The4thDave Reads: “S.” by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

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I’m a sucker for footnotes, especially footnotes in novels. For example, I was tickled by the implied history and imaginary academic research cited in Susanna Clarke’s splendid Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a work of Victorian urban-fantasy featuring dueling wizards and fanciful creatures during the Napoleonic Wars.

Until this year, the most unique novel-reading experience I’ve ever had was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a sprawling, labyrinthine psychological-haunted-house story with layers of meta-commentary in its footnotes and editorial asides, bewilderingly cryptic typesetting choices, and a rabid fan base that was active online when I finished that novel several years after its publication.

That book is the closest analog I can think of for Abrams and Dorst’s novel S., which was published in late 2013. At that time, it seemed to be warmly received by the critical press but quickly forgotten. It was the first book I ever bought as a result of a “book trailer” (which I assume was a pretty novel [no pun intended] concept in 2013). I started to read it and stopped 2 different times in the last 4+ years, before finally buckling down to read it to completion last month.

Why the false starts? Because, like House of Leaves, this is a book within a book, but ratcheted up to the next level. When you remove S. from its slipcase, you find that the book you’re holding is a old high school library book (complete with library accouterments and stamped labels) called Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka. The story of SoT is a surreal work of mid-twentieth-century European literature, following an amnesiac protagonist on an exploration of identity, political extremism, and metaphysical confusion. It’s…weird, but weird in a compelling way. However, the base book would be incomplete, if not a bit nonsensical, without the meta-novel.

The meta-novel consists of 3-4 layers of “handwritten” margin notes between two readers, Jen and Eric (written at different times in their “story”), along with about 2 dozen pieces of inserted materials–things like postcards, newspaper clippings, letters, a wheel for decoding ciphers, and a hand-written campus map on a napkin from a university coffee-shop. In the meta-novel, the reader meets these two characters: Jen, a senior at Pollard State University, and Eric, a former graduate student and TA at Pollard who was expunged from the school’s records due to an academic controversy. The conversation between these two correspondents drifts back and forth between their personal lives and their shared interests: a scholarly debate about the true identity of SoT‘s author and a worldwide conspiracy that may be working to keep that fact a secret. (I’m pretty sure this is meant to bring to mind the debate about Shakespeare’s true identity, which is referenced in the book as well.)

Over the course of the novels, these layers of commentary (which sometimes address the text itself and other times are merely inspired by a word or phrase on that page) reveal the second story, a story of two people trying to make sense of difficult life experiences and struggling to connect with each other (a story that is echoed in the novel’s subtext and footnotes, as explained by the readers). The element of time is part of the trick here–we as readers are teased early on by “future” Jen and Eric making veiled allusions to events in their story that we don’t hear about for several pages or even chapters. (Confession: The whole “layers of marginalia” mechanic breaks down a little bit if you really think about the logistics, because usually [though not always] it reads like a conversation instead of a series of passed notes. I recommend treating it as one of those charming elements that one just happily accepts. Makes the whole enterprise function more smoothly.)

So the vital question, then: Does it work? And my answer is: Mostly, yes. Both storylines are at times quite gripping, though not at the same time, which works to its advantage. There are a few slow spots and the endings felt a bit abrupt, but the whole concept is so bonkers that I hung on for the ride and was not disappointed. I took the approach of reading through each new chapter of SoT, before tackling the layers of notes for that chapter. It doesn’t take long to figure out the chronological order of the notations, thanks to the different color inks for each set of interactions. I’ve heard of other approaches to the reading of the book(s), but I think this one keeps things flowing pretty well. The footnote story includes lots of foreshadowing in its references to the primary text as well, so not having read Straka’s book all the way through yet made these references all the more tantalizing.

[Content note: Other than some occasional strong language in the footnote-story and an unnecessary “boo, intolerant Christian parents” subplot, I can’t recall any offensive or off-putting content. Nothing comes to mind, at any rate.]

In the end, I’m very glad I read this novel. It’s not a perfect story, and I don’t think I need to reread it anytime soon, but it was a unique reading experience that I will enjoy referencing to others in the future. Whatever shortcomings the plot(s) may have had, the gonzo approach to challenging storytelling conventions made it a winner for me.

The4thDave Reads: “The Imperfect Disciple” by Jared C. Wilson

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I feel like I say it every time I review/discuss a Jared Wilson book: I really love Wilson’s writing. I appreciate his heart, which comes through with every page. And Jared’s a legitimately good and sincere dude in person.

The Imperfect Disciple was released last year, and it really feels like Wilson’s most personal book to date. In the past, he has written more soaringly theological books, more widely-applicable books on ecclesiology and pastoral ministry. But Imperfect Disciple is both confessional and pastoral, encouraging and vulnerable. In most chapters, he shares personal stories in which he presents himself not as the hero, but as shy, awkward, and very human.

The effect of this is…jarring, in a rather nice way. In so much theological writing, you get the impression that the author is a varsity-level, all-state Christian, even if he or she would deny such designations. Lots of theological books have a feeling of otherness, of rabbi-ness–and that’s not to say that this is a bad thing. I like being taught by scholars and pastors who are wiser and more astute than I am. It blesses and challenges me.

But you don’t get a lot of books on the Christian life in which the author is upfront with how hard it is for him to walk this path sometimes. This is Wilson at his most personal (as personal as you can properly get in a book, I think). This feels like Wilson sitting across the table from you at a burger joint, a crumb or two on his shirt, telling you about his own faith journey. As such, his language and descriptions can be a bit colloquial–never crass or crude, but natural and un-pastory. (That sounds like a criticism; it’s not.)

Through the 10+ chapters in Imperfect Disciple, Jared talks about the in’s and out’s of daily Christian life–preaching the Gospel to yourself, practicing spiritual disciplines, dealing with doubt, hoping toward heaven. While there are places here and there where I could quibble with how he worded things or addressed theological ideas, he never veers into error. His ultimate aim in every chapter is to point the readers’ eyes away from themselves and back to Christ, the savior of imperfect and often lousy and foolish disciples.

In the end, I found The Imperfect Disciple to be refreshing and encouraging. Jared Wilson continues to minister to me as a fellow believer, and his honest and personal words remind me that I am loved by God, no matter how imperfectly I follow Him. This is a salve to my too-often-self-critical heart.

The4thDave Reads: A Bunch of Stuff back in March…

As promised previously, I had planned on writing reviews for every book I read this year. Obviously, since I have only posted one so far, I got a little behind on this goal. So here’s a quick catch-up post. I won’t be going as in-depth as I normally would (since these are going to be capsule reviews from memory), but I want to at least work on getting up to speed.

(Random fun-fact: All but the ESV volume and the unnamed final entry were books I had started before the year began but hadn’t yet finished. [Okay, “fun” was maybe overselling it.])

The ESV Reader’s Bible: Historical Books — Volume 2 of the 6-volume ESV Reader’s Bible covers Joshua-Esther. A few varied comments on this section of the Old Testament:

  • Leviticus gets a bad rap. For my money, I Chronicles is the hardest slog in the OT–and I say that will full respect and appropriate honor to the divinely-inspired Scriptures. Every word of the Bible is God-breathed and profitable, but when it’s your first time through, 15 or so chapters of lists of names is CHALLENGING. That said, having read straight-through to that point, it was exciting to start recognizing names and family lines.
  • My recurring thought throughout Samuel-Kings-Chronicles: even the very best human kings are fallible and frustrating, which only emphasizes what a good king Jesus is. He will never fail us.
  • Another recurring thought: how easily we fall into idolatry and sin, letting our fear and greed and pride choke out all good sense and memory of what God has commanded us and accomplished for us. As tempting as it would be to read these stories of Israel’s unfaithfulness and shake my head in disbelief, I have to be honest and say, “This is me. This is all me.”

A Little Book about the Christian Life, by John Calvin — This selection of newly-translated essays was a giveaway from Ligonier Ministries. The book design was really nice–minimalist, compact, clean. Burk Parsons translated and updated these 5 chapters of Calvin’s Institutes, and as you can imagine, they were dense, edifying, and thought-provoking. I read this one really slowly, maybe a paragraph or two at a time. It stayed on my bedside table and became a source of meditation and contemplation just before bed, most nights. I have to admit, I can’t recall a specific quote or point that was particularly meaningful. But on the whole, I benefited from this small volume precisely because it helped me focus my thoughts on the Lord as I ended each day–and that’s something of value.

The World-Tilting Gospel, by Dan Phillips — Okay, confession time: I started this book…4 years ago. In my defense, it was right before I got married, and in the chaos of merging two households and lives, the book got shuffled around and eventually recirculated into the TBR shelf. I kept meaning to get back to it, and finally (finally!) did. This book examines the core truths o the Gospel, and then addresses how they force us to look at the world differently. The chapters in which Pastor Phillips details the implications of the Gospel on justification and sanctification are particularly fine. However, my favorite bits are where he addresses false understandings of the Christian life, such as the “muzzy mysticism” of those who abstract the truths of the Scriptures in the attempt to be “spiritual.” Phillips is a clear thinker, and his writing is bracing and direct.

The Gospel According to Jesus, by Dr.John MacArthur — John MacArthur is often associated with what’s called the “lordship controversy,” and this book is his full-throated response to those accusations. What was the controversy? MacArthur had the audacity to preach and teach that if Jesus is your Savior, He is also your de facto Lord, and there is no such thing as “making” Jesus the Lord of your life. MacArthur insists on and thoroughly demonstrates from Scripture that Christian faith without a recognition of and submission to Jesus’ authority as Lord is no Christian faith whatsoever. While opponents of this view claim that it suggests a salvation by works, MacArthur dismantles this notion by using the Scriptures themselves to demonstrate that the call of salvation is a call to discipleship and allegiance to a new Master. This book is excellent and incredibly profitable, no matter where you are in your Christian walk.

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There was one more book I read (technically, listened to) at the end of March, but it’s part of a larger series and it would only do to review the entire series together. I read the first volume in March, and Books 2 and 3 in April (the only books I completed that month, sadly). Once I finish Book 4 and the supplemental stories, I’ll provide a full review at that point.

You may be saying, “Good grief, tell us what book, man!” Nah, I’ll keep that a surprise. But I’ll say this–depending on how the last volume goes, this series may just overtake The Chronicles of Narnia as my favorite children’s series of all time. And that’s saying something.

Anyway, ‘ere we are.

Have you read anything fun lately? Comment below and let me know what should go on my reading list!

Last 5 Books [7/17/17]

Hey friends! Lots going on lately, but I’ve been able to do a little reading over the last month or so.  Here are the last 5 books I’ve read and my brief thoughts on each!

Linchpin, by Seth Godin – This book by business and productivity “guru” Seth Godin touched on a lot of really interesting ideas that I’ll probably bring up in a later post. Here’s one that I found pretty compelling: the way to elevate your work from being another monkey pressing a button in a cubicle to creating “art” (even if you aren’t in an artistic field) is to bring your humanity to bear in your daily tasks. Don’t just be content with formality and the minimum necessary effort to interact with people. Remember that you’re emailing actual people with feelings and concerns. Treat them that way. It raises the game for all concerned.

The Wonder-Working God, by Jared Wilson – Wilson’s work is always excellent. (I’m an unabashed fan.) This book was helpful to me because it challenged me to look at the accounts of miracles in the Gospels with fresh eyes, and look at how these miracles were signposts pointing to who He is as God-in-flesh. Growing up in the faith, I’ve taken a lot of things in the Bible for granted. The truth is, the story of Jesus’ life and ministry is pretty fantastic and shocking, if you’re paying attention. I appreciated Wilson’s humor and eloquence in exploring these ideas.

Turning Pro, by Steven Pressfield – Pressfield has earned a reputation in the area of writing about writing and, in particular, about the war that writers wage against The Resistance, that internal force always threatening to stop us from producing art. In Turning Pro, Pressfield considers what it means to be an Amateur versus being a Professional, not just in terms of writing or creating art but in terms of life. His style is punchy and sometimes profound, but I felt like this volume wasn’t as strong as his other works, The War of Art or Do the Work, which I would recommend instead.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You, by Cal Newport – Newport challenges the oft-repeated advice to “follow your passion” by arguing that career satisfaction comes not through following your dreams but through working like a craftsman to become outstanding at whatever you’re currently doing. He argues that seeking to be exceptional and skillful in any field opens up opportunities (what he calls career capital) to increase your autonomy and direct your work toward a chosen mission. This book is chock-full of great ideas and interesting insights. I’ll have more to say on this later.

Husband-coached Childbirth, by Dr. Robert Bradley – My wife is having a baby pretty much any day now, and we have chosen to have the baby at a birth center with a midwife. Natural childbirth is a daunting task, and Dr. Bradley is one of the most trusted names in the field of natural childbirth in the United States. I really appreciate the high value that this approach places on the husband’s role in childbirth, and how Bradley coaches husbands to be actively involved throughout labor. While I have some qualms about some of his ideological assumptions, this book is very practical and would be a help to any prospective parents who are considering natural childbirth. It’s not the only resource out there, but certain a good one to check out.

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So what’s up next on the reading list?

  • I’m about a third of the way through the audio version of Tony Reinke’s Twelve Ways Your Phone is Changing You. This book is outstanding. Already going to call it a must-read.
  • I’m about to start The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci, a story of the management decisions that lead to last year’s magical World Series run.
  • I’m working my way through Jeff Goins’ latest book, Real Artists Don’t Starve. LOTS of good content there. Full review forthcoming.
  • Depending on when things come in from the library, this month I’ll also be starting The New Dads Playbook by Benjamin Watson, Teammate by former Cubs catcher (and DWTS runner-up!) David Ross, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and a few others.

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Your Turn: Read anything interesting lately? About to start any new books? Let me know in the comments!

2016 Reading Challenge: December Update and End-of-Year Round-up!

Time for the final 2016 Reading Challenge update!

This month, I only read one more book from the list:

A Book About Money: Love Your Life, Not Theirs, by Rachel Cruze. This volume by the daughter of Dave Ramsey (and heir-apparent of his financial-counseling empire) is a lighter version of the core Dave Ramsey principles, with some extra material thrown in. In the book, Cruze lists 7 principles for finding contentment, which includes things like “avoid debt,” “save money,” and “use a budget.” Essentially, if you are familiar with Dave Ramsey’s “Baby Steps,” there’s nothing groundbreaking or useful here. The only addition Cruze makes is some discussion of the dangers of comparing yourself to others. However, the book mostly avoids the spiritual aspects of contentment and jealousy, so the reader is left with a bland, faith-lite exhortation toward gratitude and generosity as a solution for envy and discontentment. In the end, this book is fluff: watered-down, non-challenging, non-offensive. It seems like she’s trying to move away from the brusqueness associated with Dad, but it’s weak tea, so don’t bother.

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Final tally for the 2016 Reading Challenge: 33/52. I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t do better, but honestly, it’s a good run, considering how many additional books I read this year. All in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the experience. As you can see by the list below, the challenge successfully broadened my typical reading, and took me out of my  comfort zone. While I don’t plan on tackling another reading list in 2017, I will certainly give it a go down the road.

Reading Challenge Categories completed:

A book about Christian living
A biography
A classic novel
A book more than 100 years old
A book for children
A mystery or detective novel
A book published in 2016
A book about a current issue
A novel that won the Pulitzer Prize
A book with at least 400 pages
A book with a great cover
A book on the current New York Times list of bestsellers
A graphic novel
A book of poetry
A book that won a ECPA Christian Book Award
A play by William Shakespeare
A humorous book
A book based on a true story
A book written by Jane Austen
A book with 100 pages or less
A book with a one-word title
A book about money or finance
A novel set in a country that is not your own
A book about music
A memoir
A book about joy or happiness
A book by a female author
A self-improvement book
A book by David McCullough
A book you own but have never read
A book targeted at the other gender
A book by a speaker at a conference you have attended
A book written by someone of a different ethnicity than you
Check back tomorrow for my full 2016 reading list, and my top-five favorite books of the year!

2016 Reading Challenge Update: October/November

Time for another update on my Challies 2016 Reading Challenge progress!

You may be thinking, “Wait, Dave’s still doing this thing?” And the answer is…kind of?

I’m not sure why, but October and November were just not very bookish for me. Personal reasons aside, I just didn’t make reading a priority like I had in previous months. Also, as I noted previously, my limited reading was often occupied with non-Reading-Challenge materials.

That said, I did finish one short book from the Reading Challenge list:

A book about music: On Bowie, by Rob Sheffield. I mentioned in an earlier Friday Five post that I was slowly working my way through this one, with mixed feelings. While I definitely love Sheffield’s writing, I realized that my understanding and appreciation of David Bowie was very shallow. In a sense, “my” Bowie was the elder-statesman Bowie–more subdued, less sexually-charged, singing about love and loss. Sheffield’s short but adoring biography of David Bowie gave me a fuller understanding of the artist’s long and turbulent career. And to be honest, I find I’m starting to distance myself from him as a result. I can’t explain it other than to say I’m seeing in a new way how out there Bowie often was, and it’s turning me off a bit. I still recognize his immense talent–I’d never argue that. I guess I’m just seeing that Bowie isn’t my bag anymore, if he ever was. (I’m pretty sure Sheffield would be horrified and/or outraged by this response.)

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There’s one month left in the 2016 Reading Challenge. Guess what? I’m not going to make it.

Right now, the tally sits at 32 out of 52. A respectable number, especially given how many extra books I threw into the mix this year.

For this final month of the year, I’m going to focus primarily on books that I have committed to reviewing on the blog. (I’m already about halfway through one more book from the reading list on money/finance, but that shouldn’t take long.) Some of these books for review can be applied to reading list categories, but most will not. However, I want to make sure I take care of these commitments I have made (some of them, months ago).

So my expectation is that I will reach at least 35 out of 52 before year’s end. As for the books and reviews coming up this month (hopefully): selections by Jared Wilson, RC Sproul, Tom Schreiner, Kevin Van Hooser, and others. Some tough sledding, but what better time for that than winter, right?

As for next year, who knows? I may decide to finish out this list before doing anything else. Or I may chuck the rest of this list and tackle something else. Tim Challies has already posted a 2017 Reading Challenge list, but I don’t think I’ll attempt that one next year. I have piles of unread books (both physical copies and Kindle books) that I would like to work through, so I may decide to do just that, and post little capsule reviews on this page from time to time (similar to these monthly updates).

Until then, thanks for reading.

Your Turn: Reading anything good lately? Let me know in the comments below!

The4thDave Reviews: “Kill Devil” by Mike Dellosso

The Hook: In this sequel to 2015’s Centralia, Jed Patrick has been living “off the grid” in a mountain cabin with his wife Karen and daughter Lilly under assumed identities. They have guarded the flash drive that contains all the secrets of the government program known as “the Centralia project,” and have done everything they could to stay out of sight until they figure out how to release the data. Unfortunately, their location is discovered by government operatives. The safety of their daughter is threatened, and they’re given a new mission: help a small group of operatives within the CIA expose and take down a plot to overthrow the federal government. However, as Jed begins to learn what exactly he’s being asked to do, he starts to wonder if the people he’s working with are the ones who can help him…or the ones he has been trying to escape.

What Worked: Jed Patrick worked. Dellosso has created a solid protagonist that seeks to do the right thing and wrestles with the moral challenges and ambiguities of the situations he faces. This isn’t a Hollywood tough-guy type that blithely takes life and inflicts pain. Patrick seeks to incorporate the realities of his faith into the darkness of his daily life. This is a character whom I have enjoyed getting to know over the course of these two books.

The action in Kill Devil is fast-paced. Dellosso knows how to keep the tempo up on his stories, and once things kick off in the first chapter, the novel does not slow down a bit. These stories seem like they would make a natural jump to film adaptation.

What Didn’t: The thing I liked best about Centralia was that there were so many twists and turns, I really didn’t know what to expect. I just can’t say the same for Kill Devil. Dellosso delivers a few surprises, but the “big twists” were telegraphed to the point that I got impatient waiting for the other shoe to drop. While the reader may not be able to predict all the finer details, the broad strokes are easy to anticipate. In the end, my expectations for another thrill ride were pretty let down.

The narrative sections that focus on Jed’s daughter Lilly just didn’t work for me, for 3 reasons: 1) They didn’t really contribute to the main plot. There seemed to be threads of subplots that were perhaps abandoned, and as a result they felt a bit irrelevant. 2) Lilly is, honestly, a boring character. She’s a cipher, a perfect little girl who seems to be there to say something cute or spiritually poignant. 3) The spiritual content in this book takes a turn into the “personal messages from Jesus” and “dreams and visions” area, particularly when it comes to Lilly. Depending on your theological beliefs about such things, your mileage may vary. However, for this 93% cessationist, it really took me out of the story.

Final Analysis:  Y’all, I’ve been avoiding doing this review (which is why I’ve kept putting it off for about 2 months). Mike Dellosso seems like a really nice guy, and I will definitely keep reading his stuff. I honestly wanted to like Kill Devil, but by the last page, I was left disappointed. Centralia was a nail-biter of a novel that kept you guessing. Kill Devil felt more paint-by-numbers. The obvious bad guy is obvious, the final act plot twist was telegraphed, and the overall story felt derivative. I liked particular story beats, like the Alcatraz sequence. Dellosso writes great action sequences. I was glad to get another Jed Patrick story. But if this were my introduction to the Jed Patrick novels, rather than Centralia, I wouldn’t be as motivated to look forward to more.

 

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Please Note: I was provided a free copy of the book by the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed above are my own.

The4thDave Reviews: “The Pastor Theologian” by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson

When it comes the world of pastoral ministry, I’m a civilian, or at best a reservist. I have experience teaching Bible studies for several years, and very occasionally stepping behind a pulpit during a Lord’s-Day or mid-week service. I am also a very-part-time seminary student who still holds out hope of one day transitioning to some sort of bi-vocational or full-time pastoral ministry. I note all this to say, I am more interested in the pastoral office than the average churchgoer. Books about ministry interest me both practically and aspirationally.  For this reason, I started reading The Pastor Theologian by Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson.

In The Pastor Theologian, the authors identify a trend in the church that concerns them: namely, that “pastors aren’t theologians and theologians aren’t pastors.” This unhealthy division of labor, they argue, results in spiritual anemia in both the church and the academy.  After outlining the problem in the first few chapters, the authors then examine the relationship between the pastorate and the role of theologian throughout the history of the Church. They note that until the time of the Enlightenment, the Church was closely involved with education, and there was close cooperation between the university and the church, not only in Europe but in the United States, as the earliest universities and colleges were primarily begun as seminaries. However, with the advance of the Enlightenment, the academy pulled away from the Church and began critiquing and opposing it. In the US, the years after the Second Great Awakening found the same thing happening: academia asserted its independence from the Church. The result of this, the authors suggest, is that “theology” has become “ecclesially anemic, and the church has become theologically  anemic.”

The solution, according to Hiestand and Wilson, is a return of the pastor theologian, and particularly the ecclesial theologian. In Chapter 6 (in my opinion, the most useful of the book), they present a taxonomy of pastor theologians. In this chapter, they address 3 types of pastor theologians:

The local theologian is a pastor who provides theology to the local congregation; the popular theologian offers more widely accessible theological reflection for a broader swath of the church; and the ecclesial theologian gives theological leadership to other theologians and scholars, all the while keeping a close eye on genuine ecclesial (as opposed to academic) concerns.

They suggest that this last type, the ecclesial theologian, is “indispensable to the reshaping of the theological identity of the pastoral vocation.”

These three types are contrasted against the academic theologian, who is thinking and writing within the academy. Academic theologians, the authors suggest, are bound to the expectations and limitations of secular academic publication, and cannot write from a pastoral or church-centric position. Thus, academic theology is largely bound to a level of neutrality and disinterested separation that ecclesial theology is not.

What Worked

First, the authors unambiguously put the responsibility of theological leadership on the shoulders of the local pastor. Throughout the book, there is a call for the local pastor to labor in study and research so that he may preach and teach with a robust theology. This idea cannot be said enough, in my opinion.

Second, this book really helps to clarify the different tracks and approaches one can take in a pastoral setting. While the main thrust of the book is a call for ecclesial theology, they give honor and regard to each type of theologian, and discuss the benefits of both local and popular theology. I found this to be refreshing as well.

Third, the book is clearly intended to be inspiring, rather than merely descriptive. Rather than merely critiquing the intellectual shift in pastoral theology in the past 200 years, the authors are seeking to do something about it. It is clearly an area where they are passionate, and that comes through in several places.

What Didn’t Work (at least for me)

I had a few concerns about the book, as I read it, and some of them grew a bit over time.  First, I’m not as widely read as some. So there were times when the authors would refer to academic theologians in a positive manner, and I wasn’t able to recognize most of the names. It would have been more helpful to me personally if I were more familiar with academic theology, so that I can understand better where the authors were coming from, doctrinally and ideologically.

Second (and again, this may just be me), the book struggled to hold my interest in a few sections.  The early chapters that detailed the history of each type of theologian throughout the first 1700 years of church history began to drag on, and I found myself tempted to skim over paragraphs more and more. The latter chapters, in which the authors detailed ways to promote the development of ecclesial theologians, also lost my attention. There were lots of practical suggestions and case studies for church administration approaches in this area, but it started to feel a bit repetitive. This information might have been better saved for an appendix, with fewer case studies or more targeted questions and answers. I am fully willing to admit that I may not be the target audience for this type of material, so others who are more directly involved in these scenarios may benefit more.

Finally, the thing that confused me most was that the goal the authors spent the entire book calling for is already happening. They seem to treat the idea of an ecclesial theologian — a church theologian writing to church theologians — as a kind of unicorn, lost long ago but perhaps one day re-discovered.

Maybe it’s just that my experience is within a particular niche of the Church (conservative, reformed or reformed-ish evangelicalism), but I’m seeing several examples of ecclesial theology happening already. Places like Southern Seminary are producing pastor-theologians who are doing deep theological research. Men like Dr. Jim Hamilton and Kevin DeYoung are producing works of ecclesial theology while still ministering to local congregations. Journals like Themelios feature peer-reviewed articles by pastor-theologians. (Incidentally, Themelios reviewed this book very favorably!) All in all, I think the authors should be more encouraged that the very thing they are calling for is really happening, in many circles.

Final Analysis: The Pastor Theologian is a clarion call for the return of serious theology that is grounded in the realities of church ministry. Their taxonomy of pastor theologians is extremely helpful in understanding the different circles of influence a pastor might have, and I benefited from their considerations of the impact of vocation on thought process as well as their understanding on the differences between ecclesial and academic theological writing.

On the whole, I don’t think The Pastor Theologian is bad in any particular way. (I know, that sounds like “damning with faint praise.”) It just wasn’t for me, I think. However, those theologians that the authors are calling for may well benefit from their work here.

 

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Please Note: I was provided with a free electronic copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding thoughts are entirely my own.

 

The4thDave Reviews: “Onward” by Dr. Russell Moore

I have to admit: my relationship with Dr. Russell Moore’s work has been…evolving. Dr. Moore’s book Tempted and Tried was a challenging book that I have recommended to others in the past. I heard the man speak during a lunch for prospective seminary students, and his words stirred me and confirmed my desire to pursue full-time Christian ministry down the road. To be honest, it was Drs. Moore and Mohler that clinched Southern Seminary as my school of choice. But then, over the last few years, Dr. Moore has said and done things that left me scratching my head. I have found myself disagreeing more and more with Moore’s tendency toward coalition-building across denominational and even religious lines.

So when I had the opportunity to read and review his new book Onward, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do so. Having finished it, I can say that I’m glad I did. Onward is, above all else, an incredibly hopeful book about the opportunities that lay before the American church in the coming century.

Commendations

The heartbeat of the book is the idea that the Church must accept that it is becoming more and more counter-cultural in America. Moore repeats the refrain that the days of “traditional Judeo-Christian values” and the Moral Majority are at an end, but that this is ultimately a good thing for America and for the American Church. As Christians let go of any perceived cultural power, we are freed to act like the ordinary radicals we were called to be–people who hold to “bizarre” sexual and relational ethics of chastity and monogamy, people who seek to overcome through weakness and sacrifice instead of strength, people who are marked by a strange grace and compassion for those that society deems irrelevant. This truth is sorely needed in the American Church today.

Dr. Moore is sometimes criticized for being too ideologically or politically liberal. While I think his positions are closer to the middle than the left, I will acknowledge that I disagree with him on more than a few political issues. However, it is crystal clear in Onward that Moore upholds the authority of the Scriptures, the lordship of Jesus Christ, and the primacy of the Gospel message in the mouths and hearts of the American Church. Whatever knocks Moore’s opponents have on him, he is still a brother in Christ, and his work elevates the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is certainly material to commend in this book. The chapters on human dignity, family stability, and convictional kindness are strong and convicting.

Concerns

While I agree with many of Moore’s arguments and solutions, I can’t accept all of them. In recent years, Dr. Moore has demonstrated a growing comfort level with ecumenism (the linking of arms with people of different faith backgrounds) for the sake of social causes. This type of coalition-building is recommended throughout Onward. However, I’m still not convinced that linking arms with people of other faiths to address topics like same-sex marriage or human trafficking is the right answer. No matter with whom we lock arms outside of Christianity, we will ultimately disagree with our co-belligerents on both the cause and the solution for any societal ill we seek to remedy.

Dr. Moore writes in several chapters about how the Church should have a prophetic voice in the public sphere and the political process. Yet, he also decries how Christians have politicized their moral campaigns in the past. This seems to be a disconnect. If the use of political influence to accomplish a moral agenda was wrong then, why is it more acceptable now? It’s possible that I’ve misunderstood Dr. Moore’s intention here, but this just seemed like a logical disconnect for me.

The fifth chapter in the book, “Mission,” was problematic for me for both of the reasons described above. Dr. Moore argues that Christians should be engaged in actively seeking righteousness and justice in their culture. However, he argues that “the new birth itself is not the stand-alone remedy for the work of righteousness and justice. We cannot simply assume that ‘changed people’ will ‘change the world.‘” He goes on to suggest that Christians have the responsibility to seek good actively in the world, rather than passively hope things will get better.

While I agree on some level with the second half of that quote, I have to disagree strongly with the first. It is precisely the New Birth that brings about true change in cultures. When the Holy Spirit brings a spiritually-dead person to life, it is only then that they can seek true righteousness and justice. Apart from that, there may be some temporary improvements, but the fruit wouldn’t last. The most powerful force in all of human existence is the proclamation of the transforming Gospel. Cultural change without spiritual change is hollow secular piety at best, a cultural morality that will change and “evolve” with every passing generation. In this chapter, Moore misconstrues the counter-arguments he is facing. The issue is not that Christians refuse to alleviate suffering and injustice in this life. The great concern that I and others like me have is that we must be careful not to stifle the eternal message of the Church through a primary focus on this life alone. The message of the Church is that Christ came to save sinners from the divine wrath they have justly earned. The Church’s call to the ends  of the earth is not, “We will save you from injustice!” but “Christ can save you from condemnation!”

In these and other moments, I feel like Dr. Moore has misunderstood or mischaracterized the arguments and concerns of those who he is trying to argue against or persuade. The issue for many believers is not that we don’t realize doing good for others is good. Rather, we are seeking to address first what we feel may be the most urgent need for that person.

Final Verdict: While this book is far from perfect, there are some really helpful and challenging ideas that Christians in the American Church should consider and wrestle with. While I obviously disagree with several parts of it, it would be worth reading and discussing with mature and discerning believers.

On the whole, Onward was a challenging work for me, on a few levels. First, it challenged me to reconsider Dr. Moore and reminded me of the areas where we have common ground. Second, it forced me to think through the way that I respond to the vast cultural changes taking place in my country. Third, the book helped me reevaluate the ways my Christianity had been influenced by my political ideology, so that I might not make the same mistakes my spiritual predecessors did. Finally, Onward reminded me that we Christians are to be a people characterized by hope–hope that is not found in political influence or cultural cache, but hope in a resurrected Savior who defeated death by death and rose again to triumph forevermore. Whatever our political or cultural fates in this age, we await a better country, a secure and unshakeable city, and a righteous, just, and triumphant King.

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Please Note: I was provided a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. The preceding comments are purely my own.

The4thDave Reviews: “The Last Con” by Zachary Bartels

[I’ve noticed that my book reviews differ depending on genre. With novels, I’ll give a synopsis or pitch before reviewing–something I don’t do with non-fiction. I don’t know why that is, truth be told. If you like it, or don’t, let me know below. Now, for the review…]

The Pitch: Fletcher Doyle is trying to stay on the straight and narrow. After serving six years in prison, this career con-man is working hard to restore his relationship with his family, though things aren’t going too smoothly. While in prison, Fletcher became a follower of Jesus, but even he is now starting to have doubts about whether or not he really is a changed man. During a church mission trip back into his old stomping ground of downtown Detroit, Fletcher is suddenly pulled back into the game, as an old associate and a mystery involving the treasures of an ancient, mysterious sect tempt Fletcher once more to become the man he’s trying so hard to leave behind.

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The Review: The Last Con by Zach Bartels is like a great heist movie. The characters are interesting and likeable. The background of the “Macguffin” is  interesting. The action is fast-paced and thrilling. As the reader, you’re happily munching popcorn as you follow the adventure. This book has all the necessary elements for this kind of story: the set-up, the small heist, the complication, the big heist, the plan breaking down, the shocking reveal. That’s not to say the book is formulaic–at least, not in a negative way. If the book follows tropes, it does so only to suddenly shift your expectations. You realize at a few key points that you’ve been duped as well. While the ending of the book wasn’t a complete surprise, that’s only because I had about 5 different theories in my head about who the “big bad” was. Still, I was not disappointed at all with how the book resolved.

Bartels has created a caper that could easily work on-screen, though such an adaptation would probably lose the fascinating historical elements of the story. There are actually two main narratives at work: Fletcher’s story and the history of Count Cagliostro, a legendary (and infamous) master thief and con-man from the era of the French Revolution. (I’ll leave you to find out how the two stories intersect.) I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because I’d hate to spoil anything else.

Another satisfying element to this novel is how the themes of redemption and identity are woven  throughout the story. It’s almost as if you as the reader fall for the misdirection of the “heist” narrative, until you suddenly recognize the spiritual themes unfolding before you. Just as with Mike Dellosso’s Centralia, the book avoids the preachiness that sometimes plagues Christian fiction, while still presenting Biblical truth in a moving way. So it’s not an evangelistic book, as such, though it could provoke some Gospel conversations for those with ears to hear.

A quick note on “content”: Unlike mainstream crime/caper novels, this one avoids lewd sexual content and profane language. The violence is clear but understated, aside from a few brief descriptions of fatal head-shots. The only notes I’d make on coarse language are one use of a coarse slang term and one instance of innuendo–but nothing overt or gratuitous. Just wanted to mention it for those who would share this book with kids/teens.

Final Verdict: The Last Con by Zachary Bartels is great fun. Definitely worth a read if you’re looking for the literary equivalent of Oceans Eleven or The Sting or another film of that type. It’s available now at Amazon and other retailers, and would be a perfect “end of summer” read.

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Please Note: I was provided a physical copy of the book by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. The preceding thoughts are wholly my own.