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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.

Financial Peace Revisited - Dave Ramsey (2003)

Personal finance books can sometimes sound about as exciting as an economic history textbook. But personal finance has a profound impact on the average person and family. Dave Ramsey is a radio show personality based in Nashville who has become successful as a speaker and author in the area of personal finance.

His first book, Financial Peace, has grown into a seminar, course and nationwide educational phenomenon having literally thousands of centers (mostly churches) that host the personal finance course called "Financial Peace University". The goal, as the title indicates, is to train people to gain peace in the area of finances.

In reading through this book, I started off with a fairly critical perspective. I am not the kind of person who likes listening to radio personalities that publicly berate callers on the topic of their “expertise”. I knew that Ramsey had a public persona of hard-nosed and I feared his book would be pompous and self-aggrandizing. I was wrong. “Financial Peace Revisited” is a pointed book, for sure, but it is tempered with the care of a person who has lived through real life. Some of the book relates Ramsey’s personal story of rags to riches to rags and back again- including growing a successful real estate business that crashed and burned, and his later recovery and learning process out of personal debt into long term financial “peace”. It is from this personal experience that Dave Ramsey tells not only his story, but the touch-stones of common sense that led him away from the common American family cycle of financial mismanagement.

In his book, Ramsey articulates compact truths that he calls “peace puppies” that are the foundational points of his thesis. One can’t say that the points are revelatory- but good advice rarely is. “Financial Peace” expounds the simple and clear truths of personal finance that many know, but few actually live. This is Ramsey’s main contention- we don’t live out the common sense items that would allow our money and careers to work for us. Instead, we allow the borrowing of money (normally to buy unneeded things) become the master and driver of our lives. It is this borrowing cycle that drives American personal finances into common and regular ruin.

Ramsey’s biggest and most salient point in this book is the belief that debt (all debt) is to be avoided and countered. There are plenty of other items, but they all serve to address this primary issue. But the brilliance of Ramsey’s approach is not just the common sense, but the emotional recovery of the debt-laden Americans who work Ramsey’s plan to come to financial peace. The biggest of the “smart moves” that fuel a “can-do” attitude in Ramsey’s followers is his recommendation that they pay the smallest bills first, and as those smaller bills get paid off the amounts used to pay those off get rolled cummulatively into the next largest bill. His “debt snowball” is genius, but almost counter-intuitive.

But it works. By paying off small bills first Ramsey knows that his customers will be feeling the emotional encouragement of seeing bills actually paid off. This heightens their awareness of the positive outcomes of their actions, giving them emotional fuel to continue paying off debt and working their recovery plan. In addition, the monetary power of those small debts being paid off cummulatively gets unleashed on larger and larger bills. Practically and mentally, the momentum is placed in the realm of those who follow his plan. In fact, he challenges people not to try to do too much too fast, for fear that this will only cause them to hit the emotional wall when the recovery from financial distress begins to drag on for many months and years.

There are literally dozens of great points in this book, and few errors. The only complaint I have with this book is its outdated, and somewhat unrealistic “positive” saving scenarios. In the book, Ramsey expounds that compound interest works powerfully against the consumers- and this is right. He says that if we save we can reverse this trend not only by not building up more debt (breaking the cycle of increasing debt) but we can use interest bearing savings options to let the money work for the consumer. But his oft-repeated examples are nowhere close to reality. The books cites, in a few examples, 8-12% return on compounding savings, which isn’t true in any consumer bank in America (and hasn't been in recent modern history). It isn’t true in money market funds and it is barely even true in mutual funds these days. There has never been an era lasting more than a year or two when most consumers could get a reasonable return on savings (especially when compared against inflation) without playing the stock market through mutual funds, but this is not how Ramsey says it. The point is, this detail could easily be updated and adjusted to reality to give the book more credibility- and it would be good if it were. To Ramsey's credit, he does get into details about how to invest later in the book, dealing with various investment vehicles that could give the reader the returns he talks about. Just a bit more differentiation between "savings" and investment I felt were needed for the scenarios presented in the first half of the book to make sense.

Beyond that, the book is very nice to read, quick to understand and support to those who actually want to “do it”!

One very nice feature is the regular end-of-chapter summaries by Sharon Ramsey (Dave’s wife) who takes a spousal perspective on how the main points of each chapter effected her life. This is a very nice contrast to the “go get it” approach of the author and gives the book some balance. Overall, this is a very good book, that contains not only great personal financial advice but seems to have proven itself worthy of the thousands of people who have taken Ramsey’s advice and gotten themselves out of financial struggles.


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


Musician's Guide to Reading & Writing Music - Dave Stewart (1999)

Easily the best music theory book I've found for those who know very little theory. Intensely formally trained musicians will balk at this book, but "garage band" musicians will love it.  The book covers four main areas: Notation, Rhythm, Chords (4 sections), and Writing Music. The breakdown of the various topics into clean sections makes it easy to use the book as a reference for later. I often grab it when I need to refer back to some point on chords (for which it has extensive information). In addition to a good structured outline to the book, it starts off easily and takes nothing for granted- you learn as quick as you can pick up, because he starts off assuming you need to learn everything from timing to notes and more. If you are a beginner, its all there, if you somewhat knowledgeable you can move along quicker.

This is a compressed music theory book that is easy to pick up and learn from. It is tremendously helpful for musicians with gift and abilities, but little formal musical training. It gives the basics in excellent format (simple and straight forward) and style (humorous). The pithy style of this book makes it like reading a music book written by David Letterman.

I recommend this book to two crowds: first, if you are a rock musician that has played for years and just never got around to having a good grasp of theory, this book is made for you. Second, if you are a worship leader or musician in a local church but likewise finds yourself with a less than clear understanding of the all the salient musical theory points, then you will likely be helped a lot by reading this book as well. 

When I first read this book (back in 1999) I bought a printed paperback copy (literally just 100 pages long). When I lost the book about 10 years later, I bought another copy, simply because it is such a helpful reference. The book is now available on Kindle/eBook format too.

Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes

The Iliad - Homer (c. 850-1200 BC)

"It's about a woman..." If one was trying to create a pithy phrase to summarize the Iliad, this wouldn't be bad. But it might also be a serious misrepresentation. Homer's classic poem is constructed around the premise of a war over 'the face that launched a thousand ships', but it goes far beyond that. In fact, writing a review of Homer's Iliad seems almost silly in a way. The contents of the story, the characters, the plot line and even the details of the literary masterpiece have become so deeply embedded into the fabric of our modern culture and language that we don't even recognize them as being from the pages of ancient lore. Helen of Troy, Achilleus tendon, Hektor, Agamemnon, Odysseus, the greek pantheon of gods, such as Zeus, Apollo and Aresa- all of these find their origins in Homer's Iliad. In fact, Homer's epics might even be said to represent an early chapter in the foundational narrative of Western Civilization. Only the Biblical text has had a more pervasive impact on western, and now world, culture.

The first thing that most people can recite about Homer's Iliad is that it is a classic fight over a woman- Helen of Troy. This is true. However, the place of Helen in the story really just provides the backdrop to the world of the ancient Greek story. A world marked by one single activity more profoundly than any other- war. The world which the Iliad exposits is a world of war. Men, nations, fame, honor, gods, destiny, families, heroes, villains and even love are all wrapped up in the human exchange of conflict, conquest and death. Into that world, the beautiful Helen has been taken away by her lover Paris (also called Alexandros) from the home and country of her husband, Menelaos. Menelaos happens to be the brother, however, of the king of the Achaians- a man named Agamemnon. Upon Helen's abduction, the king and his jilted brother gather the nation's army and navy, launching their forces to capture Helen back from the city-state in which she now lives- Troy. This part of the story is alluded to in the Iliad, but isn't completely included in the narrative timeline of this epic.

But the story isn't that simple. The war to siege Troy drags on for 9 years. The Achaians are held back by the Trojans and the allies of the city of Troy who continually send forces in support of their friends. The war-like Achaians make raids on nearby cities throughout their years-long campaign against Troy. These raids gain them supplies, funds and the human spoils of war- women. In the course of such raids, both Agamemnon and a military champion of the Achaians, Achilleus, acquire new wives as part of the spoils of the raids. The king chooses to keep a girl named Chryseis, who happened to be the daughter of a priest of Apollo. When the father, Chryses, later comes in anxious but suppliant submission to ransom back his daughter, Agamemnon refuses him arrogantly. Chryses, as priest to the god Apollo, prays curses down on the Achaians for the king's evil actions. Apollo answers his priest and begins to kill the soldiers of Agamemnon.

Only after Achilleus challenges Agamemnon with the truth of his arrogance and their consequences, the king relents and sends the girl back to her father to appease the wrath of the god Apollo. But losing his concubine, Agamemnon looks to replace her and chastise Achilleus for pointing out the king's own faults. He does this by taking Achilleus own concubine, Briseis. Enraged, Achilleus wants to slay Agamemnon, but decides not to on the direct intervention of his goddess mother, Thetis. Because of the dishonor that Achilleus incurs, he makes an oath never to obey Agamemnon again or to help him in battle. This is serious, because it is clear that Achilleus is the greatest of all the Achaians warriors.

All this backdrop is meant to supply the primary force behind the entire legend. The war and the conflicts over women are meant to set up the real engine of conflict in the Iliad- Achilleus wrath. Homer, in fact, makes this clear right from the beginning of his poem, which states in the first two lines:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,b

Before Achilleus takes further action in the Iliad story of the Trojan war, the narrative adds more intrigue, characters and reasons for his rage to grow to a boiling point. Menelaos and Paris try to resolve the war by dueling for the hand of Helen, since the conflict between them for her is the microcosm of the entire war. In the duel, Paris loses but is saved from death by a goddess (who magically carries him away). Many fighters die on both sides, but the Trojans seem to make increasingly strong advances towards the Achaean ships. That advantage is further emphasized by individual success of Hektor against the Achaians. He battles to a stalemate with the great Aias and later kills Patroklos (Achilleus best friend) in the battlefield.

Once Patroklos has been killed, this finally is enough to antagonize Achilleus to rejoin the war and fight for the Achaians, not so much for the defeat of the Trojans as just retribution towards Hektor for killing his friend. So, while wrath stopped Achilleus from fighting, it is ultimately more wrath that has him re-engaging in the war.

Achilleus wrath against Agamemnon (and later Hektor) pushes the storyline from start to end. It becomes the cause of many lives lost for the Achaians through battle and it forces Agamemnon to eventually entreat Achilleus' forgiveness so that someone worthwhile could face the powerful Trojan champion, Hektor, in battle. Even Achilleus showdown with Hektor is laced with the fire of bitter anger, as shown by the spiteful treatment of Hektor's body by Achilleus after he has slain the Trojan.

The story of the Iliad is about wrath and war. But even more subtly, and perhaps more pervasively, it is about honor and the ancient culture of honor/challenge in which all the characters live. Every aspect of this story is driven by the main characters attempts to gain honor, to challenge other for it, the anger resulting when one loses it and the vengeance one takes to reclaim it. This idea of honor is seen in battle, in the discourses of the gods on Olympus and even in the human and touching conversations of friends. For example, Hektor, speaking with his wife before going into battle, knowing fate will likely take him- he is more concerned about his honor among other than he is about living or being with his family. Likewise the one thing he speaks in prayer for his baby son is that he would have honor.

It is this all encompassing drive toward honor that takes hold of every character in the epic. From Agamemnon to Nestor to Hektor to Achilleus, all of them are focused on honor as the most important aspect of their lives. Indeed, characters which seem to not care about honor (such as Paris) are portrayed as weak, cowardly and less than noble. The gods and goddess of Olympus all fight and argue and connive for some honor of one type or another (even to the point of it seeming silly and very human-like: hardly divine at all). To describe the Iliad is to describe the forces beneath the epic. In Homer's Iliad, honor drives anger, anger drives war, and the spoils of war or the trophies which once again regenerate the cycle back to greater honor.

By way of a very limited outline of the narrative, here are some of the main points in the Iliad.

  1. Book 1: 10-55 - Agamemnon refuses to release Chrysies back to her father, and god Apollo destroys many troops.
  2. Book 1: 115 - Agamemnon gives back Chryseis to her father
  3. Book 1: 345 - Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilleus
  4. Book 3: 340-380 - Menelaos defeats Paris in duel, but Paris is rescued by goddess Aphrodite.
  5. Book 7: Hektor and Aias duel to a draw
  6. Book 16: 855 - Hektor kills Patroklos in battle
  7. Book 22: 360-460 - Achilleus kills Hektor and desecrates his body by dragging it around.

I have drawn a relationship diagram that helps explain the timeline relative to the people and their connections. The narrative points listed above are labeled on the diagram so that you can see how the relationships acted in time sequence.

For most people point seven (7) of the timeline listed above is the apex of the story of the Iliad. But a friend of mine, Bill Palacio, rightly pointed out that the tension of the storyline is eventually unwound and, though sorrowful in ways, resolved.

  • Book 24: 485 - Like a parallel to the beginning of the book, we find that the book is ending with Priam, the king of Troy, begging for and ransoming his dead son from the very man who killed him. Here, after mentioning Achilleus' father, both Priam and Achilleus weep, one for his son, the other for his father and eventually, gone past his anger, Achilleus accedes.
  • Book 24: 599 - Achilleus relents and gives back Hektor's body to his father, Priam, allowing for honor to be restored to his family and his name.
  • Book 24: 675 - Briseis has been returned by Agamemnon and is sleeping at Achilleus' side.

The Iliad is not only an epic tale, it is an exploration of the culture in which the epic is written: the ancient honor/shame based society. The understanding of the author about human nature is uncanny, even if the setting is archaic. Be careful in reading this book, as it is overwhelmingly detailed. You will encounter dozens and dozens of names, relationships and even genealogies. I found my first reading of it to be confusing, frustrating and actually stressful. Lots of war, myriads of characters and a very slow moving plot. Some small items like pseudonyms of characters didn't even occur to me (Paris, for example, is also called Alexandros). I re-read the Iliad not to just 'look deeper' into the story but to actually try to follow it. The second time reading it, I made sure to properly preview the entire preface /introduction by the translator. Then reading Homer's Iliad the second time, it was much easier to not get bogged down with trying to remember and assess characters that would only be mentioned once or twice.

On the advice of my friend, I chose to read through a version of the Iliad translated by Richmond Lattimore. There are other available, though I have no experience with them. The text of Lattimore's translation seemed readable, is modern, and yet has a dense and compact style. I found it took about a day to get used to reading the style of the writing, but after that, I found it enjoyable.  I read the Iliad via the Kindle version found on Amazon.


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes



a) Many of the names of characters, people and places have slight derivations due to translation bias for various versions.  This is a quick list of the words which are spelled slightly different that might make the reading more familiar to you: (Achilleus/Achilles, Aias/Ajax, Hektor/Hector, Kronos/Cronus, Menelaus/Menelaos, Patroklos/Patroclus).

b) Homer (2011-09-19). The Iliad of Homer (p. 75). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.


How To Lead Worship Without Being A Rock Star - Dan Wilt (2013)

I've spent the last 15 years evaluating and recommending resources for worship ministries, churches, leaders, musicians, vocalists, audio/video techs and pastors. I've even written a book highlighting the best of those resources that I've found relevant to worship and music. But in that time and search, I've yet to recommend a resource that completely covers the topic of how to lead worship. There are several books and DVDs and resources that drill down on specific details, skills, issues or ideas- all of them good and needed. But what I was looking for was the one book that could serve as the manual or textbook for those with a calling to leading worship.  My search has ended.

In "How To Lead Worship Without Being a Rock Star", Dan Wilt has crafted a values-based approach to the calling, development and practice of worship leading. As the title indicates, Wilt is as concerned with answering the question of why to lead worship as he is to how. Right from the start, the author identifies the 800lb gorilla in church music: the fact that leadership of sacred worship has collided with the "American Idol" pop-culture on the Sunday morning music platforms of churches around the world. Wilt's pithy phrase brings these tensions into crystal clear focus in his introduction:

Excitement and danger - that is the privilege of worship leading.1

From that place, the book takes the reader on an eight chapter course that will engage all the necessary components of development to bring a person through detailed information, study, evaluation and questioning- all as a means to growth into worship leadership. The first chapter drills deep into the subject of why we worship and why leading is a part of local church expression of worship. This flows nicely into the second chapter which continues to carve out the foundations by addressing the core values that we must have undergirding our understanding and practice of worship leading. The final foundation stone of his book comes in chapter three, which is titled "The Character of the Worship Leader", in which the reader is made to face the hard questions of motivation, calling and desires in their hopes of participation in leading worship. These first three chapters are worth the cost of the book on their own, and as someone who has worked for years at developing other worship leaders the importance and value of these foundations can't be overlooked.

Chapters four and five kick into practical guidance on the skills, planning, practices and thinking behind great worship leading. Chapter four focuses on the functions, techniques and skills of the worship leader and chapter five drills down on the leadership of a worship band. Chapter six deals with the pastoral relationship and the role of mentorship as you help others in growing in worship leading. Chapter seven culminates this practical guidebook approach by articulating excellent points to helping you in "Becoming a Great Worship Leader". The final chapter revisits the main points of the book and returns the reader to foundational concepts of values that undergird this book.

Dan Wilt's book is as virtual "course in a book" on worship leading 101. If you are looking for a rock solid manual to help with teaching the foundational values of worship leading along with the essentials of practical worship ministry, you have struck gold with "How To Lead Worship..." by Dan Wilt. I would especially recommend this to those of you who may be training, mentoring or leading other worship leaders (whether Sunday morning or small groups)-- this is the one manual that can help you and those that you are mentoring! Because the book is laid out in eight distinct sessions (including salient points, chapter discussion questions and summaries), you can use it as you "ready-to-use" study that both you and your trainee will learn from. Wilt has used his years as a local church worship leader, pastor, college professor and mentor to worship leaders around the world to inform his very practical approach to creating and developing this manual- and it shines through.

There are certainly more things to learn and technical concepts to be drilled down on as a worship leader develops, but this book should be at the starting point as a foundational course text for churches, worship departments, and Christian colleges everywhere. It is practical, readable, honest, values-centered and encouraging! Get a copy of this physical printed book in your hands now! While it will be life-changing for the beginner, it can also serve as a great structural inspection for the values and operational architecture of those already operating in the call of worship leading.

Book Link:


Review by Kim Gentes


1. Wilt, Dan (203). How To Lead Worship Without Being a Rock Star: an 8 week study.  (Page 4). Wild Pear Creative.

Automate This: How Algorithms Came To Rule Our World - Christopher Steiner (2012)

Have you ever wondered how we got to the point of automaton being a part of every aspect of our interactions with the commercial world? Wonder no longer. In his recent book "Automate This" Christopher Steiner explores the history of selected technology wizards and innovators who developed ways to use hardware and software algorithms to automate and predict human actions. It is in that realm that Steiner explores the massive influx of technology and technical talent into Wall Street and the money machine that drove the innovations of the 80s, 90s and the first decade of the new millennia.

Steiner starts with the iconic story of Thomas Peterffy, whose deterministic style and brilliant mind led him to bring the first streams of technology into the Wall Street world of high finance, commodities, options and stock trading, which eventually led to the consummation of CDOs and other debt instruments that rule the financial world and have contributed to the harried meltdowns we experienced in recent decades. Peterffy's story resurfaces throughout the book as a marker of what algorithms and their creators are all about.

The book revisits the grander history of algorithms from Euclid to Persian mathematician Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi to Fibonacci to Newton, Leibniz, Gaus, Pascal, George Boole and others who significantly contributed to the development. The book also spends a chapter exploring automation algorithms in music, from A&R evaluation of songs to writing actual music compositions that match Bach.  One chapter detours on the central value of algorithms being their speed of use in automation, and how Daniel Spivey dug a direct "dark fiber" cable from New York to Chicago to ensure he had the pipeline for the fastest speeds of trading decisions to the needed locations- a business (Spread Networks) which became the main pipeline for trading companies wanting ultimate transaction speed for their automation bots handling trading.

Steiner explores the various algorithmic systems from Big Blue to Watson to baseball stats systems, all of which use highly tuned formulas in computers to determine the best ways of winning at the big money of various gaming scenarios. The book becomes very personal, however, as it discusses physician-assisting algorithms that can already handle making diagnostic recommendations, pharmaceutical decisions and even filling the prescriptions via robots. The other well known application of automation he explores is personality evaluations for everything from dating to NASA crew evaluations. 

But the book actually comes to rest in a surprising position of recommending that big finance was somewhat of a culprit and that the new world of Silicon Valley is the place all the engineering and technical talent should be focused on. He even brings a call to people to focus on more engineering careers and pursuing computer science in college degrees. His premise lands with the ideas that high finance had previous siphoned off all the high quality technical minds to develop transaction splicing algorithms during the 80s-00s, but that now Silicon Valley needs those minds and talent for real development.

The book is well-written and interesting, though seems rather self-serving, since the author is notably one of those crowd who has defected Wall Street for the glamour of Silicon Valley. The history, back story and prospects of algorithmic work is very interesting and very compelling. Steiner leaves out three of the most important examples of algorithmic influence in companies: Microsoft, Google and Amazon. For some reason, the author decides to ignore these icons, even though it would be hard pressed to find (outside of Facebook) larger success stories based on just the kind of development and algorithms he explores in the book.

Overall the book is definitely worthwhile, as it is a short read (just 250 pages) and very well researched. The style is conversational and non-tech people will not have any problem following the dialog here.

Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes