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.

The Imperfect Pastor (book review)

The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus
Zach Eswine
Crossway, 2015
(Partly previously published as Sensing Jesus: Life and Ministry as a Human Being (Crossway, 2013))

Significance in the Ordinary from Crossway on Vimeo.

the_imperfect pastor

This is an extraordinary book. It had some promising endorsements so I was expecting it to be helpful if undoubtedly filled with some gospel-centred buzzwords and a few quotes from Lewis, Edwards etc. Instead it’s a brutally honest take on ministry from someone who was predicted to be ‘the next big thing’ before his pastor-mentor killed himself, his wife left him to bring up 3 young kids and all his ministry dreams started to fade. As a result he was brought face to face with what really matters in ministry. Many assume that it’s about ‘doing large things in famous ways as fast and efficiently as you can’, but is it actually the case that ‘almost anything in life that truly matters will require you to do small, mostly overlooked things, over a long period of time’?

It’s all too easy to end up like James and John, subtly yearning that our ministry for Jesus would provide us with a platform for greatness – whether a call to a more influential church, a writing ministry, a reputation as a scholar or whatever. I know of no other book that even asks the questions that Eswine is asking. What does it look like to ‘remain put while other colleagues seem to advance and move up to more exciting and seemingly influential ministry callings’? ‘What if an elder’s game speed requires us to slow down?’ How did we end up in a place where ‘the brokenness of people actually feels like an intrusion keeping us from getting our important work for God done’? ‘Do I possess a stamina for going unnoticed? Can I handle being overlooked? Do I have a spirituality that equips me to do an unknown thing for God’s glory?’ What if ‘the thought of living and ministering in one or two unknown and ordinary places for fifty years and then going home to be with the Lord feels like death’?

There is much encouragement here for those struggling to keep going in seemingly insignificant callings while colleagues move on to bigger and (apparently) better things. ‘You needn’t repent of doing only a long, small work in an extraordinary but unknown place. Standing long in one place for a while allows the roots to deepen. It allows pastors to become pastors.’ God has planted you where he has for a reason – you don’t have to move to another part of his vineyard to find significance. ‘Obscurity and greatness are not opposites’.

Some might argue that Eswine’s approach is defeatist and an overreaction to his own sad experience. Certainly some could twist what he’s saying into being content with mediocrity. And yet he warns about those who keep going but have inwardly ‘long given up on anything extraordinary being given by God or accomplished through us’. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t seek to achieve great things for God – just that we might need to redefine what greatness means. ‘When did it happen that a life purposing to help ordinary people in their ordinary struggles locate God became too small a thing?’

I can think of no better book to place in the hands of final year theological students as the aspirations that made them put themselves forward for ministry in the first place are perhaps already in danger of turning to pragmatism or cynicism. When the chance to become ‘a medium-sized fish in a small pond’ beckons. When everyone is convinced of the great things you are going to achieve. And when the temptation will soon come to start looking over the shoulders of the handful of people God has given you whom you are meant to love.

But it’s not just for those starting off. Whether you’re already the next big thing, whether you’ve given up on your ministry dreams long ago, or whether you’re just getting on with what God has called you to get on with in relative obscurity, this is a book to read (preferably in paper so you can write all over it) and take to heart. And then get back to work. Because, as Eswine says ‘I have prayers to say for persons you’ve never heard of’.

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

The Pastor and Counselling (book review)

The Pastor and Counselling: the basics of shepherding members in need
Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju
Crossway, 2015

pastor and counselling

‘If you’ve arranged your pastoral ministry to avoid regular missions into the jagged and rocky places in people’s lives, then you are not shepherding like Jesus’. In light of that conviction, Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju have produced this short 130 page primer to give pastors some idea where to start when it comes to counselling – which they categorise as just one of the ministries of the word among many. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive handbook. They state that their goal is not to equip the reader to handle anything that comes their way – rather the goal is ‘to give you confidence that in the gospel you have the categories you need to navigate the troubles of your people’. They then proceed to walk you through preparation, the initial meeting, subsequent meetings, and how to bring the series of meetings to an end.

The book is marked by realism, with the authors noting that at the initial meeting with someone, the pastor is probably more nervous about hearing about someone’s struggles than they are about sharing them. It’s also marked by a strong commitment to the means of grace – the goal is to return the counselee to these ‘regular means of care in the church body’. The public ministries of the word are to be made an explicit part of a person’s ongoing care.

Readers may feel somewhat shortchanged as only the first 100 or so pages actually deal with ‘The Pastor and Counselling’ (the authors even admit that the last couple of chapters might have readers checking the front cover!). The penultimate chapter is on building a culture of discipleship in the local church, which if done well will reduce the need for counselling from the pastor in the first place. They note that ‘A person joining your church should not expect to be comfortable as a Sunday-only member. He is signing away his individualism’. The last chapter is on using outside resources when a problem is beyond you, though it has an American audience firmly in mind.

Overall it’s a useful book, which would be good to have within arm’s reach when counselling situations come up, but readers may be left wanting a bit more.

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