Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

ChristianBeliefs-GrudemOne of my modern heroes of theological writing is Wayne Grudem, Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. I recently read one of the several books he has written and which his son, Elliot Grudem, edited – Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know. I read it because my pastor and I are team teaching a class using the book as our guide over the next four months. It’s a small, 159-page paperback that is quickly read and digested.

On the other end of the depth spectrum is Grudem’s 1290-page Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine which has kept many seminarians and pastors occupied for countless hours of study (myself included). I’m nearly finished reading the monster and will write another review soon this month when I complete it.

In between the small paperback and the large volume is yet another middle-sized book, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, a 528-page condensed version of the larger Systematic Theology written by Grudem and edited by Jeff Purswell. So, the reader can certainly pick the size and depth of study he wishes to undertake from tackling the original, massive Systematic Theology, to the subsequent half-sized but still meaty Bible Doctrine, or the latest and much simpler Christian Beliefs. And for those not even inclined to invest the few hours it takes to read Christian Beliefs, you can cut right to the 6-page laminated book summary of either Systematic Theology or Bible Doctrine. Hopefully, though, your interest in biblical theology warrants more than a 6-page cheat sheet – nice to have around, but not all you need to know on the subject.

So, given that background of relevant Grudem texts, let’s get back to the subject of this review – Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know

As the subtitle suggests, this book focuses on 20 Christian doctrines (or teachings) considered basic to the Christian faith. To include 20 topics as well as a few historic confessions of faith and a list of recommended reading in 159 pages demands that only a few pages be written per doctrine. Because of this, the book is appropriate for someone new to the faith or wanting a refresher across the spectrum of doctrines included. It will not (nor is it intended to) provide an in-depth look at any of the 20 doctrines included. By comparison, Systematic Theology has 57 chapters of about 20 pages length each in addition to the confessions of faith and other appendices in its nearly 1300 pages. You get what you pay for.

Still, as a guide for further exploration of what the Bible teaches, the book serves a valuable purpose of pointing the reader to a variety of biblical texts for each of the topics discussed. As Grudem does so well in all of his writings, he presents a faithful explanation of what each doctrine is and a sound, biblical basis for all conclusions drawn. He never shies away from presenting dissenting opinions by those in various faith traditions, being careful in the appendix listing further reading to provide some background about each author’s theological tradition and perspective. The book is not intended to present biblical teachings from any one particular denominational perspective; it intends to answer the question of what the Bible teaches on the subjects – a healthy approach that ought to cross denominational biases.

Like his other texts, the starting point of Christian Beliefs is Grudem’s discussion of the Bible as the word of God. If the Bible is the authoritative basis for beliefs, then its authority and reliability is crucial to establish up front before using biblical texts as the basis for additional doctrinal positions. The full list of 20 doctrines covered is as follows:

  • What Is the Bible?
  • What Is God Like?
  • What Is the Trinity?
  • What Is Creation?
  • What Is Prayer?
  • What Are Angels, Satan, and Demons?
  • What Is Man?
  • What Is Sin?
  • Who Is Christ?
  • What Is the Atonement?
  • What Is the Resurrection?
  • What Is Election?
  • What Does It Mean to Become a Christian?
  • What Are Justification and Adoption?
  • What Are Sanctification and Perseverance?
  • What Is Death?
  • What Is the Church?
  • What Will Happen When Christ Returns?
  • What Is the Final Judgment?
  • What Is Heaven.

In addition are the appendices that include a few historic Christian confessions of faith and Grudem’s recommended reading list, plus an index. Each chapter concludes with a few questions for review and application that are good for personal reflection or for group discussion.

I suspect that most churches have members who are differently inclined to tackle the three Grudem’s works mentioned above, from the quick Christian Beliefs to the weighty Systematic Theology. I still have a desire to take about a year to walk through Systematic Theology with a small group at some point in the future. Laymen can handle it. We need not “dumb down” theology as though the preaching class are able to understand things that the people in the pews cannot. We are all led by the same Spirit of God into the truth of His word, and God can surely speak to whomever He pleases regardless of position or formal theological education. In fact, if I had the benefit of a few current study Bibles and works like Systematic Theology when I attended two seminaries decades ago, I may have been just as well off studying those on my own as spending five or more years in the classroom, but I digress…

As for recommending Christian Beliefs, I do recommend it to those new to the Christian faith, those new to Protestant faith (as opposed to Roman Catholic), those interested in the faith, or to those wanting a quick refresher on important biblical doctrines. Then, assuming your appetite is whetted, advance to either Bible Doctrine or, better yet, Systematic Theology for an incredible, long-term, more in-depth study of what the Bible teaches on the above and many additional topics.

For further reading:

BibleDoctrine-Grudem     SystematicTheology-Grudem

EngagedLeaderI have long appreciated the research and insights of Charlene Li and all who are connected with Altimeter Group. They have an excellent history of producing substantive content based on thorough industry research and presenting it effectively via print, webinars, conferences, etc. So it is no surprise that Li, the founder and CEO of Altimeter Group, has done this again with her latest book, The Engaged leader: A Strategy for Your Digital Transformation. Some of her previous books include Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform How You Lead and the best-selling Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed By Social Technologies, co-authored with Josh Bernoff.

In her latest book, The Engaged Leader, Li coaches leaders through developing a strategy for engaging with others digitally inside and outside the organizations they lead. This small paperback of barely 100 pages is filled with helpful examples from C-suites around the globe where leaders understand the importance of digital leadership – leaders who demonstrate willingness to transform their own behaviors in order to positively transform the organizations they lead.

The four brief but meaty chapters are:

  • Listen at Scale
  • Share to Shape
  • Engage to Transform
  • Transform the Organization

The author recognizes that not all leaders are at the same point in their digital transformation journey, and that such a journey may take a while – even years. She documents such journeys in her many examples. The transformation must occur if leaders and their organizations are to position themselves for future success. Through implementing three main actions – listen, share and engage – leaders have the opportunity to transform their leadership and their impact in a digitally connected world. Such transformation won’t happen automatically, even after reading this excellent book. There must be a plan. To that end, she provides a handy worksheet for download that the book uses throughout its chapters to build a sample plan for leader engagement in support of a leader’s and organization’s goals.

To mention just a bit of the chapters’ primary points, to listen at scale means to “listen with your eyes to many people all at once, anytime, and from anyplace” (p. 22). No longer must leaders rely only on a select group of direct reports through whom the content of information is filtered. Leaders can take advantage of the access they have through digital/social channels to actually hear from their audience directly (or at least from those who are doing the listening at scale). This further presents opportunities to build relationships with constituents and to demonstrate constancy in the listening process. Li presents suggestions on the art and science of listening, and she ends the listening chapter (as well as the share and engage chapters) with helpful questions to get started. Why listen? Listening at scale “enables leaders to determine what ideas, information, or actions will inspire followership” (p. 36).

Once listening, leaders can then share in strategic ways to shape relationships and the actions of followers. This leads to greater power and influence by the leader. Such sharing needs to be fast, frequent and informal – very different than the C-suite’s traditional methods of talking at people, infrequent reporting, and formal, polished sharing. Li provides tips on the art and science of sharing. She offers the wise caveat that “authenticity will always be in the eye of the beholder” (p. 53), and that leaders may have to develop even tougher skin than usual during the digital transformation journey as they learn new ways of communicating.

In the engage to transform chapter, Li states that “digital engagement is a complete paradigm shift” and that it “is still a stretch for most leaders because it alters how they feel about themselves and how they normally act and it changes their relationships with followers” (p. 59). She uses the terms distance, direction and frequency to explain the interrelated perspectives at play. Setting goals, choosing the right type of engagement and putting controls in place are some of the pieces of the engagement puzzle Li explains. (I have to admit I’m partial to this chapter since it is where my CEO at Humana, Bruce Broussard, is used as an example of an engaged leader via our employee’s enterprise social network, Buzz. Full disclosure: I was the contact for the author for the information included in this chapter regarding Broussard’s digital engagement inside our company.)

The potential impact of learning to listen, share and engage is that the leader has the best opportunity to transform the organization. Li relates the change process the leader may experience along the way as very similar to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, modifying them slightly into only four stages in this process: denial, bargaining, acceptance, and transformation. It is in this section where Li addresses the reality of middle management’s role (which is not always helpful) in such a transformation process, and how to bring them along in the right direction.

Don’t think that embarking on the journey necessarily involves mass quantities of time from leaders who are already extremely busy. Li suggests starting in week one with just ten minutes per day. In the book’s conclusion, she writes “so start slowly, but start now” (p. 94).

It is impossible for the reader of The Engaged Leader to be exposed to as many examples of leader engagement as this book provides without having numerous ideas spawned regarding ones own situation. Surely engaged leaders with an openness to personal digital transformation will have no shortage of takeaways to move forward in their own journey after reading the book. I highly recommend it not only for leaders but for others who are connected with leaders and for those who play some role in leader communications.

Transforming into a digitally engaged leader is a tremendous opportunity today. The reach and impact a leader can have via social channels is practically unlimited. A few rare leaders may be so inclined and skilled as to make the journey without the nudging and guidance of others, but most will need a helping hand to take the right path. This is where Charlene Li’s small but powerful, insightful, research-based book can make a huge difference. Get a copy and read it soon.

ApologeticsStudyBibleI finished reading trough The Apologetics Study Bible earlier this week and want to write a bit about the experience. It has been my practice for nearly four decades to read through a different translation, version or edition of the Bible every 1-3 years. I haven’t kept track, but I’m guessing I’ve done it now somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 times since college. My preference is for study Bibles because of the wealth of notes and supplemental articles provided. There is value in exposing oneself to as many translations and commentaries as possible in a lifelong, systematic way, so this approach works for me. Of course, the thrust of any trek through the Word of God is to hear from the primary Author of the original scriptures and not the notes and commentary on it by others. Still, it doesn’t hurt to hear from both!

In January 2014 I started reading through The Apologetics Study Bible both because (1) it focused on defending the Christian faith with its supplemental reading, and (2) because I had never read completely the translation it uses – the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). It took me a few weeks longer to complete it than planned, spilling over into 2015, but I won’t tell anyone if you won’t. It was definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

Like most study Bibles, there are ample footnotes on nearly every page, worthwhile introductions to the books, helpful reference materials in the back, plus those articles and short inserts scattered throughout the text that address a host of questions, issues, interpretations, and ways in which some religions try to twist the meanings of certain passages to stray from historic, biblical teaching. I found these brief “Twisted Scripture” segments to be among the most helpful features because they specify how particular groups misinterpret certain passages, and they are located right by the verses in question, easily standing out visually on the page.

While I have certainly benefited from study Bibles that are largely the effort of a single person (e.g., The MacArthur Study Bible or The Evidence Bible), I generally prefer editions that contain the thoughts and writings of many contributors as is the case with The Apologetics Study Bible with its many dozens of contributors. Of course, that method lends itself to potential inconsistency in the type and quality of notes provided. This isn’t a major concern, though, as there were only one or two books where I found the notes to be very repetitious and, frankly, frustrating to read after a few chapters.

For example, after completing the Old Testament book of Numbers, I wrote the following note in it:

“The notes in Numbers are very frustrating to read. The writer correctly rejects the idea that it is a composite of various priestly, Yahwist, and Elohist sources. However, instead of addressing that point once in the introduction or in an article about it, he constantly references it in the notes. There is no value in filling notes repeatedly with “some think such and such, but I disagree.” Tell us more about what is true about the text – not what is not true about it.”

Fortunately, such objections were limited to no more than a couple of books, so the objections shouldn’t and wouldn’t keep me from heartily recommending the edition to anyone interested.

At just over 2000 pages, it isn’t an overwhelming size compared to some other study Bibles on the market, so it tends to be a quicker read than, for example, the ESV Study Bible at more than 2,700 pages which is what I read through over 2012-2013.

With this being my first time reading the Holman Christian Standard Bible, I found it an enjoyable, readable, understandable translation that seeks to be true to the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. Like any translation, it sounds a bit odd at times when the wording is very different than what I may have grown up memorizing or hearing frequently, but that is to be expected and is not at all a fault. I consider the HCSB a worthy translation for use, although I drift more toward the English Standard Version (ESV) and New American Standard Bible (NASB) as my go-to translations.

Overall, I can heartily recommend The Apologetics Study Bible as a valuable resource for helping the reader build up a strong, rational defense for the faith. After all, that is what Christian apologetics is all about. It is well worth the time to read every word of it and to keep it handy, especially for its plentiful articles and helpful resources in addition to the biblical text. It may not be the study Bible you choose to be your primary, permanent Bible to carry to church, but it deserves a place within arm’s reach as you explore the meaning of various texts.

What’s next for me? I’ll tackle The Reformation Study Bible the remainder of this year. About a year from now, I should be sharing with you about that experience.

What about you? What version/translation/edition of the Bible are you reading now? Which have you found most helpful?

TheologyOfTheReformersOne of my goals for the year is to give myself a mini theological education by reading three books:  (1) Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem, (2) Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg Allison, and (3) Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George. I knocked out the shortest of the three first – Theology of the Reformers – and am now in the midst of reading Grudem’s enormous work.

Even though I have a seminary degree, my focus was not theology. That education was also over 30 years ago, so there’s no guarantee how much I retained of what little theology I did study formally that long ago. With the great respect I have for the figures of the Protestant Reformation, it seemed appropriate to devote some time just to those key people, and reading George’s text seemed a great way to do so.

I’m not on the same academic playing field of Timothy George, so I won’t pretend to even be qualified to critique his well-researched and impressively written history, but I can react to it as a layman and speak to the importance of the content in the life a 21st-century American Southern Baptist.

As the cover graphic above shows, I read the 25th anniversary edition of the book published in 2013, so it has stood the test of time. I wish I knew how many seminary students have had this text as assigned reading because it is surely written primarily for academic consumption rather than for the people in the pews. That’s both a compliment in the depth of what is written and a lament in that the average layman may quickly be put off by the foreign language in practically every other paragraph, many times without translation. So unless you happen to know Greek, Hebrew, German and perhaps a few other languages, be prepared to regularly have a dear-in-the-headlights feeling as the next unknown phrase comes your way. It won’t keep you from catching the meaning of what is said, but it can be frustrating to anyone without a strong language background. (I’ve studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew, so I muddled through.)

Language aside, though, the book has great value to any reader interested in a more complete understanding of Protestant roots and beliefs. I believe it to be the case that far too many American Christians have no real sense of Christian or church history. (Heck, many probably confuse Martin Luther with Martin Luther King, Jr.) So a serious look at Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simmons and William Tyndale along with broader discussions of the religious climate of the late middle ages and the continuing impact of reformation theology can provide an important historical anchor to one’s faith and a better understanding of how we got to be where we are in Protestant theology. For those reasons, I recommend the book to you.

If you’ve ever read books centuries old or detailed accounts of conversations and debates between figures from hundreds of years ago, then you’ve probably been amazed and amused at the frankness with which those involved would throw verbal daggers at their perceived enemies with incredible wit and effectiveness. Such accounts sprinkled throughout this book bring to life the personalities as well as the issues involved and help place the reader in the historical context. A lover of history – especially Protestant history – will be thrilled with such accounts. Having this type of detail preserved is a treasure and important. We are indebted to Dr. George for doing so.

One of the tendencies of too many contemporary Protestants is to consider themselves to be the ultimate authority in matters of truth and theology regardless of what they may say when pressed about the role of the Bible or church history in such matters. A closer look at key leaders of the Reformation may help bring a greater balance to the contemporary American Protestant understanding of their place in the history of the faith.

We are not the culmination and pinnacle of 2000 years of trying to get theology right. We are the result of various offshoots and emphases (for good or bad) that are infused with bits and pieces from centuries and millennia past. Studying the reformers can help us attain a more realistic perspective of our place in Christian history – a place that should not see ourselves as the center.

Reading Theology of the Reformers is worth your time. It may be a challenge academically at points for some – maybe frustratingly so for those who only read English. Still, any willing reader can complete the text having learned much about the reformers, the issues around which they bravely lived their lives, and the importance of that period of Christian history for the church today.

TheGospelAtWorkBefore I get to my review of this book, you need to know why the book is of interest to me and the background I bring to it…

As a junior in high school in the 1970s, I felt led to pursue an education that would lead me into full-time Christian ministry. It was during my freshman year of college at the University of Kentucky that I decided my graduate studies would be at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, so I transferred for my remaining three undergrad years to William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri – just a few miles from Midwestern.

I double majored in psychology and religion in college and then spent three years getting a Master of Religious Education degree at Midwestern Seminary. I served as an associate pastor from 1982-1985 and then decided to move to Louisville to pursue doctoral studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. By that time, I had honed in on Christian education as my focus of ministry and I still assumed I would spend my life in related church or denominational positions.

As life happened and I got involved in other pursuits while furthering my education, plans changed. I became comfortable with the notion that maybe I was suited just as well for non-ministry educational roles, relegating my Christian ministry to volunteer service through my local church. I’ve continued that path for nearly 30 years.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone who has felt “called” to ministry to take lightly a shift in those plans. While I believe God has led and blessed my family and me along the way via the route taken, there have always been – always – lingering questions about my life and ministry, such as:

  • Did I make the right decision to leave full-time ministry for secular roles?
  • Could I have done more for the kingdom of God by remaining in full-time ministry?
  • Did I take the easy, convenient way out?
  • Did I pursue what I wanted, or what God wanted, and were those the same things?

I still ponder those questions. I still wonder if I should go back to full-time ministry to close out my work life doing that which has an unquestionable eternal significance versus very temporal impact in a business setting.

So with that info as background, it was with great interest that I read the book by Traeger and Gilbert, The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs. What would this book have to say to my situation? Being very familiar with one of the authors – a pastor a few blocks away from my church in Louisville – gave me encouragement that I would find sound, biblical wisdom within its pages.

I was not disappointed.

The book does not assume that the only valid ministry is that which happens in the context of vocational Christian ministry – quite the opposite. It extols the virtue of carrying into your daily work – whatever that is – the right attitude of serving as though you are serving Christ himself. The scripture verse repeated throughout is Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not for men” (New International Version).

One chapter is devoted to answering the question “Is full-time ministry more valuable than my job?” They state in the discussion, “The value of our work isn’t finally found at all in the particular thing we do; it’s found in the fact that whatever we do, we do it for our King.” They also add the helpful reminder that “We should never assume that God’s standard of value and honor is the same as ours.” Those are soothing words to someone like me who has struggled with this question for decades. I also appreciate the chapter’s reminder to “Consider yourself privileged and blessed beyond measure even to be in his service at all. Trust him. Trust his judgment. Trust his wisdom in how he is using you. Serve him with everything you are, wherever he has placed you.”

From the early chapters of the book, the authors make very clear their warnings against both the idolatry of work and idleness in work. They remind readers of the opportunity all believers have to worship Christ daily in their jobs when they bring the right heart and attitude to their work. They identify spiritually healthy and scripturally sound motives that undergird the believer’s work regardless of its nature. They offer advice on how to choose a job by flipping the normal sequence of priorities from a concern with self first, then others and lastly God to one that first seeks to please God, then serve others and lastly satisfying oneself. They make a distinction between the must-haves in a job scenario and the nice-to-haves.

Additional chapters deal with balancing work, church and family, handling difficult bosses and coworkers, what it means to be a Christian boss, how to share the gospel at work, and defining success. In that final chapter on success, their claim is that “for a Christian…the definition of success really has little to do with…money, power, influence, change, a respectable standard of living. Instead, success is defined as faithfulness–doing whatever we do with sincerity of heart because we know the King is watching.” When reading that definition, I was reminded of a definition of success I read decades ago that has ever since been my working definition of the term. I read it in the book Success, Motivation and the Scriptures: “Success is doing what God wants you to do in the way He wants you to do it.”

I commend this short 158-page book to individuals or Christian study groups for a closer look than this brief review provides. Discussion and reflection questions at the end of each chapter lend themselves to personal or group reflection. I suspect I’ll continue to wrestle on occasion with the fact that God has equipped me for certain ministry roles that I am still not filling. I remain open to the option of changing careers once more to close out my work life in ways that devote full-time attention to the gospel. However, I am more comfortable now having read this book continuing in my current or other secular roles than before, believing that God can and will use me for His purposes wherever I am if I am serving Him and others with the right motivations and attitude.

If you occasionally wonder if or how your work and the gospel cross paths, I suggest you read The Gospel at Work: How Working for King Jesus Gives Purpose and Meaning to Our Jobs.