Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

reviews

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:

divider

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.

Gilead

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.

August 24, 2010

The Archer and the ArrowThe Trellis and the Vine was 2009’s surprise hit (read my review). Written by Collin Marshall and Tony Payne, the book described a ministry mind-shift that the authors assured the reader could change everything—everything related to ministry, that is. The book stood upon its simple metaphor of a trellis, an apparatus used to support something, and of a vine, the object that is supported by that trellis. The trellis referred to the administrative work within a church, those tasks that, though important, are not actually directly related to discipling people. Vine work, on the other hand, is those tasks of working with the vine, drawing people into the kingdom through evangelism and then training them to grow in their knowledge of God and their obedience to him. Though the book may not have been groundbreaking, it somehow managed to pull together a lot of ideas and collect them all within this simple metaphor. It was a powerful and effective combination and it sold very well. Even better, it impacted pastors and those engaged in gospel work, helping them better understand the task the Lord has given them.

The follow-up to The Trellis and the Vine is called The Archer and the Arrow. While it comes from Matthias Media, the same publisher, it is written by different authors: Phillip Jensen and Paul Grimmond. Though the volume is co-authored, its purpose is primarily to make Jensen’s “wisdom about preaching available to a wider audience—wisdom acquired over almost four decades of faithful biblical ministry.” I do not know if the book was conceived as a follow-up to The Trellis and the Vine or not, but regardless, it works as a sequel. Where the first book focused on ministry through a wide lens, the second focuses on the essential heart of ministry—the preaching of the gospel.

The book is framed around what the authors describe as the preacher’s mission statement: “My aim is to preach the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.” They break this statement into its component parts and expound it over the course of several chapters. This takes them from the theoretical to the practical, from the purpose of preaching a sermon to the actual delivery of it.

Let me say a word about the book’s title. The metaphor speaks of the archer (the preacher) and the arrow, which is the sermon. Firing the arrow corresponds to the act of preaching. The arrow itself is formed by three parts—the head, the shaft and the feathers. “At the point of the arrowhead is the gospel, the declaration that Jesus is the Lord and Saviour. The cutting edges of the arrowhead are the implications of that reality. This can include things like ethics, philosophy, apologetics, personal godliness and kategoria.” The shaft corresponds to the exegesis of the passage around which a sermon is formed. And the feathers “correspond to issues like systematic theology, biblical theology, church history, philosophy and the like. The feathers are like the big categories of thought that tie the whole message of the Bible together.”

August 02, 2010

It is my habit to post some kind of an original article on Monday and then a book review on Tuesday. This week I am going to reverse the order since the book review in some ways feeds into what I would like to say tomorrow. So bear with me.

The Radical DiscipleI have not read too many of John Stott’s books over the years. Still, in writing sermons and writing my own books there have been several times that I’ve relied on his commentaries and have always found them very useful—biblically accurate and full of wise points of application. Of course, I’ve often referred to what may well prove his greatest book, The Cross of Christ and I know of people who were saved after reading his book Basic Christianity (among whom are Derek Thomas). Though Stott had a couple of unfortunate aspects to his ministry (the most notable of which was some sympathy for the doctrine of annihilationism) he is a man who remained faithful to his calling and who served the church well. He is also a man who served the church in what was often a background role, which is to say that time may prove that he had a measure of importance that few people noticed at the time. Then again, in 2005 TIME declared him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, so I suppose someone has noticed.

Just a short time ago Stott announced his retirement from active public ministry. But before he retired he penned a final book, the final of more than 50 he penned in his lifetime. The Radical Disciple draws attention to what he considers to be some of the neglected aspects of our calling as Christians. Why this title? “There are different levels of commitment in the Christian community. Jesus himself illustrated this in what happened to the seeds he describes the parable of the sower. The difference between the seeds lay in the kind of soil which received them. Of the seed sown on rocky soil Jesus said, ‘It had no root.’ … Our common way of avoiding radical discipleship is to be selective: choosing those areas in which commitment suits us and staying away from those areas in which it will be costly. But because Jesus is Lord, we have no right to pick and choose the areas in which we will submit to his authority.” And so in this book he seeks to consider eight characteristics of Christian discipleship that, though they deserve to be taken seriously, are too often neglected.

July 27, 2010

Stonewall JacksonI love biography. That’s probably the tenth time I’ve begun a review with those words, yet it’s no less true now than the first time I penned them. The more I read of biography, the more I am enamored with it and the more I see just how valuable it is to my life and faith.

I was in Virginia recently, spending a week on vacation. I decided the occasion merited a biography of a Virginian. That led me to choose between Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In the end Jackson won in a shootout. I turned to the epic work by James Robertson. Written in 1997, this biography remains the definitive word on Jackson. I can’t imagine how it will ever be equaled.

Over the years Jackson has been variously portrayed as a great general and a great Christian. It seems that few biographers have managed to do equal justice to the two most notable emphases of this extraordinary man. On the one hand he was a brilliant military strategist who time and again relied on speed and surprise to catch his enemy off-guard. On the other hand, he was a man who deeply loved the Lord and who cherished his relationship with the Savior. He was a man who suffered much from his earliest days to his final days. Fatherless at two, orphaned at seven, he also witnessed the death of two of his siblings, two of his children and his first wife. Some of his closest friends died and he was estranged from others by the war that devastated his nation. Yet through it all Jackson remained absolutely fixed upon the firm foundation of God’s sovereignty. Always he placed his trust in God and always he sought to submit himself to God’s will and to delight in God’s providence.

The facts of Jackson’s life are well-known so I will forego those to comment instead on the lessons I’ve learned from Jackson and to comment on what makes this biography so sublime.

July 20, 2010

Hello I Love YouI have just one memory that involves Ted Kluck. A year ago, maybe a little bit less, he and I were together in Chicago at a small gathering of young(ish) Christian authors. Ten or fifteen of us were gathered there, sitting around a group of tables in a hotel conference room. We had the opportunity to spend an evening with D.A. Carson, the D.A. Carson, to ask him any question we wanted. It’s no small thing to have open access, even for an hour or two, to one of the world’s greatest theologians. The questions were flying fast and furious. Unfortunately for Ted and for me, we were the only two there who weren’t involved in some level of graduate degree in theology. I was rooming with a guy who, if I have it right, is significantly younger than me but the owner of two PhD’s. Meanwhile, I have a three-year degree in history and Ted, well, he’s a former football player who undoubtedly took a few knocks on the head along the way. Ted and I sat opposite one another at this table, both feeling like the dumb guys. We didn’t understand the questions and we sure as shootin’ didn’t understand the answers. Later we commiserated, celebrating being the dumb guys. It’s a good memory.

But really, that memory has very little to do with this book review, a review of a book dealing with adoption.

Adoption is all the rage today. Is that an obnoxious thing to say? I simply mean that lots of Christians, and Reformed Christians in particular, are talking about adoption and, even better, getting involved in adoption. In recent years we’ve seen the birth of a great organization and conference dedicated to it and we’ve seen the release of a couple of excellent books on the topic. Best of all, we’ve seen more and more people actually adopt children, welcoming them to their homes, to their churches. Like many of you, I’m excited for this trend and hope it continues.

June 09, 2010

The Search for God and GuinnessNow that I pause to think about it, I don’t know that I’ve ever blogged about the always-contentious issue of the consumption of alcohol. If you must know, I don’t touch the stuff but that is more out of preference than conviction. I just can’t stand the taste of alcohol in general and beer in particular. But I have no moral qualms with those who drink in moderation and am actually quite pleased to see a general drift in that direction amongst evangelical Christians. It is a sign of the times, I think, that a Christian publisher would print a book about beer.

In The Search for God and Guinness author Stephen Mansfield offers “A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World.” If there is hyperbole in that subtitle, it is only slightly so. One of the world’s most successful brands of beer for almost 250 years now, Guinness has a long and dignified history as both a product and as a company. Today more than 10 million pints are consumed every day. What many people do not know is that the company has long been a force for social good and that the Guinness name has created a long line of faithful men who have served the Lord even while brewing their beer.

June 02, 2010

Humanitarian JesusThere are few issues of theology that confuse me more than issues related to social justice. Those who advocate Christian humanitarianism, those who tell Christians that they are responsible before God to fight injustice, to feed the hungry, to free the oppressed, are able to provide a compelling case and they are able to tap into a deep vein of guilt. It is difficult to hear of poor and hungry children and not feel that the primary mission of Christians must be to feed such people. And yet when we look around we see that ministries or organizations that make such a task their primary calling so quickly fade into theological obscurity. The social gospel so often trumps the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Into the fray step Christian Buckley and Ryan Dobson with their book Humanitarian Jesus: Social Justice and the Cross. They want to find that sweet spot between justice and gospel, that place where we can hold tightly to the gospel of Jesus Christ while still emphasizing the importance of social action.

Pages