New Stuff

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.

Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life - Jack Deere (2018)

I've read a few of Jack Deere's books over the years. I've heard him speak at conferences. I've even had the opportunity to ask him questions briefly at a break time at one of those events. His brilliant mind, kind demeanor and likeable character give you no inkling that he could be leading a real life pressed with all the struggles and sins each of us likewise fight against in our lives. This book is clearly proof that is not so.

While it contains extensive discussion from real examples of "show time" sins such as sex, money, alcohol and drugs, the reader is not exposed to these for titillation. Instead, they are mentioned for what they are: the fruits of deep pain and suffering in lives broken by the sins we don't want to talk about- abuse, incest, suicide, and pride.

This book shouldn't be hailed because of its events, but rather because the ones who've lived through those events have chosen to honestly and seriously speak about them in a public way. We don't need more tragic stories. But we do need people as brave as the Deeres who will tell their story and allow us to believe that hope and peace are on the path if we can face down our shame and let our Father God in.

I was riveted by this book, but even more by the clear-eyed honesty by which it is told. As unsettlingly painful as it is surprisingly hopeful, the book doesn't defend the author. It allows you to believe what you will about him and his family. But it does force you to consider that his reality is no more special than yours and mine. Conversely, it may mean that our healing and way forward may be possible as well. This is a gift. I am thankful. As will be anyone who ventures to journey through the entirety of this book.

Amazon book link: https://amzn.to/2FBKJyo

 

Review by Kim Gentes

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization - Arthur Herman (2013)

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

I am a student of history, having read much of the main classical Greek and Roman translated history sources. However, my study into the area of philosophy has been tertiary. This book provided not only an architectural outline of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical structures but a progressive history of their changes, branches, impacts and major figures on both sides. The book is written with warm and engaging tone while being crisp and insightful in its points.

This is a great book for anyone who wants a thorough history of western philosophy for a layman. It doesn't require college philosophy course training to follow the arguments , ideas or people. It is smartly self-contained and accessible. The best book I have read in the last five years.

The author's primary insight is, itself, a triumph of western thinking- that the world's most proliferated civilization has become so by the dynamism of its two polarities of philosophical inquiry. The tension of that dynamism has become the powerful tool for self-critique and self-correction that is built into the 2500 year-old scaffolding of western thought. This insight alone makes this book not only worthwhile, but essential to virtually everyone interested in their society and participation in it.

The author, Arthur Herman, is scant ever guilty of injecting personal prejudice into the text or it's summary findings. This makes it not only readable, but laudable. 

At just over 700 pages, Herman, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, has presented the book in an affable style while staying solidly bound by scholarship and not making illogical leaps in his conclusions. He also doesn't treat the book like a thesis outline. There is no dissertation style and format here, giving the "tell them what you'll tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them" mindless repetition. Thankfully, the scholar leans this book towards a popular audience and it reads perfectly well for the informed and uninformed reader. 

The breadth of this work, the importance of the topic, the careful attention to detail, the rigorous explanation of change, and the final sterling conclusions it draws make this one of the best books I've ever read.

A brilliant work of international significance.

Amazon Link: http://amzn.to/2EfB3NV

 

Review by Kim Gentes

 

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)