Book Review: Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants, by Terry Powell

Serve StrongEven before my last review of an ACU Press/Leafwood Publishers book, I eagerly anticipated receiving a copy of Serve Strong: Biblical Encouragement to Sustain God’s Servants by Terry Powell for my next review. I had not previously heard of Powell, but after reading online others’ quotes on the book cover, on which there is a painting of depicting Jesus washing the feet of a disciple, I had in my mind that I’d be receiving a book of wisdom from an aged shepherd in grandpa-like style, encouraging those in what is often referred to as “formal ministry” to keep going and how the author has persevered through the decades. Perhaps I set my expectations too high or simply misconstrued what others had to say, but I don’t think I got that book.

Here is my admittedly gross summary of roughly the first half of the book: Preachers and preacher-like people, memorize Scripture, and when in need of anything, quote it. (Yes, for those who will critique my critique, there is much more, but in my opinion this speaks to the heart of the matter.) Of course, reading the Bible should be understood, and having Scripture memorized for immediate recollection is great—I’d hope it would also work on the heart and become part of who we are—but I don’t think reading or reciting words is a fix-it-all. Even the written Word of God can be read/quoted poorly and the meaning missed altogether. From my perspective, much of the first half really seems to be geared toward the fundamentalist preacher (those “proclaiming the Word of God,” which speaks to that which I’ve already noted) rather than anyone who should find him/herself dealing with people in some sort of ministerial fashion for much of their time and get discouraged and burnt out.

Fortunately, Powell does offer further thoughts by way of explaining particular Bible passages, providing examples of others who have been through particular situations, and a few anecdotes. There are a few chapters, all rather short and self-contained, I thought were quite nice (e.g., The Power of Owning Up) and would recommend these sections to others.

I’d considered providing more detail and specifics, but have considered those thoughts to be unnecessary in this particular kind of review, noting this only for those who would prefer I had provided them. So, with that in mind, I will only further note that I find there to be too many theological inconsistencies and sections I would want others to actually avoid. And so, all things considered, I would not recommend this book as a whole to anyone, and would rather, given a particular need, point someone to any number of biographies on those who have been through similar situations or to other more fitting devotionals and/or books of encouragement.

This is, of course, a book review, not a review of its author.

 

*Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from ACU Press/Leafwood Publishers as part of their ACU Press Bookclub Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Book Review: The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, by Christopher J. H. Wright

The Mission of GodAfter a lecture given in 1998, Christopher J. H. Wright was approached by Anthony Billington and questioned “about the validity of using a missiological framework as a hermeneutical approach to reading the Bible. Is it possible, is it legitimate, is it helpful for Christians to read the whole Bible from the angle of mission? And what happens if they do?” (531). Thorough and dense, though still not exhaustive in its 535 pages, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative is the result of Wright’s journey in attempting to answer those questions. Just as it changed Wright in the process, I believe the journey will aid its readers in understanding what it means to be part of the mission of God, that which Scripture exclaims in its entirety.

Divided into four parts (The Bible and Mission, The God of Mission, The People of Mission, and The Arena of Mission), The Mission of God progressively brings the reader into the biblical narrative and a better understanding of what it means to be a fellow pilgrim in God’s creation as intended by our Creator, recalibrating our posture from one of self-focus to God-focused participants in the continued narrative of God’s mission. I strongly recommend reading through the book in its entirety—it’ll take a while—in order to fully appreciate the journey as intended, but there is a detailed outline at the beginning and lengthy index at the end for those wishing to jump to particular sections for personal study and/or research.

As a proponent of reading the Bible in its narrative context and encouraging others to find and live out their place within this continued narrative, I appreciate Wright’s work and the result of his efforts in wrestling with this hermeneutical quest. It is a “must read” in my opinion, especially for those teaching, promoting, or looking for a particular method, form, and mode of “doing missions,” as it is often described. A proper reorienting of one’s perspective on what it is to be on God’s mission will better (rightly!) enable one to address the pragmatics of living out that mission in one’s own (or “target”) context.

Book Review: How to Start a Riot by Jonathan Storment

How to Start a RiotIt’s refreshing to have a book on Acts come out of our shared Christian heritage that does not focus solely on narrow proof-texts for a particular kind of patternism. In his first book, How to Start a Riot, Jonathan Storment pulls together cultural, political, and Hebrew scriptural contexts back into the reading of Acts and shows us what it was really like to be an “Acts church,” if that’s something we strive to be. The conclusions to which one must come are riotous. Embarking on this journey will prove to be both convicting and inspiring. I imagine there are two paths one may take towards starting a riot after reading this book: 1) a sociopolitical upheaval the world doesn’t know how to deal with outside of a relationship with Christ, or 2) clinging to the comfortable and often scripture-twisting pattern of tradition that believes we’ve already figured it all out, and it “all” points to our own tradition, that then riots against such books for stepping on our toes and showing us that there is more to living for Christ than upholding (right or wrong) traditions. Let’s pray for the former. I echo Storment here:

“I hope this book has helped you to see that Acts is so much more than a law book for church organization and worship rituals. It’s a gripping account about men and women of faith who have taken risk after risk for the sake of something bigger than themselves” (194).

I’m not a fan of all the corny preacher jokes and ill-fitting analogies and metaphors that are often used to try and tie something to the culture of a given audience. I do believe we need to be culturally relevant and explain things in a way they are understood, but some go quite a bit overboard. Unfortunately, this is how I feel about the writing style found in How to Start a Riot, which is an edited collection of Storment’s sermons on Acts. I think it should have been edited further, but if you watch the book trailer (and I imagine listen to him preach) the writing voice will make sense if you hear what you’re reading with Storment’s lively and energetic actual voice. None of this should, however, detract from what I’ve said about the book’s content. I’d still recommend it, even if some of the silliness need be pushed through.

 

*Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from ACU Press/Leafwood Publishers as part of their ACU Press Bookclub Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: Life Work: Confessions of an Everyday Disciple by Randy Harris

Life WorkRandy Harris’s latest, Life Work, just made it to my “Must Read” shelf on Goodreads, I’ve preordered copies for my church, and already purchased another copy in Kindle format to make sure I have it in my travels. For me, this was quite a timely read. I had just been to one of the largest bookstores in the world a few weeks ago looking for something on ethics from a Christian worldview, a daunting task when things are loosely categorized and you only have an hour or so to browse, and came out empty handed. I’ve been taking my brothers and sisters on a journey through political theology—how we as citizens of the Kingdom of God engage with those within and those outside—and have reached a point that begins to deal with our immediate context. Life Work fits right in (if only I could get enough advanced copies without waiting until summer!), saving me the time it would have taken to pull together (likely not as well) similar information and more.

Randy is a professor of philosophy and ethics at Abilene Christian University, and his writing is representative of one who thinks about and spends a lot of time with students—he mentions them quite often; but his latest work is not written for readers of a certain age or stage in life. Life Work is easily accessible for non-academics but not so fluffy as to be uninteresting by those wanting a bit more, and its application is far reaching. Beginning with four major ethics, Randy encourages and discourages certain ways of thinking from a Christian worldview for judging between right and wrong and offers a bit of his own ethic without trying to force the reader into one or the other. I recommend the reader take time with this first section before moving on, really thinking about one’s own ethic and if or how it may be altered in some way. The second section describes in more detail what a cruciform life—one of taking up one’s cross and following Christ—looks like as a Christian ethic is applied. This is a counterintuitive and subversive ethic that goes against the leaning and pushing of the world. Looking at Scripture from the perspective of first-century Christians, Randy convincingly offers interpretations of a few passages—those often looked at differently—as claiming Jesus Christ is King, not Caesar/Rome, and what that looks like in the way we live. The final third of the book looks at the lives of people past and present who have lived and are living lives that in some way express the way of the cross, noting a few things he would and would not recommend imitating but considers their lives worth looking at nonetheless. Randy concludes his book with a bit more on peacemaking and shalom.

Randy and I hold much in common, but perhaps have just as much not so. I always enjoy and appreciate his perspective even when we don’t agree, and it’s always challenging. In fact, Randy admits he doesn’t even live up to his own words and challenges, something I think we can and should all admit. Life Work was not only a timely read and a fit for some teaching material, but it also challenged me and made me rethink my own ethic and how that affects my cruciform living. It reignited and reaffirmed old and new passions and encouraged me to think more pragmatically than I may have been, something I’ve been working through for some time.

Lastly, which should probably mentioned first in any other review, Life Work: Confessions of an Everyday Disciple is the end of a trilogy, the first two being Soul Work: Confessions of a Part-Time Monk and God Work: Confessions of a Standup Theologian. Since I have not read the first two and find Life Work wonderfully applicable without precursors, I still highly recommend picking up a copy even if the others have yet to be read. I’m sot sure if I’ll be getting to the others anytime soon, but feel free to let me know if readers of this review have read them and would like to offer their thoughts! Now, go pre-order your copy of Life Work right now!

 

*Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from ACU Press/Leafwood Publishers as part of their ACU Press Bookclub Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture by Makoto Fujimura

RefractionsIf you don’t know Makoto Fujimura, you should. Until recently, I didn’t even know of his existence; however, that all changed when a fellow scholar, art enthusiast, and friend, Jeremy McGinniss, invited me to join him and his students to a joint art lecture/presentation of “Qu4rtets” by painters Makoto Fujimura and Bruce Herman. It was a small, intimate setting, rather informal, and quite open to dialogue—not just Q&A. I felt an immediate connection to Fujimura as he spoke of culture and the Kingdom of God at one point and another as he described spending a long time with a painting until you begin to “see” and “under-stand” it—things that may escape casual viewing. Afterward, Fujimura and I had a couple conversations on things like visio divina, spiritual formation, and the connection between jazz and theology. It was then that I picked up Refractions in hopes that I may find it useful for students in The Jacob Institute of Christian Spiritual Formation’s Spiritual Formation Academy, founded by my good friend Jamie Overholser and for which I have been assisting in recent months and am looking to soon create a new course or two. That night I “Googled” Fujimura and discovered much more of his art and organizations of which he is a part or founded to further his passions. I recommend you do the same. Many thanks to Mako for his time, passion for art & culture, and foremost passion for “Jesus Christ, the Author of Creativity” as we journey toward shalom.

 

Now, on to the actual (short) review:

Fujimura paints with crushed minerals, which refract light differently than typically used inks, oils, and acrylics and age in such a way that change the way paintings look over time. Refractions is a collection of twenty-three essays spanning the course of several years, reflecting through his writing the same kind of refracting found in his painting. However, much more than painting or writing, Fujimura explains that “Refractions is . . . a whole underlying philosophical framework for creativity and life that I’ve been developing. I now realize I have been unconsciously expanding this theoretical and theological grid as I wrote these essays, not only to describe the creative process, but also to develop a communication style suited for my temperament and to advocate for community vision for the church to honor artists, and even to argue for democratic ideals” (167). Fujimura’s passions and concerns for how faith, art, and culture work together and speak into one another are evident in every essay, but even if it stopped at the first two I’d want this book on my shelf and recommend it to others. This is not a book about Fujimura’s paintings; it’s a book about experience and encouragement written with eloquence and conviction, using his own paintings for context only when necessary.

Living only three blocks from “Ground Zero” of the September 11, 2001 (9/11) terrorist attacks in New York City, several of Fujimura’s essays stem from the artistic and cultural aftermath thereof, but that of which he writes transcends those experiences and offers itself to further context and application, making such essays accessible to those who may not share the same contextual experiences. Of course, this goes for his time in Japan, China, and everything else of which he writes, taking the reader on a journey, and after having reached the shore gently pushing him or her off to continue the journey, all in the larger context of living out our faith in Jesus Christ. For those who share our faith and have any interest in art and culture, read this book. It will encourage and inspire.

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