Tag Archives: Contemporary authors

Review: From Azusa to Africa to the Nations

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:

From Azusa to Africa to the Nations (2006) is a simple summary of the leading figures and missionary movements that spawned out of the Azusa Street Revival, focusing on the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the works that were birthed in Africa.

This little book addresses an important historical idea that began in the early modern Pentecostal movement: the idea that missionaries who spoke in tongues would be able to “preach in tongues” as on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12).

Early leaders like Charles F. Parham and William J. Seymour even believed that those who were baptized in the Holy Spirit would always speak in a known language of the world. They would then be able to supernaturally preach the gospel to that particular people without ever having to study the language. (p. 33)

Some showed up to a mission field, and when their speaking in tongues “didn’t work,” they thought—I must be in the wrong mission field!—and moved on. Eventually, a clear consensus was reached that they had misunderstood the purpose of modern tongues, drawing on Acts 2 when they should have been comparing the passages on “tongues” in 1 Corinthians, which are pretty clearly differentiated in Scripture by the following points:

  1. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 are directed towards God, but readily understood by hearers; “edification tongues” in 1 Corinthians are directed towards God, and not readily understood by bystanders. (See 1 Cor. 14:1-14.)
  2. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 edified onlookers; praying in “edification tongues” edifies yourself (1 Cor. 4:4).
  3. “Missional tongues” in Acts 2 require no interpreter; “edification tongues” do require an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:27-28).

One point apparently common to both types of tongues is that they are both used by God as “a sign” for unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22). Early Pentecostals were right in believing that all tongues had an empowering element; they were wrong in believing that all tongues were readily understood without interpretation.

The Azusa Street Outpouring reminds us that missions is at the heart of true Pentecostalism. (p. 66)

While they were mistaken on that point, Miller points out the positive aspects of the story: 1) they left their homeland in outstanding (although perhaps somewhat mistaken) faith; 2)  the modern Pentecostal movement began as a missionary movement, not as a selfish club for boosting self-esteem; 3) their failure to “preach in tongues” led to the refinement of Pentecostal theology, which now differentiates more readily—though this is not always clear from the pulpit—between the “missional” tongues of Acts 2 and the “edification” tongues of 1 Corinthians 12-14. This was a key development in modern Pentecostalism and should not be neglected when an explanation of the purpose of “tongues” is given.

Meat:

Miller treads a fine line in this book: cessationist writers would have you think that the early Pentecostals were crazy for showing up in an overseas mission field expecting to re-live Acts 2; many Pentecostal writers would rather not talk about it. I appreciated his courage in addressing a theme that I have not found other Pentecostal authors writing about at any length.

Miller is also a scholar. All of his books are well-researched and documented, so you know that he is not just making generalizations; he gives numerous names and dates that help us orient our understanding of the early Pentecostal movement.

Bones:

This book is a very brief read, and probably will only require one or two sittings for most readers; unfortunately, I do not know of any other references for those interested in going deeper on this topic.

Read:

At the time of writing, you can read From Azusa to Africa to the Nations for free on Denzil R. Miller’s personal website.

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: Mud, Sweat and Tears

Rating: ★★★

Author: Bear Grylls is an adventurer and motivational speaker who is driven by his Christian faith. He is best known as a reality television personality (Man vs. Wild, Running Wild); as an adventurer, he is best known for climbing Mount Everest, crossing the Atlantic in a raft, and narrowly surviving a parachute failure while skydiving; but he has a number of ventures under way including numerous books, a growing brand, and survival skills training camps.

Overview:

Grylls came from an aristocratic family. Amazingly, both positive thinking and disaster run in his family: His great-grandfather died in a shipwreck, and, further back, he’s related to Samuel Smiles, who invented the genre of “self-help” with his 1859 book by that title. (F. W. Boreham was a huge fan of Smiles and his motivational biographies.)

Known for his faith and adventures, Bear Grylls is far from a modern Puritan. He is a Special Forces veteran with a lot of close calls under his belt, not all of which are even in this book. This biography is jammed with crazy and amusing stories including prep school hijinx, urban climbing, bullying, and skinny dipping.

In this book, highlights include a very free boyhood, passing selection for the British Special Forces—essentially an endless mountain marathon with full combat gear—and a treacherous Everest bid as he recovered from a skydiving accident which had broken several vertebrae. He also describes the career transition that enabled him to market himself as an “adventurer” and transform that title into a paying job.

Meat:

Grylls is not an effusive or florid writer, and that makes this book a quick read. The book’s main merit is probably just the fascination of the stories he tells. The way he describes British Special Forces, by the way, makes it sound more wearisome than climbing Everest (though certainly not more dangerous).

Though Grylls is not a particularly profound thinker, he makes up for this by expressing himself in historical quotes and simple inspirational aphorisms:

Do the impossible. Climb the impassable—eat the inedible. (p. 393)

Bones:

I disagree with Grylls on several finer points, but his lust for life is definitely inspiring. Overall, our differences almost entirely stem from the fact that he is English, and I am not. Europeans are almost never in your face about their faith, and so Grylls doesn’t talk about his faith nearly as much as I expected in this book.

I think the audience of this book was meant to be very broad and popular; Grylls is not just interested in being pegged as a fixture on the Christian bookstore shelves, and I suppose I can respect that.

Quotes:

Fear forces you to look tough on the outside but makes you weak on the inside. (p. 64)

My dad had always told me that if I could be the most enthusiastic person I knew then I would do well. (p. 89)

Faith in Christ has been the great empowering presence in my life, helping me walk strong when so often I feel so weak. (p. 98)

Dreams, though, are cheap, and the real task comes when you start putting in place the steps needed to make those dreams a reality. (p. 117)

Mental strength was something that had to accompany the physical. And the physical is always driven by the mental. (p. 160)

On public speaking:

Be sincere, be brief, be seated. (loc. 4692, attr. to John Mills)

On finding a sponsor for his Everest bid:

I got lucky. But then again, it took me many hundreds of rejections to manage to find that luck. (p. 269)

On mountains and mountain climbing:

Sir Edmund Hilary, Everest’s first conqueror, once said that the mountains gave him strength. (p. 339)

Statistically, the vast majority of accidents happen on the descent. It is because nothing matters any longer, the goal is attained . . . (p. 347)

There are man for whom the unattainable has a special attraction. (qtd. from Everest: A Mountaineering History)


Note: This review was written November 10, 2015, but published online in 2020.

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.