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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.

Entries in grief (4)

Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Theodore G. Tappert- translated & edited)

Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel  is a collection of Martin Luther’s pastoral letters sent to a variety of people, reflecting on as wide a variety of topics as life has to offer. What one notes most poignantly about the letters is their constant pastoral voice, intense compassion for grief-stricken people, and his wisdom and wit in any situation.

The book is arranged in categorized chapters based on the  main theme of the letter. A reader from the present day will be immediately affronted by the dim nature of the topics, which range from comfort, consolation, counsel and instruction for the sick, dying, bereaved, anxious, despondent, doubting, needy, troubled and more. This is not light reading. The weight of the pastoral office of the 16th century European church is pressed into the pages of these letters. This provides us not only with wise counsel for our current churches, but a harrowing picture of the people and time in which Martin Luther’s reforms were birthed.

I must admit, I approached this book initially ready for a barrage of theological treatise, each one restated in particular application for a life situation. I expected the theologian that demarcated the single biggest change in the history of the Christian church to be heady, angry and oozing with profundity. To my surprise, I came away realizing that Martin Luther was a man who cared first for the flock to which had entrusted him to care.  He wasn’t applying theology to an ugly, rude world, in which his meanderings meant nothing to the real people.  He was caring deeply, loving deeply, and hurting deeply with the literal scores of people around him which were broken, dying or in unfathomable pangs of grief.

Yes, he writes letters to princes and elites, administrators and bureaucrats. He tackles government, policies and the profound failures of a power rotted church structure. But at his core, he is a pastor, and these letters don’t let you stop seeing that, over and over again.  All around Luther, family, students, friends, children are all dying or becoming sick of a myriad of diseases from deadly tuberculosis to the dreaded black plague. There is not just sickness and death, there is a permeating sense of fear and a gnawing hopelessness that he seems to be trying to combat with each letter.

On of Luther’s prime methods of facing such daunting pain and weakened humanity is to speak boldly of the pain, sickness and death.

When, therefor, I learned most illustrious prince, that Your Lordship has been afflicted with a grave illness...I cannot pretend that I do not hear the voice of Christ crying out to me from Your Lordship’s body and flesh saying, “Behold,  I am sick.” This is so because such evils as illness and the like are not borne by us who are Christians but by Christ himself...1

Luther didn’t see ministry to people as doing something for the ill, poor or broken. He saw it as ministry to the Lord directly, and he used this as his foundation for a theology of suffering. In such a society filled with pain, Luther saw Christ’s suffering as the necessary fellowship to which we are engaged in while on earth.  But Luther brought with his stark vision of pain a transcendent enraptured vision of Christ, when he said, “God is immeasurably better than all his gifts.”Such a picture of God is not only beautiful, but necessary, when “his gifts” seemed to come few and far between for the beleaguered parishioners Luther was guiding.

The letters of Luther are not just wise rebukes to a dismal world. His fiery spirit and even humor rise to the top occasionally, giving us a glimpse of wisdom that is embedded in reality. He says of a friend whom he was counselling against being drawn into the falseness of spiritual pride:

Whenever the devil pesters you with these thoughts, at once seek out the company of men, drink more, joke and jest, or engage in some other form of merriment. Sometimes it is necessary to drink a little more, play, jest, and even commit some sin in defiance and contempt of the devil in order not to give him an opportunity to make us scrupulous about trifles. We shall be overcome if we worry too much about falling into some sin.3

As you can see, Martin Luther had an unquenchable belief in the power of the community. This so guided him, it is doubtless that one of the driving currents of his reformation doctrine.

The papists and Anabaptists teach that if you wish to know Christ, you must seek solitude, avoid association with men...This is manifestly diabolical advice...[rather] God wishes that His name be proclaimed and praised before men and spoken of among men rather than that one should flee into a corner... [and] teaches us to do good to our neighbors, and hence we must not be segregated from them. This advice [papists and Anabaptists] is also destructive to the family, economic life, and the state, and it is at odds with the life of Christ, who did not like to be alone and whose career was one of constant turmoil because people were always crowding around him. He was never alone, except when he prayed. Have nothing to do, therefor, with those who say, “Seek solitude and your heart will become pure.”4

Martin Luther had such a strong value of community and companionship that he prescribed it for almost every condition of the body and soul. He was constantly reminding husbands and wives to encourage one another, for people to not be alone when struggling with temptation, depression or illness. Above, he even recognizes that not only is it a teaching against Christ and his body to avoid the community, but it actually destroys families, harms economic viability of individuals and communities and even threatens the state stability. What a brilliant understanding of the power of community.


Product Link on Amazon: Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel


Review by
Kim Gentes


[1]Martin Luther, “Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel”, translated Theodore G. Tappert (Louisville, KY:Westminster John Knox Press, 1955), Pg 22

[2]Ibid., Pg 54

[3]Ibid., Pg 86

[4]Ibid., Pg 120


Man's Search For Meaning - Viktor Frankl (1959)

Victor Frankl is the author of one of the most concise personal narratives of the holocaust of the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl, who survived no less than four camps personally, uses his profound analytic mind to explore the behavior and nature of human beings. Rejecting the Freudian premise of existentialism, Frankl develops a new way of viewing humanity in the psychoanalytic discipline. As both a psychologist and neurologist, Frankl's physiological and psychological findings are synthesized into his new psychoanalytic technique called "logotherapy".

In contrast to the existentialist foundations of Freud, Frankl establishes the belief that there is meaning in the universe, especially for mankind. Man’s Search for Meaning articulates that it is this search for meaning that becomes the primary question for all:

The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. [1]

While staying away from religious archetypes to present his theory, the core of logotherapeutic beliefs are constructed with such care that they can sit squarely on top of the foundation of either Jewish or Christian orthodoxy (or perhaps any religious context in which God is viewed as good).

Man's Search For Meaning is one of the most profound modern works I have read. Perhaps Frankl's most significant concept presented therein is his thorough and profound treatment of human suffering. Frankl does not dismiss suffering as meaningless (unlike existentialism), but places it within a triad of human experience that he says brings meaning: doing significant work, caring for others, and enduring suffering.  He contends that without human thought and activity based one one or more of those three, a person will lose meaning in life and destruction (either external or internal) is sure to follow.

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. [2]


In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice [3]

The key for Frankl's thesis is the rooting of human expectation in the future, not the present. Meaning comes, he contends, by placing hopes in spiritual or earthly goals. Failing to do so will cause discouragement and loss meaning, spiralling people into trying to scratch out meaning in temporal pleasure of the day, which will eventually lead to abandonment of hope and self-destruction.

Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. (Logotherapy, indeed, is a meaning-centered psychotherapy.)[4]

This book starts off being our hosted view into the unfathomable world of concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and the psycho-analytical understandings that Frankl comes to.  But the more you read, the more you are drawn into Frankl's so thoroughly rendered understanding of suffering that the book becomes a way for us to enter into the story by Frankl's genius. Very few books come close to the profundity of human experience and, therefor, understanding that is present in this book.  I can't imagine that it isn't one of the greatest writings in the last century.

Life changing!

Book Link on Amazon: Man's Search for Meaning


Review by

Kim Gentes


[1]“Man’s Search For Meaning”, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press 1959), Pg. X

[2]Ibid, Pg 111

[3]Ibid, Pg 113

[4]Ibid, Pg 98

A Grief Observed - C.S. Lewis (1961)

A Grief Observed is simply the journal of a man consumed with the pain of the loss of his wife to cancer. Perhaps the preeminent Christian author, scholar and philosopher  of the 20th Century, C.S Lewis scripts out his thoughts, struggles, questions and emotions during his time of grief.  He punches you with logic on one page and languishes in his own emotions on the next.  The book is not a model of how to be consistent during tragedy- quite the opposite. Lewis gives us raw, untainted pain.  And along with it, he questions the entire scope of his experience and situation- he questions the logic, questions his own capacity to be seeing clearly, even questions God with abruptness.

Reading A Grief Observed reminds me that we will always struggle with the task of reconciling our experience in the world with what we believe about God.  Lewis takes us to task for assuming that our experience hasn’t interpreted who God is completely wrong, and what we think of Him.  But he also lashes out at times to tell God just how difficult it is for the human life not to be struggling and confused. Early in the book he makes sure that we understand clearly that we (as friends/counsellors) are not the one suffering and shouldn’t pretend to be :

You can't really share someone else's weakness, or fear or pain. What you feel may be bad. It might conceivably be as bad as what the other felt, though I should distrust anyone who claimed that it was. But it would still be quite different.[1]

Lewis, eventually turns his brilliant mind on his own emotions and comprehension.  He finds that his desire to “see” something of his former wife is itself idolatrous (not in so many words).  While doing so, he clearly punches at our propensity to iconify and envision a reality that is not really real.  In his words:

Images, whether on paper or in the mind, are not important for themselves. Merely links. Take a parallel from an infinitely. . higher sphere. Tomorrow morning a priest will give me a little round, thin, cold tasteless wafer. Is it a disadvantage- is it not in some ways and advantage- that it can’t pretend in the least resemblance to that with which it unites me?

I need Christ, not something that resembles Him.[2]

The book winds down to Lewis having an evening of intense connection with the reality of his wife.  Not a vision or visit it seems, but something remarkably close that comforts him in a way.  He realizes he needs the real thing in every context saying:  “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour”[3]

Wow! Taking in the reality of life, not as we perceive it erroneously to be, but accounting for the fact that they may actually be (that is - our neighbor, God, and even ourselves) something completely different than our perception has made them appear to us.  Lewis's prose is no less muted in this classic than any of his other books, it simply just bleeds with the reality of his intense pain. Beautiful.


Book Link on Amazon: A Grief Observed


Review by
Kim Gentes


[1] Grief Observed”, (New York, NY: Harper Collins 1961), Pg 13

[2] Ibid., Pg 65

[3] Ibid., Pg 67

A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss - Gerald Sittser (2004)

Jerry Sittser is a man who went through an incredible tragedy, the death of 3 members of his family, in a single incident. The book, A Grace Disguised, is the journey of pain and peace that Jerry made as he walked through the  years of struggle that followed that terrible day. A Grace Disguised is not a “self help” or “grief recovery” book as you might expect. Instead, it is a brutally honest, and yet penetratingly encouraging search of one man to find some answers in the midst of devastating pain. You are swept along, like Jerry and his family, into the personal thoughts and actions of ones who face their regrets, fears, brokenness, heartache, freedom and future.

But this book is more than just a story, it is a deep and pastoral look into the most profound questions we ask (or ignore) in times of tragedy. Questions like “why?”, “where was God?”, “was this God’s will?”, or even “does God bring tragedy?”  If you go through a serious loss, trite and superfluous answers are not only unhelpful, they are painful. Sittser doesn’t allow this book to become a sentimental appeasement to serious questions. He struggles with the questions, right along with you, not stopping at pat answers.

What drew me into the book instantly was Sittser’s sparse and honest writing.  His explanations of both events and thought process draw you into the conversation.  Indeed, this is how he opens the journey to us, in this quote:

Ten minutes into our trip home I noticed an oncoming car on a lonely stretch of highway driving extremely fast. I slowed down at a curve, but the other car did not. It jumped its lane and smashed head-on into our minivan.[1]

Sittser's book is tragically clear and real to the reader.  Pain is something that those who are familiar with it recognize it coming a long ways off. When I read “I noticed an oncoming car...” my stomach became sick and I felt the weakness and vulnerability of loss fill my head and heart.[2]  Reading Sittser’s book profoundly upends you, and you instantly begin realizing how there are unanswered questions in your own experience as well. And this is the power of Sittser’s book- it’s honesty has the ability to unlock each reader to the unfinished story in their own lives.

One of the most profound quotes from the book was when Sittser is dealing with the questions and assumptions of others, who assume that loss should eventually lead to recovery and healing.  Bluntly, Sittser levels the field by stopping such presumption. He explains, politely, that broken bones, mild illness and arguments are all temporary conditions which can receive healing. But long term devastation is not something from which a person can just dust themselves off, and recover.  In his words:

“Catastrophic loss is like undergoing an amputation of our identity...Loss thus leads to a confusion of identity.”[3]

 The point is clear- we don’t move past deep loss, we incorporate the experience into our lives, even our identity.  The journey forward requires a redefinition (only possible by God) of the identity of the person.  This powerful truth made me realize the enormity of the suffering death and serious loss can bring.


Book Link on Amazon: A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss


Review by
Kim Gentes 


[1]Gerald Sittser, "A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss", (Grand Rapids, MI:Zondervan 2004), Pg 24,25

[2] Reading Sittser's story, I was brought back to that unforgettable day my family was driving along a rural Alberta highway and, as a 14 year-old teenager, our new family Dodge Ram truck collided head-on with a car of a woman bent on committing suicide. His writing will impact you even deeper if you have gone through a frightning incident such as this.

[3]Ibid., Pg 81