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Tim Challies

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November 09, 2010

Handels Messiah Comfort for Gods PeopleI always feel like a bit of a poser when I say this, but I absolutely love Handel’s Messiah. Though I appreciate small amounts of classical music (to use the term in a broad sense) I am largely a rock ‘n’ roll type. Yet there is something about Messiah that grips me. I find myself listening to it throughout the year, again and again, year after year. I’ve listened to recordings hundreds of times and make it a habit to attend a live performance every Christmas season. I can’t get enough.

I was rather excited to see a new book releasing this fall titled Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People. Written by Calvin Stapert, professor emeritus of music at Calvin College, the book serves as a guide to Handel’s great masterpiece. As the publisher says in the one-sentence pitch, “If you want to enjoy and appreciate Handel’s beloved Messiah more deeply, this informed yet accessible guide is the book to read.” I’m inclined to agree.

While I love Messiah I have often struggled with the knowledge that I do not really understand it very well. I’ve always known that if I just knew a little bit more about this form of music, if I just understood the context a little bit more, the Baroque style, my appreciation of Messiah would necessarily grow as well. But I am not at all musical. The last time I played an instrument was in primary school and that instrument was a recorder. Any time I’ve sought to learn more, I’ve quickly gotten lost in the technicalities of the musical lexicon.

However, this book has finally helped me see Messiah more clearly. Here is how the author describes what he has sought to accomplish in his work. “The three sections of this book aim to increase understanding from three different perspectives. The first section traces three histories—the history of oratorio up to Messiah; the history of Handel up to Messiah; and the history of Messiah’s inception and reception. Although I think these histories can contribute something toward a greater understanding of the work, I tell them primarily because they reveal a series and confluence of remarkable and unlikely events that led to the making of Messiah and from there to the phenomenon that it has become.”

October 27, 2010

Letters to a Young CalvinistThere are many books out there that describe Reformed theology and that invite people to become part of the Reformed tradition. However, most of these books are a product of the years before the advent of this young, restless, Reformed reality that is all the rage today. Most such books predate the New Calvinism.

New to the field, and largely distinct from the rest, is Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K.A. Smith. This is one of the few books to speak directly to this new young, restless, Reformed movement. Written in the form of letters from a mentor to a young man who is investigating Reformed theology, the book offers a winsome 125-page introduction to the tradition and to the way it works out in real life. The author says “These letters don’t offer an apologetic defense of Calvinism, trying to defend it against all comers; rather, I envision the addressee of these letters as someone who has already become interested in this tradition and is looking for a guide into unfamiliar territory.”

Smith leads the young recipient of these letters into the tradition in a systematic way. He begins with words of welcome, expressing the way that Reformed theology leads us to seek out and discover deep wells of the Scripture. For example, “I think it is one of the hallmarks of the Reformed tradition that it has a long history of encouraging curiosity about creation. Unlike some of the places you and I have been, which really discourage questioning in order to get people to toe the party line, the Reformed tradition has long encourages a kind of holy intellectual riskiness.”

He warns of one of the most perilous sins of the Reformed: “Now is as good a time as any to warn you about one of the foremost temptations that accompanies Reformed theology: pride. And the worst kind of pride: religious pride (one of Screwtape’s letters speaks quite eloquently about this). This is an infection that often quickly contaminates those who discover the Reformed tradition, and it can be deadly: a kind of West Nile virus.”

Smith suggests that the best one-word summary of Reformed theology is grace. He speaks of grace going “all the way down,” by which he means that grace infuses every part of Reformed theology. And, indeed, Reformed theology is a theology of grace—grace in every part. He says (rightly!) that Reformed theology is not all about election and predestination; they are components of the theology but they are not all there is to it. “I often feel that Reformed theology is ill served by a myopic focus on these things, as legitimate as they are.” And he emphasizes that Reformed theology is inherently unfinished. “It seems to me very un-Reformed to prop up Reformed theology as a timeless ideal, a consummated achievement, when one of the Reformers’ mantras was semper reformanda—always reforming. You shouldn’t expect a lifetime of pursuing the truth to result in constant entrenchment into what you thought when you were twenty.”

October 18, 2010

At Home by Bill BrysonHome. I love home. I love my home and I love the very idea, the concept, of home. God is good to give us home, to give us a place where we can just be, a place where we can center our lives. Think about your home, think about how good it is to have a place of your own, a place where you have your stuff and your people and where you live your life, and you’ll realize what a calling it was for Christ to have no home, to have no place to call his own.

We look at home today, we look at private life, and tend to assume that things have always been as they are now. And yet this is not the case. The home and the private life have developed over time, slowly evolving into what they are today and slowly evolving toward what they will be tomorrow. Home and private life are the twin subjects of Bill Bryson’s new book: At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

Bryson recently purchased an old Norfolk Church of England rectory as his home and it provides the starting point for his investigations. “Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me. Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two. Why not pepper and cardamom, or salt and cinnamon? And why do forks have four tines and not three or five?” Those mundane observations and the questions they generated got him started in his quest to understand home. And somehow he makes home, the most mundane place in our lives, utterly fascinating.

If you had to summarize it in a sentence, you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly.” Do you enjoy your home and all its comforts? That’s because we humans have been working tirelessly for all these millennia to make home a place of comfort. Slowly, slowly we have gotten to the point we are at today.

October 07, 2010

JournibleWhat happens when you smash a Bible together with a journal? You get a Journible (get it?). What’s a Journible? Well, essentially it’s a Bible study tool. It’s a book, rather like a journal, with a place to write a Scripture text on the right leaf and a place to write notes and observations on the left. It’s rather difficult to describe, so let me turn to the official description to see if they can do better.

The Journible™ series of books are hard-backed with gold foil and a bookmark ribbon. As you open the book, you will see chapter and verse numbers on the right-hand pages. These are conveniently spaced according to the length of each verse. However, these pre-formatted lines are left blank for you to hand-write your Journible™ book of yourself. The idea for this comes from Deuteronomy 17:18, where God commands the kings of Israel to hand-write their own copy of the Torah, or book of the law. The purpose of this was so that they would carry it with them always, read it, learn from it, and lead the people accordingly. It’s interesting to note that 3400 years later, educators have been discovering that most people learn kinesthetically, by doing or writing things out for themselves.

From these two ideas together then, comes the conception of this series of books: The 17:18 Series. As you look at the left-hand pages, the lines are left blank for personal notes and comments on the text. There are also some questions scattered in light print throughout these pages. These questions are meant to guide you in thought as you study the book of Proverbs and to help you understand the types of questions you should be asking of the text.

Does that make sense? If you want to get a bit more of a taste, here are two page samples you can download: Galatians sample page | Proverbs sample page.

You see how it works? Every day you right a Scripture text on the right side of the page and then you write notes and observations on the left. Occasionally there will be a question there to guide your notes and focus your study. And that’s it. It’s meant to be a tool that will help you get into the Word as you write it out yourself and as you seek to understand and apply it. How cool is that?

Why would you buy one? For your personal devotions; as a gift for someone else; as a tool for group Bible study or youth group Bible study; as a means to help you memorize long portions of Scripture.

One of the unfortunate things about Journibles is that they suffer from quite an ugly and uninformative web site. The site really does not offer a good view of what will actually show up at your home should you order one. I had seen the site and been unimpressed; it was only when I bumped into a Journible at a conference that I was impressed. So you may just have to take my word for this one.

You can buy Journibles (exclusively for the time being) at Reformation Heritage Books. The current volumes are:

  • 1 Timothy - Hebrews
  • Galatians, Ephesians, Philipians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians
  • James - Jude
  • John
  • Proverbs
  • Romans

September 30, 2010

Stephen Hawkings’ The Grand Design has shot straight to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers. The book is his atheistic answer to questions like these ones: Why is there a universe—why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why are the laws of nature what they are? Did the universe need a designer and creator? Edgar Andrews was kind enough to allow me to post his review of the book. Andrews is author of Who Made God?: Searching for a Theory of Everything, Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London and an international expert on the science of large molecules. Which is to say that he is well-suited to write a review of a book like this one. Here is what he says about The Grand Design:


Cosmologist Stephen Hawking sold over nine million copies of his book A Brief History of Time. Now, 22 years later, he has co-authored The Grand Design which immediately hit the No.1 spot in the New York Times best-seller list. But the sequel is so inferior to the prequel in intellectual quality that a reviewer in The Times Saturday Review (London, 11 September 2010) writes: ‘It reads like a stretched magazine article … there is too much padding and too much recycling of long-stale material… I doubt whether The Grand Design would have been published if Hawking’s name were not on the cover’.

So why is the new book a runaway best-seller? Because it claims that science makes God redundant. Let’s take a closer look at the claims advanced in The Grand Design.

September 28, 2010

Last week I came to the point (and it happens at least once every year) that I just couldn’t face reading another book. At least I couldn’t face reading another non-fiction book. Usually this means that I take a break from reading for a while—I just find something else to do to bide my time. But this year, to my surprise, I kind of felt like reading a novel. I barely ever read novels—maybe one every two or three years; less, even. And yet here I was, suddenly craving some fiction.

While I keep up with the world of non-fiction, and especially Christian non-fiction, I have not kept up at all with fiction. So I wondered what I should read. I ended up looking up the list of recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and figured I’d read some of those. Though they may not be the most popular novels out there, they will at least be good, right? So I grabbed the winners for 2009, 2007 and 2005. And then I read ‘em. And now I want to offer just a short review of each, though as I write I find that I really do not even know how to review fiction. Nevertheless, let me give it a shot.

Olive Kitteredge

Olive KitteredgeFirst up was 2009’s winner Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. This is actually a collection of 13 short stories that read as if they exist in some nebulous space between short stories and a novel. What binds the stories together is the common setting of a small Maine town and the title character, Olive Kitteredge. Olive appears in each of the stories, sometimes as the protagonist and sometimes as a bit player. She is a complex and fascinating character—an elderly woman who is bitter, blunt and flawed. And yet she’s endearing in her own strange way. The stories follow her and her family and her town through the decades.

There is a bit of a soap opera quality to Olive Kitteredge, I suppose, something strangely voyeuristic. And yet Strout has created such complex and fascinating characters in Olive and the people around her that I could hardly look away. Even when the stories slow down, as they sometimes must, the writing is so good, the prose so wonderfully-written, that the book is a joy to read. “They had fun together these days, they really did. It was as if marriage had been a long, complicated meal, and now there was this lovely dessert.” That’s good stuff!

I suppose the morality of it all is just a little suspect at times. Strout’s characters are very human and yet perhaps just a little bit too complex for their own good. She continually explores love and the way it extends, or does not extend, to old age. She is gut-honest in doing so, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. One thing she does not find is a character who truly loves and honors his or her spouse through all of life, from the beginning of marriage to the end. In almost every case, the characters have fallen in love and are now on the edge of falling out, or they are in love but each has a skeleton hidden from the other. So perhaps the book’s primary theme is the disappointment life brings. That sounds a little bit depressing and yet, for too many people, that is the reality—that as life passes, it becomes ever more disappointing.

Here is just a short quote that stood out to me:

During Debussy he fell asleep, his arms folded across his chest. Glancing at her husband, Jane felt her heart swell with the music, and with love for him, this man next to her, this old (!) man, who had been followed through life by his own childhood troubles—a mother always, always mad at him. In his face right now she felt she could see the little boy, furtive, forever scared; even as he slept here at this very moment there was a tautness of anxiety on his face. A gift, she thought again, placing her mittened hand lightly on his leg, a gift to be able to know someone for so many years.

The Road

The RoadThe second book I read was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This is a novel set in a post-apocalyptic world (and yes, the book was recently made into a movie). As such it is very dark and dreary in its writing and in its setting. In fact, McCarthy does a remarkable job of making the prose match the setting. And I mean that as a good thing. As you read you’ll find that the language wonderfully suits the subject matter. And when something is meant to stand out from the dreariness it does so through the vibrancy of its language (which reminded me of the girl in the read coat in the otherwise black-and-white Schindler’s List). Here is the kind of prose he writes:

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

We never do find out what happened to the world—just that some great woe befell it; the majority of humans were wiped out and those that remained were reduced to life without technology, without joy; they are battling one another and even eating one another. All the horror of humanity is revealed in this world, and yet one man is traveling with his son, trying desperately to keep him alive, trying to find some kind of peace and safety.

The book is deep and deeply stirring. There are a few swear words along the way and a few kind of gross but largely non-graphic scenes (mostly dealing with cannibalism). Though The Road is not for everyone, those who enjoy fiction that offers more than a light read will be drawn into it. I do not know much about McCarthy, about what he believes and why he believes it, but in this book he proves that he can look deep within humanity and see the ugliness that lurks there.


GileadThe 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner was Marilynne Robinson for her novel Gilead. This one may be familiar to you since it deals with deeply spiritual themes. The central character in this book is John Ames, a preacher who has lived almost all of his life in Gilead, Iowa. Married late in life and now facing an imminent death, he writes letters to his seven-year-old son. He tells of his life, trying to tell his son all those things that he will not be able to explain before death comes and takes him away.

I’m trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all.

Once again, the writing is beautifully crafted. It is a book to be savored. I began reading expecting that there would be a plot, a climax, narrative tension—all of those things that tend to advance a story from the first page to the last. But once I realized that Gilead is not that kind of book, I was able to stop looking for it. I was able to slow down and just savor the writing.

To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded. I can’t help imagining that you will leave sooner or later, and it’s fine if you have done that, or you mean to do it. This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town. I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love–I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.

Of the three books here, this is probably the least exciting, but the one with the most to offer. It is a book that you may need to work at a little bit, but one that will reward a close reading.


One quick thought before I close. An interesting benefit of reading books like these—the books that gain recognition—is that they provide a window into our culture, into what people believe, what they enjoy, what they want. But I have a question: I wonder, do we know more about culture from these books, largely written by intellectuals, or from the popular novels of Tom Clancy and Stephen King and the others who sell millions and millions of copies? Which one is the more accurate representation?

September 14, 2010

Rhonda Byrne The Secret of the PowerLet’s start with a trick question. If I were to ask you what connects Lance Armstrong to Arnold Schwarzenegger, how would you respond? If you mumbled something witty about steroids,” I’m afraid you’d be wrong. According to Rhonda Byrne, what connects these two men is that they both harnessed the law of attraction in order to bring about their wildest dreams. They wanted money and fame and success, and wanted it so much that the universe delivered it to them (and not in the shape of a syringe, apparently).

In June of 2007 I wrote a review of Byrne’s The Secret and posted it at this blog. Three years later it remains one of the most-viewed pages, still racking up thousands of page views per month. The book has sold millions of copies and has been translated into 46 languages. It is a worldwide bestseller and one that has spawned many imitators.

The Secret is an introduction to the law of attraction. The law of attraction, which Byrne says is the most powerful law in the universe, states that people experience the logical manifestations of their predominant thoughts, feelings, and words. The law says that your thoughts become things so that your thoughts shape the world around you. You shape your own life and destiny through the power of your mind. The positive things in your life appear through your positive thoughts and feelings and the negative things in your life appear through your negative thoughts and feelings.

The Power is the just-released 2010 follow-up and one that immediately raced to the top of the New York Times list of bestsellers. The problems with the book are too many to catalog in a short review. It is almost mind-boggling how much unsubstantiated and blatantly contradictory nonsense Byrne manages to pack into just 250 pages, many of which contain little more than pictures and out-of-context quotes (from people as diverse as Gandhi and Jesus, Albert Einstein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

The book apparently began with a great discovery. Byrne’s great discovery was that in order to receive everything you want, you need to feel love for it. Hence love is the theme of this book. The power behind the law of attraction, it seems, is love. The logic here is a little bit opaque but I think Byrne means to say that the law of attraction is the most powerful law in the universe and love is the most powerful force since it is the force that motivates attraction. When you love something, you draw it to yourself through a kind of universal magnetism. Hence she can say, “Everything you want to be, do, or have comes from love … The positive force of love can create anything good, increase the good things, and change anything negative in your life.”

Did you catch that, young Skywalker? It’s pretty simple—we are all magnets and we draw to ourselves whatever matches our thoughts and feelings. The things we love most are irresistibly drawn to us through a universal law of attraction. It may sound fishy, but it’s been championed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres before their audiences of millions. And people are lapping this stuff up.

September 07, 2010

Church Planter The Man The Message The MissionI have received quite a few books about church planting over the past few months. Among the more interesting have been Church Planting Is for Wimps by Mike McKinley and Discovering Church Planting by J.D. Payne. Fresh off the press is Darrin Patrick’s Church Planter: The Man, The Message, The Mission. Patrick is vice president of the Acts29 Church Planting Network and the founding pastor of the Journey Church in St. Louis. From those vantage points he has seen church planting up-close and personal while also assisting and guiding many other pastors as they have sought to plant churches. He is well-qualified to write about this subject. His book comes highly recommended and is endorsed by a long list of notables.

The book’s contents are divided into three sections: The Man, The Message and The Mission (as you may have guessed). In the first part Patrick describes the kind of man God is looking for, saying that he is to be rescued, called, qualified, dependent, skilled, shepherding and determined. This gives a well-rounded understanding of the kind of character that should mark a man who seeks to step out and plant a church. He covers the biblical qualifications as laid out particularly in the pastoral epistles, but he goes further as well, looking to practical considerations along with other spiritual qualifications.