Thursday, August 30, 2012

Year of the Bear

College football season starts this weekend, my favorite time of the year!  As Baylor heads into the post-RGIII era, the questions abound, but there's no question that 2011-2012 was the Year of the Bear! Starting with the season-opening nail biter at home, a 50-48 win over TCU, then beating OU for the first time ever in another nail biter, and capping off the season with the first bowl win since 1992, RGIII and the Bears were a joy to watch!

Griner, Griffin, Perry Jones III
The fun was just beginning, though!  The women's and men's basketball teams started out their seasons with style.  The men won their first 17 games before they lost, finishing the season 30-8, including their second Elite Eight appearance in 3 years.  The women, led by the incomparable Brittney Griner, rewrote the record books, winning all 40 games and the national championship.  Then baseball set records, winning their first 18 games on their way to a Super Regional appearance, a heart-breaking wild pitch away from the College World Series.

If you follow Baylor sports, none of this is news to you, and if you read the Waco Tribune-Herald, you've read most of the content of Year of the Bear.  But every Baylor sports fan will want this collection, a keepsake of "The Winningest Year in College Sports History."  With articles highlighting the most memorable moments of the Year of the Bear, and fabulous pictures capturing those moments, this book will help you relive this great year.  Baylor fans, I'm not saying we'll never have another year like this one, but this year has been really special for us.  We've heard the insults, endured the slurs, ridden the bottom ten, and sat through miserable losses.  Now when someone starts to denigrate Baylor sports, you can say, "Wait a minute, let me tell you about the Year of the Bear," and pull out this book for proof of the greatest year Baylor has ever seen--so far!

Sic 'em, Bears!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Real Church in a Social Network World, by Leonard Sweet

If you picked up Leonard Sweet's Real Church in a Social Network World thinking you'd get some great insights on church life and cyber connectedness, you quickly find you were mistaken.  This book has some good ideas.  But it doesn't work well as a book, and doesn't fulfill the expectations created by the title.  Basically what Leonard Sweet (or, more likely, his publisher) has done is repackage excerpts from some of his other books, and include a "bonus chapter" from his newest book, Viral: How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival.

Leonard Sweet has had his finger on the pulse of American Christianity for a long time, and I respect his insights, if not completely his theology and perspectives.  For example, Sweet bemoans the intellectualization of Christianity, which detracts from relationship with God and others.  "One of the problems of the church is its forceful insistence on intellectual adherence to certain beliefs, in the relative absence of a holy passion for the incarnational practice of those same beliefs."  Are conservative Christians more concerned with defending the Bible than with obeying it?  The defense of orthodoxy detracts from relationship to our peril.  "We are disconnected from our Source so that we have become sterile.  We may be doctrinally correct, but we have become spiritual cadavers."  Challenging words, indeed, but they leave me wondering if Sweet does have lines beyond which he will not wander theologically.

The excerpt from Viral is most relevant to the title of this book.  He describes the "TGIF culture" (Twitter, Google, iPhone, Facebook), and contrasts the Googlers (who embrace TGIF culture) and the Gutenbergers (for whom the written word is normative).  Sweet's take is a bit mixed.  A self-described native Gutenberger, he embraces the TGIF culture, yet sees its shortfalls.  "Much of human contact has been reduced to acronyms, misspelled words, emoticons, missing punctuation, and mindless replies to meaningless revelations. . . .  These things pass for conversation, a thing that used to thread the fabric of society."

So my recommendation, if you want to hear more from Sweet, is to skip this e-book and peruse some of his other titles.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary electronic review copy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Last Temple, by Hank Hanegraaff and Sigmund Brouwer

Do you want your own copy of The Last Temple?  Be the first to comment on this page, and I'll send you a certificate which you can exchange for a free copy!

I knew The Last Temple would be good, based on the fact that it's the result of a teaming of Hank Hanegraaff, the Christian apologetics guru known as the "Bible Answer Man," and Sigmund Brouwer, author of dozens of successful books for kids and adults.  The Last Temple concludes the trilogy after The Last Disciple (2005) and The Last Sacrifice (2006).  I have not read the first two books, but The Last Temple easily stands on its own, despite the references to events in the prior books.

The Last Temple follows the soldier Vitas, as he takes part in palace intrigue and adventure in first-century Caesarea, Rome, and Jerusalem.  He's between two worlds, a Roman married to a Jewess, serving undercover as a slave.  As a first-hand observer of corruption at high levels and persecution by the ruling class, Vitas is uniquely placed to be a force for integrity and justice.

Hovering over the churning political movements around him are the stories of the Christos, who had been crucified, but whose followers believe is still alive.  And then there are the mysterious writings of Vitas's acquaintance John, who seems to have predicted that the temple in Jerusalem will soon fall.

Hanegraaff and Brouwer's great strength in The Last Temple is the way they bring alive the world of the first century.  These were real people living in real houses on real streets.  They have real relationships and real conversations.  I know that sounds simplistic, but it's refreshing to see that era portraying in such a relate-able, believable way.  After the opening scenes, a few chapters bogged me down with the dialogue, talking about politics and politicians.  I know that makes me sound shallow.  The story did come around to a pretty satisfying conclusion.

This isn't the Bible, and it's not history (even though they do place it in the context of actual events), but if you know the Bible and enjoy the history of first-century church, you will certainly enjoy this historical novel and the world and people it portrays.

Check out this cool preview video:

Thanks to Tyndale Blog Network for this complimentary review copy!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Spark, by Jason Jaggard

Jason Jaggard, founder of Spark Good, has a goal for you. He wants you to take some risks. In his Spark groups, participants are encouraged each week to do something risky to improve themselves or others as a means of getting outside their comfort zone and finding their passion. His new book Spark: Transform Your World, One Small Risk at a Time attempts to capture the spirit of the Spark groups in book form. I've never been to a Spark group, but I suspect they are more inspiring than the book.  That said, Spark does give a spark of inspiration and challenge.

Some of Spark falls into the mold of a pretty traditional most of self-help, inspirational, you-can-do-it book.  Jaggard's unique contribution is the risk that he challenges the reader to take.  If we can genuinely set self aside, set pride aside, and listen to God's leadership, where might God take us?  What might we accomplish or achieve?  Jaggards peppers Spark with biblical examples as well as examples from the lives of Spark group participants and others to pave the way for our own steps toward risk and fulfillment.  His light, engaging tone is easy to read and easy to follow down the path of most resistance.  I would anticipate that Spark would be best used as a springboard into a Spark group, a starting place for stepping out into real risk.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary review copy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, by Stephen L. Carter

Stephen Carter has distinguished himself as a leading legal scholar in the U.S., having taught for 3 decades at Yale Law School and publishing such discussion-shaping books as The Culture of Disbelief and God's Name in Vain.  In his spare time, he's become a pretty terrific novelist to boot.  The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Carter's fifth novel, takes the reader down an interesting path of "what if. . . " at a crucial period of our nation's history.

In the alternative history of Carter's Impeachment, President Lincoln survived Booth's assassination attempt at the Ford Theater.  He won the fight for his life, but faces another fight, against political enemies who seek his impeachment.  Central to his defense is one of his lawyer's new law clerk, Abigail, an African-American woman fresh out of Oberlin College.

As he does in most of his novels, Carter presents a side of African-American life that is frequently neglected in literature, that of the middle- and upper-class blacks.  Abigail's family was solidly middle class; they were a part of Washington, D.C.'s community of African-American professional and established free families.  In one amusing scene, some white society ladies at a social event question her about her adventures, and encourage her to write a book.  Abigail says she has nothing to write about.  "Nonsense," they say, she should write about her escape, her experiences on the Underground Railroad, etc.  Abigail doesn't know what to think of them, and explains that her family has been free for three generations.  A gentlemen rescues her from the circle of ladies, explaining that "they know nothing of free black people.  They are committed Abolitionists because they hate slavery and they want to do good, but they have no particular interest in people of your race.  Like so many people of liberal persuasion, they value their own progressive opinions more than they value the people they hold those opinions about."  I love that.  The same description could doubtless apply to civil rights activists and liberals throughout the last century.

Abigail's experiences demonstrate the ongoing difficulties blacks faced in the post-Civil War era.  Yes, the war was over, but even in the North the notion that blacks were equal and deserved equal protection and equal treatment under the law was a long way from being recognized.  And certainly the social barriers were tremendous.  Carter captures the social and political life of 19th century Washington City colorfully, with many of the characters and places taken from the pages of history.

In spite of what you might think, Carter doesn't make a bold political statement with his rewriting of history.  The discussion of whether Lincoln's actions during the war is interesting, but takes a minor role in the novel.  More important is the conspiracy against him and Abigail's efforts to get to the bottom of it.  Carter weaves the story and history together well, with political intrigue, plot twists, and an entertaining story that might have been true.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Hole in Our Holiness, by Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung, a Michigan pastor, has established himself as a young traditionalist.  Unlike many of his peers, who want to "emerge" or "re-vision" the church, DeYoung hangs on to tradition and orthodoxy in his vision of what church should be.  Don't misunderstand: I mean that as a compliment, and DeYoung defends that position well.  (See also my review of his earlier book, Why We Love the Church.)

In The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, DeYoung is once again looking backward, trying to recover something that seems to be lost on the church of today.  "The hole in our holiness is that we don't really care much about it."  Teaching about holiness is rare or watered down to the level of moralism or self-help.  The church today, as rule, has failed "to take seriously one of the great aims of our redemption and one of the required evidences for eternal life--our holiness."

Some of the emphases of modern evangelicalism have detracted from a focus on holiness.  I applaud the new social awareness evangelicals have shown in addressing poverty, abortion, creation care, human trafficking, and other concerns.  But as DeYoung points out, "you will find few explicit commands" in scripture telling us to care for social needs, "but there are dozens and dozens of verses that enjoin us . . . to be holy as God is holy."

By the same token, modern evangelicals like to talk about friendship with Jesus, saying that Christianity is not about religion but relationship.  I agree, and I think DeYoung does too, to a certain extent.  But as he points out, "It sounds really spiritual to say God is interested in a relationship, not in rules.  But it's not biblical.  From top to bottom the Bible is full of commands.  They aren't meant to stifle a relationship with God, but to protect it, seal it, and define it."  DeYoung turns to C.S. Lewis for insight on what it means to delight in the laws of God.  It is a "delight in having touched firmness, like the pedestrian's delight in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long entangled him in muddy fields."

Lest you think DeYoung lays on the guilt throughout the book, I assure you he doesn't.  He holds out hope for believers, specifically our hope in Christ.  A life of holiness is to be who we were made to be as new creations.  Christ living in us gives us the ability to do that which God demands.  And cultivating holiness is done by "boring and out-of-date" practices: "The way to grow in your relationship with Jesus is to pray, read  your Bible, and go to a church where you'll get good preaching, good fellowship, and receive the sacraments."

The Hole in Our Holiness is not an easy read for Christians comfortable in their worldliness.  But what a great reminder of the truth of who we are and a challenge to be who we are.  DeYoung writes, "Do not strive after holiness because you cower in dread of God.  Strive after holiness because you are confident you already belong to God."  Even though you may not feel like it, if you are a believer you are holy.  God has made you holy.  DeYoung gives some direction for us to delight in and live in that holiness.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Death by Love: Letters from the Cross, by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears

Mark Driscoll is one of the most listened-to preachers in the U.S. today, if you believe the reports from iTunes.  Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Driscoll has become well-known for his terrific preaching, especially in reaching unchurched younger people, and his theological integrity.  With Death By Love: Letters from the Cross, Driscoll and his co-author Gerry Breshears cover some basic theology, presenting the "timeless truths of the cross in a timely manner that is biblically faithful, culturally relevant, and personally helpful."  I think they achieve all three.

Each of the twelve main chapters begins with a letter Driscoll wrote in response to a specific person's story or issue.  He reflects on their situation, offering pastoral guidance, and uses their story to springboard into a discussion of one facet of Jesus and his work on the cross.  As you might expect from Driscoll, he is very readable, but does not water down the theological questions he takes on.  You will be encouraged and perhaps challenged by his discussion. 

It's hard for me to categorize Driscoll theologically.  (As if I would even want to put someone in a theological pigeon hole.  And as if I could even to do so based on a couple of books.)  He seems to be solidly Reformed, yet with a bit of a charismatic.  I think he would embrace Calvinism, but with some caveats, such as his description of "unlimited limited atonement."  I do know this: he holds a high view of scripture, and high view of Jesus.  He is solidly evangelical, and while some evangelicals might quibble with a point or two, he's definitely worth engaging.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison

In his debut novel, A Walk Across the Sun, Corban Addison shows that lawyers, at least this lawyer, has a big heart and can tell a great story.  Like many of John Grisham's novels, A Walk Across the Sun has an important social/ethical message which takes priority over the story telling and writing.  Nevertheless, Addison does a great job of communicating an important message, raising awareness of human trafficking by telling the story of two of its victims.

The story opens with Sita and Ahalya getting swept away by the December 26 tsunami in India.  Their entire family killed, and their home destroyed, they attempt to find help but end up kidnapped and sold into slavery, held in a brothel.  Meanwhile, Thomas Clarke, an American lawyer whose wife is Indian, comes to India to work for an organization dedicated to freeing victims of human trafficking.  Most of the story has Thomas tracking down Sita as she is trafficked to France and the U.S.

The strength of the novel is Addison's putting a very human face on human trafficking.  It's painful to read of the girls' misfortune and abuse, and to imagine the hundreds of times stories like theirs might be repeated every day.  Addison vividly depicts the heartbreaking life and trials of the victims of modern-day slavery, without sensationalizing or being terribly graphic.

The weakness is the rather formulaic plot devices.  As Thomas seeks Sita, we read a long series of chance encounters, lucky breaks, and near misses, which drive the story along while not adding to the richness of the telling.  Addison's writing is very descriptive, even detail-oriented, but for I sometimes felt that it was just filler, adding content to the picture but not meaning.

I had to question a couple of things.  First of all, the girls' dad is an executive for a software company.  I know life in India is very different than the U.S., but wouldn't he have had life insurance?  Some assets?  At least a deed on their property?  In the post-tsunami chaos, that may have all been wiped away, but the sisters never seem to go back home as I thought they might be able to.

Another question was the prevalence of trafficking in mainstream Indian society.  Thomas's college friend takes him to a club patronized by Western-educated, middle class men who solicit sex from trafficked girls.  A blind eye is turned in the courts to brothels, even those who use under-aged girls.  Police are on the payroll.  If Addison's depiction of Indian society is accurate, it's shameful.  Yet some of his descriptions apply to the U.S., too.  Surely some strippers and prostitutes and web-site porn actresses choose their profession freely, and some feel they have no better choice to earn a living but aren't forced into it.  But A Walk Across the Sun confronts the reader with the fact that some of them are forced into such work, abused and held against their will.

This is a good novel on the level of the summer vacation beach read, but with a revealing, challenging message.  Pick it up!