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“Yet another book about the differences between men and
women,” was my thought when I first received “For Men Only.”  My expectation was that this was going to be
a superficial explanation about the different ways in which men and women
think, communicate, and process life.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this book went beyond
the surface treatments of gender differences and explained not only why men and
women are different but ways in which men can use the knowledge of how women
see the world to improve their relationships with them.  The book is written in the voice of Jeff as a
man to a man.  Because of this, he can be
very frank and open not only about how women are but how we men can better
relate to them in a way that is helpful and not preachy or clinical.  It’s an easy book to read, I read it in two
afternoons, but it is packed with useful survey results, real-life examples,
and practical ways to respond to women to make for a better relationship.  There is a lot of humor and the examples are
all things that men can relate to.  Much
of the research and information compiled by Jeff comes from time spent with his
wife Shaunti as she conducted interviews and conferences with women in her work
with “For Women Only”, therefore the findings are not just academic but drawn from
real-life situations.  Interspersed with
the discussion are numerous surveys which back up the points made.  Also included with the book on the front
cover is a “Quick Start Guide” which sums up the book in easy-to-read chart
form.

I highly recommend this book for a number of reasons.  True, there is not much new or
ground-breaking here; after all, women have been the same since God created them,
but, the material here is fun and easy to read and offers many practical
techniques to put the findings into practice.
Also, since it is so short and easy to read it is much more likely to
actually be read by a typical guy and since the language is so conversational
it is less likely to be put down.  I
could see this book being used in a men’s small group, taking each chapter per
week and it would be a great book to give to men in pre-marital counseling
sessions or as a gift.  Finally, I appreciated
that the language in the book was very frank.
Jeff deals with things like sex, lust, and communication in ways that
are very direct while still being respectful.
I received a free copy of “For Men Only” by Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn in
exchange for an objective review from the publisher Waterbrook Multnomah.

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If you are a fan of allegory in the tradition of “A Pilgrim’s Progress” or, indeed, the parables of Jesus, then you will find Randy Alcorn’s “Chasm” to be a wonderful read.  “Chasm” is the life-story of Nick Seagrave—his rebellion from God, search for meaning, false paths and wrong turns on his spiritual quest, and ultimate salvation through Jesus told as a tale with symbolic elements and figurative language.  In this allegory the choices that we make in life and the values we embrace are depicted by pathways in a bleak land.  All the pathways are grey except for one: the red path.  All the paths ultimately lead to death in an impassable chasm except for the red one.  The chasm is the gulf that separates all people from the beautiful city of Charis (heaven) and thus represents the gulf which separates us from God with only the path of Jesus leading to salvation.  The story begins with Nick standing at the chasm, wondering how he can cross it since it is far too wide and deep to get across on his own.  Then there is a flashback to explain how he got to the chasm through bad choices, sins, and deception from Joshua (the devil).  Finally, he agrees to follow a mentor who is on the red path and meets the Woodsman (Jesus) who sacrificially provides the one and only way across the chasm and towards the heavenly city.

This is a beautiful allegory which thoroughly explains the problem we all have—separation from God as a result of our sins—and the only way that we can be reconciled through the sacrifice of Jesus.  The book is well-written and theologically sound; even though it as the feel of a fairy tale (as do most allegories), this is not a shallow look at the Christian faith but rather a very complete explanation of the Gospel: the bad news and the good.  It’s important in an allegory to be able to understand what the elements represent.  I had no trouble whatsoever understanding what the elements of the allegory stood for and I doubt that any Christian would.  However, someone who is not familiar with the Gospel or with elementary Christian theology would need some things explained, which would make this an excellent book for a book study with new believers or non-believers.  I’m not sure I would recommend just giving this to a non-believer, but would highly recommend going over the book with them or having them read it and then explaining what each part represented.  There is a good study note section in the back which would facilitate this excellently.  Apparently the novel “Edge of Eternity” tells the story of Nick Seagrave in novel form, but I’ve not read that novel and this allegory stands well on it’s own; you will not need to read the novel to make sense of this allegory (though I am now compelled to seek out the novel and read it).  I read all 110 pages of this book in just a few hours and I am a slow reader, which speaks volumes of how fast-flowing and interesting it was.  Randy Alcorn is a very well-respected and gifted Christian writers and one of the most popular authors out there now and this allegory is yet another reason why he has this sterling reputation.  The only real negative criticism I might have is that this book has some elements that might not be suitable for children, but that makes the book all the more useful for adult readers since it shows a very honest look at our sinful proclivities.  Also, I was not very impressed by the illustrations: they seemed amateurish; more like something you would find in a cartoon drawn by a teenager, but they do not detract from the book.  I was given this book by the publisher, WaterbrookMultnomah as part of their Blogging for Books program, but the opinions here are mine and I am free to provide both positive and negative reviews.

 

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Normally when you think of a monk from Kentucky who writes challenging books on spirituality you think of Thomas Merton, but in this case the monk is Michael Spencer and I can honestly say that his book “Mere Churchianity” is one of the best books on the Christian life that I’ve read in years and one that I will certainly be reading again soon (I normally don’t read books more than once).  If I were to write a book on the church and my frustration with it, this would be it.  Michael Spencer was the author of a very popular blog called “The Internet Monk” where thousands of readers found his analysis of the church and modern evangelicalism to be challenging, inspiring, and sometimes infuriating in its honesty.  Spencer is no outsider lobbing brickbats at the evangelical church: he was a minister and a teacher in a Christian school until his death in 2010 and his frustrations are those of an insider.  He has his credentials and has paid his dues to write this book and it is a tragedy that he is not able to follow up on it.

“Mere Churchianity” is ostensibly written for those who have “left the church in search of Jesus” and for those who are in the church but are thinking of checking out, not because they don’t believe in Jesus or no longer want to follow him but for just the opposite reason: because they love Jesus but don’t see him represented by the church.  Spencer’s analogy in the beginning of the book is of “Deer-crossing” sign on the highway; the implication of such a sign is that deer could be expected to be near such a sign.  He points out that he has never seen a deer near such a sign.  Likewise, a person would expect that a building with a sign promising that it is a Christian church would be a place where Jesus could be expected to be found; sadly this is often not the case.  Spencer attacks the idea that a church-centered spirituality, which so many of us are familiar with, is the true or only way to follow Christ.  Indeed, he empathizes with those who have left or are leaving the church and insists that the failure of the church to lead people to Christ (as opposed to a counterfeit church culture) is the reason that many people have left the church rather than some kind of apostasy or moral failure.  Spencer relentlessly skewers the church for missing the point and lays out a Christian life which is centered on following Jesus: he calls this a Jesus-shaped spirituality.  This is a life in which believers actually study the bible on their own to find Jesus, live honest, grace-centered lives, and serve Christ by serving the needy instead of just attending church programs.

Spencer really spoke to my heart as a minister in a Christian church.  I suspect that even though this book is written to those who are outside or leaving the church it will really resonate more with those who are in the church.  It must be emphasized that Spencer is not anti-Church;, he’s just against churches which are not pointing people towards Jesus.  Most of his ire is directed towards fundamentalism and consumer-driven mega-churches, but its obvious that any church which is failing to emulate Christ and provide a honest, grace-filled place to find community would be considered a failed church (in other words, this is not just a reaction to fundamentalism or a critique on mega-church excesses).  To be honest, there were times when I was greatly disturbed and even angered at Spencer’s analysis of the church, but in most cases my anger was not because he was saying something wrong but because what he was saying was absolutely right.  Many of his assessments are hard to read because he is speaking as an insider—a former minister and a teacher in a Christian boarding school for decades.  He knows what he is talking about and is not just attacking the church from the outside.  On many topics he strays very close to the third rail—you think he is going to cross a line which would place him into heresy—but he always manages to say things which are challenging and even disturbing without going too far or being unbiblical.  For example, he stresses that true Christian life should involve social work without falling into the camp of those who would ignore the Gospel in favor of good deeds.  “Find a community that encourages servant Christianity.  Wherever God places you, make it the place you serve him.  Whenever possible, seek out the little corners of darkness and pain in our world.  Go there and the Jesus-shaped path will rise up to meet you.  While crowds rush to a megachurch to be entertained, you go to the poor, the obscure, and the forgotten” (pg. 204).  He encourages people to drop the pretense of trying to be a “Good Christian” and instead rely on the grace of a God who loves us in our fallen state without slipping into antinomianism.  He attacks the failings of the church without being anti-church, more of a Martin Lutheresque reformer than a bitter critic.  Suffice to say, if you are an evangelical who is invested in the church you will get mad at what he has to say but you will most likely have to agree that his views are correct.  Furthermore, if you are simply someone who despises the church or has left the church with a chip on the shoulder you will not find ammunition in this book to attack Jesus: his goal is to lead people to Jesus, whether they do so in their current church or denomination or not.  “..My purpose in writing this book is to talk to you as someone who is willing to follow Jesus, not as someone who has decided to give up on Jesus.  You may have given up on a kind of religious experience or a particular kind of institutional religion, but you haven’t given up on Jesus” (pg. 198-199).  He does stress the need for community in the Christian faith—which is what the church should be—without insisting that it has to be in the traditional church setting.  As he says in the last page of the book (pg. 221), “It is my hope that the time we have spent together will encourage you to keep pursuing Jesus, no matter where you are in your journey.  Don’t neglect the search for authentic, Jesus-shaped spirituality.”

If you are involved in a church and yet you sometimes wonder if the church in America, especially the evangelical church, is somehow missing the point, you must read this book.  Oh, it will challenge you, it might even enrage you, but you will find that your anger is only because Spencer is pointing out the dirty secrets that we like to keep hidden in the church: that often the church is more interested in promoting the church than it is in glorifying Jesus.  Spencer speaks not as an outsider-critic but as an honest insider.  At the end of the book you may find yourself more determined than ever to get closer to Jesus and in the process to bring the church closer to Jesus.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, but the thoughts are mine and I am under no obligation to give a favorable review.

You can read an excerpt of the book here: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?isbn=9780307459176&view=excerpt

Please take a moment and rank my review if you don’t mind, it will only take a moment:

http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/bloggingforbooks/reviews/ranking/3257

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I’ve not updated my blog in a long time and if history is any guide I might get back out of the habit before too long.  But, in the chance that I might be more regular on here I thought I would start putting some of my sermons back up here.  I know that reading a sermon is not what most people want, so I understand if you don’t read this.  However, in looking at the blog stats, I find that most people find the blog while looking for a sermon (they are the most viewed entries).  There are a lot of ministers out there who are looking for inspiration, ideas, or commentary on various scripture passages and sermons from other preachers help.  So, for that reason, I’m going to try to update my blog with my current series on Matthew.

I started preaching from Matthew about 2 years ago, and since I preach verse-by-verse I’m only in Matthew 12 now and will probably be in Matthew for a while, but I think this is the best way to really get at the message of Matthew.  I couldn’t find Matthew 1; the earliest one is Matthew 2.  Hope this can be of help to someone.  I’ve not gone through and edited, so there may be typos in the text.

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Randy Alcorn, the man who brought us a comprehensive look at heaven, tackles the question of why life on earth is often more like hell.  “The Goodness of God”, at 117 pages, is a good-sized condensation of his book “If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil”.  This book tackles the ancient question of theodicy: why bad things happen in this worl.  This is a book that you will probably want to buy multiple copies of to give to friends—believers and non-believers alike—who have questions about why there is so much evil and suffering in the world if indeed God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving (which He is).  There are so many good things to say about this book, I really can’t think of anything negative.  To begin with, I greatly appreciate Randy’s voluminous use of scripture to lay out his arguments.  In a time when many Christian books are light on scripture, this is refreshing.  Randy doesn’t just proof-text scripture like so many others, either, but grounds those scriptures in solid theology.  Best of all, he doesn’t offer pat answers or mere anecdotes but delves into the theological reasons for evil and suffering in the world.  Essentially, he argues that suffering is a result of the sin in the world which came about through the Fall.  The only way to understand sin and suffering is to have a biblical worldview that understands that this world is not the way the God wanted it to be in His original plan.  One chapter deftly skewers other worldviews and religions by showing how inadequate those views are in explaining suffering and by maintaining that a worldview that denies God has no basis for morality.  For example, to an atheistic Darwinist, rape and murder make sense and could not be considered “bad”; “survival of the fittest”, after all.  Only a holy God could define what is “good” and what is “evil”.  He encourages those who are suffering to consider the cross of Christ as proof that God not only understands our pain but has also experienced it with us.  Many of his points are standard fare in the world of theodicy, but he explains them in a fresh new way and I found his encouragement to keep the promise of the resurrection and heaven in mind while suffering to be well thought out; no doubt based on his research into the subject of heaven.  The book is easy to read, the illustrations and pertinent anecdotes are a good balance to his heady theology, and the length is perfect for those who want a solid overview on this difficult subject (I’m a slow reader and read it in an afternoon).  I would highly recommend this book to anyone and especially for someone going through a time of suffering, though it would be much better to read the book before suffering occurs to have a solid theological grounding to prepare for the inevitability of suffering.  As he quotes a friend of his who lost a son, “I think it’s good for books to offer biblical guidance on suffering and evil, but the greatest comfort for me has been to focus on God.  I’m not as concerned about the whys.  When you know him, it’s okay.  I can trust him with what I don’t know.  That’s what brings me back to the Bible.” (page 96)  This book will not offer pat answers but a look at what the bible teaches about suffering.  Finally, the crowning point of the book is his invitation at the end.  He does not encourage the reader to pray some unbiblical “Sinner’s Prayer” with an assurance that they will now be saved.  Instead, he accurately urges readers to “Ask God to mercifully open your eyes and reveal to you this Jesus you read about.”  (page 113).  “The best way to do this is to open the Bible.  Set aside all other arguments and study the person of Christ.”  In a time of vacuous and unbiblical popular Christian books, Randy Alcorn gives a very solid, theological, hopeful book to understand what the bible teaches about sin and suffering.  This book promises to give hope and encouragement to all who read it.  I highly recommend this book!  I do need to mention that I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review, but this had nothing to do with my high opinion of this book, it truly was one of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject.

 

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I just finished reading Matthew Paul Turner’s book “Churched” as a part of Waterbrook Multnomah’s “Blogging For Books” Program.  Basically, they provide a copy of a book in exchange for an honest and thoughtful review of said book.  Sounds fair to me.

I was attracted to “Churched” because it sounded like a book which would give a candid and amusing look at what it is like to grow up in a fundamentalist church and hopefully provide some insight into how that journey ended once the author became an adult.  This book delivered on half of that expectation: much was said about the upbringing, but very little about how the author fared after becoming an adult.  Let me say from the beginning that this was a very enjoyable book and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for some light, enjoyable, reading; it would make a great book for reading on a plane, on the beach, or in any room of your house where you require short chapters that can be read easily.  “Churched” is Turner’s account of growing up in a fundamentalist church, written in more of a humorous tone than descriptive.  Early in his life his parents began attending IBBC, an independent fundamentalist Baptist Church led by the domineering Pastor Nolan.  What follows are a series of vignettes showing various aspects of life as a young fundamentalist as seen through the eyes of a young child.  His fundamentalist church is described in ways that paint it as absurd, extreme, “weird”, and hypocritical.  All in all it’s a good read.  Mind you, if you’re looking for deep theological insight, an honest examination of the perils of growing up as a fundamentalist or deep soul-searching about how our religious upbringing affects our later adulthood then this book is not for you.  However, if you are looking for an amusing and often funny book based on shared religious experiences then you will not be disappointed.  I found the writing style to be both endearing and slightly annoying at the same time; it is a mix of Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor.  That is, the humor is often forced and the descriptions of life in a fundamentalist seem a tad exaggerated for humorous effect.  To be fair, I don’t really know: his church could have been as absurd as he lets on, but I got the sense that he was portraying his experiences more as a stereotype or caricature of fundamentalist life than as it really happened.  If his goal was to just paint a caricature then the effect was good, but if he were really trying to describe things as they were then the accounts seemed hard to believe (again, think of Garrison Keillor’s descriptions of Lake Wobegon: funny, but a little hard to believe).  All in all, though, the description of his upbringing was very amusing and enjoyable to read, as long as you are expecting farce and not documentary (I was expecting documentary, which is why I was a little disappointed).  My other complaint is in a similar vein.  I expected that he would give some discussion as to why he rejected fundamentalism and how he came to the spiritual place he is now.  After all, the subtitle of the book is “One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess.”  The journey toward God is missing in this book.  Essentially he shows how absurd and, his words, “weird” his church life was a child and then jumps ahead in the final chapter to explain that he wandered from church to church until finally settling on Cross Point Church in Nashville after meeting with the minister, a Ryan Seacrest lookalike.  From what I could tell his reason for feeling comfortable at that church was that the minister did not highlight his hair even though it appeared that way.  I found the last chapter to be the most engaging: it was real, the writing was not forced humor or caricature, and it showed a bit of the spiritual journey of the author.  Unfortunately, there was little in the way of detail about how he ended up where he is now or an explanation about what he rejected in fundamentalism and why.  Yes, fundamentalism made him look weird compared to the rest of his culture (especially the way he portrays it), yes, they have extremely negative views about culture and yes, they are very ardent in their beliefs about the bible and morality, but what was lacking was an explanation as to why he rejected these things.  Often there were times when he would begin to explore why he rejected fundamentalism, like in a chapter when he is perplexed about why his dad is friends with a man who rejects Christianity or when he describes a woman who challenges his fundamentalism while he was witnessing to her.  I wanted him to go a little deeper to explain why these encounters were obviously profound to him, but he left those stones unturned along with any insight into his feelings toward them.

Still, I go back to my early assessment: if you want a deep book that explores spiritual truths, this is not for you.  If you want a good, amusing read in the tradition of Dave Barry, this is a great book for you.  To those who grew up as a fundamentalist you might find this book to be a fun look at your early life, to those who didn’t this book might be a good way to reinforce the image of fundamentalists portrayed in popular culture.

I would recommend “Churched” and found it to be worth my while to read: it’s a fun, easy read.  It is well written and there are many places where you will laugh out loud.  Turner’s new book is called “Hear No Evil” and I would be tempted to read it to find out if he gives more details about how he made the leap from fundamentalism to a grudging tolerance of church in general.  Oh, and here is my disclaimer: “I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review”.

Here is a link you can follow to read the first chapter: http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?isbn=9780307458018&view=excerpt

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Sorry…

Ok, this is the standard ‘sorry I haven’t blogged in a while” disclaimer.  No excuse really, just haven’t had the mojo.

Also, you may notice that www.insipidgarbage.com doesn’t work anymore, you have to go to www.insipidgarbage.wordpress.com instead; I decided to quit paying for the URL.  Then again, if you are reading this, you found the blog somehow.

I’ll try to get back to blogging soon.

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