Tag Archives: Contemporary authors

Review: Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God

Rating: ★★★★★

Author: David McCasland is an American educator whose books include Blind Courage, co-authored with Bill Irwin, the first blind person to thru-hike the 2,162 mile Appalachian Trail; Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God; and Eric Liddell: Pure Gold. David writes for Our Daily Bread and also develops biographical television documentaries as a writer and co-producer for Day of Discovery.

Subject: Oswald Chambers was a teacher of the Bible in the United Kingdom, a chaplain to World War I soldiers in Egypt, and author of numerous devotional books, mostly compiled posthumously by his indefatigable wife, Biddy. Chambers’ intense and thought-provoking style has made his book My Utmost for His Highest (again, Biddy’s compilation) the best-selling devotional book of the 20th century.

Overview:

In the introduction, McCasland skillfully portrays the feeling of incompleteness that haunted “Biddy” Chambers after her husband died, seemingly needlessly, at the age of 43. She could not have known that through her work, her husband would be become the best-selling devotional author of the century.

Chambers’ life has much more of adventure to it than one might expect. Knowing something of Chambers’ inimitable writing, I half-suspected him to be a brooding Scotsman, dreary and intense. But McCasland ably portrays Chambers as tall, open-faced, and lithe, someone who loves children, games, and even pranks. In his younger days, he trained to be an artist. He also travelled widely in later years, doing preaching and teaching tours with ministry partners in the United States (mainly Cincinnati) and in Japan.

His early ministry (in his late twenties and early thirties) involves well-known Christians across a broad theological spectrum. He heard Alexander Whyte preach in Edinburgh; Reader Harris (Pentecostal League of Prayer) had a great influence on him in his early years; G. Campbell Morgan spoke at the first anniversary of his school; and he worked with Charles and Lettie Cowman in Japan. He took an interestingly moderate position when the “tongues” movement hit England, neither despising them nor imposing them as a necessity.

From 1911 to 1915, Chambers was the founding principal of the Bible Training College in London. They had 106 students during that time, and at the end of the period, 40 of them were serving as missionaries. Chambers was also extremely productive. During this short period, the sermons, lectures, and notes that he produced comprised a formidable body of work, including the bulk of the following books: Biblical Ethics, Biblical Psychology, Bringing Sons unto Glory, He Shall Glorify Me (lectures on the Holy Spirit), Not Knowing Whither (from the Old Testament Studies class), Our Portrait in Genesis (also from the OT class), The Psychology of Redemption, and So Send I You.

Chambers did not work from a writer’s cabin. He sowed in faithfulness for many years as a Bible teacher in Scotland and England. He taught Bible concepts faithfully but was very innovative in the way he presented them, using alliterative headings, terse explanations, and modern metaphors.

In 1915, the work of the school was suspended because of World War I, and Chambers went to Egypt to serve as a YMCA chaplain to soldiers. During this time he continued his labor of love, writing, preaching, and teaching evening classes to soldiers. The materials produced during this time became the books Baffled to Fight Better (on Job), The Shadow of an Agony (on redemption), and Shade of His Hand (on Ecclesiastes).

Chambers died of appendicitis in 1917, at the age of 43. What must have made it more difficult for his family was that he could have availed himself of better medical assistance, but he did not want to take a hospital bed from a wounded soldier.

Meat:

One of the key insights of this book is the unforgettable role that Biddy Chambers had in bringing her husband’s works to light. Oswald Chambers himself did, as far as we can tell, very little actual writing during his lifetime, and nearly all of his published works are arranged from various talks, lectures, and sermons, mostly from the years between 1911 and 1917. Christians owe a great debt to this woman who turned the bitter years of widowhood into a sweet ministry that has blessed the globe.

Bones:

This is one of the best biographies I have ever read, and should be ranked with God’s Smuggler and Bruchko though with not quite so much intrigue or scandal to attract sleepy readers. I find very little fault in it, though it is quite long. The story is a bit slow near the beginning when Chambers has not really embarked on his life’s work yet, but otherwise the book flows from episode to episode, and paints as personal a picture as could possibly be drawn more than 70 years after Chambers’ death.

McCasland is a masterful biographer, and my chief regret in reading this was to find out that he has published so few biographies: only this and two others.

Review: The Perfect Swarm

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Len Fisher is an honorary research fellow in the department of physics, University of Bristol, England. He has authored several popular science books.

Genre: This popular science book is outside our normal range for book reviews, but it is summarized here because of its fascinating implications for leadership.

Overview: The chief value of this popular science book is its brief, yet full-orbed introduction to the burgeoning science of swarm intelligence, also called “the science of complexity.” To define this theme in the author’s words:

“Swarm behavior becomes swarm intelligence when a group can use it to solve a problem collectively, in a way that the individuals within the group cannot.” (p. 10, loc. 224)

“The modern science of complexity has shown that collective behavior in animal groups (especially those of insects such as locusts, bees, and ants) emerges from a set of very simple rules of interaction between neighbors.” (p. 2, loc. 124)

Meat: The applications of these studies are briefly summarized in ch. 10. I have grouped the spiritual applications of this book under four headings:

Swarm Evangelism:

“Groups that use swarm intelligence need no leader, and they have no central planning.” (p. 10, loc. 230) Similarly, the Church of the Spirit in Acts 15 had no pope or king—only a simple set of rules and the sanctifying power of God’s Word and Spirit.

“When networking, find, use, or establish those few long-range links that bring clusters together into a small world. . . .” (p. 168, loc. 2508)

Alphaeus Hardy, who had lost his dream of preaching, led one Japanese boy to Christ after the boy had stowed away on his ship. Joseph Neesima then went back to Japan to glorify Christ among the Japanese.

Faithful Discipleship:

Fisher quotes Barabási’s Linked to the effect that exponential growth is “the inevitable consequence of self-organization due to local decisions made by [individuals].” In other words, the only plan in a self-propelling movement is not just for new members to bring others, but for each successive generation to decide independently that the movement is worthwhile (leading to exponential growth (on a power law) as long as the exponent is more than 1).

Church Planting:

A key idea in biblical church planting methods is the “person of peace.” But networking science says you cannot place the whole burden of a movement on one hub: “Don’t rely on persuading someone with influence to pass the message on. It is far better to try for a critical mass of early adopters—people who will take the idea or product up, after a single exposure.” (p. 168, loc. 2516) Even if a person of peace is found, we should hold off the celebration: a “critical mass of early adopters” is probably the inflection point (or turning point) that we should be aiming for.

Invisible Leadership:

“Lead from the inside (if possible with a coterie of like-minded friends or colleagues), but take care not to let other members of the group know what you are doing. Just head in the direction that you want to go, and leave it to the laws of the swarm to do the rest.” (p. 34, loc. 592)

“The leadership of small groups [that is, a few leaders] can engage a whole army.” (p. 36, loc. 605)

“Just a few informed individuals can lead a much larger group of uninformed individuals simply by moving faster and in the appropriate direction.” (p. 30, loc. 533)

Fisher explains this as an informational cascade, in which the bees follow three rules: avoidance, alignment, and attraction. The larger the group, the fewer leaders needed in proportion. (p. 30; also p. 32, loc. 565)

“We can lead a group simply by having a goal, so long as the others in the group do not have different goals.” (p. 32, loc. 558)

“Members of a group can be totally unrecognized as leaders by those whom they are leading.” (p. 32, loc. 563)

There are also many Scriptural metaphors in the book:

Fisher mentions that locust plagues when dense enough, transition into “highly aligned marching”—an army of locusts “marches” in Joel 2:7. (p. 24, loc. 435)

Fish in schools have only two rules: “follow the fish in front (if there is one) and keep pace with the fish beside you.” (p. 13, loc. 273) Fish have been symbolic of Christians since the earliest times because of the many New Testament stories about fishing. Jacob also prays for Joseph to be “as fishes do increase” (Gen. 48:16). Fish, in this context, mean multiplication!

Solomon admonishes us to “consider the ant” (Prov. 6:6). Ants also operate using swarm intelligence, something mentioned throughout the book.

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: Recapture the Wonder

Rating: ★★★

Who: Ravi Zacharias, modern apologist and speaker. Ravi is the author of Can Man Live Without God? and many other books.

Overview: The subtitle, “Experiencing God’s Amazing Promise of Childlike Joy,” shows that the publishers intended this book for a popular Christian audience. Less than half of Ravi’s books have made the long passage from the Christian philosophy to the Christian living shelf: Cries of the Heart (1998), I, Isaac, Take Thee, Rebekah (2004) and Has Christianity Failed You? (2010) being some of them.

Ravi deals with the concept of wonder here for a primarily Christian audience, then. There is no attempt to shoehorn “wonder” into the language of his philosophy books, which I can appreciate. And although he doesn’t say so, I expect that “wonder” is awfully close to what he calls “meaning” in some of his other books. (Meaning, purpose, origin and destiny are four keys to life provided by a Christian worldview.)

If we take the title as it is, the book takes a while to reach its object; the first chapter is about what wonder is, and the second and third are mostly cautionary, against seeking wonder in impersonal pursuits like wealth or sex. It is not until the fourth chapter that Ravi begins to spell out positive steps towards “recapturing the wonder.” Still, there is plenty to gain along the way.

Meat: The second half of the book is where he begins to spell out how to maintain wonder. Wonder, he says, is not something that comes or goes in our lives unbidden. It is something that must be “maintained” with thought and discipline. In the fourth and fifth chapters, Ravi calls for some self-examination: Are we living in gratitude? Are we grounded in the truth? Do we daily meditate on God’s love?

In the last chapter, maintaining wonder climaxes in a call for the Christian disciplines. Here, Ravi makes a case for thoughtful reading and patient reflection, giving examples from the lives of Henri Nouwen and his own life. This section is unique in that churchgoers are often called on to simply “read” and “pray” without much thought given as to why and how. The final section calls for a life of prayer, noting that worship is the highest function of wonder.

This is by no means Ravi’s best book, since he is stretching himself in terms of his audience. In the second half of the book, though, he has a wealth of straightforward advice towards living life in wonder.

Review: Missionary Tongues Revisited

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: Denzil (Denny) R. Miller, missionary to Malawi and director of the Acts in Africa Initiative. Miller saw that evangelism was alive and well in Africa, but very few African pastors were being discipled about the filling and gifts Holy Spirit, so this has been his primary ministry focus for some years. He has many books on the Holy Spirit and on Luke-Acts.

Overview: This brief book begins with Miller’s take on early Pentecostal missionaries, who thought that the gift of tongues was for the “regions beyond,” and that when they got to China, they could evangelize using the gift of tongues. Needless to say, they were mistaken; but, Miller says, the thrust of the idea was correct, and we need to return to a missional understanding of the Holy Spirit in general and of the gift of tongues in particular. He writes:

“While the early Pentecostals’ bold experiment with missionary tongues was a failure, they were, I believe, right to place speaking in tongues into missiological categories.” (Loc. 1129)

Meat: I thought that this book would deal primarily with “missionary tongues,” but, after Chapter 1, the rest of the book (six chapters) is about shifting our understanding of tongues and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For many Pentecostals, tongues are the “initial physical evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit.” Miller agrees with this, but he adds the following:

  1. Tongues are confirmatory evidence of the filling of the Holy Spirit.
  2. Tongues are a missional sign that the believer is a Spirit-empowered witness.
  3. Tongues are a prophetic release for Christians desiring boldness to preach to the unreached.
  4. Tongues are an empowering element for Christians living in mission.

If we think of tongues only as a confirmatory evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit, we have missed the place of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in God’s global mission. “For Luke tongues were part and parcel of the empowering experience.” (Loc. 971)

Miller quotes Martin Kähler as stating that “mission is the mother of theology” and John V. York on “theology with feet”. He writes that our pneumatology (i.e. doctrine of the Holy Spirit) should be reformed around Scripture to include not just an individualistic edificational tongues (from 1 Cor. 12-14), but also Luke’s empowering tongues.

Interestingly, before the modern Pentecostal movement, the Cambridge Seven (including C. T. Studd) and A. B. Simpson expected a renewal of missional tongues as an accompaniment and empowerment for end-times revival.

After the early Pentecostals’ failed experiment in missional tongues, “the movements’ scholars set themselves to reexamining their stance on the nature and purpose of speaking in tongues . . . [leading to] among other things, the emergence of the ‘initial physical evidence’ construct still held by most Classical Pentecostals today.” (loc. 230)

Miller notes the significane of other forms of prophetic speech accompanying the filling of the Holy Spirit; Acts contains a pattern of speaking in tongues immediately followed by Spirit-inspired speech in the vernacular. Miller uses this as a model when praying with believers to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Bones: Honestly I could not think of any criticisms. Miller is concise and biblical.

Quotes: “The Classical Pentecostal doctrine of ‘initial physical evidence,’ while true in itself, is an incomplete understanding of Luke’s missional presentation of tongues.” (Loc. 136)

“In Acts Luke presents Spirit baptism as a powerful missions oriented experience accompanied by Spirit-inspired prophetic speech in both unlearned and learned languages.” (Loc. 942)

This missional empowering takes place, not only when one is first baptized in the Holy Spirit signified by speaking in tongues, it occurs again and again each time the Spirit-filled believer prays in the Spirit.” (Loc. 1001)

Related: The 1:8 Promise of Jesus.

You can buy this book on Amazon for just $5.95 for a digital copy, or $10.95 for the paperback.

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).

Review: Has Christianity Failed You?

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Ravi Zacharias, modern apologist and speaker. Ravi is the author of Can Man Live Without God? and many other books.

Overview: This book is one of Ravi’s lighter reads, and it deals with various points relating to doubt and suffering. This may sound like covering old ground, but books like Can Man Live Without God? deal with the rational basis for theism; Has Christianity Failed You? focuses on heart issues.

The main thrust of the book, in my opinion is two points: First, we are incapable of true transcendence, and must learn to cope with uncertainty. Second, God retains his right to act as he will, and is not bound to do everything we ask, even in prayer. Jesus did not solve all of the world’s problems, and did not promise to do so on this earth. He came to provide a way to the Father and a path to redemption.

We experience some miracles, but not all the miracles we want; we see some of God, but not all we would like. In the end, the hunt for miraculous transcendence leaves us where we started: asking for ‘just one more’ proof of God’s existence. We must obey the God that we know, rather than asking him to obey us.

Ravi gives the powerful example of John the Baptist in prison, sending a question to Jesus to ask if he is truly the Messiah. Jesus points to the miracles all around him, but does not stage a coup against Herod, or smuggle John out of prison, or perform a miracle in John’s behalf. So John dies because of the testimony of Jesus’ Messiahship—the Messiahship that delivered from sin, but not from pain.

Meat: The chapter on prayer is worth reading more than once. Frequently a loss of prayer life is the erosion of the foundation under the spiritual life, and if we can address its issues, we will not feel like Christianity has failed us. Some readers might be surprised when I say that Ravi is at his strongest when he gets to the heart issues, and we should not relegate him to the apologetics shelf.

Bones: Ravi brings a wealth of examples in this book—so many that sometimes I couldn’t follow the train of thought from point to point. Each chapter makes great points, but it was hard at times to see how they connected to one another. The chapter addressing “The Reason-Driven Life” almost felt like it was in the wrong book.

Quotes: “Virtually every great leader in the Bible struggled during times of testing or tension over what they thought God should do or say, even though they had recognized God’s divine intervention earlier.” (p. 77)

“At first blush, the miracle seems the only way to win a following. But the fickleness of the human mind, our insatiable desire to always want ‘just one more,’ the ever-present reality of need, our desire to play God and hence to control God, the apparent ‘hiddenness’ of God when we need him most—all these reasons that become even more urgent in intense situations make the plea for the arm to be reattached ‘just this once’ highly suspect.” (p. 77)

“If you a praying Christian, your faith in God is what is carrying you, through both the good times and the hard times. However, if you are not a praying person, you are carrying your faith, and trying to carry the infinite is very exhausting.” (p. 151)