Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Jonathan Edwards (Christian Biographies for Young Readers)

A few years ago, from 2005-2007, we spent our Fourth of July weekends in Annapolis, Maryland, at something called the JEI conference. Lots of speakers, books, good food, strolling around the lovely historic city, and fireworks. It was sponsored by the Jonathan Edwards Institute, which existed to promote Edwards' ideas for a modern audience and "foster a God-entranced worldview.". And we loved it (because we're nerds like that).

Fast-forward almost ten years later and though the JEI Institute no longer exists, we are finding opportunities to share some of these same passions with our kids. One way is through a great series of biographies from Simonetta Carr. This particular biography came to us most timely, as we are actually studying American History this year and have been reading quite a few accounts of early colonists.

Carr's latest contribution to her Christian Biographies for Young Readers series, Jonathan Edwards, exceeds my expectations. Though I thought I knew much about Edwards' writings, I realized by reading this book how few details I really knew about his life. All of the books in this series are of excellent quality, hardback and sturdy and with exceptional content, but this one especially has some fascinating facts, photographs and illustrations. In this biography, Carr shares details of his life (1703-1758) from his time as an inquisitive youth to his death at a relatively young age due to illness, when he was then president of Princeton.

If all you know of Edwards is the classic sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," you will be most surprised and encouraged by reading about his whole life's work. His delight in Creation and wonder at the glory of God are evident throughout his story. Even as a child he was interested in science, and observed creatures like the infamous spider and marveled at their unique qualities. There's even an original sketch by Edwards included in the book. His time at Yale brought him into contact with contemporary philosophers and thinkers like Isaac Netwon and Voltaire. As he struggled and wrestled with these new ideas, he always checked them against the Truth he found in Scripture. And so he became captivated by the excellency and wisdom of his Creator. So much so, that Carr writes: "Often, Edwards felt so impressed by God's glory and beauty that he started to sing." What a fantastic picture of a man whose heart chased after God!

There is a good amount of information about his life's work as a preacher, of course, including the first Great Awakening. But Carr also examines his struggles as his beliefs conflicted with his congregation. There is an excellent chapter on his friendship with David Brainerd, missionary to the Native Americans, which later inspired him to move his own family to Stockbridge and become a missionary himself. His interactions with the Indians and his desire for their well-being, fair treatment, and the education of their children in a school alongside his own is much to be praised, and is quite unlike many of the other accounts we have been reading in our American History studies this year.

I highly recommend this biography to anyone interested in learning more about Edward's life. Carr includes a helpful map, timeline, and an appendix with facts about the time period as well as a letter from Edwards to one of his children. As always, the illustrations are rich and well-done, perfectly suited to the text. Reading this has provided our family with an excellent model of what it means to live one's life out faithfully, to "discover God as He has revealed Himself in the Scriptures" and not try to "match the Bible to our own ideas." Many of the chapters offer frameworks for understanding the cultural context in which Edwards lived and offer up ideas for discussion, growth and further reading. This is a wonderful addition to any family library.

If you are interested in any of Jonathan Edwards' writings, I would recommend the Edwards Center at Yale University, which offers a large collection online.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for providing this review, with no obligations as to the content of the review.)  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review -- Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1–8

"The book of Psalms ... is the biggest book in the Bible, but for many in the church its contents are largely mysterious and out of sight," laments J. V. Fesko in the Introduction to his latest book, Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8. To remedy this deficiency, Fesko aims to convince his readers of two important characteristics of the Psalter: 1) that it is focused on the person and work of Christ -- not just in certain "christological psalms" but in its entirety; and 2) that it is not a randomly-arranged collection of poetry but, rather, is a deliberately-organized work with an overarching story. By focusing on the first 8 Psalms, Fesko is able to demonstrate both these characteristics in the text as well as lay out an approach for studying the entire Psalter.

Fesko's book is explicitly "a devotional exploration of the first eight Psalms" and is intended for the edification of Christian readers. Each chapter focuses on a different Psalm, tracing its significance from its original context to its fulfillment in Christ to its continued application for Christians. Each chapter includes a list of questions for further reflection and study. And, since the Psalms were intended to be sung, the book includes metrical versions of each of the studied psalms, as well as resources for obtaining sheet music and audio versions of the tunes.

Overall, Fesko does an admirable job of demonstrating the aforementioned important characteristics of the Psalter from his chosen texts and from the Scripture as a whole. The notion that certain Psalms are Christ-focused is readily established by looking at how the New Testament authors connect the Psalms to Jesus, such as the citation of Psalm 2 in Acts 4. But Fesko's argument is not just that certain Psalm texts point to Christ, but that in fact, the entire Psalter does. He notes Jesus' own words in Luke 24, that "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms," indicating that the Old Testament Scriptures anticipate the coming of the Christ in their entirety, not just in isolated proof-texts or prophecies. In his exploration of Psalms 1-8, Fesko then identifies specific connections between the texts and the person and work of Christ, frequently demonstrating how the life of David serves as a type that was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the righteous man of Psalm 1 is best understood to be the truly Righteous One, the true Anointed One of Psalm 2. However, just as Psalms 3-7 express the hardships and afflictions that God's chosen king David endured at the hands of the wicked, these Psalms also point forward to the undeserved suffering of David's greater son. Yet despite these tribulations, Psalm 8 offers words of praise and worship to God, specifically for the blessings given to man, best interpreted as the majesty bestowed on the Son of Man.

Another strength of Fesko's book is how he draws personal applications out of the Psalms and their focus on Christ. For example, Psalm 1 paints a vivid contrast between the prosperity of the righteous man and the ultimate destruction of the wicked. Yet the application is not simply that people will prosper so long as they act righteously (as if that were possible); rather, Jesus alone is the truly Righteous One, and those who seek refuge in him will be nurtured by him and bear fruit like a tree planted by the streams. Similarly, Fesko sees cries for deliverance from enemies, such as those in Psalm 3, as pointing to the deliverance found only in Christ, a deliverance not only from the wrath to come but also into eternal rest. I especially appreciated Fesko's appeal that the church not neglect the portions of the Psalms that address suffering and lament. The Psalms express the full range of human experience and emotion, and we deprive ourselves of rich resources if we limit our focus to Psalms of rejoicing and gladness. 

If I had any real quibbles with the book, they'd be with some of Fesko's presumptions that the Psalter's human authors clearly understood their writings to be christological. Admittedly, the sharply debated issue of Old Testament fulfillment in the New is too large to tackle in such a short book. But it strikes me that Fesko assumes more than is warranted. A couple of examples: first, in discussing Psalm 4, Fesko begins by examining the original context, particularly the applicable details from David's life, but then jumps from David's crying out to the "God of my righteousness" (4:1) all the way to asserting that "David knows that the Lord is his righteousness—the Lord has graciously forgiven him of his sins and imputed the righteousness, or obedience, of the coming Messiah to him." Secondly, concerning Psalm 8, Fesko states that "David does not merely have the creation of man in view here, however praiseworthy it is. Rather, he ultimately offers a hymn of praise for the true Son of Man, Jesus Christ." In both cases, Fesko makes theologically accurate statements, but given the progressive nature of Biblical revelation, I'm unsure whether an Old Testament author like David might have grasped the full meaning of his own writings. It seems just as likely that the inspired authors revealed far more than they understood at the time, with subsequent revelation bringing greater clarity (e.g., as Hebrews 2 does for Psalm 8). That said, the issue of David's understanding doesn't detract from the book in a major way, and as Fesko repeatedly demonstrates, the New Testament provides interpretive clarity to many of the passages he discusses.

Overall, I would recommend Songs of a Suffering King: The Grand Christ Hymn of Psalms 1-8 to anyone interested in learning more about the Psalms. J.V. Fesko has done a great service by demonstrating the connections between the Psalter and the person and work of Jesus Christ, doing so in a way that not only does justice to the text but also draws out applications for Christian living and discipleship. My hope is that readers of the book would be inspired to take advantage of the great treasures that God's people have been given in the Psalter.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book in exchange for providing a review, with no obligations as to the content of the review.)  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Why I Love Laura Ingalls Wilder

Describing a scene for her sister, who has gone blind from scarlet fever:
Laura let out her breath. "Oh, Mary! The snow white horse and the tall, brown man, with such a black head and bright red shirt! The brown prarie all around--and they rode right into the sun as it was going down. They'll go on in the sun around the world."

Mary thought a moment. Then she said, "Laura, you know he couldn't ride into the sun. He's just riding along on the ground like anybody."

But Laura did not feel that she had told a lie. What she had said was true, too. Somehow that moment when the beautiful, free pony and the wild man rode into the sun would last forever.

By the Shores of Silver Lake, pg. 65

Monday, September 01, 2014

Book Review -- 1 Samuel for You

1 Samuel For You by Tim Chester is the fifth installment in the God's Word for You series published by The Good Book Company. As noted in the Preface, the series is intended to provide expository Biblical studies for a broad audience in a manner that is "Bible centered, Christ glorifying, relevantly applied, and easily readable." Each volume is written with three different purposes/audiences in mind: "Read," as a guide to the contents of the Biblical book; "Feed," as a daily devotional, and "Lead," as a resource for preaching and teaching through the Biblical text. The series isn't intended to provide scholarly commentary, and the reader is not expected to have understanding of the Biblical languages or even a high level of Scriptural knowledge. 1 Samuel For You begins with a brief introduction to the book's themes and historical/canonical background, and each subsequent chapter focuses on a 1-2 chapter block of the Biblical text. In addition to examining the details of the specific text, Chester highlights points of connection with other sections of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) and applications for the Christian reader. Each chapter contains questions for further reflection, and the book contains a glossary and Appendices. 

In my review of the series' initial volume (Galatians For You), I noted that author Timothy Keller had set an extremely high bar for the series and that I even pitied authors of subsequent installments. But 1 Samuel For You is every bit as good, and Tim Chester does a magnificent job working within the Read/Feed/Lead format of the series. By far the book's biggest strength is Chester's command of the Biblical text itself. Although the series is intended for a broader audience, Chester does a tremendous job of analyzing the text: not only does he focus on technical details such as uses of chiastic structure or plays on words in the original Hebrew, but he also communicates their significance so as to remain accessible to the layperson. Furthermore, he connects the details in individual verses to the larger context of 1 Samuel. For example, in his opening chapter, Chester argues that the account of Hannah in in 1 Samuel 1-2 is not a mere example of faith in the midst of adversity (as some treat it); instead, this account, especially through Hannah's prayer, introduces the theme of reversals that runs throughout the book, whereby God "humbles and exalts" (2:7), lifting up the poor and needy while silencing the wicked (2:8-9). Throughout the narrative, Chester demonstrates recurrences of this theme, culminating in the tragic fall of the asked-for king Saul and the unexpected ascent of the shepherd boy David to the throne.    

Chester also excels in connecting 1 Samuel to the larger canon of Scripture. For example, he demonstrates how the early chapters of the book present a continuation of the cycle established in the book of Judges, whereby Israel's sin leads to God's judgment, and their repentance results in God sending a deliverer - in this case, Samuel. Furthermore, the repeated refrain in Judges that the people were in disarray because "in those days Israel had no king" at first seems headed towards a positive resolution with Saul, whose ascent to the throne is described with several allusions back to Judges. Yet Saul, despite his kingly station, proves every bit as fallible as previous judges of Israel. More importantly, Chester highlights how the failure of Saul sets the stage for the rise of David to the throne. 1 Samuel, as he notes, is not really about the transition of Israel from the reign of Saul to that of David; rather, it is about the shift from no monarchy to monarchy. Moses had anticipated that Israel would one day have a king (see Deuteronomy 17) -- the question is whether they would choose a king like those of the nations or one of God's choosing. 1 Samuel portrays two different options for how Moses' words could find fulfillment.

Chester not only demonstrates connections between 1 Samuel and the Old Testament, but more importantly, he also shows how David prefigures the coming of Jesus. Not that David is a mere cipher -- on the contrary, 1 Samuel presents him in exemplary terms. Despite his humble origins, he is chosen by God to be king (keeping with the theme of reversals throughout the book). He is repeatedly tested, particularly with the temptation to seize by force the throne that God had already promised to him. Yet David refuses to harm the Lord's anointed and spares Saul's life on more than one occasion. Instead of claiming what is rightfully his, David endures many years of betrayal and suffering before he comes to the throne. Chester masterfully connects these details of David's life with that of Jesus, who surrendered his divine rights and willingly lived "on the margins" and faced rejection and betrayal for the sake of a higher calling. These frequent connections between David's life and the typological fulfillment in Jesus Christ permeate Chester's book; furthermore, Chester draws practical applications for Christian readers of 1 Samuel by demonstrating how this pattern of enduring suffering on the way to glory still holds for followers of Jesus. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed 1 Samuel For You, and I think any Christian reader would be edified by it. Tim Chester does a wonderful job of connecting the book of 1 Samuel to the larger Biblical drama of redemption in a straightforward and engaging manner, doing a particularly good job of demonstrating how the book points to the ultimate fulfillment of God's purposes in Jesus Christ. My only real criticism is the same one I made about Keller's Galatians For You, concerning the Read/Feed/Lead format of the series: I'm still not sure the book succeeds as a one-stop shop for preaching and teaching through the book. I would certainly use it as a resource, but in conjunction with others. That said, Chester offers many keen insights on 1 Samuel concerning both the details of the text and applications for Christian readers, such that teachers and preachers would do well to consult it in their preparations. I guess my only other complaint is that it only covers 1 Samuel -- as Chester notes in the introduction, 1 and 2 Samuel were originally a single volume. I truly hope that Dr. Chester has a 2 Samuel For You in the works! 

(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for writing a review, though without any stipulations on its content.)        

Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review -- Worshipping With Calvin: Recovering the Historic Ministry and Worship of Reformed Protestantism

“Our sense of urgency is profound as we survey the ecclesiastical landscape,” states Terry L. Johnson in the opening chapter of Worshipping With Calvin, as he recounts the rapid decline of American Evangelical Christians’ fidelity to historic Christian beliefs, morals and piety. Invoking the maxim lex orandi, lex credenda, lex vivendi (“The law of prayer is the law of faith is the law of life”), Johnson asserts that public worship is too often overlooked as a major factor influencing whether or not Christians remain committed to their faith. Furthermore, he argues that many recent innovations to public worship have directly contributed to the overall decline of American Evangelicalism. Johnson’s appeal is for Christians, especially those among the neo-Calvinists of the “young, restless, reformed” movement to “recover the historic ministry and worship of Reformed Protestantism,” in hopes that it would prove just as beneficial to their Christian faith and practice as it has for generations of Christians who have gone before.

After the introductory chapter, Johnson lays out a two-pronged case advocating Reformed Worship and Ministry. The first line of argumentation is along exegetical and historical grounds. Drawing significantly from the work of Hughes Oliphant Old (to whom the book is dedicated), Johnson demonstrates the many ways in which the Reformers sought to base their liturgical reforms primarily on the Scriptures, and then secondarily on the practices of the early church. Instead of manmade traditions, they attempted to pattern the elements of Christian worship after the ways described Bible itself, such as lectio continua reading of the Scriptures, manifold types of prayers, singing of psalms and hymns, and the understanding of the sacraments as visible, covenantal signs. Next, Johnson makes the case for Reformed worship along theological grounds, demonstrating how the Reformers applied the 5 Sola mottoes of the Reformation – sola scriptura, solus Christus, sola fide, sola gratia, and soli Deo Gloria – directly to their liturgical reforms. For example, the principle of sola scriptura gave rise to the Reformed regulative principle of worship, which limits worship practices to only those specified in the Bible. As Johnson argues, both the theological applications of the Reformers and their exegetical/historical research converge to make a persuasive case for the liturgical reforms enacted by the Protestant Reformers.

In the next section of the book, Johnson lays out the following five strengths of Reformed Worship (and compares them with corresponding weaknesses in other approaches to worship):
  • “It is God-centered” – the focus of Christian corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day is to worship God. Believers may be edified by the service, and non-believers may be evangelized, but these are by-products of worship and not the intended purpose.
  • “It is Bible-Filled” - Christian worship is to be saturated with the Bible. The Scriptures should be read publicly and taught. Furthermore, the content of prayers, singing and preaching should all draw heavily from the Scriptures. Lastly, Christian worship should make diligent use of the “visible Word,” the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, which sign and seal the proclamations of the Scriptures.
  • “It is Gospel-Structured” – Christian worship should focus on Christ, re-presenting to us the work of redemption he accomplished. Both in its content and arrangement, Christian worship should clearly portray the gospel and underscore our reliance on Christ not only for forgiveness of sins but for life itself.
  • “It is Church-Aware” – Christian worship should consider the catholicity and traditions of the church. As a result, forms of worship that are innovations or are geared towards a limited niche should be passed over in favor of historic forms that have served the church well across many centuries, lands, and peoples.
  • “It is Spirit-Dependent” – Christian worship should rely on the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts and minds of God’s people. This does not require adopting the more extreme phenomena often associated with the Spirit, but rather entails a constant attitude of dependence on the Spirit to work through the means of grace He has ordained.
Worshipping With Calvin has much to commend to readers. Johnson was a student of Hughes Old, and Johnson’s presentation makes good use of Old’s large body of research on Christian worship, especially on the Reformers attempts to base their liturgical reforms not only on the practices of the patristic era, but ultimately on the Scriptures themselves. Each chapter is thoroughly documented, and Johnson provides a lengthy bibliography for additional study.

I found the two chapters on how “It [i.e., Reformed worship] Is Bible-filled” to be the most compelling in the book. Not only does Johnson demonstrate how the Reformers reinstated the practice of lectio continua reading of the Scripture, he shows how greatly they valued extended readings, due to their confidence in the Spirit’s working through the Word. I was also very much intrigued by how the Reformers incorporated the Scriptures into their public prayers, drawing on both content and patterns of prayer recorded in the Bible. As Johnson demonstrates, the Reformers placed a great deal of importance in composing prayers that would be rich in Scriptural content and (as a result) would edify the congregation. I also appreciated the emphasis that Johnson places on the “visible Word” – the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism – in the life of the congregation and its public worship. Throughout these two chapters, Johnson skillfully explains how the Reformers integrated Scripture into every aspect of their liturgical reforms.

The book was not without a few weaknesses. For example, Johnson argues that worship should be “simple” and done with “dependence upon the Holy Spirit, rather than rituals and ceremonies.” While I certainly agree that the excesses of the medieval church should have been abandoned, I’m not sure an outright rejection of ritual and ceremony is wise. As James K.A. Smith has argued, habits and practices can play a major role in Christian formation, and it seems to me that a more profitable approach would be to identify which rituals and ceremonies might be beneficial to nurturing Christian faith, rather than trying to completing eradicate them (as if that were actually possible!). Of greater concern is Johnson’s almost complete dismissal of contemporary worship styles. These styles are consistently presented negatively, and “metrical psalms and biblical/classical hymns” (curiously, there’s no mention of “spiritual songs”) are lauded as the standard for Christian worship music. It is only in Chapter 8 that Johnson states that Christian worship should “conserve the best from the past and add the best from the present,” implying the possibility of acceptable new music. I am very much in agreement with his argument that Christian worship should consider the catholicity and traditions of the church, and should be wary of abandoning historic forms altogether. But I also believe that the Spirit is still at work today, and it is unwise to close the door to edifying contributions to the life of the Church. After all, each of the metrical psalms and biblical hymns that Johnson advocates was once a new song, and many of them were put into use by the Church shortly after their composition. I’m hoping that Johnson’s forthcoming volume on implementing Reformed worship (Serving With Calvin) will provide some practical guidance on how he envisions “add[ing] the best from the present.”

Overall, Worshipping With Calvin is well-researched and well-argued. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the topic of Christian worship. Even those outside the Reformed tradition will be challenged and exhorted to examine how they worship, and hopefully encouraged to return to the Bible for guidance on how to worship God as He would desire.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for writing a review, with no obligation to provide a favorable opinion.)