Archive for category: Book Reviews

Jeremy & Jerusha Clark’s “Your Teenager is Not Crazy”

06 Oct
October 6, 2017

I really, really like this book. It’s a must read for parents of teens, tweens, and those that work with them. Dr. Jeremy Clark and Jerusha Clark’s book, “Your Teenager is Not Crazy: Understanding Your Teen’s Brain Can Make You a Better Parent” is a strong exploration of the biological, psychological and spiritual changes and developments happening in adolescents. What makes this book stand out from others I have read like it is how the Clark’s have used some of the latest in brain development research help shape and inform their approach to understanding teenagers. Adolescence triggers explosive amounts of neurological development, a process that does not finish until the mid-twenties, and actually explains much of the conflict and misunderstanding between parents and their teens.

Their approach is simple; over the course of 26 chapters, the Clark’s tackle a wide variety of adolescent and parent issues, from emotions, to sex, to blame, selfishness, friends, food and more. With each topic they introduce the issue, then follow a pattern; Bio 101 is where they tackle exactly how adolescent brain development connects to the topic at hand, Psych 101 address the psychological aspects of the issue as well as how to approach it effectively with your teen, and finally, Faith 101 is where they give advice on how to point the teen (and parents) to Christ in this area. At the end of each chapter, they give a practical challenge on how to live out their advice in your home today.

The book is strong. It’s clear they have done their homework in researching the topics, and their years of experience counseling, as well as parenting their own teens, come through loud and clear through the stories and illustrations they share. As a parent of a fifteen and a thirteen year old boy, I found this book incredibly enlightening. As I understand more and more the psychological and physical development going on under the surface, it makes it far more attainable to understand what is going on with my kids and the teens I work with as a youth pastor, as well as help give me the ability to be more patient and confident in how I approach them.

I already said it at the beginning; this is a must read for parents and those interacting with adolescents. It is a strong resource, covering a wide range of adolescent topics – making it something that can be turned to as different issues and situations arise. It’s available as a book, digital book and audio book, so it’s very accessible. Check it out!

Thom Rainer’s “Who Moved My Pulpit?”

05 Oct
October 5, 2017

Thom Rainer’s “Who Moved My Pulpit?” is a great book for pastors and church members alike. Rainer has built a reputation for knowing how churches move, the latest trends, for solid research and great leadership advice. In this book he tackles the question of how pastors can lead change in their churches, giving an eight stage model for approaching and leading change effectively.

The title of the book comes from an actual story; a pastor once changed the pulpit without giving anyone a heads up … resulting in massive controversy and ultimately taking two years to rebuild ministry momentum after the conflict. I’ll be honest, stories like that are frustrating to read; a part of me is shocked at the things that can become sources of conflict, but at the same time, Rainer does an effective job of using such stories to give extreme examples of how poorly implemented change can incredibly disrupt a church’s ability to ministry.

He describes the different types of church members and how to most effectively guide them through change, how to build a coalition of support, gives guidance on the pace of how change should work, coaches on how to communicate to the church as a whole and ultimately how to implement the change.

Ultimately, Rainer is a change advocate. He writes that “nine out of ten churches in North America are losing ground in the communities in which they are located. They are declining or growing more slowly than their respective communities” (Kindle location 366). He attributes that decline in part to many churches’ inability change with the culture, a result of a far too often inward focus instead of an outward focus.

It’s a great book. Over the last couple years I’ve become a big fan of Rainer’s work. It’s small, so it’s a fast read. It’s definitely a great book for pastors and their leadership to read together as they think through how to lead their churches. Towards that end, he includes discussion questions at the end of each chapter that can be used either by the individual reader to diagnose his/her church, or for the leadership team as they process the information together.

Francis & Lisa Chan’s “You and Me Forever”

28 Sep
September 28, 2017

Francis and Lisa Chan’s book, “You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity,” is a departure from most marriage books out there. The underlying message throughout the book is simply this; the best way to improve your marriage is not by focusing on your marriage, but by focusing on your Christian faith. In other words, the natural fruit of two people pursuing God as the Bible calls them to is a united, healthy marriage. In their words, “unity is the natural result of two people following one Spirit in a life devoted to the mission.” (Kindle location 1242)

I really like the book; I’ve read quite a few marriage books over the years. Most give traditional advice on building better practices, communication, ways to strengthen the relationship, usually with some side comments on the importance of pursuing God – but generally not as the core message of the book. To me, this is where the Chans have met a real need in the church with their book. They write, “Our marriage problems are not really marriage problems. They are heart problems. They are God problems. Our lack of intimacy with God causes a void that we try to fill with the frailest of substitutes. Like wealth or pleasure. Like fame or respect. Like people. Like marriage.” (Kindle location 227)

Having said that, they do tackle some practical relationship areas; learning to communicate and fight well, giving a message of hope, advice on parenting together, and a call to really make the marriage count. One of their challenges is rooted in the passages that describe the church’s relationship with Christ as a marriage; that “we are called to paint such an attractive picture of marriage that it causes people to long for the coming marriage with Jesus.” (Kindle location 566)

I thought it was well written; if you’re familiar with Francis Chan’s book “Crazy Love,” it almost felt like this is Crazy Love for Marriage. His (and his wife’s) passion for calling people to an all-in pursuit of Christ comes through loud and clear in all of his writings. It’s a shorter book, an easy read, and comes with questions at the end of each of the seven chapters for couples to discuss together. It’s definitely worth checking out for those who are married or for those headed to marriage.

Mark Oestreicher’s “Leading Without Power”

30 Aug
August 30, 2017

As a youth pastor, the title of Oestreicher’s book, “Leading Without Power: 9 Paths Toward Non-Coercive Ministry Leadership,” immediately grabbed my attention. I never have any power!

When I was first beginning in ministry, my then senior pastor once explained to me that “leadership is getting people to do things they don’t want to do.” He didn’t mean challenging them to get sin out of their lives; he specifically meant that our job was to manipulate, guilt, push – whatever it takes – to get people to do what we wanted them to do.

The thrust of the book is simple and opposite to that approach; that coercive, hierarchical leadership is not only unbiblical, it’s dangerous and unhealthy. Towards that end, Oestreicher identifies nine ways to lead rooted in scripture, ways that use our ability to influence in far healthier, God honoring ways.

I appreciated his challenge to readers to not try and take on all of the ways he suggests, rather, he suggests finding one or two to try and implement, and then build from there. I know for me, two jumped out immediately as being ways that fit with my wiring and approach that I want to continue to develop; the first is what he calls a “Storytelling Host,” the second is a “Uniqueness DJ.” Yes, he has unique names for his paths to leadership. The storytelling host uses stories that embody values to challenge, inspire, teach, and guide the listeners. Our ultimate example of this approach, of course, is Christ, who frequently used stories to lead those around Him. The Uniqueness DJ is someone who is able to blend different people together in forming a team, using each person’s uniqueness to form a great team – rather than trying to get everyone to fit a specific mold.

“Leading Without Power” is a great book. While Oestreicher is a well known youth ministry expert, this is not a youth ministry book. It’s a quick read – you can probably finish it in one sitting. His style is fun to read and packs a lot of powerful truths. I love his honesty about the appeal of power and the very real temptation and ease of leading in coercive ways, and his challenge to find a different way is incredibly relevant. I bought copies of the book for each of my student ministry staff, and will be going through it with them in the coming weeks. This one is a must read for all believers; its lessons applicable in all areas of life.

Peter Enns’ “The Sin of Certainty”

02 Aug
August 2, 2017

Peter Enns’ The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs is an exploration of what it means to follow God, wrestle with doubts, and find peace in faith in God. At its core, the book is a challenge to a Christian lifestyle rooted in trust, marveling at the power and wisdom of God and its impossible to fully know or comprehend nature on this side of eternity. At the same time, it is a rebuttal to the approaches to faith that put too much confidence in knowledge and “knowing” for sure exactly what to believe. It’s a somewhat explosive title to some; can’t we know some things about God for certain? But Enns’ goal is not to undermine faith, rather, it is to shift the focus to trust in God instead of human knowledge.

“Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith – these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, that is the problem. And that is what I mean by the ‘sin of certainty.’ It is sin because this pattern of thinking sells God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend – which is the very same problem the Israelites had when they were tempted to make images of God (aka idols) out of stone, metal, or wood.” (p.18)

Enns weaves his personal story throughout the book, mapping out some his own struggles, doubts and questions, and the responses of those around him. Part of his point is that it is natural for any follower of God to see their faith grow and evolve over the years – it must if we are actively pursuing God, but in the process of that doubts and questions are sure to arise. For those that value certainty, these questions are often viewed as an assault or a danger, something to be swatted down. I loved his comment the “Adam and Eve story is about what happens when knowing is elevated above trusting.” (p.104) In that moment in the garden, it was more valuable to them to have the knowledge than it was to trust God and His wisdom.

Ultimately, Enns is not challenging the reader to ignore growing in knowledge. In fact, his challenge is the opposite; continue to study the Word. Learn and wrestle through all that you can when it comes to God, but beware of the dangers of overconfidence in your own opinions and interpretations.

“It is so easy to slip into ‘right thinking’ mode – that we have arrived at full faith. We know what church God goes to, what Bible translation God prefers, how God votes, what movies God watches, and what books God reads. We know the kinds of people God approves of. God has winners and losers, and we are the winners, the true insiders. God likes all the things we like. We speak for God and think nothing of it.” (p.159)

We can so easily become just like the Pharisees we have so long reviled without even realizing it.

Enns has written a powerful book, one that asks the right questions, guides the reader through a process of both understanding the value and dangers of knowledge and certainty, and challenges American Christians to questions whether we have put our confidence in our knowledge or in trust in God. It is easy to read, but incredibly deep. Definitely worth checking out.

Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?”

14 Jul
July 14, 2017

What-Is-the-Bible 2Rob Bell’s latest book, What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything, is both insightful and maddening. Bell has always intrigued me; he’s an incredible communicator with an often times unique perspective on the Bible. His goal with this latest book is to convey all of the excitement, passion, and thrills that come with reading the Bible – something he observes (correctly) that so many miss.

Bell does a great job of paying attention to the Jewish culture, both during Christ’s time and during the times the Old Testament books were written, as well as the Roman culture and other ancient middle eastern cultures and religions. He eloquently paints a picture of the connecting threads throughout all of scripture pointing to an exciting message from God. I loved his observations about Abraham’s covenant with God, the struggle Jonah went through, as well as the writing styles and priorities of ancient writers. I also thought his notes on how modern day Americans process and interpret scripture through our cultural lens conflicts so often without us even realizing it with the culture and writing styles of those who wrote these books so long ago.

But Bell is also maddening.

I feel so pretentious for even writing this, but his books have grown increasingly intellectually lazy. He makes bold claims about meanings of words, culture, theories, and explanations – and footnotes none of it. He doesn’t cite anything! Even half of the scriptures he quotes he does without even giving a reference; and the other half of the time he only mentions the book and maybe the chapter. I found myself doing keyword searches to try and find what verse he was quoting and what translation it was to find the context because of his tendency to prooftext and play fast and loose with his scripture quotes. Some of his theories I was able to find in commentaries, however, they tended to be alternate understandings of a passage’s interpretation rejected by most scholars.

His theology on salvation, revealed in his book Love Wins, returns in the third section of this book. Because of his conviction that ultimately all are saved regardless of their faith in this life, the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death and resurrection is at the very least minimized in this book if not removed all together. He contends that the sacrificial system at large, and therefore the perspective of interpreting Christ’s death through that lens, is purely a human creation made in response to pagan sacrificial systems. His chapter on whether or not scripture is authoritative was also troubling to me; while he believes scripture does have authority, he seems to view it as equal to a number of other sources, which is a dangerous approach at best. From his perspective, he is genuinely advocating for scripture’s authority; and his love of the Bible comes through on every page of the book, however, in his assertion of a variety of other authoritative sources he ultimately both reduces scripture’s power and opens the door recklessly putting faith anywhere and everywhere.

Ultimately, I was fascinated by the book, but because of his pattern of making claims without citing evidence or sources, his loose use of scripture, and his reckless theology when it comes to salvation and authority, it’s not one I would recommend to others. He’s given me a lot to think about, and he does bring the scriptures to life in a way that few can do – but unless the reader is well versed in scripture and theology, it becomes too easy to accept the dangerous theology sprinkled throughout the book.

Boarding School Syndrome review

12 Jul
July 12, 2017

Boarding-School-SyndromeDr. Joy Schaverien’s Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child takes an honest and powerful look at the long term psychological impact boarding schools have on children. Having spent my teen years in a boarding school, I was particularly fascinated by her observations, based on years of counseling and diagnosing adults who attended boarding schools as children. Rather than try to summarize the book (there’s just way too much), I want to share a few of my reactions as a former boarding school student. You can read a strong summary of the book’s content and a list of the many symptoms and issues that can result in boarding school experience here.

Over the last decade, I have become increasingly aware of just how widespread and prevalent sexual and physical abuse was in all of the boarding schools run by the mission my family was a part of, which has been a horrifying realization. Dr. Schaverien primarily interacts with former boarding school students from other systems and organizations, and it was shocking to realize through her research that this sexual and physical abuse seems to be a common reality in ALL boarding schools. The combination of predators being attracted to environments where children are cut off from their parents most of the year and dangerous students with inadequate supervision around younger students consistently creates environments where abuse flourishes.

Dr. Schaverien deals with the question of why children do not report abuse throughout her book, which I appreciated deeply. She points out a combination of factors; for the child who does not have the words to express what is going on, it is a confusing situation. Children think their experience is normal; they may not like it, but it must be normal because it is what they know. Adding to that is the knowledge that their parents sent them, reinforcing the idea that this is both normal and the adults in their life are okay with it (after all, to a young child’s logic, how could their parents possibly not know?). Consequently, the abuse is normalized, and even minimized – “I didn’t like what happened to me, but it’s not nearly as bad as what happened to so-and-so.” What I was particularly struck by is her observation that it is typically around forty years of age that people will begin to recognize or speak out about the abuse they received as a child; often times as they see their own children growing up and realize just how little and unprotected they themselves were at that age and finally begin to realize just how wrong the treatment was.

That jumped out at me; I’m 41. It has really been the last five years that I have wrestled with what I witnessed as a teen and what I can do about it now. As a student at a boarding school I witnessed things that made me deeply uncomfortable and upset – but did not know how to react. It wasn’t until my early twenties as I was studying to be a teacher, and then youth pastor. taking classes on creating safe environments and protecting children from abuse that I realized many of the things I witnessed were legally considered abuse.

I found her comments and observations on former boarding school students relationships with others, the tendency to be closed relationally, abandonment issues, the sexual confusion resulting from growing up in schools forbidding any kind of physical contact (even healthy, necessary contact), issues with food, and a whole host of other ramifications to be incredibly fascinating, and enlightening in what I have seen in my fellow classmates. I think her book is critical reading for anyone who has been a boarding school student, or who has had family members attend boarding school at some point in their childhood. It is written for psychologists to give insight on how to work with boarding school students, so it is not a light read, however it is incredibly beneficial and makes a great contribution to a segment of the population that is largely ignored.

Junia: The First Woman Apostle review

06 Jul
July 6, 2017

juniaDr. Eldon Epp, a professor of Biblical literature, has put together a thorough and well researched case for the existence of a woman apostle in scripture in his book Junia: The First Woman Apostle. The verse in question?

“Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” Romans 16:7, NIV.

The debate originally centered around the name Junia; is it a woman’s name (Junia) or a man’s name (Junias)? The issue was largely uncontested until two hundred years ago when two scholars, separately, came to the conclusion that the verse clearly points to this individual being an apostle, therefore it must be a man, making it imposible for this Greek name to be translated in a female form. They proposed that the actual name was Junias, a male rendering of the Greek, a theory that was quickly accepted throughout the church and Bible translations were updated to reflect it. However, in recent decades it has become clear that there is no such male name in the Greek, while Junia, the female form, was in fact a common woman’s name through every class of society (slave, poor, wealthy, royalty). Consequently, in recent years Bibles have been corrected to reflect this feminine spelling. At this point, the debate has shifted to question whether or not Junia was an apostle, or simply known to the apostles.

Epp uses his expertise in ancient literature to trace the use of this name and language through every major grouping of Greek texts we have from over the centuries as well as how these texts were understood to make the case that Junia was both understood to be a woman from the beginning, and recognized as an apostle. To say he is thorough in his exploration is an understatement. Making the case for the name being feminine is far easier now than it was fifty years ago; it is widely accepted now in Christian scholarship to be the case.

From there, Epp then tackles the issue of whether or not Junia was recognized as an apostle, or simply known to the apostles. Much of his argument centers on the contention that until the last few decades, this was never even a question; from the time of Chrysotom the two individuals mentioned in this verse were universally accepted to be apostles. Paul does not use the title lightly, and through an examination of the original Greek, Epp makes the case that while there may be some lack of clarity in the English, there was no uncertainty in the Greek. So much so, that it was not even questioned until recently when it became clear that the name Junia was in fact feminine, leading him to conclude that rather than allowing the scriptures to speak for themselves, complementarian theologians are instead rewording the intent of scripture to match their own theology. He cites C.E.B Cranfield’s assertion that this approach is “mere conventional prejudice” (Kindle location 738).

Overall, it is a fascinating exploration of controversial topic. Published by Fortress Press, it is an academic book and not a light read. So much so that a third of the book is footnotes and bibliography. Epp is systematic and thorough in his approach, with each of the ten chapters focused on a different aspect of his case for Junia being a woman apostle. Consequently, there is some repetition as he reiterates different pieces of evidence in support of each point he makes; on the positive side, this allows each chapter to stand on its own, but it does get somewhat repetitive at times. Regardless of one’s opinion on the translation of Romans 16:7, Epp’s book is a strong entry into the discussion.

Us Versus Us review

01 Jul
July 1, 2017

us versus usAndrew Marin’s Us Versus Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community is a powerful examination of the relationship between the LGBT community and the church. Based on extensive research and surveys – the largest of its type – administered by his organization, The Marin Foundation, Marin presents startling and convicting results. The big result? 86% of the LGBT community were raised in faith communities, leading to the title of the book; Marin contends that for too long the debate on sexuality has been framed as an “us versus them” approach, when the reality is that most of us originated in the same place – it is actually and “us versus us” debate, which has only resulted in damage.

Each chapter is committed to examining the major findings of the research; beyond the 86% statistic, he also found that 54% of those in the LGBT community left their faith communities by the age of 18, 76% are open to returning to faith and its practices, 36% of the LGBT community continue to pursue faith beyond the age of 18, 80% regularly pray regardless of faith association (or lack thereof), and finally, he examines the impact of coming out on religiosity.

For years, Marin has powerfully advocated for building bridges instead of walls in the conversation between the church and the LGBT community. He writes that “we have allowed the people comprising the conversation to be characterized by caricature” (Kindle location 128), pointing out that we define positions and camps, focusing the conversation on opposition. Instead, he advocates for “the lost art of loving in disagreement” (Kindle location 135).

What do we do with these results? For Marin, the answer seems obvious. The pattern for many churches in America has been incredibly painful for those in and out of the congregation; somehow we have not been able to emulate Christ’s approach, which in His divine perfection somehow combined His sinless reputation with the ability to have sinners flock to Him. Throughout the gospels Christ avoided closed door conversations; when people asked him yes/no questions in an effort to nail down where He stood, He answered with parables, with stories, with questions of His own. The result? Instead of shutting down the conversation He continued the dialogue and built bridges.

Do I agree with all of Marin’s conclusions? Not necessarily; we differ on the interpretation of some of the data. But the work he and his team have done is essential. Every pastor/church leader should read this book. It is a powerful insight into a group often dehumanized and vilified by churches in America, and the longing for community and spiritual hunger present there.

Understanding Gender Dysphoria review

31 May
May 31, 2017

mark 2Dr. Mark Yarhouse, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Regent University, has put together a solid resource for leaders and those wanting to know more about Gender Dysphoria, or transgenderism, in his book, Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. There are very few issues in my experience as a pastor as misunderstood as this topic, and in that misunderstanding, tremendous damage and hurt has been and will continue to be caused.

Yarhouse does a tremendous job of explaining the nature of gender dysphoria, as well the different theories surrounding the causes and treatment of gender dysphoria, and the pros and cons of each. He also explains his own approach as a psychologist and his rationale. Because the research is still in early stages regarding the ramifications for the different treatment approaches, he personally advocates taking the least invasive approach that can resolve the dysphoria; which in practicality means different approaches for each individual. I won’t try to summarize his content here; I would never be able to do it justice.

One of the strengths of Yarhouse’s book for those in ministry is his careful and well thought out Christian perspective and connections to scripture paired with his deep knowledge as a psychologist and his practical experience. He has done the research and it shows. By shedding light on this topic and confronting many of the wrong perceptions and faulty ideas, his book is both beneficial and a call to many in the church to rethink their assumptions. One particularly jarring quote from his book really hit home for me;

“What most people who are gender dysphoric find in the church is rejection and shame – the feeling that there is something fundamentally flawed in them, that the flaw is their fault (back to willful disobedience) and that if others knew about their gender incongruence, they too would reject them.” (Kindle location 946)

Yarhouse’s book is timely. As such a hot button topic, it is a relevant work for anyone who wants to grow in their understanding rather than allow news headlines and Facebook rants shape their opinions. As the church, this is an area where we need to grow in our love and empathy, and I think Yarhouse helps point in a direction that accomplishes that. I have personally read a number of resources and articles in my own pursuit of understanding, and his work is the first to really help address that need for me. He has clearly done his homework, supports his assertions with the research, yet writes in a way that is approachable and understandable. Definitely worth checking out.