Thursday, April 21, 2011

"Rediscovering the Church Fathers" Book Review

There seems to be a resurgence of interest as of late in church history. No doubt this is in part to authors such as John Piper, who quotes extensively from Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin. Men such as N.T. Wright have also sparked much interest in Early Judaism as well. However, one area where students in my generation simply do not seem as interested is the early church fathers. Michael A.G. Haykin's book Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church seeks to educate and, hopefully, rekindle an interest in the church fathers.

Unfortunately, Haykin's book, while educational, does little to rekindle interest. The book mostly feels like a random collection of essays concerning different fathers in the church. Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of the book is that Haykin provides little commentary on why these church fathers are relevant for today. While he insists on their contemporary importance, little application is given.

Some chapters are particularly perplexing within his book, such as his chapter on Origin's exegetical practices. After spending the entire chapter pointing out the shortcomings, Haykin never comes around to explaining what we can learn. The question is simply crying out to be asked, "Why did he decide to pick Origin?" Again, Haykin spends a great deal of time discussing Ignatious of Antioch's somewhat graphic (and joyous) description of martyrdom. While he dismisses any suggestion that Ignatious was wrong in his perspective on suffering, he never builds a conclusive case as to why we should listen to Ignatious.

Haykin's book also seems to ramble. His final chapter discusses his own experience with the church fathers. While interesting, the chapter simply concludes with Haykin essentially saying, "That is how I got into the church fathers." What is left out is how they are relevant, what we can learn from them, and how to apply them to today.

All is not lost, however. Chapter 6, on Basil of Caesarea, stands out as a particularly practical and powerful chapter. His chapter on St. Patrick is also quite interesting as well. Also, Haykin should be commended for his use of quotations of the early fathers. He quotes extensively from the original sources without using so many quotes that it disrupts the flow of the book. Each chapter was also quite readable and the chapters seemed to be a good length.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Haykin's book is that it does not really offer anything new to the market of introductory studies on the church fathers. For example, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher Hall offers both a thorough introduction to the thinking of individual fathers and provides relevant application. In my mind, at least, Hall's works are a sort of paradigm for introductory material. Rediscovering the  Church Fathers simply does not measure up. With so many better books out there on the church fathers, I would suggest passing this one up.

*Thanks to Crossway publishers for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review*

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Practicing Affirmation" Book Review

Christians live their lives in tension: they worship God, who alone is worthy of praise, and yet minister with people, who do surprisingly commendable things. Often the tension increases: how do we affirm and praise those who are not God? Sam Crabtree's excellent book, Practicing Affirmation, seeks to answer and resolve that tension.

Though just a mere 167 pages (including appendices), Crabtree accomplishes much. In chapter one, entitled "God-Centered Affirmation of Those Who Are Not God," he outlines the essential truth that we must commend what is commendable in those who are not God because any good thing that is accomplished comes ultimately from God. Because humans are made in the image of God, there is always something to be commended.

Chapter 2, entitled "Key to Refreshing Relationships: The Simplicity," sets forth the reason one should affirm others. Crabtree gives several practical reasons why we must affirm one another. The most important, perhaps, is the need to refresh the souls of others. Here, the author gives the basic contours of his thought.

Chapter 3, entitled "Toward Greater Refreshment: The Complexity," goes much deeper, than the previous chapter and seeks to answer the how of affirmation. Here, one could say that the author seeks to outline both the theory and practice of affirmation by giving characteristics of good affirmation.

Chapter 4, entitled "Important Assumptions," strikes me as oddly placed here in the book. This chapter likely should have been placed as an introduction (since it the shortest chapter in the book) since it can be skipped. There are some good points of theology here, but the chapter does little to contribute to the book. Rather, it just breaks up the thought-flow.

Chapter 5, entitled "Mistakes I Have Made," was perhaps the most helpful chapter in the book for this reviewer. While I doubt many would question both the benefit and need of affirmation, many would likely struggle on how to do affirmation well. Here, Crabtree outlines what not to do. Despite what many people might think, affirming others is not based just on practical sense. It can be done poorly and to the detriments of others. This chapter will likely be incredibly helpful to pastors and those in leadership positions.

Chapter 6, entitled "Question and Answers," seeks to answer questions that might have come up that were not answered by the author. At this point within the book, this reviewer must confess, things started getting a bit redundant. In many ways, Crabtree labors tirelessly throughout the book to make sure the reader affirms others well. This chapter is an exercise in fine-tuning, to be sure.

Chapter 7, entitled "Sightings of Jesus," outlines what Christlike character looks like. This chapter is helpful in identifying ways that readers might see Christ in others. Many times, Crabtree introduced new aspects of Christ character that are seldom mentioned. Overall, this was a short, yet important chapter.

Chapter 8, entitled "Mixing Correction With Affirmation," felt like it was covered earlier in the book. While again, this chapter was an exercise in fine-tuning, it was really too short to be of too much use. Again, Crabtree covered his topic so well in previous chapters, that some of the later ones felt almost unncessary.

Chapter 9, entitled "100 Affirmation Ideas for Those Who Feel Stuck," is a great chapter with immense practicality. As the chapter title suggests, it has 100 ideas of affirmation--each creative and useful. Many readers will likely consult this chapter again and again for ideas on how to affirm others.

In conclusion, Practicing Affirmation challenges the reader to look beyond themselves to the needs of others. However, it does more than that: it urges the reader to look beyond themselves and even beyond others to the God who endowed each of us with gifts and abilities that reflect His glory. At least for me, this was a profoundly paradigm shifting book. Anyone who finds themselves in a relationship (whether friendship, work, or romantic) needs to read this book. I am sure that this is a book pastors will be turning to for years on end--I know I will be.

*Thanks to Crossway for providing me a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair review*

Friday, April 8, 2011

"Thirty-One Days of Power" Devotional Review

Devotionals, to me, are somewhat hit or miss honestly. What I look for in a good devotional is exegetical precision, depth, and relevance. I look for a devotional that will give me something to meditate upon frequently throughout my day. Since I am somewhat picky, I was hesitant to read Thirty-One Days of Power by Ruth Myers with Warren Myers.

There is little to say about the book, unfortunately, as it does nothing particularly well. It is is neither abysmal nor spectacular. It does cover the topic of spiritual warfare well. It frames most of its days like a prayer, chalked full of scripture. The second half of the book discusses spiritual warfare. The book covers the topic of spiritual warfare as thoroughly as a devotional can. It exhorts the believer to live in victory (as the title suggests) and provides application throughout. One solid reminder the devotional offers is that one must focus on the beauty of Christ rather than the evil of Satan. Many would do well to heed this reminder in the current Evangelical climate.

One could do worse in the area of devotionals than this. However, there are so many other excellent ones out there (such as John MacArthur's and D.A. Carson's devotionals) that Thirty-One Days of Power feels like a poor substitute.

*This book was sent to me as a review copy for Multnomah Publishing in exchange for a review*

"If God, Why Evil" Book Review

Fresh from Norman Geisler, If God, Why Evil?: A New Way to Think About the Problem is Geisler's attempt at answering why evil exists if there is a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good. The book is a short read, clocking in at a mere 173 pages, which is surprising given the topic. However, I believe the length of the book is actually one of its strong points, as the Geisler packs quite a bit into each chapter without overwhelming the reader.

Much of the material in the book is rehashed from Geisler's Systematic Theology (such as his chapter arguing for the existence of hell). The "new way" to think about the problem seems to be in Geisler's argument that we are living (potentially) in the best possible world if we are truly free creature. While this argument might sound shallow to some, it really does help the reader appreciate the fact that God allows the evil he does for a specific purpose. Perhaps it is not the strongest apologetic argument out there, but it was both theologically and emotionally satisfying to me. Those who hold to a Molinist view of God's sovereignty will find much help here in Geisler's discussion of the best possible world.

Of interest to some readers will be the fact that Geisler spends one appendix discussing the theological shortcomings of The Shack. His critique feels somewhat dated considering the fact that The Shack is nearly four years old. Also, most of what Geisler critiques has been present on the internet for years. That said, some pastors might find the appendix a concise, useful critique of The Shack, that is beneficial for curious members of their churches.

In the end, Geisler's book is a short, interesting read on the problem of evil. Geisler, the philosopher, seems most at home. However, this reviewer cannot help but wonder if one really needs yet another book on the problem of evil. Geisler's "best possible world" approach is useful. Yet, it does not seem like this book advances the discussion any further. For those put off by Randy Alcorn's massive book If God is Good, Geisler's book is a solid replacement. However, for those who are looking for a truly substantial (and nearly exhaustive) treatment of the topic, pick up Alcorn's book instead.

*Thanks to Bethany House Publishers for providing a free review copy of this book for publicity purposes*