • 71 percent of all high school dropouts
  • 75 percent of all adolescents in chemical abuse centers
  • 85 percent of all youths sitting in prison

For those who have ever doubted the impact of an attentive father in the lives of children, one needs only look at this and see that dads really do make a difference. The impact of being fatherless is so overwhelming, that it seems like there’s nothing that can be done, doesn’t it?

But there is a solution: caring men and women becoming mentors to a fatherless generation.

In part two of Fatherless Generation, Sowers shares how godly mentors spoke words of life and encouragement, taught him to be a man and ultimately transformed his life.

“Both of these men sacrificed their time in order to be mentors and father figures in my life, and because of their sacrifice, I came to see that being a man was not really as intimidating as i had made it out to be. I learned that i didn’t have to be afraid of other men. I learned that I didn’t have to be afraid of becoming a man myself,” writes Sowers (pp. 91-92).

The love that Sowers has for these men is obvious, as is his passion for seeing Christians take on the role of mentoring a younger generation. In doing so, by showing love to those who believe they are unloveable and modelling maturity to them, there is a powerful opportunity to be a witness to Christ and see lives transformed both in the temporal and eternal.

In this way, the book carries through it the implicit reality of the gospel (which, in terms of presentation, has its strengths and weaknesses). Sowers touches on aspects of the gospel to be sure (see pp. 82-84), and does speak of a desire to see the fatherless come to know the God who is Father to the fatherless, but it’s something that I would have preferred to see beefed up a bit more.

Reading Fatherless Generation hit close to home on a number of levels. The first is that I could relate all too well to the stories Sowers shares, because they were my story, too. I grew up without my dad being much of a physical presence in my life and that led me to try to be his opposite, or at least what I perceived his opposite to be. In doing so, I also sinfully treated him with thinly veiled contempt. In recent years, by God’s grace, our relationship has experienced much healing and I’m thankful for this. But not everyone has that opportunity.

Secondly, I have three boys living near me who don’t have a dad, and I don’t know how much interest their dads have in them. Perhaps they’re waiting for someone to speak words of affirmation into their lives?

Finally, as the father of two young girls, it reminded me of the powerful influence I am on Abigail and Hannah (for good or bad). I pray that my girls truly know how much their daddy loves them, and that my influence will be a godly one.

Fatherless Generation shines a light on the trials of all who are going to bed tonight without a dad. Their challenges are real. Their pain is deeply felt. But they don’t have to live their lives feeling shame, anger or resentment. This book offers its readers an opportunity to be a part of transforming the lives of a fatherless generation. Are we willing to take the first step?

Title: Fatherless Generation: Redeeming the Story
Author: John Sowers
Publisher: Zondervan (2010)

Book Review: The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders

For many Christians today, the Trinity is a doctrine to which we give almost no thought. While we certainly affirm it as being true, we don’t really know how it makes a difference in our lives.

So it gets easier for us to start thinking that maybe it doesn’t matter. The seeming paradox of God being one, yet three is a huge stumbling block to many people looking at the Christian faith… and maybe it wouldn’t change anything if we just let it go.

Fred Sanders, associate professor of theology at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute, disagrees.

“Deep down it is evangelical Christians who most clearly witness to the fact that the personal salvation we experience is reconciliation with God the Father, carried out through God the Son, in the power of God the Holy Spirit,” he writes (p. 9).

But we’ve lost something as a movement; we’ve settled for a theological and spiritual shallowness, especially in regards to the Trinity. “Our beliefs and practices all presuppose the Trinity, but that presupposition has for too long been left unexpressed . . . and taken for granted rather than celebrated and taught” (p. 11).

That’s why he wrote The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything. In this book, Sanders hopes to reawaken an understanding of, and desire to celebrate, the deeply Trinitarian nature of Christianity.

Because the Trinity is so overwhelming in it’s otherness, it’s tempting for us to avoid even attempting to speak to it. But as Sanders writes, “We . . . should not let ourselves be trapped into thinking that everything depends on our ability to articulate the mystery of the triune God” (p. 36).

The reality is we are tacitly (implicitly) Trinitarian in innumerable ways. The Trinity serves as the encompassing framework for our thinking and confession. “It is the deep grammar of all the central Christian affirmations” (p. 48).

This implicit knowledge leads to explicit expression in salvation, spirituality, church life, prayer and Bible study. These are the realms to which Sanders focuses the majority of the book. [Read more…]

Book Review: Church Planter by Darrin Patrick – The Man

“[W]e have a cultural crisis and a theological one,” writes Darrin Patrick in Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission. “We live in a world full of males who have prolonged their adolescence. They are neither boys nor men. They live, suspended as it were, between childhood and adulthood, between growing up and being grown-ups. . . . This kind of male is everywhere, including the church and even, frighteningly, vocational ministry.” (p. 9).

In short, we have a man crisis. Modern society shuns the traditional role of the man as the head of the home, the breadwinner and the spiritual leader of the family. Advertising and entertainment show the man as the oafish buffoon, Mom’s “other child.” Emasculated, men have abdicated their responsibilities and escaped into the fleeting pleasures of hobbies, video games and pornography.

They are neither men nor boys. They are are “Bans,” a hybrid of both a boy and man. They’re in our communities, our churches, our workplaces, and our families.

Ban needs godly men and women to show him there is more to life than he is currently experiencing. Ban needs to be more than just a male. He needs to be becoming God’s man who is being transformed by God’s gospel message and is wholeheartedly pursuing God’s mission. (p. 18)

That’s why Patrick, the pastor of The Journey Church in St. Louis and vice-president of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network, wrote Church Planter. In its pages, Patrick offers sound advice and biblical wisdom as he challenges prospective church planters, longtime pastors and the average churchman alike to be God’s man armed with God’s message and on God’s mission.

So what kind of man does it take to plant a church?

What kind of man does the church need to carry out its mission? What kind of man is needed to see lives transformed?

Patrick breaks down who that man is as follows:

He is a rescued man. He is, quite simply, a man who has indeed personally experienced forgiveness and acceptance from Jesus Christ. He must be growing in genuine love for God and people. When an unregenerate man (even one who is self-deceived) is given oversight of the church, both his well-being and the church’s are at risk. “[T]he church under such a pastor [one who is not truly a Christian] generally suffers spiritually, communally, and missionally, and it eventually withers and dies.” (p. 24)

He is a called man. Pastoral ministry is impossible for man on his own. He must be clearly called by God. Here, Patrick offers a three-fold way to discern the call: heart, head and skills. A heart-call is a deep inclination that says, “I must do this or I will die.” A head calling is asking the question, “How am I to specifically serve this church?” And a skills confirmation is the church examining and testing the gifts and character of the one who believes himself to be called.

He is a qualified man. He is a man growing in the character qualifications of a biblical elder as outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. While the pastor/elder is specifically called to these qualifications, Patrick notes, “Almost all of what is required here of elders . . . is required of any believer elsewhere in Scripture. . . . Elders are not a higher class of Christians. . . . [They] are called to uniquely focus on and live out the virtues to which all Christians aspire.” (p. 45)

He is a dependent man. He is a man who solely depends on the power of the Holy Spirit for the success of his ministry. He knows that it’s not by his will that anything can be done and seeks to grow deeply in his dependence by cultivating his relationship with God.

He is a skilled man. He is a man who exhibits (in varying degrees) the three basic skills necessary for pastoring: leading, teaching and shepherding. Patrick examines these through the lens of the three-fold offices of Christ: Prophet, Priest and King. He explains:

Prophets are those pastors who guide, guard, protect and proclaim the truths of Scripture. They tend to ask questions like, “What does the text say?” and “Where is the church going?” (p. 69)

Priests lead the church by identifying and helping to meet people’s felt needs. They tend to ask the question “Who?” (p. 72)

Kings develop strategies for bringing the vision and mission of Christ-centered living to fruition. They tend to ask the question “How?” (p. 73)

He is a shepherding man. He is a man who cares for Jesus’ sheep, and is prepared to lay down his life to protect and nurture them.

He is a determined man. There are going to be seasons in every pastor’s ministry where it will be very tempting to “tap out” and give up. But, Patrick writes, “Pastoral ministry requires dogged, unyielding, determination, and determination can only come from one source—God himself.” (p. 94)

This first section of the book provides a compelling and captivating picture of what a godly man should look like—not simply a pastor or church planter. As I read through these pages, I had to stop and seek the answers to the questions that Patrick posed along the way:

Do I love people?

Am I (and others) seeing the fruit of the Spirit become increasingly characteristic of my life?

Is there a call on my life?

How am I wired in reflecting the spiritual offices of Christ?

Am I depending on the Holy Spirit or on sheer willpower and effort to get through?

These were really challenging questions to answer—but the clarity that came from wrestling with them is refreshing (especially in that I learned that yes, I do in fact love people!).

We do have a man crisis in our culture and in our churches—and the picture of a godly man presented here is much-needed. Already I’ve started using it as a discipling tool for younger men. Because many of us have not had an example of a godly man in our lives, we’re usually trying to make it up as we go along. This has certainly been the case for me. However, the book’s structure and insights allow for real and reliable self-examination, as well as examination by others. And this alone makes Church Planter a worthwhile investment.

Next: The Message

Title: Church Planter: The Man, the Message, the Mission
Author: Darrin Patrick
Publisher: Crossway (2010)

Book Review: Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O’Dell


What do you think of when you think about the rural church (if anything)?

Outdated methodology? Gradually decaying buildings? Rapidly aging congregations? Ineffective in reaching people for Christ?

This list might seem harsh, but more often than not, this is what many of us think of when we consider the rural church. And the reality is that it’s sadly true. Without a powerful revitalization of rural congregations, thousands of churches won’t make it through the next decade.

Shannon O’Dell, pastor of Brand New Church, believes that revitalization is possible—that the rural church can actually be an incredibly effective instrument for advancing the Kingdom of God. And in Transforming Church in Rural America, O’Dell shares this vision as he recounts how God did it in his own church.

O’Dell never wanted to be a rural pastor. His dreams were to pastor a big urban church, with a big urban congregation, budget and building. He didn’t want to be stuck in the sticks. But God called him there, to a small church of 31 people. In the years since he arrived, he’s seen people at their worst as he tipped a few sacred cows and at their best as God matured the men and women of this church for His glory.

When I read the first few pages, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to get. So I was quite pleased to find that the principles that O’Dell shares ultimately all center around the same thing: Making disciples.

“[The church grows] congregants rather than a congregation,” O’Dell writes (p. 105). “We build people, not organizations. If we build organizations, we will end up with buildings and programs that serve only themselves.” [Read more…]

Book Review: The Jesus You Can’t Ignore by John MacArthur

Title: The Jesus You Can’t Ignore: What You Must Learn from the Bold Confrontations of Christ
Author: John MacArthur
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2009)

Who is Jesus Christ? Just about everyone has a different answer to this question. Some see Him as a great moral teacher and ultimately a really nice guy. “Gentle Jesus, meek & mild.” A Jesus who is, ultimately, easy to ignore.

But is that the Jesus of the Bible? According to pastor and author John MacArthur, the answer is an emphatic “no.”

And in The Jesus You Can’t Ignore: What You Must Learn from the Bold Confrontations of Christ, MacArthur carefully examines the Scriptures to show readers the powerful and provocative character of Jesus of Nazareth.

As MacArthur leads his audience through a study of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees and Sadducees, he reveals that every encounter was antagonistic—and instigated by Jesus Himself. So opposed was He to false religion, that, writes MacArthur, “[b]y today’s standards, Jesus’ words about the Pharisees and His treatment of them are breathtakingly severe.” (p. 21)

MacArthur’s examination of Jesus’ encounters with the religious leaders of His day bring to light the author’s concern about the state of modern evangelicalism—that we’ve confused niceness for godliness, which has resulted in an anemic faith that has sacrificed a willingness to earnestly contend for the Truth for a willingness to accommodate virtually any and all viewpoints or perspectives, no matter how contrary they might be to biblical Christianity. [Read more…]

Book Review: Seeds of Turmoil by Bryant Wright

Title: Seeds of Turmoil: The Biblical Roots of the Inevitable Crisis in the Middle East
Author: Bryant Wright
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2010)

It’s rare that a day goes by when there isn’t a new story in the media about the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. Despite attempts to forge a lasting peace, there is none to be found. Temporary cease-fires give way to full-scale conflict. Suicide bombers wreak havoc throughout the region. Iran’s president has stated his desire to wipe Israel off the map. It seems like no matter what action is taken, no matter who is involved in peace talks, it just keeps going.

Buy why? Why is there such turmoil in this region—and why is Israel at the center of it?

The root of the problem, says author Bryant Wright in Seeds of Turmoil, lies in the sinful actions of one man: Abraham.

In part one of Seeds of Turmoil (which is the bulk of the text), Wright walks readers through the biblical account of the birth of Abraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael, and of the rivalry between his grandchildren, Jacob and Esau, explaining how the prophecies made about each are still coming to bear in our present age.

These chapters read very much like sermon or lecture transcripts. There is a great deal of repetition that in a series of messages would feel quite natural (reminding & reinforcing what was learned the week prior); however, in print form it falls a bit flat as a reader moves from one chapter to the next in relatively quick succession.

Even still, I can understand why Wright felt the need to cover the same ground in multiple chapters—it’s important to stress that the conflict that exists today is, in a very real sense, a conflict between two “brothers.”

Had Sarah, in an act of unbelief, not told Abraham to sleep with Hagar (which he did without complaint), Ishmael would never have been born and God would never have said of him that he would be “a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen” (Gen. 16:12)—a prophecy ultimately fulfilled in the modern Arab nations of the Middle East. Similarly, had Jacob not stolen the blessing of Esau, there would not be the strife that exists between Israel and Edom (modern-day Jordan).

These chapters also do a solid job of stressing the seriousness of sin. Abraham committed (consensual) adultery. Jacob committed identity theft. And the consequences are felt to this very day. [Read more…]

Book Review: Radical by David Platt


“Do we really believe [Jesus] is worth abandoning everything for?” asks pastor & author David Platt in his new book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. “Do you and I really believe that Jesus is so good, so satisfying, and so rewarding that we will leave all we have and all we own and all we are in order to find our fullness in him?” (pp. 18-19)

As Christians living in the very comfortable Western world, having “our best life now” is really appealing. After all, if God gives good gifts to those who love Him, wouldn’t it include a big house, a big backyard, a big state-of-the-art church facility, a big latte and maybe a lot of money in the bank account?

While none of this is inherently wrong, Plant wonders if we are “settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.” And in Radical, he seeks to remind readers of the biblical gospel and that its implications mean the death of the American Dream—that we’re called to spend our lives on others, rather than merely spend our cash on ourselves.

There is much to enjoy about and be challenged by in Radical. Platt’s focus is less on showing readers a specific road to take (“here’s how you should do XYZ…”) and more about building a bigger vision for mission and reaching the nations for God’s glory.

In many ways, what Platt seeks to do is much the same as what John Piper has done in Let the Nations Be Glad and Don’t Waste Your Life—by providing Christians with a much-needed corrective to the overstated (and under-realized) notion that the days of overseas missions are over. That our focus can and should only be on local missions, if we have any sort of focus at all beyond a Christianized version of the American Dream.

As Platt notes, with over 2 billion people (as a conservative estimate) never having heard the gospel, one can hardly say that the days of overseas missions have passed us by.

At the same time, he doesn’t want to suggest that missions only happens overseas.

In Canada (where I live), generous estimates place the number of Christians in the population at around 8.5 percent. And as our population changes, there are more and more people who have never heard the gospel. The unreached are both at home and abroad. (It’s why missionaries are coming to Canada and the United States from countries which, two generations ago, we would have sent them to!)

What I especially appreciate about Platt’s book is this focus. That, even as he talks about poverty and how we in North America can be generous in caring for the poor, the goal is not alleviating poverty. The goal is seeing people meet Jesus. Platt writes,

The point is not simply to meet a temporary need or change a startling statistic; the point is to exalt the glory of Christ as we express the gospel of Christ through the radical generosity of our lives. (p. 135)

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed most about Radicalis the Radical Experiment—Platt’s challenge to put into practice what’s been learned through the book. As a pastor, he knows full well that unless there’s a way to apply knowledge, it will never move from the head to the heart. His one year challenge is shockingly simple, yet terribly complex:

  1. Pray for the entire world. Pray for specific needs among the nations.
  2. Read through the entire Word. Get through the entirety of Scripture in one year. Use a plan, read cover-to-cover… whatever you do, commit to doing this.
  3. Sacrifice money for a specific purpose. Research an organization that loves Jesus, that explicitly spreads His gospel, that serves His church and is trustworthy with finances.
  4. Spend time in another context. Whether it’s overseas for a short term missions trip or the soup kitchen downtown, go and be with people who aren’t like you.
  5. Commit our lives to multiplying communities. Be a part of a local church that is growing, making disciples and sending people out. Serve faithfully and pray fervently for it. And if you’re not in one, get into one.

This is a powerful challenge, one that I’m praying over how it would look in my life. I’m looking forward to what God shows me in response.

Perhaps the thing that struck me funny reading this book was something I found to be a bit of an oversimplification on Platt’s part. ON page 76, he writes:

But even if we were to do these things [helping the sick, feeding the hungry, strengthening the church in the neediest areas of the country] we would still be overlooking a foundational biblical truth when we say our hearts are for the United States. As we have seen all over Scripture, God’s heart is for the world. So when we say we have a heart for the Unites States, we are admitting that we have a meager 5 percent of God’s heart, and we ware proud of it. When we say we have a heart for the city we live in, we confess that we have less than 1 percent of God’s heart.

While I get what he’s trying to say, I can’t disagree strongly enough. While in some cases people can and do use the term of “having a heart for this city” as a cover for apathy (because their lives don’t reflect this heart), to say that if someone genuinely has a heart for the United States, New York State or San Francisco is ridiculous—and insulting. Such an oversimplification (while unintentional, I believe) runs the risk of devaluing one’s sense of calling and mission from God. Instead, it’s more likely that such a person has 100 percent of God’s heart for that city, state or country.

We need more men and women who have a genuine heart for their contexts, and it does nothing for their spirits to suggest that they somehow lack the fullness of God’s heart for the lost.

“Will we risk everything—our comfort, our possessions, our safety, our security, our very lives—to make the gospel known among unreached people?” This is the challenge that Platt puts to his readers (p. 160). What are we willing to sacrifice? What idols are holding us back? Will we give it up for the glory of Christ to be made known and to see more people reached with His gospel?

This is not an easy question to answer—but it’s one that I believe we need to wrestle with. And Radical forces us to do exactly that.

Read the book, be challenged and see how God might transform your life for His global purposes.

Title: Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream
Author: David Platt
Publisher: Multnomah (2010)

Book Review: Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado

Title: Outlive Your Life
Author: Max Lucado
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2010)

Some time ago, I was in the president’s office at a Christian NGO and noticed a new book on his desk. Making conversation, I asked, “What’s that one about?” It’s about the Christian’s responsibility in areas of poverty and injustice, he said. I made a mental note and determined to give it a read.

A couple weeks later, I began to read Outlive Your Life by Max Lucado. Over the course of 16 chapters, Lucado loosely examines the first twelve chapters of Acts in an attempt to show readers how they “were made to make a difference” in the lives of impoverished men, women and children around the globe.

Christian books on social justice and caring for the poor are tricky things. There’s a tendency to turn a God-honoring act into “God’s mandate” for the Christian life. A false gospel based around our work, rather than Christ’s work on the cross.

So where does Outlive Your Life land?

A weird place.

First, what did I like about this book?

Lucado is a very fast-paced writer; his style is easy-going, light and conversational. The plus side of this is that it makes this book a very quick read. The chapters are short (usually no more than about 4-5 pages) and you can breeze through it in a couple hours.

Lucado’s use of illustrations from everyday life help makes his subject matter come alive. He generally portrays himself as a bit of a goober, so you get the impression that he’s just a regular guy who puts his pants on one leg at a time (but when he puts his pants on, he sells hundreds of thousands of books).

When it comes down to the content, I greatly appreciated chapter 15, “Pray first; pray most.” This section in particular was a strong reminder of the importance of prayer and why everything we do, if we are followers of Christ, should be saturated with prayer.

Additionally, I did appreciate the idea behind the chapter, “Don’t write anyone off.” There’s no one that God can’t save—so why would we write off anyone as “unsave-able” when God is capable of doing more than we can imagine? After all, He saved Paul, who persecuted the Church & murdered Christians and used him as His instrument to spread the gospel throughout Asia Minor, and into Rome.

Now, having said that, there is a lot that concerned me about Outlive Your Life.

Some of it’s just goofy, like a strangely graphic description of a temple guard on page 78 (that I’m not entirely sure is historically accurate) that wouldn’t seem out of place in the movie 300. There’s some creative speculation into biblical stories in an attempt to engage readers… But there’s also this prevalent notion that sound doctrine isn’t as important as actions and working together for the common good. [Read more…]

Book Review: The Boy Who Changed the World by Andy Andrews

Title: The Boy Who Changed the World
Author: Andy Andrews
Publisher: Thomas Nelson/Tommy Nelson (2010)

Andy Andrews is an author who desires to inspire. In the last book of his I read, The Noticer (reviewed here), Andrews sought to show readers how a bit of perspective on their circumstances can completely change their outlook on life. In his latest, The Boy Who Changed the World (a children’s book), Andrews seeks to encourage young readers to make the most of their lives.

Andrews quickly tells the stories of four men: Norman Borlaug, a farm boy from Iowa who grew up to develop a seed that has helped feed billions of people; Henry Wallace, 33rd Vice President of the United States who, as a boy, loved learning about plants and, as an adult, hired Borlaug to develop his “super seed;” George Washington Carver, a student who taught Wallace all about plants (and later became a teacher & scientist who discovered 266 different things you can do with peanuts); and Moses Carver, a farmer who rescued young George from bandits who’d burned down Carver’s barn and raised George as his own son.

As Andrews shows, each one affected the others in ways that none of them could have anticipated. If Moses hadn’t rescued George, George would never have gone on to teach Henry about plants. And if Henry hadn’t learned about plants, he’d never have gone on to be the Secretary of Agriculture and then Vice President, and he’d never have hired Norman to develop his super seed.

In these inspirational tales, Andrews wants children to know one thing: “Your life matters more than you know.” This is a good message for children (and adults, too).It’s a reminder that the decisions we make have far reaching consequences, for good and bad; you never know what’s going to happen because chose to serve in the children’s ministry at your church. You never know the impact of a great teacher or even a dad who spends real quality time with his kids.

Because the book (like all of Andrews’ books) is designed to inspire broadly, it’s a strong moral message. Where The Boy Who Changed the World falls flat is that because it’s so focused on inspiring kids to see how their lives matter, (“God made your life so important…”), if taken alone, the message can leave kids (and adults) thinking, “Wow, God made me really special. I must be really something,” but miss the fact that He does so for His glory and not our own.

All that said, I did enjoy The Boy Who Changed the World and am comfortable sharing with my daughters. I believe that parents will, overall, find the book helpful and be able to use it to encourage discussion as a family about how God might use each of us to make an impact in our communities and (maybe) the world.

An electronic copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publishers

Book Review: Permission to Speak Freely by Anne Jackson

Title: Permission to Speak Freely
Author: Anne Jackson
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2010)

“What is one thing you feel you can’t say in church?”

When Anne Jackson published that question on her blog in May, 2008, she wasn’t prepared for the response. 497 comments (and counting) later, she knew she’d hit on something significant: A large number of people feel like they can’t be open and honest about their struggles with their church.

Jackson knows something about this. As the daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor, Jackson struggled with pornography addiction, sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, sexual abuse at the hands of a youth pastor and depression. For years, she never felt the freedom to share these things with anyone but those closest to her (including her husband). In Permission to Speak Freely, Jackson shares her struggles and what she’s learned about the healing & freedom that comes from opening up about our sins, temptations and abuses we may have faced.

This book is messy. Jackson’s writing is alternatingly funny, raw, and at times all-together heartbreaking. Reading her struggles with depression and attempts to push away her husband… this really hit me hard as a man whose wife struggles with depression.

In all honesty, the fact that she could even gather up the courage to share her struggles the way she has in Permission to Speak Freely is to be applauded. It’s extremely helpful for others to know they’re not alone in facing depression, sexual temptation, pornography addictions… The worst thing we can do to ourselves in our sin is to convince ourselves that we’re the only ones who face whatever it is that tempts or has power over us. Sharing her experiences with pornography, drugs and depression shows others that they too can overcome. They can speak up. They can be healed. They can have hope.

This—what she refers to in the book as “the gift of going second”—is a great gift indeed.

There were, however, a some things in the pages of Permission to Speak Freely that didn’t sit quite right. [Read more…]

Book Review: Ryken’s Bible Handbook by Ryken, Ryken and Wilhoit


Title: Ryken’s Bible Handbook
Authors: Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken and James Wilhoit
Publisher: Tyndale House (2005)

Studying the Bible can be a challenge. While the majority is relatively straightforward, there are many passages and books that don’t make sense to the average reader. How do you properly interpret a book like Revelation? How do you apply the Proverbs, the Parables or the Song of Solomon?

And where do you start to look for answers?

Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken  and James Wilhoit’s Ryken’s Bible Handbook is a great starting point. This book provides a book-by-book overview of the entire Bible, complete with notes on the context, the key themes and doctrines, key words and phrases, tips for teaching and even historical perspectives.

Much of this information is really a student or teacher’s dream come true! Because I’m a bit of a geek about these kinds of things, I really appreciated reading the insights of the three authors, especially because they give a little different perspective than your average study Bible. While there is definitely some crossover, the authors have a little more space to go in-depth into the subject matter. The tips for reading & teaching are exceptional as they give little nuggets to direct the flow of application questions you might ask in a small group or points to bring up in a sermon. They also point out things for you to watch for in your reading.

Especially helpful for me, though, were the articles on reading each literary style. One of the great struggles I’ve had in teaching and preaching is making sure I’m honoring the text as literature. You don’t preach the Psalms the same way you would a narrative passage of the Gospels or Acts. You don’t teach a parable the same way you would Proverbs. But by understanding each unique style that appears in the Bible, I’m better able to communicate that and avoid coming up with interpretations that are completely off-base.

For example, by knowing that many passages contain satire (the exposure of human vice or folly, often accompanied by humor or sarcasm), you’re better able to understand many of Jesus’ own comments.

Take Matthew 19:24. Here, Jesus says that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” If you take that literally (as some commentators have), you end up in this kind of crazy place where you have to suggest that there was a tiny gate in the wall of Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle” that a camel could only pass through if it were crawling.

Or, if you read it as satire, you see the rebuke—that the love of money is a snare and it’s easier for the impossible to happen (a camel fitting through the eye of a needle) than for one who is consumed with the love of material wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Understanding the literary style helps you better understand these passages and actually be able to see glimpses of Jesus’ sense of humor.

Ryken’s Bible Handbook is an invaluable resource to any student of the Bible. It’s helpful, insightful and well worth the investment.

A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review by the publishers

Book Review: Anne Bradstreet by D. B. Kellogg

Title: Anne Bradstreet
Author: D. B. Kellogg
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2010)

The colonization of America in the 17th century was a fascinating time period. The circumstances that drove men and women to travel for weeks to forge a new life for themselves in what would become the United States are beyond what most of us can fathom. And the story is often told as acts of relentless heroism and bravery in the face of uncertainty.

Except when it comes to the Puritans. The Salem witch trials and an inflexible attitude & work ethic are, sadly, what the bulk of us think of when we consider the Puritans who founded much of New England.

And because of this, it’s easy to overlook figures like Anne Bradstreet, a devoted Puritan, wife, mother and… poet. Published as part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series, Anne Bradstreet by D. B. Kellogg offers readers a taste of the life of this extremely unusual figure.

And unusual she was. [Read more…]

Book Review: The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung

When I was a kid, the only time I ever heard the word “catechism” was when a friend grumbled about how he couldn’t be wait to be done with it when he was thirteen. I had no idea what a catechism was, but sounded horrible—obviously it was some sort of hellish torture device. So imagine my surprise when I eventually learned that it was a simply a series of questions and answers about the Bible. (In all fairness, I’ve also come to realize that for someone who doesn’t believe the Bible or have a desire to know more about Jesus, it would seem rather hellish.)

Kevin DeYoung knows all about this. Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism was a part of his life. While he always appreciated it, it wasn’t seen as something terribly exciting. But it was in his seminary days, seeing the reaction of his fellow students, that he was reminded of just how meaningful the Heidelberg Catechism really is. “My classmates were seeing something many of my peers had missed. The Heidelberg Catechism is really, really good” (p. 16).

That, ultimately led DeYoung to write The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism. DeYoung structures the book as a devotional commentary, sharing his insights on each of Heidelberg’s 129 questions over 52 Lord’s Days. The catechism’s questions are run opposite each of DeYoung’s essays, allowing readers like me to appreciate the Heidelberg for itself.

That, honestly, is one of the things I appreciate most about The Good News We Almost Forgot. I love learning about historical Christian thought and seeing the catechism’s structure—covering the broad topics of guilt, grace, and gratitude while explaining the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer—is fascinating.
The authors understood well the necessity of our understanding our sinfulness before we can grasp the importance of God’s grace. That’s not to say that they spend an inordinate amount of time on it; as DeYoung notes, “The guilt section is by far the shortest with only three Lord’s Days and nine Questions and Answers. The authors of the Catechism wanted Heidelberg to be an instrument of comfort, not condemnation” (p. 25).

And a great comfort it is. Reading the Heidelberg itself was, in some ways, more enjoyable than reading DeYoung’s commentary. It’s a very pastoral document, challenging readers and encouraging them in their understanding of Christian doctrine. A favorite entry is Question 28:

How does the knowledge of God’s creation and providence help us?

We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing will separate us from His love. All creatures are so completely in His hand that without His will they can neither move nor be moved. (p . 58)

Simple, yet profound.

DeYoung’s commentary, meanwhile, is lively and fast-paced; if you’ve read any of his other books, this will be no surprise to you. He doesn’t try to come off as showy, but he is very sharp. I especially enjoyed his defense of the virgin birth on pages 75-78. Here, he writes:

Is the virgin birth really that essential to Christianity? The answer . . . is a resounding Yes!

First, the virgin birth is essential to Christianity because it has been essential to Christianity. That may sound like circular reasoning, but only if we care nothing about the history and catholicity of the church. . . . But if Christians, of all stripes in all places, have professed belief in the virgin birth for two millennia, maybe we should be slow to discount it as inconsequential. . . .

Second, the gospel writers clearly believed that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. . . . If the virgin birth is false, the historical reliability of the Gospels is seriously undermined.

Third—and this intersects the Catechism—the virgin birth demonstrates that Jesus was truly human and truly divine. How can the virgin birth be an inconsequential spring for our jumping when it establishes the very identity of our Lord and Savior? . . .

Fourth, the virgin birth is essential because it means Jesus did not inherit the curse of depravity that clings to Adam’s race. . . . So if Joseph was the real father of Jesus, or Mary had been sleeping around . . . Jesus is not spotless, not innocent, and not perfectly holy. And as a result, we have no mediator, no imputation of Christ’s righteousness (because He has no righteousness to impute to us), and no salvation.

So yeah, the virgin birth is essential to our faith.

In my mind, DeYoung’s final exhortation is probably the most meaningful part of this book. After writing a book on theology and loving theology, he reminds readers that theology is worthwhile if it works its way down to our core. Anything else makes us unbalanced.

If it is worth anything, our theological heart will pulse throughout our spiritual bodes, making us into people who are more prayerful, more godly, and more passionate about the bible, the lost, and the world around us. We will be theologically solid to the core, without the unnecessary crust. Kind of like the Heidelberg Catechism. And kind of like Jesus too. (p. 244)

The Good News We Almost Forgot is a delightful, pastoral read that reminds readers to appreciate the wisdom of the saints who have come before us—because their insights can remind us of the beauty of the gospel, and the God who brings it.

Title: The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism
Author: Kevin DeYoung
Publisher: Moody Publishers (2010)

Rescuing Ambition

Ambition is rarely considered a virtue for Christians. Historically, it’s carried with it connotations of seeking after personal glory and fame; of desiring for my own greatness, rather than God’s. But Dave Harvey wants to change our understanding of ambition and show us that being ambitious doesn’t necessarily mean being selfish. That’s why he wrote Rescuing Ambition.

Ambition Defined

In this book, Harvey walks readers through a biblical understanding of ambition, beginning with our creation. “We love glory,” he writes (p. 21). “We were created to look for it and to love it when we find it.” It’s why we love rock stars, actors, authors, athletes. It’s why we want to be those things. There’s glory there, even if it’s fleeting.

And God doesn’t condemn seeking after glory—in fact, says Harvey, he commends it. But the glory we’re to seek after is His. It’s Christ. Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God” (Heb. 1:3), and therefore the object of godly pursuit. To seek after glory is to seek after Christ and the things he pursues.

This is to be our ambition.

Ambition Distorted

As Harvey continues, he shows us how our ambitions have been corrupted by sin as we’ve “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). Thus, naturally our ambitions turn in on ourselves, where we seek to make ourselves great. However, Harvey says, the opposite occurs. We actually make ourselves smaller by trying to make ourselves great. Worse, we place ourselves under God’s wrath. He writes:

Deeply embedded in my sinful flesh is a desire to install myself as lord over all. I want my name worshiped, my glory exalted, and my fame talked about long after I’m dead. But by pursuing selfish ambition, we fall short, tragically short of the greatness and glory of God. . . .

The bad news . . . is this: my quest for my own greatness leads me to a dangerous place. In our hyped-up pursuit of self-glory we place ourselves in the path of the wrath of God.

So we’re in desperate need of rescue. We need to be freed from wrath against imperfection—and we need to be rescued from ourselves. (pp. 46-47)

Ambition Redirected

Fortunately, God has made a way for our ambition to not only be rescued, but redirected through faith in Jesus Christ. What I appreciate in this book is that Harvey doesn’t try to be overly clever or sneaky in his presentation of the problem and its solution. The problem is we’ve sinned against God, pursuing our own glory instead of His. The solution is Christ’s atoning death on the cross. It’s the gospel.

When God saves sinners, He does it for His glory; and imperfect sinners are given Christ’s perfect righteousness. And He saves us, not so that we can go about doing whatever we want, but to pursue the good works we were created for, “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Harvey writes,

Walking in good works begins with aspiring to good works, being ambitious for them. Dreaming and doing things for God is the evidence, the effect, and the expectation of genuine faith.

We already have all the approval we need. . . . [L]et us never leave this solid footing: God’s approval comes from the perfect obedience of the Perfect Man.  (p. 62)

And so God redirects our ambitions—He redirects them to glorify Him and delight us. This is probably the most challenging thing about our ambitions: Who or what lies at their end? Harvey asks, “Are your goals built around that job you’ve got to have, the weight you’ve got to lose, that position in the church with your name on it? Or are your dreams increasingly built around God and his life-shaping activity in you?” (p. 79)

These are challenging questions that force me to look at what I pursue. Do I write because I want people to praise my ability? Do I preach because I want people to be impressed with how well I speak?

Or do I do these things because I enjoy God and find my delight in Him? Does that drive me to pursue godly ambition?

Ambition Redeemed

As God rescues and redirects our ambitions, we have to understand that there’s a cost. We might fail. We might never see our ambitions fulfilled. But our ambitions are to have one goal in mind: serving our Savior. This is where we’re to find our contentment: not in the accomplishment, but in Him who has redeemed us and created us for these works.

In other words, godly ambitions are humble ambitions. To pursue godly ambitions means that we can forsake our comfort and well-being because Christ is sufficient. So it doesn’t matter if we fail. It doesn’t matter if we don’t’ see our plans play out. Jesus is enough.

The last several chapters of Rescuing Ambition hit this point over and over again, and I am grateful for it. It’s too easy for me to get caught up in seeing things through to the very end.

To take “finishing well” as completing the task at hand.

But Harvey reminds us that “finishing well” actually means preparing the next generation to finish the work we begin. In sharing his own story of stepping down as the senior pastor of his church, to follow the leading of a younger man, Harvey models this for us. This is what our ambitions should be about. “True success means we will turn things over to the younger generation in such a way that enables them to run stronger and faster, with us cheering them all the way.” (p. 210)

That, to me, seems like godly ambition. It’s the kind that I want to pursue. How about you?


Title: Rescuing Ambition
Author: Dave Harvey
Publisher: Crossway (2010)

Buy it at: Amazon