Musings and notes on books I have read recently.
LeadershipNext: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture
Eddie Gibbs, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2005.
This work is an excellent resource for leaders trying to navigate their way through the uncertain shift in church cultures between modernity and post-modernity. Gibbs brings his experience to engage younger church leaders toward redefining leadership that resonates with the changing church culture. Although primarily written for younger leaders trying to establish a culturally relevant church leadership network, his balanced discussion of the need for change while still maintaining a strong biblical foundation serves as a worthwhile resource for leaders in aging denominations towards understanding leadership styles and attitudes of emerging generations. In essence, this is an invaluable resource for older churches struggling with their aging demographic and discussing the leadership appropriate to answer the “where are the under-35’s in our congregation?” question. For both younger and older readers, LeadershipNext facilitates a safe medium for listening and promotes conversation towards understanding next generation notions of leadership.
(reviewed by Chris Kim)
Going Public with the Gospel: Reviving Evangelistic Proclamation
Lon Allison and Mark Anderson, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove IL 2003
I am delighted that my good friend Lon Allison, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College has co-authored this book. We have needed a good case for public evangelistic preaching for a long time – and this meets the need. In my commendation for IVP I wrote:
“This is a bold and provocative book. Against the conventional wisdom that mass evangelism is through, it asserts the ongoing priority of evangelistic preaching. Against the comfortable marketing mentality of much contemporary outreach, it calls for costly grace and radical discipleship. Against much timidity about supernatural acts it dares to say that the Spirit is alive and well! You may not agree with all the authors propose but you will be challenged. It may shake shake our complacency. It may also, God willing, help to raise up a new generation of evangelists with the fire of God in their tongues, their heads and their bellies.” (1/04)
Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time
Dorothy C. Bass, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco 2000
One of the better books I have read on the Christian use of time, and of finding rhythm and balance. If, like me, you often feel life is an “unfinished symphony” – and that almost every day there is a sense of wishing there were more time, then please read this wise and helpful book. Dorothy Bass heads the Valparaiso University Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. She wonders how to answer the common question, “How has your day been?” and in answer explores for us the meaning of the day, the sabbath, the year, and lifetime itself – and suggesting ways of Christian practice to “receive the day.” I find it theologically well grounded, practically helpful, and spiritually both challenging and releasing, and an encouragement to follow God’s lead in discovering the rhythm of time. For the “time being” you are in .. take time to read it! (11/02)
Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction
David G. Benner InterVarsity Press Downers Grove IL 2002
This is one of several recent books showing that evangelical Christians are prepared to recover the age-old practice of spiritual direction. Benner, a practicing psychologist, is also an experienced spiritual director and retreat leader. Sacred Companions is his response to a real and growing need and longing for in-depth in our busy lives and noisy world. He shows sensitivity to the ways of the human soul as one would expect from a wise and experienced counselor, together with an awareness of is own spiritual journey. He has a wide knowledge of the literature and practice of spiritual direction. It is an excellent book, applicable broadly to anyone who desires to be a spiritual friend, and also to those more formally involved in spiritual direction. Highly recommended.
The Twilight of American Culture
Morris Berman W.W. Norton and Co New York NY 2000
A disturbing book .. a kind of secular jeremiad. Berman, a social historian, has a very dim view of our future. Somewhat in the vein of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Berman sees our culture as “vital” but in decline … signs of the decline being the growing gap between rich and poor, the inability of the society to keep up the heavy weight of our structures, the dumbing down of literacy, and a spiritual vaccum. While not a religious person Berman suggests the “monastic option” as the only viable alternative. Based on the historical precedent of monasteries which kept classical learning and culture alive during the Dark Ages, he suggests that some people may want to try some alternative “monastic” type efforts to stem the tide. (Is 4 billion square feet of malls in the US a bit overbuilt?)
Question: how he thinks a “monastic” option can be largely individual (not communities) is a wonder. The abbott of Mepkin Abbey also told me that he found it rather puzzling how one could have a monastery without God! Anyway … read it and ponder whether God has given you a “small field” (as Berman suggests) to be a monk in!
The author of the fine Truman biography has done it again! John Adams in this large volume gains a stature in the pantheon of the American Republic that he should have had but had not before! It is only the voluminous correspondence between Adams and Abigail that survived (unlike Jefferson’s letters, mostly burned, and probably for good reason) that made it possible for McCullough to give us such a vivid story and history of the signer of the Declaration, emissary to France and England, and president of the US .. who said of himself, “Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am right.” Worth reading for many reasons, including Adam’s pithy thoughts. “What horrid creatures men are, that we cannot be virtuous without murdering one another.” “The phrase ‘rejoice evermore’ shall never be out of my heart .. as long as I live, if I can help it.” And in a letter to his old friend van der Kamp: “Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding. Could have been an epitaph for this man who was called a “stout oak.” May we have more like him. Then maybe our culture would not be in “twilight.”
JOHN ADAMS By David McCullough – quotes
Stubbornness “Thanks to God that he gave me stubbornness when I know I am wright (272, re long effort to get Dutch help
Reflection “Everything in life should be done with reflection” 259 to John Quincy (re ice skating, riding, fencing and dancing!)
Self-doubts At the start of every new venture of importance in his life, John Adams was invariably assailed by grave doubts. It was a life pattern as distinct as any. The boy of fifteen, riding away from home to be examined for admission to Harvard, suffered a foreboding as bleak as the rain clouds overhead. The delegate to the First Continental Congress, preparing to depart for Philadelphia, felt “unalterable anxiety”’ the envoy sailing to France wrote of “great diffidence in myself.” that he always succeeded in conquering these doubts did not seemed to matter. In advance of each large, new challenge, the painful waves rolled in upon him once again. 399
Perfectibility of man The ideal of the perfectibility of man s expounded by eighteenth-century philosophers – perfectibility “abstracted from all divine authority” – was unacceptable, he declared.
It is an idea of the Christian religion, and ever has been of all believers of the
immortality of the soul, that the intellectual part of man is capable of progressive
improvement for ever. Where then is the sense of calling the perfectibility of man
an original idea or modern is discovery … I consider the perfectibility of man as used
by modern philosophers to be ere words without a meaning, that is mere nonsense.
He had himself, he told Rush, “an immense load of errors, weaknesses, follies and sins
to mourn over and repent of.” These were “the only affliction” of his present life. But St.
Paul had taught him to rejoice ever more and be content. “This phrase ‘rejoice evermore’
shall never be out of my heart, memory or mouth again as long as I live, if I can help it.
This is my perfectibility of man.” 590-1 (from letters to Dr. Benjamin Rush, his friend)
War “What horrid creatures we men are, that we cannot be virtuous without murdering one another?” (why a nation without wars seemed to lost honor and integrity) 609
Psalms The Psalms of David, in sublimity, beauty, pathos, and originality, or in one word poetry, are superior to all the odes, hymns, and songs in any language” 629 (letter to Jefferson)
Epitaph Once, in a letter to his old friend Francis van der Kemp, he had written, “Griefs upon griefs! Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, berry world notwithstanding.”
It could have been his epitaph. 651
Ian McEwan Nan A. Talese Doubleday New York 2001
I saw this novel in a bookstore in Gatwick airport and made a mental note to locate it – and discovered (for me) a new favorite writer. Ian McEwan spins a tangled yarn about the youngest daughter of an upper middle class English family, who wrongfully and spitefully accuses her older sisters’s boy friend of raping a cousin. One is never quite sure whether she did so because she believed it to be the truth, or because of an overactive imagination (she fancied herself as a famous writer) or because she herself was jealously in love with the boy friend. The characterizations are believeable; McEwan’s use of language and descriptive powers are outstanding. His scenes describing the British army’s desperate evacuation from Dunkirk in the early days of WWII are powerful – made more so since Robbie, the boy friend, is once again in peril of losing his life and all he loved. When Briony the accuser grows up she realizes the horror of what she had done: “it appeared that her life was going to be lived in one room without a door.” Although she tries to make amends first by becoming a nurse for badly wounded British soldiers, and then by trying to recant her testimony, toward the end of her life, now a celebrated writer, she asks “how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity of higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her.” Is Briony’s dilemma not that of much of the Western world? There is a twist at the end that leaves one uncertain whether the whole story is meant to be real, or again the product of a writer’s fantasy. I want to read McEwan’s earlier Brooker Prize novel Amsterdam.
Ian McEwan Nan A. Talese Doubleday New York 1992
I am enjoying McEwan more and more. One reviewer describes him as “an acute psychologist of the ordinary mind.” His ordinary minds in this novel however are quite extraordinary. Bernard Tremaine and his wife June (in-laws of the narrator) were newly married at the end of WWII in England, deeply in love, ardent communists both. But during a delayed post-war honeymoon in southern France their lives are divided by an uncanny incident: June is attacked on a remote mountain path by two “black dogs” that she drives off. In her moment of danger she becomes aware of the aura of a presence that empowers her, an experience that brings her to a lifetime sense of the reality of both evil and God. From that moment she and Bernard (who goes even more deeply into his secular “faith” of scientific materialism) lose their deepest bond. Much of the book has Jeremy, the son-in-law, seeking to get a first-hand account from June of the “black dog” encounter, and of debates he imagines (or hears) in his head between June and Bernard. The book closes with a remarkable passage, based on Jeremy’s notes of his last conversation with June before her death, where she describes the black dogs (who may have been trained as attack dogs by the Gestapo and since run wild) as the virtual incarnation of the evil “which lives in us all” and can be countered only by “a revolution in the inner life” of people. The black dogs, concludes Jeremy, “move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time.” I am reminded in McEwan’s writings of Graham Greene, another British writer with an acute sense of spiritual reality. And also that Winston Churchill described the depression that sometimes afflicted him as his “black dog.”
In the preface Jeremy has posed the dilemma that Bernard’s belief in science and human reason, and June’s belief in God create for him. “I am uncertain” he says, “whether our civilization at this turn of the millennium is cursed by too much or too little belief, whether people like Bernard and June cause the trouble, or people like me.” The specter of the return of the black dogs remains on the horizon for him, threatening the vacuum of his own little belief.
GRACE MATTERS A True Story of Race, Friendship, and Faith in the Heart of the South Chris Rice, Jossey-Bass Publications 2002
Chris Rice was for many years partner to Spencer Perkins (John Perkin’s son) in the Reconcilers Fellowship based in Jackson, Mississippi. Chris tells the story of their relationship and his own spiritual journey, dating from his first immersion in Mississippi as a New England college boy, to Spencer’s death of heart failure in 1998. (Chris was part of the Arrow Leadership Program in October, 1997 but had to drop out after Spencer’s death.) This book is tough reading … moving, honest, and often raw and brutally realistic about the relationship between the idealistic white man, and the very realistic black man … their struggles with themselves, with each other, with the church. He names names and sins. It’s worth reading both for what it tells us about the pain of trying to build community and effect reconciliation .. but also, as the title says, for the strong redemptive sense of the grace of God that goes deeper and further than our human dysfunctions. Incidentally, Chris tells how the rappelling and rock climbing at Crowder’s Mountain that first Arrow session touched him powerfully.
ISLAM A Short History
Karen Armstrong The Modern Library New York 2000
This brief (186p) volume packs an impressive amount of history and information into its short scope. The author (who also wrote The Battle for God) is a former nun and writer on religion, with a particular interest in the “fundamentalisms” of our time. The history of Islam through the centuries is quite thorough, although the many references to unfamiliar (to Westerners) names and terms can be a bit mind-boggling. But it is a good primer, and the closing section on Islam today is well worth reading just for the understanding of the impact of modernity, of Europe, and “Christendom” on Islam.
MY LOSING STORY
Novelist Pat Conroy tells in My Losing Season of the basketball team at The Citadel on which he played as a starting point guard much of his senior year. The team, in spite of good talent and hustle went 8-17 that year. Their coach was a man who knew how to blame but never to praise … and reminded Conroy of his own brutal Marine father (who became the model for Conroy’s fictional character in The Great Santni). Coach Thompson was not able to mold his players into a team.
A chance encounter with a former teammate at a book-signing led him to dredge up in mid-life that story of that losing season, and to reconnect with his teammates. While interviewing Al Kroboth, who was a POW in Vietnam Conroy, who protested that war, saw himself in a new light. “Now I understand I should have protested the war after my return from Vietnam, after I had done my duty.” This was only one of the lessons that he learned late in writing about that dismal year, so that his book turned out to be “an act of recovery.”
In his epilogue he writes
There is no downside to winning. It feels forever fabulous. But there is no teacher
more discriminating or transforming than loss. The great secret of athletics is that
you can learn more from losing than winning … Losing prepare you for the
heartbreak, setback, and tragedy that you will encounter in the world more than
winning ever can. (395)
And he concludes
Many of my teammates wish that year had never happened. I consider it one of the
great years of my life, if not the greatest … if I could change everything that
happened that year, if I could bring us a national championship, I would not do it.
(400) My Losing Season, Doubleday, New York 2002)
LORD TEACH US TO PRAY by Alexander Whyte
My mother-in-law, Morrow Graham, gave me her copy of this in 1953, about the time when Jeanie and I were married. It is worn and it’s cover frayed now from her use and mine … but the power and passion of Alexander Whyte is not! How I wish I could have heard him preach at Free St. George’s, Edinburgh, or heard his teaching as principal of New College. I can only imagine it! Whyte had a great heart for God, a deep sensibility to sin, and a most powerful imagination. “Do we practice the presence of Christ when we pray? Do we think ourselves and imagine ourselves into his presence when we stand up to sing, and kneel down to pray? Have we as keen, and as quick, and as intense, and as ever-present a sense of His presence as we have the presence of our fellow-worshippers?” Mother Graham marked this passage with red ink many years ago. It marks my soul now. I wish I could have heard him pray … and I want to pray with the passion with which he wrote. It is impossible to do describe this book. So please get a copy and read for yourself. Regent College Bookstore on-line is the only place I know to get copies. Thanks to them for reprinting. Whyte is not known much to the present generation … he needs to be rediscovered! (Also his books on OT and NT characters are superb!) November 2003