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Tim Challies

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biography

1 month 1 week ago

Well, at least I won’t go to the grave having accomplished nothing. After more than 130 hours of listening, I finally came to the end of William Manchester’s incredible three-volume biography of Winston Churchill (As you may know, Manchester grew ill and died before completing the third volume, leaving it in the capable hands of Paul Reid). It is a stunning achievement—over 3,000 pages of reading or 130 hours of audio, all focused on just one man. Few men merit such attention. Churchill practically demands it.

A couple of years ago I set out to read a biography of each one of the American presidents, a long-term reading project that is progressing quite well and will probably take ten or more years to complete. I found myself reading biographies of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Truman and realized that each of their lives intersected that of Winston Churchill; it seemed only right, then, that I would pause and cross the Atlantic for a time. I am so glad I did. (With my brain working the way it does, I paused after the second volume on Churchill to cross the channel and brush up on Hitler.)

Churchill is easily one of the most fascinating historical figures the world has ever known. He left an indelible mark on the world at a time when the entire globe was in utter turmoil. He was a Victorian man in the atomic age, a complex combination of utter self-confidence and pitiful yearning, rude and brusque to so many of those around him, yet kind and loving to the few who captured his affections. He was possessed of a uniquely brilliant mind, a razor-sharp wit, and an almost flawless memory. He was an ideas man, sometimes innovating in amazing ways and sometimes meddling in arrogant ways. He served his nation in several wars, sometimes from the front lines and sometimes from the command centers. His influence extended not only through his native land of England, but also to England’s colonies, her allies, and her enemies. There has never been anyone quite like him, and probably never will be again. No wonder, then, that his life can fill three long volumes.

Manchester’s work in the first two volumes is some of the best biography I have ever encountered. He begins with a long overview of Churchill’s life and a fascinating examination of the cultural context that could very nearly be a book unto itself. And then he simply introduces us to the man himself in exacting detail that somehow never grows even the least bit boring. I have often said there are biographies where you feel like you have learned about the subject, and biographies where you feel like you have met the subject; this work falls squarely in the latter category.

That said, the first two volumes in the series are appreciably better than the third. Reid is a capable author, but, by his own admission, he simply cannot match Manchester’s research, his pen, and his ability to introduce his subject. It’s not that the third volume is bad—not by any stretch. It’s more that the first two are sublime while the third is a little closer to ordinary. Still, far better that Manchester and Reid would collaborate on the final volume than allow it to go unwritten.

If you are an enthusiast of biography or simply have an interest in people who have left an indelible impression on our world, you will not do any better than this magisterial trilogy. It easily ranks as one of the best and most enjoyable biographies I have ever read.

The final words go to Lord Moran whose tribute to Churchill ended in this way: ““The vil­lage sta­tions on the way to Bladon were crowded with his coun­try­men, and at Bladon in a coun­try church­yard, in the still­ness of a win­ter evening, in the pres­ence of his fam­ily and a few friends, Winston Churchill was com­mit­ted to Eng­lish earth, which in his finest hour he had held inviolate.”

1 year 2 months ago

It does us good to read missionary biographies. This is especially true when those missionaries served during the great age of missions in the 1700’s and 1800’s. This was a period when missionaries traveled overseas into uncharted and unfamiliar lands. As they left familiar shores they knew they might never return to their homelands, that they would inevitably suffer in terrible ways, that they would very likely give up their lives in service to the Lord. And still they went.

Adoniram Judson is the subject of an excellent new biography from Vance Christie, who has previously written works on Hudson Taylor, David Brainerd, and John and Betty Stam. Judson was the very first foreign missionary commissioned in the United States; he proved to be one of the greatest. In 1812 he set sail from America and arrived the next year in Burma (modern day Myanmar). He would serve in Burma for almost four decades and in all that time return to America only once and only briefly.

His great passions were to preach the gospel and to provide a Bible in the language of the Burmese people. Though it would take him six years to see his convert, by the time he died there were thousands professing Christ. It would take him many more years to produce a full translation of the Bible, but today that Bible is still in use and still a pillar within the Burmese Baptist churches. He would write tracts that were produced in the millions, Burmese dictionaries and grammars that continue to influence the language today. He would shape missions all throughout the world and inspire thousands of others to dedicate their lives to missionary work.

Judson suffered immensely through it all, and at times his biography is almost too painful to read.

He was married three times, seeing two of his wives succumb to illness on the mission field. His grief was at times nearly overwhelming. His third wife’s health was so shattered that she only barely outlived her husband, dying in great pain at only thirty-six years of age. His three marriages produced many children, at least six of whom died in infancy to the great sorrow of their parents. During a war between England and Burma he was imprisoned for 17 months and for much of this time he was kept in deplorable conditions, suffering all manner of brutality. Judson suffered intense pain in his final days, exclaiming “How few there are who die so hard.” And in the end his body not given a proper burial, but thrown overboard in the middle of the ocean without as much as a funeral service or a prayer. His life was marked by some highs, but also many great lows. He suffered greatly for the Lord and was willing to count it joy.

Let me offer a few reasons you ought to consider reading about Judson’s life.

Read it to see the high cost some have had to pay—and have been willing to pay—in order to advance the gospel. It is not that you and I do not make sacrifices in order to serve the Lord; but so much of what we consider hardships pale in comparison to what Judson had to offer before the Lord. And though he did not always live with full joy, he continued to serve and to trust in God. We gain important perspective on our lives by reading what he had to endure in his.

Read it to see the power and centrality of the Bible in mission. Judson was driven to produce a Bible in the Burmese language knowing that access to the Scriptures was necessary in order to bring spiritual life to these people he loved. When that Bible was translated and printed it began to do its work. It does us good to see the power of the Bible!

Read it to see how bad theology can creep in and derail even a great man for a time. In the midst of some of his darkest grief Judson began to read from the Roman Catholic mystics and for a time this poor theology badly hindered his ministry so that he retreated from people and stopped his Bible translation work. The Lord had to revive and reform him in order to call him back to mission.

Read it to see the value of being devoted for life. This was Judson’s motto: Devoted for Life. He wanted all missionaries to commit not to a year in the field, not to ten years, but all of life. He modeled this well, essentially becoming Burmese in order to reach Burma. The success of his ministry is directly related to his lifelong dedication to it.

Read it to grapple with the tension between ministry and family. At that time men held mission higher than marriage and family; Judson was unwilling to leave the mission field and this cost his life, the lives of his children, the lives of his wives. That was considered the price missionaries had to pay. While he genuinely loved his wives and children, he battled to rightly prioritize them. His lifelong devotion to mission seemed at times to do battle with his devotion to family.

And there are many more reasons besides.

Adoniram Judson remains a fascinating individual and a missionary we do well to remember. There is a great deal we can learn from his life and ministry. Vance Christie is an excellent biographer who brings his subject to life in the pages of this book. I highly recommend it.

1 year 3 months ago
Last weekend I made the rookie mistake of leaving my book at the office. Rather than blow time on a one-hour round-trip to fetch it, I decided instead to search for something new. Something different. Something interesting. Preferably, something moving. I spent a full hour browsing Amazon without success and then began to scour the sites of the various Christian publishers. It was at Zondervan’s site that I spotted something hopeful—A Dream So Big: Our Unlikely Journey to End the Tears of Hunger by Steve Peifer. Two minutes and eight dollars and eight-nine cents later, it was on my Kindle. It was just the right book.

A Dream So Big tells the story of Steve and Nancy Peifer. In the late 90’s, right at the peak of the dot com boom, Steve was a corporate manager for a major software and consulting company; he was making a good living and enjoying life in America. He and his wife had two boys and all the comforts they could want. In 1997 the Peifers found, to their surprise, that they were expecting their third child. However, doctors soon brought them the heart-breaking news that their child had a chromosomal abnormality that would be “incompatible with life.” Against the counsel of physicians, they chose to carry their son to term and spent eight blessed days with him before he died.

The grief over the loss of their son made them re-examine their lives and priorities. Nancy had always dreamed of being involved in foreign missions and Steve decided the time was right to grant his wife her dream. They learned of an opportunity in Kenya at the Rift Valley Academy, a boarding school for the children of missionaries. They raised funds, packed their bags, and headed overseas as unlikely missionaries.

By the time the book comes to a close, Steve is on a stage with Tyra Banks, receiving a humanitarian award from CNN for the work he has done in Kenya. While serving the students of the Academy he had also begun a program that would grow to feed 20,000 children every day; he also founded computer centers in schools, offering the children a key component of a modern education that would otherwise be denied them. The book describes this remarkable journey and the transformation of a man who left behind the American dream to pursue a much bigger, much better, much more satisfying dream.

The book has much to commend it. Peifer perfectly combines pathos and humor, moving seamlessly between laughter and tears. He is able to poke fun at what is ridiculous while drawing attention to what is moving. This quote highlights his self-effacing humor:

The clip ended, the lights came back up, and it was suddenly time for me to just roll with it yet again. Because who better to present an award to a fifty-two-year-old missionary working with poor, hungry children in Kenya than a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model? In another day in some alternative universe, it might have made perfect sense. But in the here and now of New York City in front of a worldwide television audience, it was time for me to focus as Tyra Banks walked to the podium to announce, “It is my honor to present the CNN Hero for Championing Children, Steve Peifer.”

And then he stepped on her dress.

The book also has important spiritual insights. Here is one that will no doubt resonate particularly with those who serve in foreign lands where getting things done nearly always depends upon theft and bribery: “In the end, the banality of evil is what exhausts you. You can battle against an evil terrorist; how do you fight an underpaid clerk following stupid orders?” While we often focus on the evils of the world’s great leaders, evil’s grasp extends all the way to the lowest and most poorly-paid bureaucrat.

Peifer also shows that normal people, otherwise unremarkable people, can pursue a dream and make a difference. He is a very normal man with a very normal family who has touched the lives of tens of thousands of people, and all for the glory of God.

A Dream So Big is not a theology of missions or a deep, doctrinal examination of the need the methods of mission. Neither is it meant to be. Instead, it’s a ground-level look at one family’s work in a needy place. It is real and honest: “As a missionary, I am ashamed to admit I don’t like living by faith; I’d much rather have the money in hand than to know I’m going to have to trust God for it. But when I see him move, and know it could only be him, that is perhaps the sweetest experience on earth.” It is wonderfully-written and thoroughly enjoyable; I highly recommend it.

1 year 5 months ago
Many years ago my grandmother succumbed to cancer and went to be with Jesus. Among the things she left behind, buried among other personal effects, was a long, handwritten letter from Joni Eareckson Tada. My grandmother had experienced excruciating pain in her life, losing both a daughter and her husband to suicide. As a new Christian she had written to Joni to share her grief, believing that perhaps in Joni there would be someone who might understand and who might give her hope. And she did. In this letter she mourned with one who was mourning and shared hope grounded in the gospel.

Joni is one of those entirely unique Christian personalities and one who is universally loved and admired. Her ministry has continued for decades, and through conferences and radio and music and books and every other media she has been sharing encouragement and hope. I have seen Joni speak a few times and off to the side I’ve always spotted her husband, Ken. So much has been said about her, but so little about him. He is content to love and serve his wife and to allow her to be center-stage. But I’ve wondered who he is and what his role has been in Joni’s life and ministry. Their story is finally being told in Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story

This is an honest book that tells the story of what has not always been an easy marriage. Though Ken married Joni after her accident and after she had become a renowned Christian personality, neither of them was prepared for all the challenges that marriage would bring. What started as a great love story soon began to lose some of its lustre. While the love remained, the romance and respect faded. But the Lord was not done with them and sparked a great renewal of love and romance. Their story is not one of unfading, unattainable marital bliss, but one that is so very real, and one that went through difficult valleys. Though it is unique in many of its particulars, in other ways it looks like so many other marriages. 

As I read about Joni and Ken I found myself growing in my love for Aileen. Isn’t it funny that reading about another couple’s marriage can do this? Yet their love for one another is contagious, the way they pray and laugh and sing together is admirable, and the way Ken has sacrificed so much for Joni is Ephesians 5:25 in action. I learned about love and sacrifice and deep intimacy from this portrait of their marriage.

While I enjoyed the book, there was at least one element that surprised me. Joni and Ken met at John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church and, to my knowledge, have been members there through their entire marriage [Update: according to this article, they are, or at that time were, members of a local PCA church]. His influence in their lives has been profound. In Joni & Ken we are told that another great influence on Ken’s life has been John Eldredge and his book Wild at Heart. This leads to some strange encounters with Ken finding his real name (Eldredge teaches that a man may be given a name by his father and more names by other people, but only God can give him his real name), hearing God’s voice speaking to him in the wilderness, and other elements of Eldredge’s philosophy/theology of manliness. What Eldredge teaches is in so many ways completely at odds with what MacArthur teaches, but this contradiction is never resolved.

Certain other elements were frustrating. For example, the book asked several questions that it did not answer, perhaps because some of those things would have been too probing or too exposing. Still, why introduce questions that will go unanswered? Additionally, the book’s timeline is at times very difficult to follow, jumping often between past and present.

Joni & Ken truly does tell an untold love story and one that merits being told. The Tadas have had a great and enduring ministry; they are a great gift to the church, and for that reason the book is well worth reading. It allows us to see into their marriage, to learn from their highs and lows, and to praise God for allowing them to work together to his glory. But all the while it feels like a book that is not quite as excellent as the story, and the marriage, deserves.

 

1 year 6 months ago
Without a doubt, C.S. Lewis is one of the most interesting, perplexing and polarizing figures in recent Christian history. For some he is a giant of the faith who asked questions few were willing to ask and who answered those questions in compelling ways. For others he is no Christian at all, a fake, a fraud, who revoked his faith at the end of his life. Few men are seen in such contradictory ways. What is undeniable is that Lewis remains a hero to many Christians and that his influence continues to grow even fifty years after his death.

Lewis has been the subject of several full-length biographies but I would suggest none is as fine as Alister McGrath’s new C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Where most of Lewis’ previous biographers were former friends and acquaintances, McGrath never knew C.S. Lewis. He may not write as beautifully as George Sayer (Jack) and he may not be able to offer the warm, personal insights that come from enjoying a personal relationship with his subject, but he has the advantage of a critical distance that was lacking in some of those previous accounts.

The book’s subtitle aptly captures his portrait of C.S. Lewis: an eccentric genius who was also reluctantly prophetic to his generation and to our own. Lewis’ eccentricities were many. McGrath looks deeply into the strange relationship with the mysterious Mrs. Moore, finally saying what biographers have been reluctant to admit: that for many years Lewis was living in a common-law relationship with the mother of one of his dear friends. He looks as well at Lewis’ unexpected marriage to Joy Davidman and tries to discern whether this was a marriage of convenience, whether it was a gold-digging woman taking advantage of a naive man, or whether there really was a spark between the two. He examines Lewis as a friend, a brother, a professor and an unexpected celebrity.

It is in his written works that C.S. Lewis’ eccentricities intersect with his prophetic role. Here McGrath shows Lewis’ reluctance to become a Christian and his slow spiritual surrender to the intellectual awakening to the person and work of Jesus Christ. He grapples with what Lewis really believed about Christ’s atoning work, setting it in the context of his immersion in medieval literature. He looks at Lewis’ later writing, especially A Grief Observed, and answers those who believe this marks Lewis’ descent into agnosticism. He suggests why Lewis continues to be so widely read and admired in our day. Still, I found myself wishing that McGrath would dive just a little bit deeper into what Lewis believed and attempt to reconcile some of those theological conundrums associated with his name and his books. It may be that he will do this in a second, forthcoming work that promises to be more extensive and academic. Or it may be that Lewis is a riddle that cannot be solved.

With all due respect to previous biographers, this work shows how important it is to allow time to elapse between the death of a subject and an account of his life. Both types of biography have their place, but those written very soon after a subject’s death will necessarily be limited. The earlier biographers knew nothing of how Lewis’ fame would continue to increase after his death, even leading to the series of feature films set in the world of Narnia. Biographers have written about Lewis’ declining relationship with J.R.R. Tolkien, but one critical fact became available only in 2012: Even long after their friendship began to decline, Lewis nominated J.R.R. Tolkien for the Nobel Prize in literature, showing his enduring respect. Such facts come to light only slowly and at their own convenience.

Whether you admire the man or despise him, whether you regard him as children’s author or a Christian scholar, C.S. Lewis’ importance to contemporary Christianity is undeniable. He is a fascinating figure and one who is impossible to reconcile to our tidy and convenient categories. McGrath’s account of his life does him justice, capturing him in his eccentricities, in his brilliance, in his strengths, and in all his perplexities.

1 year 7 months ago
Mez McConnell has an interesting story to tell—a story of the transforming grace of God in his life. Where some children grow up under the loving care of kind parents, Mez was left to tumble up on his own after his mother abandoned him, after his father took up with an abusive woman. Roaming the streets of Yorkshire, he lived a life of drugs and burglary and violence, eventually and inevitably finding himself confined to one of the nation’s worst prisons.

But even as he was living the life of a nihilist, God was chasing him down. He did this by introducing just a few Christians into his life. Those Christians pursued him even to prison, they allowed him to live with them when he was released, they invited him into their lives, and through it all Mez was slowly transformed. He put his faith in Jesus Christ and now pastors Niddrie Community Church in Edinburgh. He also oversees 20 Schemes, a ministry committed to planting healthy, gospel-centered churches in Scotland’s poorest communities, known as “schemes.” 

Mez shares his life story (so far) in Is There Anybody Out There?. This is a wonderfully, and sometimes hilariously, off-beat memoir that is written largely in the present tense and with a good bit of stream-of-consciousness. While Mez has become a believer, he has retained a peculiar and honest way of seeing things. This anecdote from his time in Bible college gives a glimpse of the way he sees himself:

People are so introverted here. They just want to talk about their feelings all the time. I’m not interested in how I feel about my father and all that psycho-babble; I just want to know more about God, Jesus and the Bible. Apparently, that’s not possible unless I ‘understand myself’. Well, I think I understand myself pretty well. I was a liar, manipulator, thief, fornicator and all round scumbag. For some reason Jesus chose to die for me, and that will do for me. I can’t pretend to understand it all, but I accept it gratefully. So, I’m just not interested in revisiting the past. I can’t do anything about it, but with Jesus I can do something about the future. That’s about the only ‘self understanding’ that I need.

And again,

I had to share my testimony at a meeting tonight. People seem to like hearing my testimony but it always makes me feel uncomfortable. Many of these people seem so bored with their own testimonies that they need to hear mine. But I’m no more saved than they are. We all still get to go to the same good place. A couple came to me afterwards to tell me how wonderful I was. Wonderful! Yeh, I’m so wonderful that when I was younger I waited until one of my mates was away on holiday and then burgled his house. What a lovely young man I am! What a credit to my family!

While many people praise Mez for the work he is doing for the Lord, he knows that it is only by the grace of God that he is alive, that he is free, that he has been given a new life. This book tells Mez’s story, but even more so, it tells just a small part of the great story God is writing through his people. It is a powerful memoir and one you would do well to read.

 

2 years 1 month ago
Shon Hopwood robbed five banks before he was apprehended and sentenced to spend twelve years behind bars. Just twenty-three years of age, he was suddenly looking at living out some of his prime years in a federal penitentiary. Yet he somehow managed to find his place, not in sports or in gangs, but in the law library. There he found that he had a deep interest in the law and a knack for understanding it. Before too long he had become the resident jailhouse lawyer. In and of itself, this is not too unusual—every prison has its inmates who have an interest in law. But Hopwood stands out as the only one who wrote a petition that was accepted by the Supreme Court.

That is a notable accomplishment. There was another inmate in the prison whom Hopwood came to see had been trained unfairly in his arrest and conviction. The only hope was to appeal to the Supreme Court, something hundreds of people do each year. To make an appeal requires following a very rigid and specialized process that can confound even a season lawyer. Even then, only the smallest fraction of those cases make it past even the preliminary process of evaluation and acceptance. But Hopwood’s appeal was noticed and was just and was brought before the court. Even from behind bars he was able to be involved in the case, giving him an opportunity to become friends with some of the country’s top litigators.

The notoriety Hopwood gained has given him the opportunity to write Law Man, a memoir that releases today. This is the story of “robbing banks, winning supreme court cases, and finding redemption” (according to the subtitle). What you won’t find unless you read to the end is that the word “redemption” points well beyond the court room. All through Hopwood’s time in prison, friends and family were praying for him and sending him good books. Not only that, but there were Christians around him in the penitentiary. Shortly after his release, he got to the very end of himself and became a believer. He is now a student at University of Washington School of Law and attends Mars Hill Church U-District in Seattle, where Justin Holcomb serves as pastor.

Law Man tells a story of redemption—a good story of the deepest kind of redemption. It is notable that this book has been released to the general market. This is not a “Christian book,” which is to say that it comes from a mainstream rather than a Christian publisher. Yet no one can read the book without seeing that Hopwood’s story was leading him to the Lord. Well-written, inspiring and thoroughly enjoyable, this book stands out above so many of the prison memoirs out there.

 

2 years 3 months ago
Adam Brown was one of the elite of the elite, a member of SEAL Team SIX, the counterterrorism unit that has among its accomplishments the capture of Osama bin Laden. Brown was also a man with a history of addiction and all that attends it—theft and broken relationships and devastation. Most important of all, Brown was a man who had experienced grace and forgiveness through a relationship with Jesus Christ. His story, told by Eric Blehm in the book Fearless, is making waves today, having established itself on the New York Times list of bestsellers.

In many ways Fearless is typical for the biography of a warrior. It tracks Brown through his childhood and then, once he had made up his mind to join the Navy, through bootcamps, other forms of training, and eventually, through deployment in South America, Afghanistan and Iraq. Along the way we read of his brutal battle with addiction to crack cocaine, an addiction that followed him and haunted him even years after he had been through recovery. We also read of how he came to faith, eventually following the example of his parents and mentors, giving his life in service to Jesus Christ.

Brown’s life came to an end on March 17, 2010, the day he was gunned down in the mountains of Afghanistan, losing his life in service to his country while destroying a dangerous terrorist cell. Of course his story continues in this book and in the lives of his wife and children and friends.

Eric Blehm has penned a powerful book in Fearless. It is well-written and tells an intriguing story of a fascinating individual. I would suggest that the main reason for the book’s appeal is in Brown’s quirky character. He was a fearless warrior and one with an impossibly high pain threshhold. He was one of those people who seemed to live his life in overdrive, doing things that appear to be fool-hardy or near-impossible or, in all likelihood, both. He was an eminently likeable guy.

A second reason for its success is that it has been written to appeal to both men and women. Sure, there is a fair bit of military action, a component that men tend to enjoy more than women, but so much of what SEAL Team SIX did remains classified that Blehm has had to focus less on missions and more on the colorful cast of characters that always surrounded Brown. This makes it a character-driven book led by Brown but pausing as well to introduce other fascinating people.

And then there is the appeal of a story of redemption, a man emerging from the depths to become a real man, one who had learned to cast off the utter selfishness of addiction so he could love and serve others. He was able to do this only after encountering the God who is so much stronger and more powerful than the addiction that had gripped him for so many years.

I feel as if I am sticking my neck out a little in expressing the one disappointment I had with this book: the lack of spiritual depth. Yes, Brown and his family are Christians, but the faith the author describes is as much about platitudes (“Adam is watching us from heaven and smiling…”) than the beautiful depths of the Christian faith. Don’t hear me say that I doubt Brown’s faith; I do not doubt it at all. But I guess I am always on the look-out for the biography of the Christian soldier (or Christian athlete or…) who has a really deep faith, who does more than express that “Jesus has a plan for my life” and repeat basic Christian truths. There are very few like that and I have often wondered why that is. In this case, it is notable that Eric Blehm is not a Christian (saying in the Afterword that he has not opened a Bible in twenty-five years), so perhaps he just does not understand what Christians are telling him about their faith. Perhaps he has distilled what people have said into convenient catchphrases. I don’t know. In reading Fearless you will encounter a genuine conversion story, but you will not encounter a great depth of truth beyond that. It’s a little bit disappointing in that regard.

Fearless is a story that had to be told, and though it is a difficult story to hear, passing as it does through terrible addiction and ending in death, it is both powerful and inspiring, and I am glad to recommend it to you.

Do note that there is some rough language in the book—this is the navy after all. There is nothing outrageous, but it still contains words you would not want your children to repeat.

3 years 4 months ago
I have a deep respect for John MacArthur. I admire the man himself, having met him several times; I admire the teacher, having had many opportunities to sit under his teaching; I admire the writer, having had his books (literally) change my life; I admire the leader, having spent a lot of time with the people he surrounds himself with—always an interesting means of finding the measure of a man. MacArthur is a man who has been used by God in amazing and unexpected ways. He is the subject of a new biography penned by Iain Murray whose previous subjects include Charles Spurgeon, A.W. Pink and Jonathan Edwards.

Writing this biography did not occur to Murray until he was asked to preach at Grace Community Church on the fortieth anniversary of MacArthur’s ministry at that church. He says, “I sensed that some comment by me on the ministry we were commemorating would be appropriate, but how to address that subject was not at first clear to me.” Wanting to use the pulpit to preach, Murray settled for writing a 60-page biographical sketch. However, he knew that 60 pages could not do justice to the man, so he went ahead and followed it with this full-length biography.

He admits that even now this biography is little more than a start. “It is not the time for a full biography while a person’s life is still in progress. John’s ambition is to minister the Word of God to the end of his life.” A full evaluation of his life will have to wait until all of the evidence is in. But for now, Murray has written an engaging and informative biography. Though it may not tell the full story, it certainly tells a fascinating one.

Of course, though MacArthur is the subject of this book, he is not its hero. I could not say this better than MacArthur himself:

When I started in ministry, I committed myself to expository preaching, just explaining the Bible, because I knew that there was nothing I could say that was anywhere near as important as what God had to say. The real goal of ministry has always been to keep my own opinions out of it as much as possible. I never want to be guilty of giving people the illusion that they have heard from God when in fact they have only heard from me. When I step into the pulpit, the expectation is that I’m a messenger of God. I speak on His behalf, not my own.

For more than 40 years he has sought to speak of the Lord and to bring glory to him. This is shown clearly in the story of his life. The son and grandson of preachers, MacArthur was destined for the pulpit. What sets him apart, as far as I can see, is not sheer skill or force of personality, but simply a deep submission to God and a deep desire to know him through his Word. It is this lifelong commitment to immersing himself in the Bible that has made him the man, the preacher, the author, the leader that he is. There is no trick to it.

Through the 250 pages of this book, Murray looks at MacArthur’s life, ministry, family, travels and books. He even speaks a little bit about what MacArthur’s legacy may be. Through it all he offers a very personal portrait, drawing the reader into the life of his subject. I’ve often said there are biographies that make you feel like you know about the subject and biographies that make you feel like you actually know the subject. This one falls squarely in the latter category, surely the mark of a superior biographer.

Speaking personally, I can attest that I enjoyed this book thoroughly. It moved me to praise and gratitude—gratitude to God for blessing the church with this man whose ministry has so powerfully impacted not only the thousands who call him pastor, but the millions who have encountered him largely or exclusively through his books, his sermons or his radio program. Murray makes it clear that all that MacArthur is, all that he has accomplished, is due to the One he serves. And I know that MacArthur would agree.


 

3 years 6 months ago
Embarking on a short tour of the afterlife is all the rage, it seems. Don Piper got it started with 90 Minutes in Heaven, a really bad book that sold millions of copies. Then there was 23 Minutes in Hell, another bestseller and another awful book. And now hot on their heels comes Heaven Is For Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. It’s currently sitting atop the New York Times list of bestsellers and has over a half million copies in print. I wonder if I’m the only one who finds it a mite suspicious that now that these books are selling like proverbial hotcakes, more and more people find that God wants them to tell their stories of heaven and hell. Probably not.

Heaven Is For Real is written by pastor Todd Burpo and it tells the story of his son Colton who, at age 4, visited heaven. His visit came while he was on the operating table after suffering a burst appendix. He told his parents his story several months later and his parents then waited 6 or 7 years to record it in a book. That book has shot to the top of the charts, resulting in many of you sending me emails to ask, “Have you read it?” So I went ahead and read it. Because that’s the kind of guy I am.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that this is not a good book. What I want to do here is offer a very brief review and then I want to tell you why you can legitimately dismiss this book and all the others like it, because I think that’s where many of us feel the tension—what gives me the right to dismiss another person’s experience?

I’ve already given you the broad outline. Colton dies (or something close to it) and visits heaven for an unknown period of time. He returns to his body and over the months and years that follow tells his parents about his time in heaven. He tells about spending time with Jesus, about meeting the sister he never knew he had, about fluttering around with wings, about the pearly gates, and on and on. Along the way you’ll get descriptions of Todd’s various afflictions and you’ll read the fine details of Colton’s battles with constipation and the great relief he experienced passing gas. Riveting stuff, this.

Every one of Colton’s experiences, or very nearly every one, follows a pattern. He tells his father some little detail. His father experiences a gasp or feels his heart skip a beat. “I could hardly breathe. My mind was reeling. My head was spinning.” A Scripture verse comes to dad’s mind that validates the experience. Colton gets bored and runs off. Repeat.

The story is told with short chapters and grade school-level writing. Fine literature it is not. The point of it all is to encourage you that heaven is a real place. Colton went there and his experience now validates its existence. Just like Don Piper went there and his experience validates its existence. Just like Bill Wiese went to hell and can speak with authority to tell you that you really, really don’t want to go there. Just like the Apostle Paul went there and told us all about it in order to…oh wait.

Now, what do I do with a book like this one? It seems to me that there are only a couple of options available to me. I can accept it, agreeing that this little boy is legitimate—he went to heaven and is now telling the tale for our edification. Or I can reject what this boy is saying—he did not go to heaven and this book is fictitious. If I go with this second option (which is exactly what I am doing) I now have two choices before me: either the boy (and/or his parents) is a liar or he genuinely believes he experienced something that he did not actually experience. I know which way I would lean, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.

Either option is very uncharitable and each one leaves me with a further problem: on what grounds can I dismiss this as fiction, as a book that is completely unprofitable?

If I wanted to disprove Colton’s experience on grounds of logic or consistency I might point in a couple of different directions. In the first place, Colton is a toddler who speaks like an adult. His verbatim quotes sound nothing like a 4-year old, and I think I can say this with some authority as the father of a 4-year old. I’d also point to the fact that dad routinely remembers circumstantial detail that there is very little chance he would remember 6 or 7 years after the fact, something that, at the very least, tells me that he is filling in details where he feels he needs to. But there are better grounds.

The better strategy, I think, is to look to the Bible.

I offer two ways of going about this. First, the Bible gives us no indication whatsoever that God will work in this way and that he will call one of us to heaven and then cause us to return. It is for man to die once and then the resurrection. To allow a man (or a boy) to experience heaven and then to bring him back would not be grace but cruelty. The only biblical example we have of a man being caught up to heaven is Paul and it’s very interesting that he was forbidden to tell anything about it. And the reason he even mentioned this experience was not to offer encouragement that heaven exists, but to serve as a part of his “gospel boasting.” He saw heaven and was told to say nothing about it. This was a unique experience in a unique time and for a unique reason.

The second ground refers to the reason each of these authors offers—that through their experience we now find confidence that what God says is true. This kind of proof is exactly the kind of proof we should not need and should not want. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe. Don Piper insisted that he was called to be the Minister of Hope. If hope is to be found in any person, it will be found in the person of Christ. It is the Spirit working through the Word who will give us confidence in our faith. And what is faith? It is simply believing that what God says in his Word is true. We do not need tales of heaven or stories of those who claim to be there.

If you struggle believing what the Bible says, but learn to find security in the testimony of a toddler, well, I feel sorry for you. And I do not mean this in a condescending way. If God’s Word is not sufficient for you, if the testimony of his Spirit, given to believers, is not enough for you, you will not find any true hope in the unproven tales of a child. This hope may last for a moment, but it will not sustain you, it will not bless you, in those times when hope is waning and times are hard.

So reject this book. Do not read it. Do not believe it. And do not feel guilty doing so.

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