Living in the light (book review)

Living in the light: Money, sex and power
John Piper
The Good Book Company, 2016

living in the light

Books about money, sex and power are nothing new. While the world worships them, and many Christians are suspicious of them, John Piper wants to cut a middle course. He believes that God did not create money, sex and power simply to be a temptation – but he had good purposes in mind. And so while they can be icebergs on which our faith runs aground – they are also islands of refreshment. Above all, they exist so that we can show the supreme worth of God.

There is much that is helpful here in seeing the temptations of money, sex and power – and especially the sin behind the sin which causes us to abuse them – but also in how to use them for positive purposes. The book is also packed with helpful illustrations. For example, illicit sex is like the red numbers which a bedside clock shines onto his ceiling. Those numbers thrive in the darkness but when the sun comes up, they vanish. In the same way, when God’s glory is revealed and treasured, the power of sexual attraction is broken.

The reason there are so many books with similar titles is because these three topics are always relevant – Piper says that he finds it strange how many Christians pursue wealth, despite all the Bible’s warnings. This book will spark helpful thoughts for those doing talks or preaching on these topics. At £8.99 for 152 pages, it’s overpriced – however like most of Piper’s books, it’s available for free on desiringGod.org.

See also: Shane Lems has written a helpful review which interacts with some of the weaker points of the book.

Zeal without burnout (book review)

Zeal without burnout: seven keys to a lifelong ministry of sustainable sacrifice
Christopher Ash
The Good Book Company, 2016

zeal without burnout

Christopher Ash is convinced that ‘the best kinds of ministry are, more often than not, long term and low key’. That conviction led to him writing this book to try and help people stop crashing out of ministry due to burnout and stress. To try and separate the physical from the spiritual is the Gnostic heresy, so it’s futile to think you’ll prosper spiritually if your body isn’t getting the rest it needs. God knows we are dust – when he chooses us, he is under no illusions about who he is getting in his team.

At 120 pages, this would be a good book to give to anyone you were concerned was heading in a dangerous direction. It’s easy to read and is peppered with stories of people in a range of different ministries who have experienced burnout. It assures readers that it’s ok to take time off. In fact, Ash says we should rebuke fellow Christians who let slip how hard they’re working and that they haven’t had a proper day off in a while.

Rather than just dealing with the surface issues, Ash also tries to get to the true root of the problem: ‘when our joy comes from our gifts and our successes we will always be under pressure’.

Of course, not everyone in ministry is in danger of burnout. Stress can also be brought about by not properly using the time for work that we do have. Ash writes: ‘One key to a successful day off is six hard working days on!’ – making sure that we work when we work will make it much easier to stop when we stop.

Much of the book is just common sense, but its good to have it all winsomely and attractively presented (even if using a tilde for a hyphen is a bit off~putting). Ash flags up one big cause of burnout when he treats neglect of the Sabbath, though the chapter would be stronger if he treated it as a command rather than just a principle. It’s important to note that this isn’t just a book for this on the edge of a breakdown – the scary thing about many of those whose stories are recounted here is that many of they didn’t realise they were burnt-out or depressed until much later, and even argued against those who told them that they were. Burnout is a growing problem – this little book is one way to help guard against it in ourselves and in those we care about.

Brand Luther (book review)

Brand Luther: 1517, Printing, and the Making of the Reformation
Andrew Pettegree
Penguin, 2015

brand luther

Martin Luther’s life was never dull, so a boring book about him would be a crime. Thankfully, Andrew Pettegree has produced a barnstormer of a book which not only helps capture the excitement and upheaval of the Reformation years, but does so from a unique angle. Astonishingly, despite the settled assumption of the close relationship between print and the Reformation, there has been little scholarly attention devoted to the Wittenberg printing industry. This is something which Pettegree seeks to correct. As he does so, a picture emerges in which Luther doesn’t just benefit from the rise of the print industry as a spectator, but who deliberately, indeed ‘instinctively’, tailored his writing to benefit from it. In a rebuke to churches who are happy to put out mediocre leaflets, Luther’s frustrations with the work of his local printer made him persuade a better one to set-up shop in Wittenberg – even though he had previously been printing anti-Luther works. In conjunction with Lucas Cranch, court painter in Wittenberg, Luther developed ‘a form of book that was itself a powerful representative of the movement—bold, clear, and recognizably distinct from what had gone before. This was Brand Luther, and its success…lies at the heart of Luther’s success, and of the transforming impact of the Reformation’.

The book doesn’t focus exclusively on print however. Pettegree’s portrayal of the relationship between Luther and Melanchthon, to take just one example, is very instructive. Luther ‘knew himself to be in the presence of a superior intellect’ and often got frustrated with Philip’s timidity, yet the relationship worked partly because both men recognised their limitations and the corresponding strengths of the other. This was encapsulated in a preface Luther wrote for Melanchthon: ‘I am the crude woodsman, who has to clear and make the path. But Master Philip comes after me meticulously and quietly, builds and plants, sows and waters happily, according to the talents God has richly given him’.

Carl Trueman recently called this ‘one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read’. That might be going too far for the average reader, but for fans of Luther, especially those with a bit of an interest in books and print culture, it’s a fascinating read. Pettegree remarks that in the support of Frederick the Wise (a devout Catholic who never left the old faith), Luther was ‘lucky, in this, perhaps above all else’. Even those who would want to be more explicit about divine sovereignty however would find it hard to argue against the evidence that, under God, ‘the medium…was in many respects as important as the message’.

If you want to read one book about the Reformation to mark its five-hundredth annivesary in 2017, you won’t go far wrong with this one.

Thanks to Penguin for a complimentary copy of this book

Family Worship (book review)

Family worship
Donald S. Whitney
Crossway, 2016

whitney - family worship

According to Don Whitney, family worship is about keeping our children in the faith – it’s that important. However surveys show that parents generally rely on their church to do all the religious training their children will receive. Whitney once asked a class of 115 seminary students how many had grown up in a home where family worship was practiced, and only seven had. When he asked how many had visited a home where they’d seen family worship taking place, no-one raised a hand. Yet as Whitney shows in his first two chapters, not only is family worship expected in the Bible, it’s been practiced throughout church history. ‘God deserves to be worshipped daily in our homes by our families’ – and this has been recognised in the church’s confessions, and by the great Christians of the past. As Samuel Davies pleaded: ‘if you love your children…if you would have religion survive in this place…if you would deliver your own souls – I beseech, I entreat, I charge you to begin and continue the worship of God in your families’.

This book isn’t written to beat people over the head for not doing family worship (especially if they’ve never heard of it) – it’s written to encourage them to start. The central chapter of the book explains simply what family worship consists of. Whitney makes it sound doable and non-intimidating. Simple suggestions such as praying about at least one thing suggested by the passage are very helpful. This is followed by a chapter which seeks to deal with some objections, eg ‘What if the Father is not a Christian?’ (though he doesn’t deal with the opposite problem). Whitney reminds us that even if children are so young that they don’t know what you’re saying, they’re still learning. That child will grow up believing that family worship is a normal part of life in the home and won’t need a book like this to teach them what family worship is. By God’s grace, beginning family worship is to start something that by God’s grace will last for generations.

Even if you’re already convinced of the importance of family worship, this book is a good refresher. At 67 pages, it’s ideal to give to those who aren’t convinced, or for whom the concept is totally new.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Awe (book review)

Awe: why it matters for everything we think, say and do
Paul David Tripp
Crossway, 2015

Awe

According to Paul Tripp, we have an awe problem. C. S. Lewis would call it a ‘joy’ problem, but at root it’s largely the same idea. ‘Every person is created with a capacity for awe…[which] was meant to drive us to God in wonder and worship, but since sin separates us from him, our capacity for awe gets kidnapped by things other than God’. That’s the reason why people who have all that this world can give them can feel so empty. So adultery is an awe problem, and grumbling happens when awe of self replaces awe of God.

Alongside the redemption story, Scripture depicts the results of living with what Tripp calls ‘awe wrongedness’ which he shortens to ‘AWN’. While I don’t think these rather strange terms will stick, the concept does provide a good question to ask when reading Biblical narratives – where were these people looking for awe? To help diagnose where our own sense of awe is, Tripp provides five diagnostic questions: ‘Is God good?’ ‘Will God do what he promised?’ ‘Is God in control?’ ‘Does God have the needed power?’ ‘Does God care about me?’

For Tripp, Ps 145v4 is crucial: ‘one generation shall commend your works to another’. That is the goal of ministry – and of parenting. In fact, the strongest section of the book is where Tripp applies the idea of awe to parenting, noting that ‘it’s very hard to give away something you don’t have’. He writes: ‘I fear that many of us parent without a big picture, without a grand agenda in mind … We do various things with the hope that our children will behave, be polite, and will believe, but our parenting tends to be piecemeal and reactive rather than unified round a central vision or an overarching goal’. Children don’t just have a behaviour problem, they have a heart problem. Parenting must be tied to the gospel: ‘If all your children needed was a tight system of law to be what they’re supposed to be and to do what they’re supposed to do, Jesus would never have had to come’. Parents represent the authority of God on earth in the lives of their children, and when they do ‘it must be a beautiful picture of the patient, firm, gracious, wise, loving, tender, merciful, forgiving and faithful authority of God’. This section certainly holds out promise for Tripp’s forthcoming parenting book, due out in October.

Overall I found it a rather piecemeal book. The concept of ‘Awe’ is nothing new, and has been written about more eloquently by the likes of Lewis. However his real life examples are helpful, and the book provides a good opportunity to stop and to ask yourself – ‘What is it that’s motivating me?’

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.