Book Reviews (by Kim Gentes)

In the past, I would post only book reviews pertinent to worship, music in the local church, or general Christian leadership and discipleship. Recently, I've been studying many more general topics as well, such as history, economics and scientific thought, some of which end up as reviews here as well.

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate - John H. Walton (2010)

The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate- John H. Walton

The last 6 years of my life I have been focused on studying history, Christianity, and science, always with an eye to looking at the serious questions of cosmology, anthropogeny and the origins of civilization. In relation to cosmology, I have found no single book more profound and articulate in explaining the Genesis account of creation than John H. Walton's "The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate".

There is a torrid spew of rhetoric accompanying both Christian and non-Christian views on the creation narrative found in Genesis 1. There are as many factions of Christian creationism as there are scientific theory groups whose anti-theist positions demand just as polemic a view point. What normally happens when Christian talk about cosmology (origins) is that they come down into two groups: those who believe the Genesis 1 account is literally true; and those that believe the Genesis creation narrative is allegorical. There are a few other subtler positions that combine features of the two, as well.

What Walton does with "The Lost World of Genesis One" is to revisit the text, the language, the culture and the ancient literature in which the text finds its context, and brings to us a brilliant re-thinking of the entire debate.  Part of the problem with this intensely powerful topic is that the conversation around it has become almost political in its consumption of subtly. We take sides without thinking deeper about the topic. But most of that is hardly our fault. Genesis is written thousands of years ago, into a language and culture we don't know or understand. Walton walks us into that strange world, and expertly explores how the ancient text was written, for whom it was written and how it can be read today in a startlingly satisfying and understandable way.

Because of the intensity and applicability of the topic (especially in today's culture and media) and the landmark approach which Walton synthesizes in this book, this is easily the most important book you read will this year, possibly in the next several.  In the Western world we often believe that the most important questions can be answered by short, simple sound bites. But this leaves us with a truncated mental grid through which to explore complex and profound truths. John Walton takes a lifetime of research and teaching to present a clear understanding of Genesis 1 that doesn't reduce the complex and important details into creationist or evolutionary memes. 

One of the pivotal points made by Walton is that the Genesis narrative, rightly understood, holds together as real and actual creation, but in a way that compliments the setting into which it was written. He says :

In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties. Consequently, something could be manufactured physically but still not "exist" if it has not become functional.1

The implications of this statement are vetted out through 18 propositional chapters, along with a summary and much more supporting information which even includes a "Q&A" section to explore the nuances of what such a position means to Christians and the world.  I won't give more details here, since this is a serious book that really states every point well. In my opinion, this is the most important book of the decade.

I implore you- if you read just one book this year, make it this book. This excellent book contains the single best explanation for cosmology and the Genesis narrative I have ever heard. It is because of this that "The Lost World of Genesis One" garners our Editor's Choice Award. I can't urge you enough to consider this profound work. John H. Walton has given the Christian church a brilliant, readable and (most importantly) usable thesis for one of humanities most profound inquiries- the question of Creation.

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/1TxqkPr

 

Review by Kim Gentes

 

  1. Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010) Pg. 26. Kindle Edition.

 

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed / Turning Points in Ancient History - Eric H. Cline (2014)

1177 BC : The Year Civilization Collpsed - Eric Cline

Ancient history has been affecting something of a revival of interest in the last 30 years, not only because of it's rich heritage of story which is often converted to popular media (via Hollywood), but because of the amazing strides and discoveries made in history, archeology, anthropology, and even ancient climates. So much new and clarifying information is coming to light in the technical and scientific communities that there is a need for experts with broad experience to retell the narratives of the ancient civilizations to modern audiences.

Into this space has stepped Eric Cline and his spectacular book, "1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed."  For most of us, we didn't even know there was another "Dark Ages" in history- other than the one we learned about in high school or college that equated the European middle ages a period of intellectual and economic regression caused by the collapse of the Roman Empire. But, in fact, the ancient era called the "Bronze Age" came to a dramatic close in the late 2nd millennium BC, with the sweeping collapse of nearly all prominent civilizations in the ancient world.

It is this ancient, and first, "world wide" collapse of societies that is examined and expounded by Professor Eric H Cline in "1177 BC." What stands out immediately to the reader is the astonishing deluge of interesting history presented in a powerful narrative style. Cline is not just an archaeologist, he is a a genuinely gifted communicator. Thoughtful and witty, he writes as much for the palpable sense of the societies he is studying as he does for the cold hard facts of the major milestones in the narrative. And this makes the book itself a genuine work of art.

But thankfully, we aren't just left with that. Cline backs up his narrative with profound science and a balanced hand both at antiquity and a look to the possibility that future discoveries may turn the narrative a different direction as the history is clarified. Without the pompous self-assuredness that seems to often rest in the tone of modern authors of books on historical topics, Cline avoids condescending to the reader and frankly (but seriously) admits what facts are sure and which are not.  This doesn't weaken his arguments, however, and the entire book becomes much more plausible because of the care and contrition that the author has taken in its presenting.

The topic itself sweeps from ancient Egypt (during the "New Kings" era), to Mesopotamia, to Anatolia and the Hittite empire, to the Cretan (Minoan) and Aegean (Mycenaean) kingdoms and even down through much of the Levant- touching on all the crucial components that came together in the collapse of a truly interconnected world in the Bronze Age. "1177 BC" is as much about economics and politics as it is about war and migrations of mysterious "Sea Peoples". The book unleashes several new concepts about language, texts and lost civilizations. One such civilization, found by archaeology in the last century, is the story of the newly discovered kingdom of Ugarit. That, alone, is a brilliant segment of the book and is a perfect example of what Cline does best- combines his technical eye with a story-teller's prose to paint for us great historical landscapes.

History, especially ancient history, contains some of the most fascinating narratives available. And in the hands of a scholar and writer like Eric Cline, those narratives launch off the page and into our imaginations. The book is repleat with science, but gracious as art. The best ancient history book I have yet to read. Easily qualifies for our Editor's Choice Award. If you have any interest in history, civilizations, grand narratives and even where our own society may be headed-- get this book! You will absolutely love it!

 

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/1uiE2tY

 

Review by Kim Gentes

 

The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential - N.T. Wright (2013)

Case For The Psalms - NT WrightThe weight of most books by NT Wright focus on biblical history, theological concepts and important themes that flow as the undercurrent of the biblical narrative and its teachings. Most prominent of these is Wright's understanding of the mission of Christ, his place in Hebrew history, his embodiment of so many concepts (such as Torah, Temple and prophet), and the kind of kingdom that He inaugurated and passed on to the Christian church through the apostles and early disciples. What all this teaching does, however, can only be properly understood through the world in which Jesus was originally speaking- the world of the first century Jewish tradition. And nothing so profoundly and deeply saturated the Jewish tradition and devotion as the poems and songs of the Old Testament: The Psalms.

This book is not so much a technical treatise of its main theological components (though that is reflected on). Nor is it an indepth examination of the groupings of the Psalms, or even a detailed exegesis of many or even a few of the Psalms. Instead, this book is NT Wright's personal exploration and explanation of the power and depth of life lived and breathed within the life of the Psalms, as a center of devotional life.

As per usual, Wright centers his readers in the context of who and what we are.

God created humans in the beginning to be his vice rulers over the world.1

From there, the author launches into a swift but careful journey through not only how the Psalms are important to us but why- pointing to the rich heritage that the Jews, and later the early Christians, had with the Psalms as their foundation for devotion and liturgy. Not just that, but he convincingly explains the personal connection of Christ with the Psalms, not just as a forerunning text prophetically announcing Jesus, but as a seminal text which Jesus lived and breathed:

This means, of course, that the Psalms were the hymnbook that Jesus and his first followers would have known by heart.2

All the while, Wright is not trying to place technical proof for later study in the professional minister's teaching war-chest. Rather, he is outlining the real reason that the Psalms are so unique in their vocation as the sub text of the Christian life- because they are so profoundly human. As Wright puts it:
The Psalter forms the great epic poem of the creator and covenant God who will at the last visit and redeem his people and, with them, his whole creation.3

The book is arranged in sections primarily answering how the use of the Psalms explore and invite the reader into the reality of God's kingdom. It is a reality which infuses us with the wholly right kind of Christian "worldview", not expressed in or as politics and dogma, but as the time, space and matter through which God, the world, and human beings encounter each other. These three concepts of God's time, God's space and God's matter are at the heart of Wright's exploration of the Psalms.

And if that were all the book contained, it would be well worth your time and investment. But there is  something more personal for Wright here. The last two sections of the book (which, at just a couple hundred pages, is much shorter than almost all of his other works) contain a personal testimony and appeal to the church to consider the Psalms as their own life-transforming songbook and poetry.

As a worship leader, writer, Christian, husband, father and leader I have recently found a deeper longing for spiritual formation through the ancient texts of the Psalms. This last year, our own local church has had a program of reading (twice) through the Psalms for us to do as a community as well. Along with this practice and reading this book, I have found a new depth of closeness with God. It isn't something mystical, really. Just a profound knowing that the story that I am in is part of the broader story- my struggles, joys, pains, hopes and loss are understood and shared, not just by the God whom I worship but by the history of humanity trying to find Him in every day lives.

This is another excellent book by NT Wright.  It is easily his most personal and passionate work. If you are worship leader, this should be your #1 next book to read. But any person at any place in life could really benefit from this book. And then, follow its prescription- read the Psalms. Daily. Regularly. After Simply Christian, this is my favorite book from NT Wright. Excellent.

 

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/1ufQGKh

 

Review by Kim Gentes

 

  1. Wright, N. T. (2013-09-03). The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential (Kindle Location 576). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid. (page 11)
  3. Ibid. (page 33)

After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters - N.T. Wright (2010)

After You Believe - NT WrightLike all NT Wright books, "After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters" tackles a specific topic or area with an aim to provide scriptural and historical context as a foundation for the author's theological and philosophical positions on the topic. Wright always does his research and this book is no exception. "After You Believe" tackles the topic of character by looking at the ancient Aristotelian concept of virtue and how it was reimagined and reformed by the theology and practice of both Jesus and Paul.

The book is a treatise exploring a Christian virtue ethic in which the believer takes on the assumptions of character transformation through gradual surrender to God's kingdom concepts of worship and mission. More specifically, this is not a book about the "how-to's" of Christian practice.

What you find here is NT Wright continuing his conversation about how not only our theology, but our practice, must anticipate the full appearing of kingdom of God in it's action. That is to say, Wright's vision of a Christian virtue ethic is based on eschatology (where we are headed) and how full human flourishing occurs as we make the journey there, beginning in this world, not the next.

"After You Believe" is a subtle side-swipe of the standard "spiritual disciplines" talk that has come through in many popular Christian books. Wright has little patience for "self-help" Christian concepts, and debunks the "God-less do-gooding" as much as he deconstructs the popular notion of "cheap grace" - both of which he considers errant parodies of true Christlikeness. In fact, this book nods at Aristotle's astute observations of virtue, and yet, explains that Jesus and Paul answered the ancient Greek notion of virtue with the true answer to human flourishing - love-fueled Christlike character.

NT Wright has done with "After You Believe" what he has done with many other New Testament topics- re-addresses them in light of his creational theology that puts God's goal of rescuing humanity from it's sin stained condition and restoring the future of our created intention through Christ's work on the cross and the Holy Spirit's presence with the church through the ages.  This book is vivid, powerful and readable. But it is not simple. It requires you take seriously the concepts he brings to bear in his other books (though he leave you enough overview in this book, even if you haven't read the others).

The purpose of this book is pragmatic (explaining to Christians what they are to do in this life, while waiting for the glorious eternity in the next), but it has a powerful, perhaps eternal intent- to get us walking towards the future in the area of our character, long before the future fully arrives.

It is an excellent book on, as Wright puts it "how to think about what to do". Get it. Read it.  You will not be disappointed. A great book from a great thinker about a topic that is of great importance to all Christians.

 

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/1sgmqsU

 

Review by Kim Gentes


EntreLeadership - Dave Ramsey (2011)

I've read business books. I've read leadership books. But what I haven't read is a real, honest-to-goodness, practical play-book of how to do small business. Until now. Dave Ramsey's book, EntreLeadership, is just that- a fairly comprehensive and integrated manual for growing small businesses that (whether they know it or not) will need training in leadership development and core business skills.  For those that don't know, Dave Ramsey is a radio show talk personality who largely is known for his on-air advice to callers on the topic of personal finance. Something of a combination of Suzie Orman and Clark Howard, with Christian values contextualizing his perspective, Ramsey is strongly opinionated but has proven to be practical and effective as an advisor on money matters, especially concerning the topic of debt.

Ramsey's advice and radio show have been the centerpiece of a company that also sells products and training services to millions of people looking to manage their finances and pay off their debts. The success of his sales of those goods and services has turned him into the leader of a small but growing and successful enterprise in its own right. The author clearly knows what it takes to actually build a business, and he understands how to effectively dissect and represent good thinking about the strategies that can be transferable to other people. In short, Ramsey is as capable a coach as he is an implementer, and this is a rare trait.

EntreLeadership not only defines the generalities of vision, mission and goals, he gives play-by-play details on very well thought out execution plans for sales, marketing, employee management, financial oversight, leadership and much more.  Actually, I found that Ramsey abbreviates points I've heard in other books, but does so with sharper focus than other business "leaders" who tend to leave their advice open-ended to work with various situations. Dave Ramsey is more "black-and-white" than most. And to be frank, this makes his book worth its weight in gold because he doesn't mince words. He has some opinions about how to get things done - sales for example- and they are about 99% right. I caveat the remaining 1% because he falls trap ever so slightly to one of his own mentioned vices- believing his own press.

I suspect that this comes from Ramsey's unflappable personality, but more than once, the author expounds his success as a validation of his book. For sure, this is essential for any great teacher- do first, then teach to do. Ramsey's success is certainly a proof for his passing on his wisdom. But his salesmanship bleeds through. In the introductory section of the book, Ramsey goes from saying "our tremendous success"1 to declaring "This is the personal play-book of an ultra-successful EntreLeader."2 in just a few sentences. Microsoft, Dell Computer and Chick-Fil-A are examples of "ultra-successful" leaders and companies (all examples that Ramsey acknowledges in his book). But self-identifying Ramsey's company as "ultra-successful" seems comically ill-advised.

However, that minor brush of hype aside, no small business leader should pass by a chance to read this book and put its points into practice. It really is a succinct and arduously well organized course that can do nothing but help anyone trying to "make it big" with their big idea.  Ramsey is a great doer and an even greater instructor. Don't skip over EntreLeadership. You can't afford to. It's that good.

 

Amazon Book link: http://amzn.to/1cnWXKR

 

Review by Kim Gentes


1. Ramsey, Dave (2011-09-20). EntreLeadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches (p. 2). Howard Books. Kindle Edition. 

2. Ibid. Pg. 2