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I’m not sure how many people judge a book by the blurbs found on it, but I pray that number dwindles greatly.  Because frequently, perhaps more often than not, they are misleading, particularly if they are written by a well-known scholar, author, pastor, etc.

Case in point: a while back Justin Taylor, one of the most popular bloggers in evangelicalism, highlighted a new book put out of IVP, The Roots of the Reformation.  The author, G R Evans, is apparently a well respected Cambridge medievalist.  Taylor includes in his post 4 endorsements of the book, two of which were particularly glowing:

“G. R. Evans is one of our finest scholars, and she has written a superb book placing the story of the Reformation in the wider context of Christian history. Comprehensive, well researched and readable.”

—Timothy George, general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture

“Briskly and breezily, but very efficiently, medievalist Gillian Evans here surveys Western Europe’s changing and clashing views of Christianity from the fourteenth century through the seventeenth century. This large-scale introduction is certainly the best of its kind currently available.”

—J. I. Packer, Regent College

But, a month later and Taylor (admirably) issued a ‘mea culpa‘ for implicitly endorsing this highly-praised book.  Why?  What changed his mind?

Because an expert on the subject matter of the book in question actually read the book carefully.

Carl Trueman wrote an absolutely devastating review of the book, pointing out numerous (and I mean numerous) embarrassing errors that undermine the credibility of the book, and thus, the author and those who praise it so unreservedly.  How devastating is this review?  IVP has opted to pull the book off the shelves, revise it (in time for the fall semester, although I wonder if any professor will opt to use it now) and give free ones to those who purchased the 1st edition.  You can read their letter here.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the damage done here.  No one’s salvation is at stake.  There won’t be a generation of scholars who will screw up basic facts about Calvin, Luther and the rest of the reformers.  The 2nd edition will fix the errors and the world will move on.

But I have to wonder about the endorsers, particularly the two I quoted.  Was Packer right when he said the book is “the best of its kind currently available?”  Are the other options so awful that Evans’ book is, in fact, better?  I highly doubt it.  The better question is: did Packer read the book?  Or, perhaps, is Packer qualified to write an endorsement for a book on the Reformation?

Same goes for Timothy George.  He said this book is ‘well researched.’  Did George read the book?  Is he qualified to make such a claim about the book?

I’m being a bit sarcastic.  Both Packer and George are highly qualified scholars.  Their credentials speak for themselves.  They ought to be able to read a book on the reformation and determine its value for classroom use.  But the only real explanation for their high praise is probably the simplest: they didn’t read the book carefully.  Trueman can’t be that much better of a scholar to be able to see frequent errors while they are not.  If so, they aren’t the scholars we all think they are.

So what’s the point in trusting blurbs for a book?  If you can’t trust J I Packer and Timothy George, then who can you trust?  I’ve read too many books that received high praise, only to read the book and wonder if the endorsers actually read it.  But often times it’s a matter of opinion to a certain degree.   In this case, it’s plain and simple.  The book had so many errors it has to be pulled off the shelf.  This isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of getting basic facts correct.  IVP shouldn’t be the only ones apologizing here.

I’m not the first to note the uselessness (or at least, the limited usefulness) of book blurbs.  Nick Norelli makes the same point here.  Esteban Vazquez (the only blogger to blog less than me) nail it pretty well here.  Or even better, read this.

Anyway, to bring my rant to a close, it’s disappointing to have your suspicions confirmed: sometimes (oftentimes?) endorsers don’t read carefully the book they are endorsing.  The quicker we all realize this, the better off we’ll be.  But we’ll be even better off if endorsers stop doing it altogether.

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It is my custom to end the year with a “5 Favorite New Reads of the Year” post here at BBG, highlighting my 5 best books I read for the first time that year.  It’s not that they were published that year, I hardly have time only to read the latest and greatest (which cease to be the latest and greatest in short order anyway).  This year, however, is a little different.

I mentioned to Marcus the other day that I only completed 3 books this year, which upon further review isn’t true.  There’s one I have yet to finish, although I’m putting it on this list anyway because I’m almost done.  So I’ve actually only read 2 books from front-to-back this year.  With my family making a major move this year, there simply wasn’t time to read.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever read this few books in a calendar year since I learned how to read.  Shoot, I used to polish of 3 books a week.  Granted, I was in middle school and they were the Hardy Boys, but still.  (Side note: I’m eternally thankful for Franklin W Dixon for introducing the phrase “Man alive!” into my vocabulary.)

So this year I’m only going to highlight 2 books for the year, with a look ahead at 2 more books that I’m looking forward to reading in 2012.

2. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, by James Hamilton

I’m actually working through this book (albeit very slowly) for a book review.  Quite honestly, I could write 100 pages on it.  It’s been one of the more interesting books I’ve read in a while, even though I have some big reservations at points.  I have a million (give or take) markings in the margins recording my thoughts and, sometimes, rather frank reactions.  Part of the reason why it’s so intriguing to me is that Hamilton has stated his thesis so strongly (that the center of the Bible’s theology is… well… read the title) that it’s fun seeing whether or not he can pull off a defense of it.

So I’ll give Jim Hamilton some credit.  He didn’t hedge his bets at all.  He’s making a big claim and he’s doing what he can to back it up.  He also includes a lot of other tidbits throughout the book, breaking up the monotony a bit, as well as distracting from his point.  All in all, I’m glad I’ve worked through it so slowly.  It repays careful reading.  You’ll have to wait for my review to see my final thoughts… if I ever get around to writing it.

1. T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution, by Steve Smith with Ying Kai

This book is written by a veteran missionary and a Chinese church planter, detailing the method (T4T- Training for Trainers) used by Ying Kai which (in part) led to one of the largest church planting movements in the world.  It is no exaggeration that using this method has radically changed the work of many in cross cultural ministry.  It’s a convicting and convincing call to adjust ministry methods that are neither commanded in the Bible or demanded by necessity.

The strength of the book is it’s attempt to emphasize that there’s nothing new they’re promoting, hence the word “rerevolution” in the title.  It would be easy for some to slip this book from “very helpful and effective” to “don’t mess with it, it’s perfect.”  The latter would be wrong, but just as bad would be to breeze over it with some lame excuse of “that’s overseas, not the US” or “what about tradition.”  Smith and Kai try their best to root all of their suggestions in the Word, and even if they can’t convince you (or me) that it’s 100% what the Bible says, at least it’s biblically grounded and sound.

I can’t recommend this book enough.  I think it needs to be read more than once, and best if in a group of people who can beat the ideas around together, going back to the Scripture and praying through the method.

Now for what’s ahead…

Gregory Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology

It’s rare that I’m completely surprised by a Christmas gift, but this was one.  Beale’s strength is in connections between the Old and New Testaments, as well as eschatology, which for Beale go hand-in-hand.  Given the paucity of spare time in my life, I can’t imagine how long it’ll take me to read this book.  But I’ll give it a go.  I’m convinced that eschatology is more important in biblical theology than most Christians care to think, but I’m also convinced that biblical eschatology looks radically different from the eschatology commonly peddled in the church.  This book, hopefully, will help me sort through all that.  If I ever get around to reading it.

Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches

I know, I know.  This book is for mothers, not fathers.  But I am married to a mother of little children, so I’m only one step removed from the target audience.  If crusty old men can review movies for adolescent girls and get paid big bucks to do it, surely I can handle this.

Actually, my wife got this for Christmas and we decided we’d read it aloud together.  It’s short (just barely over 100 pages), fun (so far, haven’t read too far into it) and comes highly recommended.  I actually haven’t read a single parenting book, partly because I dread “how to” manuals.  This doesn’t seem like that sort of book, and I’m grateful.  Besides, my wife will be blessed by it, and her blessedness is in my best interest.

What books did you read this year?  Anything you’d recommend?

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5.5. This post is dedicated to my old roommate, JP.  He’s an Arizona Wildcat fan, and I’m a UConn fan.  Our teams play each other in the Elite Eight on Saturday, so it’s probably just as well that we aren’t roommates anymore.  That, and we’re both married with kids now, and that would be awkward living together…

5. Nick Norelli reviews Sean McDonough’s (coughgogordonconwellcough) new book, Christ as Creator.  I took McDonough’s Life of Jesus class, so I heard some of his early thoughts on Christ as creator in the gospels.  Looks like a fascinating read.  Now if we can do something about that ridiculous price…

4. Keith & Kristyn Getty (of “In Christ Alone” fame) are offering three free hymns for download on their site, until March 31 (I think). 

3. The incomparable Marcus has given some helpful thoughts on how to build a theological library– and he’s not talking about making bookshelves.  There’s some good advice here.  Or you could do what my coblogger, Brian, does and wait until your friends move and “borrow” their books. 

2. Brian and I were discussing the other day how the Minor Prophets are perhaps the least preached on portion of Scripture.  In his last post, Brian links to a sermon where he tackles a passage in Micah.  Cousin Jeremy has also been posting sermons from his church in Syracuse, starting with sermon series from Hosea and MicahUpdate: A couple hours after I posted this, Cousin Jeremy posted some sermons from Amos.  In fact, he went ahead and made a central location for any more sermon series he will be posting, so you may want to bookmark it. 

1. Speaking of preaching, I commend to you Tom Schreiner’s sermons from his church, Clifton Baptist, in KY.  He’s been doing a series on Romans for a while now (I think he’s up to 29 sermons and he’s only through chapter 7).  You can find a number of other sermon series he’s done, such as Revelation (which I think I’ve linked to before), James, Galatians, etc.

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5.5.  This post is dedicated to my self-respect, which I released when I watched a few episodes of American Idol in a row.  Does it matter that one of the contestants (who made the top 60) used to go to my church?

5.  Louis over at Baker Book House Church Connection (longest blog title ever?) posted some of the titles to be released this year by Baker Publishing.  The highlights for me are Victor Hamilton’s commentary on Exodus, G K Beale’s NT Theology, and Craig Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.

4.  Also in the world of publshing, Fortress Press is offering a 40% off sale of all their titles through the month of March (HT).  Fortress publishes a lot of stuff I couldn’t care less about, but they also publish a number of N T Wright’s best volumes.  If you’re a commentary collector, this could be a good time to purchase something from the Hermeneia series (although even at 40% off they’re still expensive).

3. The active and passive sides of God’s love.  Or, what makes Gordon Fee cry.

2. I need some music recommendations.  I have Christmas gift cards (iTunes, maybe even my Amazon gift card) to use, and would like to update some of my music.  By “update” I don’t mean it has to be new.  In fact, I generally am not a fan of the latest music.  I’ve already purchased some: finally got Mutemath‘s debut album (which has extra live tracks on iTunes) and Lettuce‘s Rage, per the recommendation of my co-blogger, Brian.  I’m leaning towards The Rocketboys, but also have enough money left over to get something else.  Some Stevie Wonder?  Any great blues guitarists (big fan of Stevie Ray Vaughan and old Clapton stuff)?  Great classic rock?  So many options…

1.  Our friends over at Sojourn Community Church have released another album, The Mercy Seat/The War, half Jamie Barnes songs and half Brooks Ritter.  Have a listen!

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Whereas last year I had a hard time naming 5 good books I read in 2009, I’m having trouble keeping it to 5 for 2010.  Actually, I forgot The Cross and Christian Ministry and The Prodigal God last year, so the list would have been pretty good.  I started making my list earlier this year to avoid the same mistake.  As with previous years, this list is comprised of books I read for the first time this year, not that were published this year.  In fact, I don’t think I even read 5 books published in 2010.  Unlike previous years, I’m giving an order to this, in order of ascending appreciation.  Interestingly, despite the fact I reviewed 10 books this year for publishers, none of the books on this list were from them. 

This list does not include revised editions of books I’ve previously read, otherwise Jesus and the Gospels: 2nd Edition would have made the cut. 

5. Conforming to Christ in Community, by Jim Samra

I first mentioned this book back in June, and as I’ve thought back on the books I read this year, this one stood out as a strong one because of it’s usefulness, despite it’s dissertationy feel (because… um… it’s a dissertation).  I’m currently reading Samra’s scaled down book on the value of the church, which is also quite good, but my guess is that I’ll revisit this one when I want to refresh myself on Paul’s teaching on the church and its importance for the maturation of Christians. 

4. The Pentateuch as Narrative, by John Sailhamer

I mentioned this book a couple months back as my new “curveball” book for the Pentateuch.  When I need a slightly different take, or someone to help me make connections within the Pentateuch that I easily miss, John Sailhamer is my guy.  It’s hard to think of the first five books of the Bible as disjointed and boring after reading Sailhamer. 

3. Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World, by M. Tsering

The world of Tibetan Buddhism is a fascinating one, and its worldview couldn’t be much more different from the biblical one.  This book is a wonderful introduction to this worldview, and offers many suggestions how to share Christ with those who hold it.  This book is so well done that I think anyone interested in missions and cross-cultural evangelism would do well to read it because many of the principles are universal. 

2. A Call to Spiritual Reformation, by D A Carson

I read a lot of Carson this year, so much so that I could have done a top 5 just with Carson books and they’d all be very good.  I opted not to include more than one Carson book.  The God Who Is There is outstanding, I’ve benefitted greatly from the two volumes of For the Love of God during my morning quiet times.  I could add Collected Writings on Scripture and make it 5 (Scandalous wouldn’t quite make the cut).  But when I needed a boost in my prayer life, I turned to this book and it delivered.  So I chose this one out of the many because of the impact it had on me personally.  Using the prayers in Paul as a guide to our own prayers seems like such an obvious approach, I wonder why I had never thought of it.  I’ve read a lot of Carson, not just this year but in previous years, but this is my favorite and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

1. Salvation Belongs to Our God, by Christopher J H Wright

Despite also reading The Mission of God, which is Wright’s massive and more detailed book demonstrating the missional character of God, this shorter book stands as my favorite of the year.  As I mentioned in my review, I ended up taking 33 pages of notes on it!  It’s not that I agree with everything in this book, in fact I’d say I agreed more with the previous book on this list than this one.  But Wright captivated me with his ability to place things in the context of the biblical story in a compelling manner.  This is biblical theology done well.

Looking Ahead

My reading load for 2011 will be much smaller due to some major constraints on my personal time.  However, I am currently reading John Jefferson Davis’ Worship and the Reality of God, Jim Samra’s The Gift of Church and will soon be starting Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.  On top of that, I plan on reading David Platt’s Radical and John Piper’s Think, and Ron Jaworski’s The Games that Changed the Game.  The first three will all be reviewed here; the other 3 may get a mention.  I’d be interested to know what books BBG readers enjoyed reading this year, so feel free to leave a comment.

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Special thanks to Connie at Crossway for a review copy of this book.

For all the time I’ve spent studying Scripture, I hate to admit that I have a fairly weak theology of Scripture itself.  The truth is that I’m probably not alone.  It had been a long time since I had read something about the nature of Scripture, particularly of a more technical bent.  Enter D A Carson (I know, I’ve read a lot of Carson this year- I have many years of catching up to do).

Collected Writings on Scripture by D A Carson is just that, collected writings on Scripture written by D A Carson.  Included are 10 articles; the first 5 covering a variety of topics related to the Bible and the study of it (originally published between 1983 and 1997), the last 5 being a collection of book reviews of 9 books released from 1981 to 2007.  It may seem odd to some that one would include a series of book reviews in a collection of writings, but they reveal as much about Carson’s understanding of Scripture. 

The first chapter, “Approaching the Bible,” is probably the only one that could be read with relative ease by a layperson (despite Carson’s claim to the contrary in his preface).  It was originally written as the opening essay for the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, released in 1994.  This essay would be the most broadly useful, one that could be passed around to church members wishing to understand better the nature of the Bible and how it is best interpreted (note: it can be downloaded as a pdf here, although it looks a bit awkward). 

The next four chapters are a bit of a tougher read, though still quite rewarding.  I’ll admit that I found my eyes crossing a bit during chapter 2 (“Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture”)- though don’t ignore the warning to evangelicals at the end of the chapter-, but was reinvigorated during chapter 3, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology.”  The latter chapter is a must read for those of us who find ourselves suspicious of systematic theology (myself included).  Pastors could easily take the insights from this chapter and make them more digestible to their congregations.

I found chapter 4, “Redaction Criticism: On the Legitmacy and Illegitimacy of a Literary Tool,” to be my favorite, surprisingly so.  “Surprisingly” because chapters on methodology, specifically a method I’ve found to be used with far too much confidence by some scholars, are rarely the most exciting.  Yet after giving 20 reasons to be cautious of redaction criticism, Carson still argues that it has its place in Gospel study.  (Side note: the extended Morna Hooker quote on page 160 is worth multiple readings.)

In the fifth chapter, entitled “Is the Doctrine of Claritas Scripturae Still Relevant Today?,” Carson jumps into the worlds of historical theology and epistemology in admirable fashion.  For those familiar with his works on postmodernity, such as The Gagging of God, this chapter will cover familiar territory. 

The book reviews deal with a handful of books I’ve never heard of, and a few more well known authors (Marshall, Enns and Wright).  After offering a summary of their contents, he interacts (often critiquing) their contents in rather entertaining fashion.  For the most part his reviews would be seen as “negative,” meaning he has serious concerns with the books reviewed.  The notable except is Jeffrey Sheler’s Is the Bible True?.  His disagreements doesn’t lead him beyond the bounds of appreciation, however.

One of my concerns about this book is in these book reviews.  It’s not that I find them unworthy of their inclusion in this collection of essays; on the contrary I find them to be brilliant.  Carson writes with candor and wit, deconstructing false premises, refuting historical revisionist tendencies and kicking over sand castles built on bad logic.  Considering the vast majority of book reviews I read in the world of biblical scholarship are formulaic and predictable, I appreciate Carson’s willingness to forego convention and get to the heart of the matter.

My concern lies not with Carson’s reviews themselves, but that readers from my generation (roughly 40 and below) may skip over the more dense chapters on methodology and the nature of Scripture to grab a ringside seat for the fight.  My generation is one that loves to pump our fist in the air, rallying behind our champion as he goes toe-to-toe with the “bad guys.”  My concern is that the scholars, both actual and wannabe (my choice of the latter term over “aspiring” is intentional), of my age group are more adept at poking holes than patching them.  We have been taught to think critically, engage thoughtfully, examine assumptions, etc.  And I’ve seen firsthand many who were quite skilled at doing just that.  Unfortunately, many of those in my generation are cowards.  They can point out the flaws of others, but won’t stick their neck out long enough for anyone to return the favor. 

But Carson is not like my generation.  To be sure, the first portion of the book devotes plenty of space to critiques.  But the function is not merely negative (why so-and-so is wrong).  Carson offers positive arguments for how to approach Scripture.  In other words, he isn’t simply arguing against something, he’s arguing for something.  Building a strong case often requires both, though I fear many can only do the former.  Thankfully, Carson provides a model for making a case, not just deconstructing one.

I do recommend this book, particularly for students and pastors who need some assistance thinking through their understanding of Scripture, both its nature and the study of it.  The first chapter and the review of Sheler’s book would probably be the only sections easily read by a layperson, though with time and a knowledge of theological terms one would benefit greatly from it.  In all, D A Carson’s Collected Writings on Scripture is worth the time and effort.

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Sometime ago, Brian, my fellow infrequent contributor to BBG, offered up a post on five resources to help people understand the Pentateuch in a posted titled “Five Books for the Five Books.”  I wholeheartedly agree that the resources he listed are helpful, and would even now agree (I didn’t then, as you can see in his original post) that T D Alexander’s book, From Paradise to Promised Land, is the best book I’ve read on the Pentateuch.  The person not interested in source criticism would do well to skip the first 100 pages or so, but otherwise it’s a fantastic overview of what the Pentateuch teaches.

A few years back I picked up a copy of another study on the Pentateuch at a CBD Warehouse Sale.  I bought it because I recognized the author’s name from my Exegesis in Genesis class with Duane Garrett (and I’ll explain why he stood out to me a in a minute), and because the sale price was $6.79 (normally priced $24.99).  The Pentateuch As Narrative was my first introduction to OT scholar John Sailhamer’s works.  It took me a while to sit down and read through it a bit, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in it.  He has since gone on to write another book on the Pentateuch, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, which received a hearty endorsement from John Piper.

Sailhamer, who essentially gives a running commentary on the Pentateuch in this book, is at his best when he’s pointing out easy-to-miss connections throughout the Pentateuch.  For instance, Sailhamer shows verbal parallels between Noah and Abraham, demonstrating that they each “represent new beginnings in the course of events recorded in Genesis.  Both are marked by God’s promise of blessing and his gift of the covenant” (p128).  The same goes for parallels between the story of Abraham going in and out of Egypt (chapters 12-13) and the story of Israel doing the same (in the Joseph story and in Exodus 11-12).  “By shaping the account of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt to parallel the events of the Exodus, the author permits the reader to see the implications of God’s past deeds with his chosen people” (p142). 

I could probably list off a couple dozen other examples (connections between the flood story and purification laws, brilliant!), not all of which are entirely convincing, in my opinion.  But the effect of all this is in demonstrating that there is a narrative unity to the Pentateuch.  Whatever else one wants to say about the sources behind the Pentateuch (safe to say that Sailhamer is hardly convinced by Documentary Hypothesis advocates), the final form of the text is intended to be seen as a unity.

That is not to say, however, that I always find Sailhamer’s analysis correct.  I’ll give one quick example to make my point.

I mentioned earlier that Sailhamer’s name rung a bell with me for a specific reason.  In my aforementioned Exegesis in Genesis class, Dr Garrett mentioned Sailhamer’s view of the “days of creation” in Genesis 1.  I was quite familiar with the 24-hour view and the indefinite-period-of-time view (or whatever it should be called), and even the framework hypothesis.  But I hadn’t heard Sailhamer’s view before.

In a nutshell, Sailhamer argues that the days of creation in Genesis 1 are not referring to the creation of our planet (he does see that in Genesis 1:1, just not what follows).  Instead, these days refer to God’s creation/preparation of the “land” (read: Promised Land) for Israel.  You can find a more detailed presentation of his argument summarized by Matt Perman (who is actually summarizing Sailhamer’s argument in Genesis Unbound– apparently one book making his point isn’t enough!) at the Desiring God website.  One of the alluring features of this view is the use of “land” (eretz, in Hebrew) in Genesis 1 and the rest of the Pentateuch.  “The Land” is a common thread in the Pentateuch.  God had promised it to Abraham and his descendents (Gen 12:7) and much of the rest of the Pentateuch is centered around the theme of God preparing them to live in the Land. 

My reaction, though, is that Sailhamer reads the evidence backwards.  While I appreciate the verbal and thematic connections between Genesis 1 and various other places in the Pentateuch (God separating the waters on Day 3 and with the Red Sea), I would argue that the Red Sea account points back to the creation of the world, rooting Israel’s story (the creation of Israel) in God’s total creative power.  I’m intrigued, but not convinced (but could be, I suppose).

So The Pentateuch as Narrative would not be my first book to recommend to someone on the first five books of the Bible.  From Paradise to Promised Land still holds the #1 slot for me.  But I think it’s good for me to have someone throw a few curveballs.  That someone is John Sailhamer.  He comes to the text with a different set of eyes, picking up on details that I never would have seen.  While I may disagree, I’m rarely disappointed.

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