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June 08, 2011

Hudson TaylorDear God, if you should give us a son, grant that he may work for you in China.” That was the prayer of James and Amelia Taylor as they consecrated their first child to the Lord, months before he was even born. That child entered the world on May 21, 1832. His parents named him James Hudson Taylor, but called him by his middle name. Hudson Taylor would, indeed, grow up to work for the Lord in China. Not only that, but he would be used mightily by God and he would transform the way missionaries worked among the people they ministered to. In his own way he would change the world.

Taylor became a Christian as a teen and was immediately drawn to China, deciding that the Lord was calling him to serve as a missionary. He spent several years studying medicine and the Mandarin language before departing on the long and perilous journey to the Far East. Very quickly he made the radical decision to adopt Chinese dress and hairstyles, understanding that such things could increase his credibility in the eyes of those he loved (even if they would make him a laughing stock among his fellow missionaries). He went on to found China Inland Mission, an organization that continues to exist today (though under a new name). The story of his life deserves a lot more attention than I could give it in just a few short paragraphs, so I will hold off and point you to Christianity Today’s brief biographical sketch.

Hudson Taylor is the subject of Vance Christie’s biography Hudson Taylor: Gospel Pioneer to China. I love missionary biographies, so I suppose I was predisposed to enjoy this book. Sure enough, I enjoyed it a lot. Christie is a talented biographer and in this book he works with a fascinating subject. In place of sharing the details of Taylor’s life, let me tell you a few of my takeaways from this biography, a few of the things I’ve had to ponder as I’ve been given just a glimpse into the life of a great man.

June 02, 2011

John MacArthur Biography by Iain MurrayI 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.

May 04, 2011

For the Love of IndiaIn the summer of 1805 a young man set sail on the long, perilous journey to India. He left friends, family and prospects behind in order to serve as a missionary in a foreign land. Already suffering the tuberculosis, the disease that had claimed the life of his mother and would soon also claim his two sisters, he forsook the prospects of a comfortable life as a minister or scholar and traveled to the far side of the world. He did so for the love of India, for the love of the gospel and ultimately for the love of God.

Henry Martyn was a brilliant scholar who studied at Cambridge and won the coveted title of Senior Wrangler which was bestowed upon the student who won the Cambridge University annual mathematics problem-solving competition, and was thus recognized as the University’s best undergraduate mathematician. While he was a brilliant mathematician, he also had a natural proclivity for languages. After his conversion as a young man his mentor Charles Simeon encouraged him to abandon his intention of becoming a lawyer and to dedicate his life to serving God as a missionary. Martyn was subsequently ordained in the Church of England and traveled to India as a chaplain of the East India Company. He was to live only six years after arriving in India, but in that time he produced an incredible body of work. He translated the New Testament, the Anglican Prayer Book and the Anglican Marriage Service into Hindustani; he translated the parables for use in his schools; he also ensured that the Persian translation of the New Testament was the finest possible, translated the Psalms in Persian and oversaw the translation of the Arabic New Testament. This translations were ultimately printed and distributed in the tens of thousands.

Henry MartynWhile he is remembered primarily as a translator, Martyn was also a pastor and preached on a weekly basis. He desperately desired to see lives changed, yet in his ministry witnessed not a single conversion. While this often left him discouraged, he took refuge in knowing that he had preached the gospel and left the listener without excuse. After his death it was discovered that several people were converted through his ministry and we can only wait until eternity to discover how many were saved by the reading of the Scriptures he translated.

Throughout his ministry Martyn suffered from poor health and often terrible loneliness. He desperately loved a woman he had left behind in England and often wished that he had been able to marry her and enjoy her companionship. Yet he labored on, finding his joy and strength in the Lord.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay memorialized Martyn as follows:

April 21, 2011
I have a love-hate relationship with money. I think most people do. On the one hand money is a necessity—a resource we depend upon, a resource we need if we are to live and thrive in this world. On the other hand money is spiritually captivating, a resource that offers a particularly insightful look into our hearts. Money is the topic of Randy Alcorn’s new book Managing God’s Money. This is a biblical guide to managing our money with an eye to eternity.
March 28, 2011

Heaven Is For RealEmbarking 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.

March 21, 2011

33 MenAs a social experiment it could hardly have been devised better. Put 33 men 2300 feet underground and seal them in with limited supplies and with no guarantee that they will be rescued. Then leave them there for 69 days. What would happen? Would they divide into packs and begin to destroy one another a la Lord of the Flies? Would they resort to cannibalism? Would they resort to homosexuality? These are the questions people were asking when just such an accident happened at the San Jose copper-gold mine in the Atacama Desert near Copiapo, Chile. 33 men were trapped when a slab of rock the size of a skyscraper came between them and the outside world. And all the world watched to see if they could be saved from their tomb.

The last man was rescued from that mine on the 13th of October, 2010. On February 14, 2011 33 Men hit store shelves, a book detailing the disaster and response. 4 months. That hardly seems like enough time to write a book, not to mention fact-check it and edit it and print it. But I’ve got to say, this isn’t a bad book at all. It’s well-written and engaging and, as far as I can tell, quite accurate.

What I find particularly interesting is not the disaster in itself. A mine collapsed, men were trapped and a massive rescue operation was launched. It’s a good story. But what was even more interesting to me were the social, psychological and spiritual dynamics. What would happen when 33 men were trapped deep underground, completely isolated for 17 days and then then in touch with the world but still cut off for a further 52 days? What kind of society would develop? How would the men behave?

February 22, 2011

EndgameThere can be a very fine line between genius and insanity. Such was the case with Bobby Fischer—perhaps the greatest chess master to ever play the game, but a man who seemed to live his life teetering on the brink of insanity. Fischer is the subject of Endgame, a compassionate but honest new biography written by Frank Brady. It offers an insightful look into the life of a strange, tortured individual whose intellect was matched only by his pride.

Bobby Fischer grew up fatherless, raised by a caring but doting mother, one who was convinced of his brilliance but unequipped to deal with him on her own. Fischer was an obsessive child who, from a very young age, was drawn to puzzle games. He viewed the game of chess as the ultimate puzzle—one that could not be solved, but one that could be mastered. And he sought to master it, dedicating almost every waking hour, year after year, to honing his skills. Even as a teenager he made his mark on the chess world, steadily rising through the ranks and eventually rising to the pinnacle as the World Chess Champion.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Fischer, apart from his brilliance, is his ego—an ego that seemed to know no bounds. He was remarkably self-assured and utterly convinced that he was the most brilliant chess player in history. All honor, all adoration, all acclaim belonged to him alone. He would demand recognition and demand honor. When he felt he had been slighted in any way he would respond with fury and outrage. He would turn down tens of millions of dollars if accepting the money would in any way prove a blow to his pride.

November 29, 2010

UnbrokenThe book is always better than the movie, right? It seems that way to me, even with movies as good as the Lord of the Rings series. The movies were amazing, but the books were still better. It seems inevitable that Unbroken will appear on the silver screen before long (and, if the rumors are to be believed, it will star Nicholas Cage). Before it does, make sure you read the book. Unbroken is, in a word, amazing—easily one of the best books I read in 2010. It’s written by Laura Hillenbrand who also penned Seabiscuit. This new book has shot straight to #2 on the New York Times list of bestsellers just days after its release.

Unbroken tells the tale of Louie Zamperini, a character who is so much larger than life that I can’t believe I hadn’t encountered him before. Zamperini grew up in California in the 1930’s, a troublesome kid who was constantly stealing, constantly fighting, constantly getting into trouble. He was that kid, the kid who was known by the police, the kid who was every teacher’s nightmare. He was also lightning fast, eventually becoming a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team where he ran the 5,000 meter race and even had the opportunity to meet Adolf Hitler.

War came in 1941 and, like so many men his age, Zamperini joined up, enlisting in the United States Army Air Force. He was made bombardier in a B-24 bomber and posted to Hawaii. He took advantage of all the world had to offer, drinking and carousing with the best (or worst) of them. On May 27, 1943, while searching the ocean for a crashed plane, his own plane suffered mechanical failure and plunged into the ocean. Zamperini survived the crash along with two other members of the crew. They were adrift in the Pacific for 47 days, living off whatever rain fell from the sky and whatever food they could somehow pluck from the ocean. Though one of the men eventually succumbed to starvation, the two who remained were eventually “rescued” by the Japanese Navy, some 2,000 miles from where the plane had crashed.

Zamperini’s war was about to get far worse.