Dallas Willard is one of the originators of the modern spiritual formation movement. Willard, and his protege, Richard Foster, have done much to refocus the Evangelical world on spiritual disciplines and intentional focus on spiritual growth.
Renovation of the Heart is the most comprehensive book I have read by Willard on the why and how of truly changing (and he means heart, mind and actions). As I read the book, I kept thinking of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7:15 about doing what he does not want to do and not doing what he wants to do.
Willard responds to this common frustration not by creating a five step program or some other silver bullet, but a fairly detailed discussion of what it means to really change. This is a fairly dense book. I spent more than three weeks working on it and really I am not sure how to review it.
On the positive side, there is real spiritual wisdom here. On the negative side, there is a lot of rabbit trails and it could have been organized better. I also listened to the book as an audiobook read by Willard himself. He is not the best reader and I think even if he had been a good reader, this is content that should be read in print, not listened to on audio.
I am planning on re-reading it in a little while. I was given this in hardcover a while ago, and then picked it up on Kindle when it was free, but it wasn’t really until recently when I have become more interested in spiritual direction and spiritual formation that I really had much interest in reading it (and picked it up on audible when it was on sale).
Over the past couple months I have been meeting with a spiritual director and this book was helpful to the discussion of our last meeting. It seems I keep having the same revelation but it wasn’t really until reading this book that it sunk in. Knowing something is important, but knowledge by itself does not create change.
One of the more helpful sections (which again, really wasn’t new, I just heard it differently) was about becoming a different person. Not through willpower, or correct knowledge but by becoming the type of person that is the type of person that does what you want to do. We do this in part by actually just doing what you want to do, knowing you are forcing yourself and not always doing it willingly. And creating the discipline it takes to actually change.
Personally I am extraordinarily undisciplined. But I intellectually know that my spiritual growth is lessened because I am not consumer of scripture as I should be (I like reading theology and history, and even commentaries more than scripture itself.) But the way I become a consumer of scripture is in part by being a person that intentionally sets aside time to read scripture. In some ways it is pretty easy. But Williard is clear that while we have a role, spiritual growth is not about willpower. It is about being open to God working in us as we respond to him.
Williard is setting aside space after conversion where we need to respond to God. This is not about justifying ourselves to God or saving ourselves by our own works. Salvation is something else. Sanctification (or progressively becoming more like Christ as some others put it) is voluntary. We can choose to participate with the Holy Spirit in our transformation.
And I think this is where so many get uncomfortable. They emphasis salvation by Grace to the extent that they can allow no role for us. Willard and Foster and others are careful to emphasize that we are not saved by our own works (although some others still believe we have some role in accepting our salvation), the emphasis here is after salvation. That is not to say there are not dangers of legalism or spiritual pride. Legalism and spiritual pride are always the dangers of spiritual growth. But we cannot refuse to progress spiritually because there is a danger of sin.
This is not a book I would recommend to someone that is starting on the spiritual formation investigation. It is too dense and meandering and always careening on the edge of spiritual danger because Willard is assuming a fairly mature believer as the reader.
One example of this is that Willard repeatedly emphasizes the need for a church grounding as we focus on spiritual formation. But so much of the book is written to the singular you. In an interview in Discipleship in the Present Tense, James KA Smith talks about the difference in approach between him and Willard. Smith very clearly respects Willard, but Smith believes that Willard can be easily read to place the role of the individual above the role of the church.
And I agree with Smith, throughout the book, even with his frequent comments about the church, there is an underlying individualistic focus. I think a mature believer can read that and give proper weight to Willard’s warnings. But many would read Renovation of the Heart as justification for why they should leave their dysfunctional church and go it alone because they are ‘much more serious about spiritual growth than any church they know of.’
Frankly I am not sure I am spiritually mature enough to get what I need to be getting out of this. So I will ruminate and come back again later.
originally posted on my blog Bookwi.se
I will update later but I think everyone should read this book. It should also be a standard textbook for pastors, chaplains, and social workers. Death is inevitable. We need to learn how to do it better.
NT Wright is an author that many are excited about and many are frustrated by. There is good reason for both. NT Wright is a serious scholar and he has helped reinvigorate serious scholarship about the New Testament that is focused on orthodox Christianity.
The main theological frustration, especially for a particular group of Reformed, is that he has focused on Paul and interpreted Paul as not being primarily focused on Jesus' Penal Substitution. He has not ignored Penal Substitution, or said it is not a real part of Christianity, but he has said the focus of Paul is not on Jesus' penal substitution, but on Jesus as King and restorer.
That major focus on Wright's work is front and center in Simply Good News. Wright does fairly well writing either to an academic audience (as his 1700 pages opus on Paul) or a popular audience. Simply Good News (like Simply Jesus, Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope) is popularly focused and has few footnotes or academic references. And it is one of Wright's shortest books.
NT Wright is in one way imminently readable. He tells stories and builds a case that can be followed. But in another ways Wright is almost always frustrating because he usually seems to complicate even small matters. Nothing by Wright is unrelated to the whole story because the nature of Wright's project pulls together parts of the Christian story which some minimize or over simplify.
Wright cannot talk about the Good News without talking about Jesus and his project (obviously) or the broader concept of covenant (which Jesus is coming to fulfil), or the work of the church (doing our part in reconciling the world to Christ), or the end times (which should drive our understanding of what our reconciliation should be focused on), or the history of Israel (to which Jesus came as Messiah) or a whole host of other issues that are interrelated and connected. Anyone that has read Wright before always feels the repetition that is necessarily a part of Wright's method of presenting the story.
NT Wright wrote the introduction to Scot McKnight's 2011 The King Jesus Gospel. In many ways Simply Good News is Wright's version of McKnight's earlier book. I read Simply Good News looking for how it is different from King Jesus Gospel. I think the main difference is that King Jesus Gospel was written theologically (primarily to clergy) to help change people's theology of the gospel from one focused on sin to one focused on kingdom. McKnight's general point is the main point of Simply Good News as well, but Wright has more of a pastoral focus and tone and is more oriented toward lay people.
The end of the book looks practically at the Lord's Prayer to illustrate how moving from a focus on individual sin to a corporate submission to Christ's kingship changes our understanding of Christianity. Wright suggests that individual sin focus leads us to do the Lord's Prayer backwards, help me, forgive me my sins, give me what I need and because you have done those things you are great. But instead the Lord's Prayer has a particular order that Wright thinks better illustrates the point of the Gospel, Lord you are Hallowed, we ask that your kingdom come now on earth as it is in heaven so that all things may be reconciled to you and submit to you, and so that your will as King be done both on earth as it is in heaven. And as King, give us our needs, forgive us our sin and help us to forgive (and act rightly toward) those around us. And keep us from temptations and evil that we cannot endure.
While I think Simply Good News is probably going to be my suggestion for the best entry point for Wright, none of Wright's books are perfect. He has a tendency to over state his case a bit and while that is less here than most books, it is still here. I think while his point is to complicate the story and make it richer, more meaningful and more whole, there are times when he needs more summary to make sure everyone is following along.
There is also one point where he talks about myth as a false story, which while I know he is writing to a popular audience, I wish he would not have done. Because Wright has often done a good job at using the richer understanding of myth as origin story (not false story) as he did in this video.
Overall if you are new to NT Wright, this is a great place to start. If you are familiar with NT Wright and have read Scot McKnight's King Jesus Gospel, you will not find much new material here, but this is a good summary of why Wright's project is important, not only for Pauline studies or New Testament studies but for the basic theology and practice of the church.
Every night my senior year of college MASH was on at 10 PM and was watched by whoever happened to be around. Long before that I had seen most of the episodes, but it is a testament to its quality that college kids were devoted fans to a show that started the year before most of us were born.
Last week the novel was the Audible deal of the day so I picked it up. And mostly I enjoyed it.
There were three major problems with the book. First, it is really a collection of short stories that are losely connected more than a coherent novel that has a real plot and story arc. The benefit to that for the TV show and movie is that the book generated a number of episodes. The second problem is related to the fact that pretty much nothing in the book has not been turned into a TV show or was in the movie. The third problem is that while the wacky antics of doctors provide some humor amist the horrors of war, there is not a real understanding of why these three characters are different from those around them that are fighting the war.
Like the show, the strength of the book is that there is enough humor to keep you laughing and enough seriousness to help you understand the horrors that are real. The readers get the farce of the regular army and we can see how ridiculous it is to pretend that war is normal. But why is it only these three that can see through the farce.
Hooker is not a great writer, but the characters are fairly well drawn and the fact that the majority of his charaters appear in the movie and TV show relatively unchanged shows that his characterization is the strenght of the novel.
Half way through the book I considered abandoning it because I was a bit bored. But the book is short and I finished it as much because of my love of the show as because of my enjoyment of the book.
If you loved the TV show and/or movie, it might be interesting to pick up to understand othe origins, but I think it is a case where the movie/TV show actually is better than the original book source material.
Citizen Insane was billed as a funny cozy mystery. It is about Barb, a suburban housewife, mother of three and wife of an FBI agent that is a dead ringer for George Clouney. This is the second book in a series (didn’t realize that when I picked it up, but the first book, Take the Monkeys and Run is free on Kindle). The books in this series are relatively short (less than 200 pages) and funny (almost farcical) look at suburban life.
Everyone knows everyone’s business, no one seems that worried about money, there are quirky characters pretty much on every page. Barb is trying to be a good mom, and wife (although she kicked her husband out because in a previous book she found out that there is a whole history to his life that he neglected to tell her and so she wants him to date her again and win her love back again.) She is a good friend to her two quirky friends and even the neighbor that she is not so hot on, but seems to need her.
I thought I knew what was going on throughout the book almost from the beginning, but I was wrong. I did predict some of the ways things would work out, but not the main arc of the story. I have started enjoying mysteries more recently. But I am still not really all that interested in the actual mystery (I am not one that tries to figure everything out), but I am more interested in the characters and motivations and the overall development of the story.
Citizen Insane will not be mistaken for great literature, but it was a good fun (and quick) read and I did enjoy it. I picked up the first book in the series and there are several more that are all reasonably priced that I might pick up later.
Wild Seed is now the fourth book and the start of the second series I have read by Octavia Butler. She is a good writer and creates interesting (and wildly different) settings and characters.
But Butler is also hard to read at times. Not particularly unusually among fantasy and science fiction authors, she uses her settings to create alternative social structures and explore issues of ethics and morality.
Butler is known for her feminist writing. While not all men are evil, all of the books I have read from her so far have explored the ideas of male oppression of women.
Wild Seed is about two long lived people. Doro has the power to move from one body to another, living forever, but needing to ‘feed’ on those around him both to stay alive and because of an innate need. Because of his long life (he has been alive for over 4000 years), he has created breeding programs to breed special powers into his ‘children’. These settlements, first in Africa and then later in the Americas, are scattered, but allow him to live as a God. Worshiped by his children, who will willingly give up their bodies for their God.
Doro meets Anyanwu in the mid 17th century in Africa. She is already several centuries old. She has the ability to change herself and heal her body and to some extent heal others. When Doro finds her, she has already outlived 10 husbands and has dozens of children. After spending time with Doro she in her own way also creates a community around her. But one that where she can protect and heal those that need her.
When Doro finds her, he does not realize the extent of her powers, but tries to draw her into his plans. He uses her love of her children and all people to try to force her to do his bidding.
Set over several hundred years, Doro and Anyanwu are lovers, friends, enemies and opponents. He is cruel, living a life that is only about himself. She is kind (although not perfect) and tries whenever possible to bring about healing and wholeness. He becomes a less cartoonish villain toward the end, but if there is a weakness it is in the characterization of Doro as villain.
This was a hard book to really enjoy. Butler can write and she creates compelling rich characters. But it took me quite a while to make my way the whole way through it because it can be so heavy. Heavy subjects are important, but also need to be balanced with lighter subjects. So I need to wait a few weeks before reading another Butler book.
I should note a content warning on this book. Because a significant theme is the breeding of humans, there is a lot of sex in the book. Most of it is off screen, and it all consensual (of a sort), but it is also treated with far less important than what Christian theology treats sex.
I am a big fan of John Scalzi. And Lock In lived up to the very high level of promotion that Audible gave it. Audible made the unusual choice of producing two different editions of the book. One narrated by Wil Wheaton and one narrated by Amber Benson. If you pre-ordered one of the editions, you would get the other for free.
Scalzi is a talented writer. He has moved around in various subsets of the sci-fi genre, from Military Science Fiction to near term Alien encounters, to rewrites of classic sci-fi. Lock In is more of a police procedural (or FBI to be more accurate) that happens to have a near term sci-fi setting.
The Hadden’s syndrome has forced the FBI set up a department to deal with crimes that might involve the Hadden’s sufferer using the body of either their robot or a human integrators. Chris Shane (a Hadden’s syndrome sufferer) is a new member of this FBI department.
Shane happens to be the poster boy for Hadden’s, literally. Shane’s father is sort of a cross between Michael Jordan and Donald Trump. A former basketball star, turned billionaire real estate mogel, he was an early proponent of government intervention in Hadden’s and trotted out Chris (in his robot body) throughout his childhood.
As an adult, Chris is trying to find his own way in the world.
While this is primarily a mystery/thriller, Scalzi uses the book to bring up a number of issues around medical ethics, medical testing, the role of government and business corruption. None of those issues are really settled, but I think the raising of the issues is done well and in context of the story and not as propaganda.
What I thought was an interesting, but a very subtle move, was that the main character was black, his FBI partner was a lesbian (or maybe bisexual, it wasn’t completely clear) and there were several other gay couples in the book. This was a book that seemed to want to make a statement about breaking down walls of discrimination (against Haden’s sufferers as well as LBGT community and more traditional racial discrimition).
The way that Scalzi chose to do that was to not make a big deal about it. Chris Shane was black, his Dad was a big time basketball player, but also a very, very good businessman. And other than one incident where race really mattered, the fact he was black, while not minimized or swept away, was just part of the story. Similarly with the variety of LBGT issues and characters. I don’t want to make too much about that, because the book is just good writing.
I doubt it will become a series because it wrapped up without a lot of loose ends. But if it does become a series, I am definately pre-ordering the next book.
At the end of the audiobook was an ‘oral history’ about the outbreak of the Haden’s virus. It was released as a separate kindle book earlier, but I didn’t know about it until I started Lock In. It probably would have been better to have a better understanding of the disease prior to reading the book, but reading it after was fine as well.
I do wish there was a way to easily sync between the two audio editions. Wheaton must be a faster reader than Amber Benson because her version is almost an hour longer than his version. It does make me want to read the last couple of Scalzi’s books that I have not previously read.
(I didn't realize this until I read an article about it later, but there are no gender words about the main character. As a guy, I understood Chris as a guy. But Scalzi intentionally did not put any gender info on Chris. So some will see Chris as male, and some as female.)
Donald Kim’s A Down and Dirty Guide to Theology, is the only book on systematic theology that I have read that includes a section on theological jokes. Kim makes the point that too often when we talk about God and Theology, only the dry stuff gets passed on. Instead Kim thought a section on theological jokes was important (in a very short introduction to theology) because it would help the reader remember that theology is not only dry academics, but rooted in a relationship with God and any relationship needs laughter. Not long after that I read David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. One of his chapters was on the importance of being able to laugh at yourself (and your religion).
James Martin picks up both of these ideas and expands them, looking not only at why it is important to be able to laugh at yourself and your religion but why so many of the spiritual saints have been fans of laughter and jokes.
This book caught my eye a couple years ago when it first came out. But it wasn’t until I saw Glenn Packiham recommend it on twitter a couple weeks ago that I decided to pick it up. This is my second book by James Martin, the first, a short book on Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Jesus, and a few others is on the short list of best books I have read this year.
Martin, a Jesuit priest, writer and speaker has the helpful ability to talk about serious things, be very open about his own struggles and foibles, bring in appropriate humor and still convey real spiritual depth.
The main point of this book is that our faith is missing something when we believe that spiritual things need to be serious things. At root, many things are just funny. And even the when they are not funny, a joke or laughter can make serious or hard things better and help both us and those around us to be better off.
I did not think this was quite as good as Becoming Who You Are. He spends a decent amount of time trying to talk academically about laughter and humor and I think that is important to the topic. Otherwise it would just a book of jokes. But I think Martin draws out the topic too much. I think this would have been a better book if it were about 50 pages shorter.
The book is funny and there are lots of good presentations of humor. (The audiobook is narrated by Martin so he is telling his own jokes.) Martin also strives to show that humor is a part of a variety of religious traditions. And I think that part of the book was less successful and less important. It is not that he is wrong, it is just that I think it was not necessary to try to make laughter universal. It would have been better to make it more particular. Although much of the humor, especially the self deprecating kind, is based around his own Catholic background.
I still think, even with the weaknesses it is worth picking up, especially if you find it on sale.
When I think of Lord Peter Wimsey, I most often think of the modern TV show Castle. I am a big fan of Castle. And there are many similarities. Lord Peter Wimsey is rich, interested in crime, has a good intrinsic sense of how crimes can be committed, is interested in crime as intellectual activity and works with a police officer who he allows to do all the mundane work and there is a good bit of humor in both.
Of course there are differences, Wimsey is not a writer, just a rich Lord (brother to a Duke). He has the free time to think about and solve crimes (Wimsey collects and sells rare first edition book, but has no need for money). And this is the 1930s Britian, so the sexy female cop is out of the question.
But I can totally see Castle with this plot. Wimsey is eating dinner at a fancy resturant and overhears a doctor talking about the death of a patient. He interupts and asks the doctor to tell him the whole story which leads Wimsey to believe that the patient was killed.
Most of the book is spent trying to figure out what motive anyone would have to kill an elderly woman that already had cancer and only a few months to live. The last third of the book is spent trying to figure out how the killer did it, once Wimsey knows who did it.
His interest in the case is based on a desire to understand the perfect crime. Wimsey has a little soliloqy with Parker (his Scotland Yard detective friend) about the fact that crime study is based on the criminals that failed, not on those that succeeded. Wimsey assumes that for every crime that failed there has to be at least an equal number of successes.
In the end, it is presented as a success for Wimsey’s idea. But I am not sure it really is. First of all the crime is solved and the murderer is caught. Second, the original crime is really only discovered because the murderer tries to cover up the crime and ends up killing more people. So I think that while Wimsey is right, that some criminals get away with well planned murders, many get caught because of later murders that are not as well planned either because they get sloppy or because they are trying to cover up previous crimes.
I have read these books out of order, but so far I think the first and sixth books are the best, the second and third are good and the fourth (a short story collection) is the weakest.
Michael Lewis is one of those authors I have been meaning to read, but I am tired of reading about economics and I have never liked sports. So as I was looking around for something to read, I stumbled across this in the KindleUnlimited collection.
Lewis is giving his account of the changing of the meaning of fatherhood. It is no longer ‘Father Knows Best’ but hopefully is it moving past ‘father as convenient idiot’ as well. There is a huge social shift over the past couple generations. The social science research has shown a huge shift in the number of hours that fathers have increased in house work and child care over the past 50 years.
But still there is a stereotype of the distant and/or idiot Dad. Lewis both feeds into and helps break this stereotype. He is an active Dad that cares for his kids. He also highlights some of the stupid (but real) things that Dads do.
On the positive side, he communicates well the inability of fathers to replace mothers. It just isn’t possible. Men can’t birth children or breast feed. So Dads do what they can, they care for the older children, change diapers, comfort Moms.
But there is also a lot in here that just seems idiotic. Not that any father (or mother for that matter) is perfect. I am not against showing imperfection, or pointing out the problems with the whole game (as he does when he makes fun of the Berkley birthing ideal).
Maybe I am too sensitive because I am a stay at home Dad and trying to both present that model as a normal one (no one thinks stay at home Mom are unusual, so why should stay at home Dads be unusual) and one that allows men to be good parents.
So I like the presentation of the good Dad in the recent Cheerios commercial, but I am also a bit wary of the pendulum swinging too far and presenting only Super-Dads. All Dads as idiot-Dad is bad, just as all Dads as super-Dad is bad.
So I am mixed on the book. I both enjoyed it and cringed frequently. There was humor, but it wasn’t a comedy sketch like Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat. It was short and sweet (although had a final chapter on getting a vasectomy that seemed thrown in primarily for laughs and was one of the more cringe-worthy chapters.)
So, I am glad I read it, but I was glad it was cheap.
The Anglican Way is exactly right type of book for me. Thomas McKenzie is a parish pastor in Nashville (and the exact same age as I am I assume since he graduated from high school the same year I did according to one of the stories). He grew up in an Episcopal church, but was not really active until he went to college and was introduced to a charismatic form of Anglicanism.
The first section of the book is about the balance within the Anglican Way (illustrated by the Compass Rose) between Charismatic and Orthodox, Conservative and Liberal, Activist and Contemplative, Evangelical and Catholic. Temperamentally, that type of focus of relationship within theological and practical tension appeals to me. I want to be around, and worshiping with Christians, that are different from me, while still broadly holding to the orthodox tenets of Christianity.
The second section of the book is about basic practice of Anglican Christianity, personal devotion, worship, etc. The third section is on the particulars of Anglican practice, leadership and tradition.
The fourth section is basically the stuff that didn’t naturally fit earlier. What was most interesting in the fourth section is the recent history of the Anglican church, both in the US and around the world. McKenzie is on the conservative wing of the Anglican church, which is where all of the growth in the US that I am aware of is happening. One of the things that I like about Anglican (and Catholic) historic practice is the concept of the parish. That has never really worked in the US because even those traditional parish ideas that worked in other places have been corrupted by US church shopping mentality.
However, the recent controversy in the Anglican world has resulted for the first time in non-geographical diocese with many churches, first falling underneath African bishops and then later non-geographical diocese have been set up to allow more conservative Anglican to either start new churches or switch their allegiance away from the Episcopal Church in the US. McKenzie is part of the Anglican Church in North America, so he is telling the story from the perspective.
Honestly, the ability of the Anglican church to not split in the face of some pretty major disagreement is one of the things that is attractive. Although I think I am probably not as conservative as some of the new Anglican groups and not as liberal as the older US Episcopal Church, the focus on unity in spite of difference is appealing.
Regardless, if you are interested in a theologically orthodox understanding of what the Anglican Way is all about, this is a good place to start. The book is only a few months old and has very good reviews from those that are Anglican themselves from what I can tell.
A note about format. I listened to this as an audiobook read by Thomas McKenzie. While I love audiobooks and McKenzie did a fine job reading, some of the parts of the fourth section are not audio friendly. Timelines and glossaries are really best read and not listened to. I listened to it all, however, and learned lots.
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