Tag Archives: Books published in the 2010s

Review: The Road Back to You

Rating: ★★★

Full Title: The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery

Authors: Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile teach the Enneagram as a tool for self-discovery and spiritual growth.

Overview:

The Road Back to You (2016) is a popular introduction to the Enneagram. Superficially similar to Myers-Briggs and other personality typing models, the Enneagram is touted as a tool for self-discovery that can lead to meaningful spiritual formation and improved relationships.

As a semi-spiritual counseling tool that has flourished among Catholics, the Enneagram is low-hanging fruit for fundamentalist critics. But many Christians of all streams have found it to be a meaningful model for describing personality. You may find it be a helpful model of patterns in human behavior; but you also may find it reductionist, like the many personality tools that came before it.

The Enneagram is a model of human personality. It divides people into nine distinct but interconnected personality types. As it is explained in The Road Back to You, our enneagram types are “masks” that we create to protect ourselves after we begin to experience hurt as a child.

The strength of the Enneagram is in how it deals with sin by bringing personal awareness. Many of our interpersonal problems (sin or not) are rooted in our own insecurities, often related to our core needs. “The true purpose of the Enneagram is to reveal to you your shadow side and offer spiritual counsel on how to open it to the transformative light of grace.” (p. 31) The book ties our “shadow sides” and core needs to the nine Enneagram types.

As the Gospel Coalition (predictably) points out, the weakness of the Enneagram is also in how it deals with sin. We are frequently reminded Though Carl Jung is not mentioned in the book, the phrase “shadow side” which they adopt is a term from Jungian psychology. In The Road Back to You, we are told that we have “a shadow side they need to guard against.” (p. 191) But in Jungian psychology, the “shadow side” is a subconscious element to be released, not guarded against. Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The Enneagram literature thus muddles together the frameworks of Jungian psychology with Christian theology. I believe the authors would freely admit that it doesn’t have grounding in any academic field.

The very idea that people have “personality types” that are permanent is an idea grounded in Jungian psychology, though perhaps it has an ancient analogue in astrology. There is nothing in the Bible to make us think that we fall into any finite set of “types”, or that our personality does not change.

I also don’t think that the Enneagram should be considered a tool for “spiritual growth”. The self-affirming and therapeutic message found in The Road Back to You seems like it may improve self-esteem and interpersonal relations; self-esteem is not spiritual formation. Making better decisions because you have learned something about yourself is not spiritual growth.

In my opinion, it is more helpful to think of the Enneagram as one of several “models”—rather than a “hypothesis” or “theory” that explains the way the world works. A dictum in science is, “some models are useful.” Models may lack explanatory power, but they could still be useful in elucidating patterns. Maybe the patterns are not the whole, but we know more than we did before we started. We can also accept that in many instances, the model is not useful. In the case of the Enneagram, its limitations need to be stated more explicitly.

Reading about one specific number may resonate with you. In the complex lore of the Enneagram, though, a person of type 4 (a “Four”, an “Individualist”) may have a type 5 (“Investigator”) or type 3 (“Achiever”) “wing”. And this type 4 person takes on characteristics of a type 2 (“Helper”) when stressed, and a type 1 (“Perfectionist”) when secure. So a person of one type can share the characteristics of four of the nine types. At that point, I feel that the Enneagram is quite overdescribed. The writers could just as easily have tried to convince me that a “Individualist” becomes a “Perfectionist” when stressed and a “Helper” when secure. The goal here doesn’t seem to be realistic counseling; it seems to become a Theory of the Universe. This, in my opinion, is the biggest problem with the Enneagram. It is overextended in its uses. Like other psychological tools, it can make it easy to try to “explain” someone to himself or herself, rather than letting them tell you who they are and want to be. If at all, it should be taught with caveats and in conjunction with other balancing ideas.

Lastly, I should point out, Ian Cron has a finely honed writing style, even if this book has been somewhat overproduced. These writers have given us an admirable introduction with which to begin to explore the concept. They begin from a viewpoint of skepticism about the beginnings of the Enneagram, which adds plausibility to their arguments. Cron tells memorable stories and anecdotes with zest and snarky humor. The book has been written for a modern audience. I felt that the authors sympathized with my short attention span. In my opinion, that is what makes this book so popular, as much as the persuasiveness of the Enneagram.

Review: A Crazy, Holy Grace

Rating:

Full Title: A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory

Author: Frederick Buechner is an American Presbyterian preacher and the author of more than thirty books. His short story “The Tiger” won the O. Henry Award in 1955 and his novel Godric was a Pulitzer-prize finalist in 1980, but Christians of many streams admire him for his candid memoirs and essays. Buechner had an affluent upbringing between Bermuda and the east coast of the United States. He gained fame as a novelist in his twenties. He eventually chose seminary and ordination, but continued to write throughout his lifetime.

Overview:

A Crazy, Holy Grace (2017) is a compilation of many of Buechner’s best passages related to death, grief, and the problem of suffering. Most of them are taken from his four memoirs, which are highly regarded by many Christian authors. They are listed here:

  1. The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1982)
  2. Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (1983)
  3. Telling Secrets: A Memoir (1991)
  4. The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found (1999)

While compilations are often detrimental to a writer’s original purpose and flow of thought, I welcome it in the case of Frederick Buechner. Buechner’s memoirs are reflective and untraditional. In my opinion, they don’t drive home a grand thesis from cover to cover. They may feel slow for an informed reader expecting heavy theology. A Crazy, Holy Grace, however, remedies this by drawing together Buechner’s many profound writings on a group of related themes. He is still not proposing a theodicy or a system of thought; but we may read his meaning a little more clearly.

As a child, Frederick Buechner suffered the loss of his father to suicide. He writes of being disconnected from the trauma as a child, but later being haunted by his father’s absence. This experience is one that shapes a large portion of The Sacred Journey, the best of which is found in A Crazy, Holy Grace.

Buechner is nothing if not frank. He chooses honesty over tradition in his writings, telling of his questions about the afterlife in The Sacred Journey and his seminary doubts in Now and Then. A Crazy, Holy Grace may be considered unsettling for a reader that lacks theological grounding. For instance, he imagines a conversation with his grandmother who is in the afterlife. Some readers (especially High Church adherents, perhaps) can appreciate this type of creative reflection, a la George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis; others may find it disruptive or strange. For my own part, I believe that this approach is why many ministers find Buechner so refreshing.

In an interview, Buechner was asked, “Do you envision a particular audience when you write?” He answered:

“I always hope to reach people who don’t want to touch religion with a ten-foot pole. The cultured despisers of religion, Schleiermacher called them. Maybe some of my books reach them. But most of my readers, as far as I can tell, aren’t that type. Many of them are ministers. They say, ‘You’ve given us something back we lost and opened up doors we didn’t think could be opened for people.'” (The Christian Century)

Review: Seven Men

Rating: ★★★½

Author: Eric Metaxas is an author and talk show host, best known as the author of biographies of great Christians, including Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His work has garnered more criticism since 2016 as his comments have grown increasingly partisan, and he has characterized his political opposition as “demonic.”

Full Title: Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness

Overview:

Seven brief portraits of men of God. Christian biographies are the history of God’s work in a human life. This book included William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Chuck Colson, Pope John Paul II, Jackie Robinson, George Washington, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Each life was very interesting, quick, and fun to read. What makes the book valuable is that it introduces to us several celebrated believers who have not really been celebrated as Christians, but for whom faith was the driving force behind their greatness.

Seven Men (2013) was later followed up by Seven Women (2015).

Meat:

I very much enjoyed this book, some chapters being more memorable and unique than others. My favorite was probably Jackie Robinson because I had heard the basics of the story, but history class completely neglected the spiritual dimension of Jackie’s life and work. It is really a fantastic story of a man willingly suffering without retribution. He paved the way for many others to suffer less than he himself did.

I’ve studied Eric Liddell’s life in particular and I thought that Mr. Metaxas did a great job of showing that Chariots of Fire was just the beginning for Liddell. Metaxas pulls together many interesting details and quotes on each person and I learned many new things about each of them, including Liddell.

On George Washington I also recommend “The Bulletproof George Washington.”

Bones:

Along with Metaxas criticisms for his snarky political partisanism, I can add that we could have seen it coming if we had thought more critically about his biographies—the full title is Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness. And all seven of them indeed are great men. Two were heads of state (George Washington and John Paul II);  two others were involved in politics (Chuck Colson and William Wilberforce); two others were important athletes (Eric Liddell and Jackie Robinson); the seventh, Bonhoeffer, is mainly interesting to Metaxas because of the intrigue he was involved in against Hitler. Metaxas is often straightforward in his Christian moral stance on key social issues: of course we all oppose slavery (like Wilberforce), and Hitler (like Bonhoeffer), and segregation (like Robinson).

The deeper issue at play is, why did Metaxas choose these men, and not others? He chose these men because his worldview is Christian but it is not spiritual. He could not celebrate a bereaved missionary toiling in Mongolia like James Gilmour; he could not rain accolades on an elderly, multilingual scholar like Bishop French, dying in the desert in his twilight years for the hope of the sons of Ishmael. Metaxas would furrow his brow at such a story, and think in his heart of hearts that a scholar like French could have married himself to the institutions of his day, and gained tenure in any of the best universities of Europe, and effected change in that way, because that is the only path to change visible to Metaxas. If I have learned anything from Chesterton, Browning, and Tolkien, it is that morality united to power does not make the world Christian, and fails even to make the world moral. As much as we love the stories of the famous and powerful, we must celebrate in our fellowships the invisible and even untimely victories of hearts turned toward righteousness.

All in all, these are very good stories, but there are dozens of more spiritually-minded Christian biographies out there.

 

Review: Jacob and the Divine Trickster

Rating: ★★★★

Author: John E. Anderson is a Lutheran Old Testament scholar. Jacob and the Divine Trickster is Anderson’s dissertation written at Baylor and published with the recommendation of Walter Brueggemann.

Genre: Academic theology, narrative theology.

Overview: Jacob and the Divine Trickster is a theological study of the Jacob cycle. Anderson is primarily concerned with theology proper and not with textual-critical issues. The introduction sets up a challenge for readers who try to iron out tensions in the biblical text. In particular, Anderson believes that God is unquestionably implicated in several deceptive acts in Genesis—although the heavy term ‘deception’ is somewhat lightened in his definition towards “withholding information.”

Anderson develops this idea of cunning as a divine attribute, boldly referring to Jehovah as a “trickster God.” I agree, however, with Diana Lipton’s review:

Even if I can come to terms with the idea that God tricks people, I cannot see tricksterism (this may be the wrong term but no better one comes to mind) as a divine attribute, as Anderson seems to.

The key to Anderson’s book is that he catalogues all the ways that the Lord worked for Jacob, in fulfillment of the ancestral promises (in Gen. 12 and 28). This overall optimistic assessment of Jacob will prove to have staying power, I believe, if we can accept the Eastern understanding of ethics given to us in Genesis.

Meat:

Anderson follows the lead of Walter Brueggemann, Eric Seibert, and others in addressing ethical difficulties in the Old Testament head on. Whereas a fundamentalist take would ignore difficulties and systematic theologians cancel them out, Anderson chooses to lean into the difficulties he encounters in the text.

Although its main thesis is overstated in my opinion, the book is an important contribution, as it challenges 1) interpretations that assess Jacob’s deceptive behavior negatively; 2) interpretations that seek to distance God from Jacob’s behavior, when God is real and present in the Genesis text, ensuring the fulfillment of his promise.

A simple review like this doesn’t provide space for the many interesting points in the book. But I can pose some questions evoked while reading this book:

  • If Jacob’s repeated deception of Esau was immoral, would God have allowed him to obtain divine blessing by those means? (Is God’s blessing really so mechanistic that you could obtain godly blessing in an ungodly way?!)
  • Can we trust Jacob’s statement (in 27:20) that the Lord helped him to deceive his father? What if Isaac was in the wrong anyway?
  • What about 31:5, 7, and 9, where Jacob says God is working on his behalf against Laban?
  • Are Jacob’s deceptive acts ethically difficult for non-Western readers? Wouldn’t many Asians see him as merely cunning, a guy with street smarts, who knows how to be in the right place at the right time?

Bones:

Anderson’s book brings up a major ethical problem: is Jacob really immoral, or is it our European ethical framework that cause us to place limitations on the text? Anderson doesn’t answer this question for contemporary readers, in my opinion. He does pretty convincingly argue, though, that the Bible itself does not make excuses for Jacob’s deceptive acts.

Review: The Grave Robber

Rating: ★★★½

Author: Mark Batterson is the pastor of National Community Church in Washington, D.C. and author of several Christian living books. His training and affiliation are from the Assemblies of God.

Overview: This book deals with Jesus’ seven miracles in the Gospel of John, organized into 25 short chapters. Although Jesus performs more than thirty miracles in the four Gospels, John only details seven, leading expositors to believe that each one has a  specific theological purpose.

This is the first of Batterson’s books that I have reviewed. One high point in Batterson’s writing/homiletical style is his variety of sources. He tells personal anecdotes, uses scientific examples, and recounts unique biographical material. This must resonate with his urban, well-educated congregation, and it makes his writing very engaging.

Meat: The most memorable section of the book for me was in the last few chapters (ch. 22-24) in which he asks why Jesus allowed Lazarus to die. It is a fascinating question for expositors. Batterson talks about how God can—and often does—allow a dream to die. He mentioned making an offer on a house and being turned down, but afterwards buying the same house for the same price, one year later. But Batterson could have gone much further on this topic:

  • He could have discussed Joseph’s imprisonment.
  • He could have discussed Abraham, Sarah, and the birth of Isaac.
  • He could have discussed Abram leaving Haran, setting out for the second time.
  • He could have used other examples in the life of Jesus—his wilderness experience, Gethsemane, the loss of John—or Jesus’ resurrection, in more detail that is.

Jesus as “the grave robber” and reviver of dreams is a theme that could be explored at more length.

Bones: One low point is the somewhat trite Pentecostal obsession with miracles and how to make them happen—usually something about either avoiding rationalization or risking reputation. I am not sure if miracles in and of themselves are a topic so central to the gospel that we should preach week after week on them. My position is closer to that of George MacDonald: miracles continue to fill an indispensable place in the witness of the gospel, as they did during Christ’s lifetime; but their role in our Christian lives is rarely as monolithic as it is in Pentecostal preaching. Sometimes I think that the logic might be, because cessationists are preaching almost nothing about miracles, we have to preach double.

Quotes:

“Don’t seek miracles. Follow Jesus. And if you follow Jesus long enough and far enough, you’ll eventually find yourself in the middle of some miracles.”

“God is in the business of strategically positioning us in the right place at the right time, but it’s up to us to see and seize those opportunities that are all around us all the time.”

Review: When Heaven Seems Silent

Rating: ★★½

Who: Mark and Tammy Endres are Charismatic ministers connected with Randy Clark’s Global Awakening network, now over a ministry called Hand of Jesus. They both also have experience in special education and other fields.

Overview: Mark and Tammy have been in Charismatic teaching and ministry for many years, and have seen many people healed in various ways. But this comes with an ounce of disappointment for them, because Mark was born without a hand on his left arm. As you read their story, it becomes clear that multiple people have given them prophetic words about his arm being healed, without them prompting or asking for prayer on the topic. When Heaven Seems Silent is their journey in handling the discrepancy between these prophetic words and their reality.

Meat: When Heaven Seems Silent has some important Scriptural truths on what it means to avoid bitterness when God does not solve a problem for you, or does not bring healing when you ask for it. Chapters like “Trusting God’s Intentions” defend a high view of God and his justice on this earth. For the Endreses, there may be a variety of reasons that God doesn’t perform a miracle, but more important in the end is that God is our Father, and we are his beloved children.

Bones: This book comes from what I call the “Power” camp—the descendants of the Word of Faith movement, who generally believe that miracles are central to church life and devotional life. I can imagine that when you walk into certain churches with a limp, people want to pray for your limp immediately. But for most mainstream churches, limps are simply part of existence—not something that needs to be reconciled to your worldview.

The problematic question raised by this book is, “What are God’s promises, and how does God give them to us?” If I receive a prophetic word, a word of knowledge, or a dream, does that carry the same rank as God’s promises given to me in the Bible? If someone gives me a prophetic word, should I arrange my life around it? We “do not despise prophecies,” but they are not part of the bedrock of faith either.

An aside: There are also some teachings from “inner healing,” which include a series of buzz words like: “soul ties,” “generational sin,” and “inner vows.” These ideas, in my view, have only been harmful to the church and dredged up past guilt in exactly the way that a minister shouldn’t. Counseling can help Christians to see how their past problems affect them now, but I don’t particularly believe that we need to “renounce” our parents’ mistakes or past actions in order to receive either “inner” healing or physical healing. We cast down imaginations that exalt themselves against Christ by meditating on and obeying God’s Word, not by renouncing ties or vows in our primeval past.

Quotes: “Beneath the pain of delayed answers is the promise of God, which does not diminish through our suffering.” (p. 110)

“Not every promise is unconditional. Some promises must be carried tenaciously if we are to see their fulfillment.” (p. 68)

The book addresses how grief and disappointment can make it difficult to draw near to God. “Pulling away from God only increases our pain and deepens our disappointment.” (p. 36) “All of us face a crossroads when confronted with pain. We often respond one of two ways: we shut down, or we open up.” (p. 96)

“Miracles and the fulfillment of promises in and of themselves do not settle our faith issues. Our assurance must come from who Jesus is, and who we are in him.” (p. 56)

“For five years or so my prayer life was basically three words: ‘I love You.’ I don’t understand you, but I love you. Over and over I gave him my love in the darkest place of my life.” (Bob Sorge, qtd. on p. 67)

“My soul refuses to live in the badlands of abandoned promises. I am resolved to do whatever I must to keep his promise close to my heart.” (p. 69)

Related: The Fire of Delayed Answers (Bob Sorge).