Biographies I Would Re-read


Some of the biographies I would re-read, Photo by Bob Trube © 2020.

I’m a lover of biographies. Reading the life stories of others is one way I make sense of my own. Leadership fascinates me and reading about those who have led well makes for an interesting study, and it accentuates the importance of the leaders we choose, whether in government, education, business, or as faith leaders. Some of these biographies have been among my most memorable reads, a few in recent years, many going back twenty years or more. Once again, re-reading them could occupy me for many months. Most are big books, and some stretch into multiple volumes.

David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. Blight captures both the sheer perseverance of Douglass in the pursuit of freedom and justice for his people, and the eloquence that was his gift.

Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson (4 volumes in print, one still being written). I hope Robert Caro lives long enough to complete his study of the life of Johnson, and that I live long enough to re-read the series.

Ron Chernow, Grant. Chernow has given us a series of great biographies. Here he gives us one of the man who struggled in civilian life, was a magnificent and focused military leader, and a great president whose reputation was marred by those around him.

Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci. A magnificent study in print and image of this profligate genius. One wonders what he might have accomplished with greater discipline and focus.

Maxwell King, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. There was deep conviction and principle behind the gentle greatness of Mr. Rogers that drew children and adults to listen to him.

Nancy Koester, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life. In a well-researched work, Koester traces Stowe from her Calvinist youth to her years at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, where she saw so much of what she wrote in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, galvanizing her abolitionist work. She became the most successful American writer of the 19th century, later moving away from the Calvinism of her youth.

William Manchester (with Paul Reid on volume 3), The Last Lion. Whether this is the best history of Churchill, it is certainly the best written.

David McCullough, John Adams and Truman. Each of these presidents followed one far more famous, yet McCullough brings them out of the shadows and helps us appreciate the unique gifts each were to American history.

Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt. Morris tells the story of this larger than life figure magnificently from the somewhat frail boy who heeded his father’s encouragements to build up his strength, to the cowboy in the west, the Rough Rider, the president who invented the bully pulpit, and the world explorer who nearly lost his life in the Amazon.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Robert Kennedy and His Times. He chronicles Kennedy’s growth from the McCarthy era to his work as Attorney General under his brother, the agony of the Johnson years, and his final presidential campaign cut short by an assassin’s bullet. One of his greatest moments was his on-the-spot response to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., facing an angry crowd in Indianapolis.

Great biographies to me combine the singular greatness of the person with writing that accentuates that greatness, while rendering a true account, and not a hagiography of their lives. Each of these biographies did that for me. I think they will for you. More than once. If I’ve left one off the list you think worth a re-read, I’d love to hear about it. It has to be worth at least one read!


Review: Amazing Jewish Heroes Down Through the Ages

Amazing Jewish Heroes

Amazing Jewish Heroes Down Through the AgesDavid Richard Goldberg. Springfield, NJ: Gefen Publishing House, 2017.

Summary: A collection of brief biographical sketches on eleven Jewish heroes from ancient to modern times.

Whatever one thinks of the State of Israel in present day international politics, the continued existence of the Jewish people, and the existence of a modern Jewish state seems little short of miraculous (and some would delete “little short of”). A part of this miracle are the heroic figures through Jewish history, who acted for the welfare of their people and others, and serve as role models for others in the Jewish community of Jewish faith and identity.

The late David Richard Goldberg was a financial consultant, an executive with a Florida construction services firm and a staunch supporter of various Jewish causes. In this book, he tells the stories of eleven Jewish heroes from ancient to modern times. He begins with two ancient figures, Queen Esther, who saved her from genocide, and Rabbi Akiva. The story of Rabbi Akiva may be less familiar — a descendant of converts to Judaism, an underling of a wealthy landowner who refused urgings to study Torah until the landowner’s daughter persuaded him to do so with the promise that if he became a great teacher of Israel, she would marry him! The rest is history, not only the marriage, but his leadership of Israel under Rome until martyred at the age of 120.

Part Two was an unexpected twist. Goldberg profiles two heroes of American wars. Haym Salomon provided critical financing that made possible the defeat of the British at Yorktown. Uriah Phillips Levy was the first Jewish naval leader to rise to the rank of commodore (now rear admiral) during the Civil War and helped end the practice of flogging in the Navy.

Part Three features two Holocaust survivors, Felix Zandman and Simon Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal’s survival from the camps and subsequent career in hunting down Nazi war criminals and making them answer for the Holocaust is better know. Zandman’s career is equally amazing–surviving seventeen months of Nazi occupation in an underground pit with five others until liberated. He went on to study engineering, physics, and applied mechanics, developed a technology to study the stresses on high performance equipment like jet engines, building his own firm, Vishay (named after an obliterated Lithuania village). Eventually Vishay acquired the micro-electronics unit of Telefunken, once owned by Jews.

The final part of the book covers five heroes engaged in the Zionist movement leading up to the State of Israel . The first was Theodor Herzl, credited with the birth of the Zionist movement. Given that prominent role, I was a bit surprised that this was one of the briefest biographical sketches in the book. Ze’ev Jabotinsky was one of the first to grasp that Jews would need to fight for a Jewish state, forming a militaristic youth movement, Betar, mentoring one of the other heroes in this section, Menachem Begin. The final three portraits then focus on David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Begin. We see the distinctive leadership styles of each, and the vehement conflicts that existed among the three even as they fought to birth the Jewish state of Israel and defend against its enemies. Their stories helped me grasp how deeply embedded the belief in a Jewish state was and is for a people who survived the Holocaust and could never again feel safe as a minority within another state.

What one finds here are not extensive critical biographies detailing flaws and failures as well as successes, although we get some glimpses of these with Ben-Gurion, Meir, and Begin. Rather these are, as the title states, sketches that draw out the heroic nature of each character, and are obviously very pro-Jewish and pro-Israel.

It seems this book is intended for two purposes. One is within Jewish families, particularly with upper elementary or middle school children, to learn more about the heroes of their heritage.  The other is for Jews later in life like one friend of the author, who was forced to re-think his beliefs about Judaism because of these stories.

With the recent synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, it is clear both that antisemitism is far from dead and the quiet heroism is needed of us all to resist it. As an American, I’m reminded the great debt we owe the Jews for the very existence of our country, for scientific and technological advances, and for the many cultural treasures we enjoy. As a non-Jew, the book reminds of the lingering cloud of fear arising from the threat of genocide throughout history from Esther’s day to the Holocaust, and how heroically generations of Jews have lived in the face of that threat. Whatever else I think about the troubled history between Jews and Palestinians, this book reminds me of what the hope of a land of one’s own means to a people who spent two millenia struggling to survive and maintain an identity in the lands of others.

That alone is a heroic.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Month in Reviews: April 2017

The Heir Apparent

This month’s reading spanned the gamut from Eastern Orthodoxy to the English Reformation to classic evangelicalism to thinking on the church’s ministry with the rising generation. Along the way there were several biographies including that of Hermann Rorshach, King Edward VII, and Katharina and Martin Luther. Each explored a lesser know figure–Rorshach, the man behind the test, Edward VII, the playboy who ended up a hard-working monarch, and Katharina Von Bora, truly a match for Luther, though often overshadowed in the history. At one point, I reviewed back-to-back a book in hope for politics, and another on resisting tyranny. I read some classic science fiction, and a summary of the cutting edge science of astro-physics. Mixed in were Lewis’s classic on pain, a book on the ten commandments, a wonderful theology of preaching, and a path-breaking book on leading multi-ethnic worship.

Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers, Andrew Louth. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Biographical sketches and theological summaries of some of the leading thinkers in the modern Orthodox Church from Russia to Paris to Mount Athos to England and the US, and the significant role the Philokalia has played in Orthodox thought and piety. (Review)

The Inkblots

The InkblotsDamion Searls. New York: Crown Publishers, 2017. A biography of Hermann Rorschach and the after-history of the test that bears his name. (Review)

Meet Generation Z

Meet Generation Z, James Emery White. Grand Rapids: Baker 2017. The book profiles the generation born since 1993, describing them as the first “post-Christian” generation, and what the church in the US must do to reach this generation. (Review)

Recovering Classical Evangelicalism

Recovering Classic EvangelicalismGregory Alan Thornbury. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. Addressing an evangelical context that seemingly has lost a sense of its identity, core convictions, and model for cultural engagement, the author commends a re-appraisal of the work of Carl F. H. Henry as a source of wisdom for the future. (Review)

The Heir Apparent

The Heir ApparentJane Ridley. New York: Random House, 2013. An award-winning biography of Edward VII, often criticized for his faults of character as heir to the throne under Victoria, whose reign ushered in a critical transition in the British monarchy in the first decade of the twentieth century. (Review)

Preaching in the New Testament

Preaching in the New Testament (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Jonathan L. Griffiths. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. An exegetical and biblical theology of preaching from the texts of the New Testament. (Review)

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., (forthcoming May) 2017. A clear and concise discussion in understandable terms about the current state of our understanding of astrophysics, everything from the origins of the universe to the origins of the elements on the periodic table, and all the space between the galaxies. (Review)

The English Reformation

A Brief History of The English ReformationDerek Wilson. London: Robinson, 2012. A history of the house of Tudor, and how their rule transformed England both religiously and politically, and the influence of the vernacular scriptures on the English people. (Review)

Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming HopeMichael Wear. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017. Written by an Obama staffer in his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and faith outreach director in his 2012 campaign, this is not only a narrative of that work, but also an exploration of controversial decisions made by this administration, and how Christians might think of the possibilities and practice of political involvement. (Review)

On Tyranny

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017. A Yale historian draws twenty lessons from fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century and applies them to the American context. (Review)

The Decalogue

The DecalogueDavid L. Baker. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. After an exploration of the shape, form, origin, and purpose of these ten “words”, the author takes each in turn, exploring the command in its cultural context, it’s biblical and theological meaning, and contemporary relevance. (Review)

The Next Worship

The Next WorshipSandra Maria Van Opstal (foreword by Mark Labberton). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Using the language of an international table, this book gives both theological basis and practical help in leading Christian communities into multi-cultural and multi-lingual worship led by empowered multi-ethnic worship teams. (Review)

The Problem of Pain

The Problem of PainC. S. Lewis. New York: Harper Collins, 2015 (originally published 1940). Lewis’s classic work exploring the existence of suffering and pain and how this is possible in a world made and sustained by a good and omnipotent God. (Review)


City, Clifford D. Simak (Introduction by David W. Wixon). New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1952). A collection of eight connected stories stitched together by “notes” from dog commentators on how human beings died out as a species on earth. (Review)

Katharina and Martin Luther

Katharina & Martin Luther, Michelle DeRusha. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2017. An account of the “most unlikely to succeed” scandalous marriage of Katharina Von Bora and Martin Luther, a runaway nun and former monk who marry out of necessity and principle, and grow into love. (Review)

Best Book of the Month: Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent is a fascinating and masterful study of the life of King Edward VII, from his troubled childhood under Albert and Victoria, his playboy life, even while he is cultivating a public life that would make him “the people’s king” and his last years as England’s monarch, including his efforts to avert the conflict that became World War I, which he did not live to see. It made several “best books” lists in 2014.

Best Quote of the Month: In David L. Baker’s The Decalogue he includes some trenchant reflections on how the commandments bear on contemporary life, with this on the bearing of false witness particularly telling:

“The Old Testament affirms the importance of truth in public life, with particular condemnation of religious leaders who use their positions to propagate lies (Jer 6:13-14; 8:10-11; 23:21-32; Ezek 13) and pander to their audiences with smooth talk (cf. Is 30:9-11). Mendacity brings iniquity (Is 5:18) and causes confusion by pretending to be virtue (Is 5:20).

    Another kind of untruth that is pervasive today is the use of moral euphemisms designed to make what is wrong appear right or at least unobjectionable. Instead of committing adultery, people have an affair. Instead of having an abortion, they terminate a pregnancy. Instead of killing innocent citizens, there is collateral damage. Instead of unemployment, there is downsizing. Instead of lying, there are ‘terminological inexactitudes’ (Winston Churchill, 1906).

What about us? Are we habitually truthful. When we speak and write, it is often easier to say what we think people want to hear–or what we want them to hear–than what is actually true. Sometimes it is tempting to keep quiet and not say anything at all rather than speaking up when we ought to. The Bible encourages us to go beyond the rejection of false testimony, to become people who speak the truth from our hearts” (p. 141).

Coming soon: Tomorrow I will be posting a review of Carl F. H. Henry’s classic The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. I picked this up after reading Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism exploring the life and theology of Henry. I’m in the midst of Salvation By Allegiance Alone which challenges our formulations of “faith alone” in many presentations of the Christian message, and particularly emphasizes the rule of Jesus and our allegiance to him. I’m also reading a work on how worship is meant to form us to be like Christ, Worship in the Way of the Cross. For fun, I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a great historical fiction follow up to the book on the English Reformation, focused on Thomas Cromwell. This weekend, we picked up Dave Eggers, The Circle, and John Kasich’s political memoir Two Paths. I’ve just started a book of narratives of a variety of Christians whose views of evolution changed–ranging from N. T. Wright to Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project and current National Institutes of Health director).

Hope you will stop by frequently to catch the reviews of these books, and tell me what you think!

The Month in Reviews: December 2016


This will be my last “look back” at 2016–a year many of us are glad to have in the rear view mirror. But this last month was a great month for books. I read biographies of a President and a First Lady, both with the same last name (but associated with different presidencies). I finished a classic of Russian literature, and lesser known works of fiction writers Madeleine L’Engle and Walter Wangerin, Jr. I read books on America’s original sin, and on American grace and the “very good gospel.” There were a couple of books on economics with different perspectives. I read an outstanding book connecting liturgy and our ordinary lives. So, if I’ve piqued your curiosity about these books, here is the list:


The River of DoubtCandice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2005. Narrates Roosevelt’s exploratory expedition to South America, the decision to navigate “The River of Doubt”, and the harrowing journey that nearly cost Roosevelt his life. (Review)


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). New York: Penguin, 2000. The classic work exploring the illicit loves and lives of Russian nobility against the backdrop of nineteenth century Russian class struggles and philosophical speculation. (Review)


America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. Explores our nation’s deeply ingrained history of racism and particularly the challenges facing white Christians in bridging these racial divides. (Review)


The Church in ExileLee Beach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Accepting the premise that we are in a post-Christendom world, the book explores how the biblical theme of exile can be helpful for how the church conceives of its life and presence in the world. (Review)


American GraceRobert D. Putnam, David E. Campbell. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2012. A sociological study of the landscape of American religion, the connections between religious and political attitudes, and changes between 2006 and 2011, when the newest edition of this work was published. (Review)


The Very Good GospelLisa Sharon Harper (foreward by Walter Brueggemann). New York: Waterbrook, 2016. Through a study of the early chapters of Genesis with application to contemporary life, Harper explores the theme of shalom and how this enlarges our understanding of the good news. (Review)


Certain WomenMadeleine L’Engle. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992. As actor David Wheaton dies of cancer, his daughter joins him on the Portia and as they re-read the unfinished script of Emma’s estranged husband Nik on King David, they consider the parallels with their own lives, and struggle to come to terms with life in its brokenness, and its joys. (Review)


Being Consumed: Economics and Christian DesireWilliam T. Cavanaugh. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008. An extended essay in theological reflection from a Catholic perspective on the economic realities of the free market, consumer culture, globalization, and scarcity. (Review)


Liturgy of the OrdinaryTish Harrison Warren (foreword by Andy Crouch). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Walking through the common events of an ordinary day from waking to sleeping, Warren explores how we encounter in these ordinary things the Christ we worship each Sunday. (Review)


Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and AfterBlanche Wiesen Cook. New York: Viking, 2016. The third and final volume in this biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, covering her advocacy, friendships, and relationship with Franklin during the war years, and briefly, her accomplishments after his death. (Review)


Just Capitalism Brent Waters. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. A theological defense of capitalism and particularly economic globalization as the best means, through exchange, of providing an preferential option for the poor and promoting human flourishing, albeit shaped by different goals for exchange, and the promotion of human community. (Review)


The Crying for a Vision, Walter Wangerin, Jr. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003. A tale of conflict between an orphan boy, Moves Walking, and a ruthless warrior, Fire Thunder over the life of their people, set in Lakota culture. (Review)


One of the FewJason B. Ladd. Wasilla, AK: Boone Shepherd, 2015. A Marine’s story of coming to faith, his “reconnaissance of the Christian worldview”, and challenging words as one trained in warfare about the nature of the spiritual warfare in which we find ourselves. (Review)

Best of the Month:  This month, I would give the nod to Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren writes compellingly about the connection between the truths we celebrate each Sunday, and the ordinary activities of life throughout the week.

Best Quote of the Month: Jim Wallis, in his book America’s Original Sin recounts a dialogue with a class of elementary school children who asked him why Congress was afraid to change the immigration system:

 “I paused to consider their honest question and looked around the room–the classroom of a public school fifth-grade class in Washington DC. I looked at their quizzical and concerned faces, a group of African American, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and European American children. Then it hit me.

     ‘They are afraid of you,’ I replied

     ‘Why would they be afraid of us?’ the shocked students asked, totally perplexed. I had to tell them.

     ‘They are afraid you are the future of America. They’re afraid their country will someday look like this class–that you represent what our nation is becoming.’”

Coming Soon: My first review of 2017 will be of Strong Poison, a classic Dorothy L. Sayers mystery, in which we are first introduced to Harriet Vane, on trial for murder. I am thoroughly enjoying David McCullough’s The Greater Journey about the many American culture-shapers who traveled to Paris in the 19th century. Unraveled explores the drafting of and legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. Fans of the Enneagram  will look forward to my review of The Road Back to You. I am also reading a Graham Greene novel, The Comedians, chronicling life in Haiti under “Papa Doc” Duvalier. And Richard Mouw has written a wonderful new memoir that follows his life as a theologian and public intellectual.

I’m enjoying some great reads, and I hope you do the same in 2017!

The Month in Reviews: November 2016


The authors are brothers whose books were both published in October!

The highlight of this month was the chance to review two very different books by two brothers, both friends, published in the last month. The brothers are Cameron (“Cam”) and Garwood (“Woody”) Anderson. Cameron’s book The Faithful Artist explores the intersection of modern art and Christian faith. Garwood’s book proposes a new way of thinking about Paul’s thinking about salvation, and is fittingly called Paul’s New Perspective. Formerly, all three of us worked together in a collegiate ministry where I worked on a leadership team with Cam and a staff training teaching team with Woody. Both books break new ground in their respective fields and I hope they both get a lot of attention (and sales!).

Beyond these, this was a month of biographies. I read biographies of J.C. Ryle, a late nineteenth century Anglican preacher, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and religious freedom pioneer. Then there was a novelized account of the last three years of the life of abolitionist John Brown. Finally, I had the chance to read a fictional biography of sorts, Marilynne Robinson’s fine novel, Lila, in the Gilead series.

And then there was an eclectic mix of other things–a Swedish crime novel, a book on solar energy, a Reformed view of common grace, and a book exploring spiritual formation practices to counter the distractions and re-wiring of our brains in our modern digital world. Someone recently commented on my diverse array of reviews. For me, it all comes down to wanting to understand the world I live in and to reflect deeply on the spiritual significance of life in our times. I hope these reviews, and the books themselves, help you to do the same.


Sun and Shadow, Åke Edwardson, translated by Laurie Thompson. New York: Penguin, 2006. DCI Erik Winter, newly bereaved of his father, is confronted with a gruesome double-homicide of two sexual “swingers”, the possibility of involvement within his own ranks, and a pattern of clues that suggests that his partner, pregnant with their first child, may be at risk. (Review)


Common Grace and the GospelCornelius Van Til (foreward and edited by K. Scott Oliphint). Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015 (2nd edition). A collection of essays by presuppositional theologian Van Til with introduction and annotations by K. Scott Oliphint, articulating Van Til’s understanding of a Reformed doctrine of common grace, engaging views of others in this tradition that differ from his own. (Review)


Paul’s New Perspective, Garwood P. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.  Argues that both the traditional Protestant perspective and the New Perspective on Paul are each partly right, based on the idea that Paul’s ideas on salvation developed as he wrote over a period of time and addressed different circumstances. (Review)


LilaMarilynne Robinson. New York: Picador, 2014. The story of the unlikely marriage between Lila, a homeless drifter, and Rev. John Ames, a widowed older pastor. (Review)


J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand AloneIain H. Murray. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016. The biography of this nineteenth century evangelical Anglican, from his early student days, his conversion, the decision to enter ministry, and his growing national reputation and his different assignments, including his last years as the first Bishop of Liverpool. (Review)


Roger Williams and The Creation of the American SoulJohn M. Barry. New York: Viking, 2012. [Publisher link is to paperback edition] A study of the life of Roger Williams focusing on the intellectual influences upon Williams, his journey to Massachusetts, banishment and founding of Rhode Island, and his signal ideas of freedom of conscience and government by consent of the governed. (Review)


J. R. R. Tolkien: A BiographyHumphrey Carpenter. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2014 (originally published 1977).The biography of the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, describing his early life, participation in The Inklings, and his habits of work, scholarship, and how his most famous works came to be written. (Review)


Harness the SunPhilip Warburg. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015. A survey of the spread of solar power throughout the U.S. telling the stories of how different communities are utilizing this power source, and the technological, industry, and political challenges this growth faces. (Review)


The InsurrectionistHerb Karl. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, forthcoming, February 2017. A fictionalized biography of the last three and a half years of John Brown’s life from the Pottawotamie massacre in “Bloody Kansas” to his raid of the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, ending in his execution in 1859. (Review)


The Faithful Artist, Cameron J. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Addresses the tensions between the world of modern art and evangelical faith, where opportunities for creative engagement might be found in tensions, and what values might shape the life of one sensing a call to be both faithful Christian and artist. (Review)


The Wired Soul, Tricia McCary Rhodes. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016. Explores how our communications technology is changing how our minds work in ways that militate against a centered, focused life and introduces practices of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation that help us attend to God in a distracted world. (Review)

Best of the Month: This was a month with a number of books I really liked. But in the end, I will give the nod to Lila. It is a well-crafted parable of grace in the form of a most unlikely marriage that unfolds like the most beautiful rose of spring.

Best Quote of the Month: The idea of being “born again” or “the new birth” has fallen into disrepute and is often mocked. Here is the idea expressed at its best, by J. C. Ryle in J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone:

“The change which our Lord he declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one. It is not merely reformation, or amendment, or moral change, or outward alteration of life. It is a thorough change of heart, will, and character. It is a resurrection. It is a new creation. It is a passing from death to life. It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above. It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes, and new fears. All this and nothing less than this is implied, when our Lord declares we all need a ‘new birth’…. Heaven may be reached without money, or rank, or learning. But it is clear as daylight, if words have any meaning, that no one can enter heaven without a ‘new birth.’ “

Coming Soon: I am in the last hundred pages of Anna Karenina. As I’ve written, this is a much better read when you have some life experience behind you. It was lost on me as a high school student. I thoroughly enjoyed Candace Millard’s Destiny of the Republic on the shooting of James Garfield, and so I’ve gone back to an earlier work, River of Doubt and have been riveted by her account of the harrowing journey Roosevelt and his company of explores endured down the river known by that name. I’ve finally gotten around to Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin, and I find the book confirming my own conviction that racism is a sin we’ve tried to heal lightly in our country. Robert Putnam’s American Grace explores the pluralistic religious environment of our country and perhaps gives one of the earliest warnings of the trends of decline in white evangelicalism, and insight into why groups thrive and decline, and the mosaic of faith that makes up America. I’ve just begun The Church in Exile, a work exploring the theme of exile in the Bible, and proposing that this may in fact be the best way for a church accustomed to privilege but losing it to conceive of itself. I also just received a memoir by Richard Mouw, Adventures in Evangelical Civility which I am looking forward to reading as well as John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism. Both works speak to the needs of our time. I’m also looking forward to reading the concluding installment of a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt that has gotten high praise in reviews I’ve read.

Books are wonderful Christmas gifts for a booklover. There might be something here for your wishlist, or perhaps a good idea for that someone special.



The Month in Reviews: January 2016

Welcome to the first “Month in Reviews” of 2016–can you believe a month has passed already? This month’s reviews included a book on beginnings in Genesis, and a book on the end, looking at “end times” passages throughout the New Testament. I read a couple of new books on the university world. There was classic sci fi and some good science writing on Mount St. Helens. I read a biography of King Arthur, a biographical novel of labor organizer Joe Hill, and a theological memoir by Thomas Oden. The month’s reads also included a book on “battered leaders” and strategies for communication when we differ. Here are the review summaries with links to the full reviews in the titles. The full reviews include publisher links.

Undisciplining KnowledgeUndisciplining Knowledge, Harvey J. Graff. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. This is a historical study of interdisciplinary efforts in universities, looking at successive efforts in the twentieth century and considering the location of such “interdisciplines”, the relationships between disciplines, and the organization of interdisciplinary efforts.

King ArthurKing ArthurChristopher Hibbert. New Word City, 2014. King Arthur and the myth of Camelot have fascinated generations and continues to capture the imagination of Britons as their once and future king. Hibbert’s book both narrates the fiction and delineates what may be known of the historical Arthur.

Lost WorldThe Lost World of Adam and Eve, John H. Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.  Building on his earlier The Lost World of Genesis One, Walton contends that Adam and Eve are both archetypes of humanity and also historical figures, though not necessarily our biological progenitors, that their disobedience brought disorder into the sacred space of the creation affecting all people, and that Christ’s work has to do with restoring that order.

EruptionEruption, Steve Olson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2016 (forthcoming March 2016). This narrative weaves together the science, history, and economic interests surrounding the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, and its subsequent history.

The Last DaysThe Last Days According to Jesus, R. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2015 (originally published in 1998).  R.C. Sproul takes on the time-frame issues of the New Testament that seem to reflect an expectation of an imminent return of Christ and gives serious consideration to the preterist position that all or most of the predictions concerning the Last Days were fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Battered LeadersHandbook for Battered Leaders, Janis Bragan Balda and Wesley D. Balda. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Using 2 Corinthians as a case study of battered leadership, the authors explore the factors that contribute to organizational conflict, and how battered leaders may respond to toxic organizational cultures.

Joe HillJoe Hill, Wallace Stegner. New York: Penguin Books, 1990 (Originally published under the title The Preacher and the Slave, 1950). Wallace Stegner describes this as a “biographical novel” and in it, he fills out the enigmatic life and death of labor organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill, who was executed for murder before a Utah firing squad in November 1915.

Reengineering the UniversityReengineering the University, William F. Massy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016 (expected publication date February 11, 2016). Massy develops a data-driven model that allows universities to engage in planning that optimizes both mission and money considerations in institutional planning and budgeting in the changing marketing landscape of twenty-first century higher education.

Change of HeartA Change of Heart, Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Thomas Oden narrates his personal and theological journey through social leftist thought, neo-orthodox and process theology, and trends of ecumenism, feminism, and small group psychotherapy until a personal conversation led to repentance and an embrace of classical, patristic Christianity (paleo-orthodoxy) and landmark works in patristic scholarship and the North African origins of Christianity.

Tower of GlassTower of Glass, Robert Silverberg. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2014 (initially print publication, 1970). Mega-wealthy Simeon Krug, creator of the process that produces androids, learns of signals from a distant star and uses his androids to build a tower of glass to communicate. Obsessed with distant life, he is woefully ignorant of the hopes and faith the life he has created place in him.

I Beg to DifferI Beg to Differ, Tim Muehlhoff. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Building on an understanding of the dynamics of communication, this book develops a strategy for navigating difficult conversations through asking four key questions of those with whom we differ.

Best book of the month: I would give the nod to Thomas Oden’s A Change of Heart. I wrote in my blog:

“I found this to be a powerful narrative of Oden’s life but also the follies of many of the successive theologies of the twentieth century, theologies that distanced Oden from the centrality of the crucified and risen Lord for an empty and unsatisfying activism. His turning makes me examine how deeply I am listening to Christians across the centuries, and not just the “latest thing.” I found myself warned of the danger of being the “know-it-all pundit”. And it left me with a profound sense of thankfulness for Oden’s Jewish friend who risked affection to tell the truth. What a gift this resulted in not only for Oden but for the church.”

Best quote of the month: In this case, the description from the air of the first moments of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Eruption riveted my attention:

“Look,” he said, “the crater.” Judson tipped the Cessna’s right wing so they could get a better view. Some of the snow on the south facing side of the crater had started to move. Then, as they looked out the plane’s windows, an incredible thing happened. A gigantic, east-west crack appeared across the top of the mountain, splitting the volcano in two. The ground on the northern half of the crack began to ripple and churn, like a pan of milk just beginning to boil. Suddenly, without a sound, the northern portion of the mountain began to slide downward…

Reviewing Soon: Tomorrow, I will be reviewing Jon Meacham’s Destiny and Power on the life of George H. W. Bush. I am near to finishing N. T. Wright’s Paul and His Recent Interpreters, which gives an extensive account of recent Pauline scholarship and the engagement between Wright and other contemporary scholars concerning Wright’s “new perspective” take on Paul. I just started The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (not an autobiography, but an account of a notorious book thief who stole not to make money but because of his “out of bounds” love for books. I’m also finishing up Eugene Merrill’s fine commentary on 1 and 2 Chronicles and just started reading a presidential biography of Herbert Hoover that will be published in May!

Happy reading!


Other People’s Stories

The Road to CharacterIt just occurred to me this morning that three of the books I am currently reading consist largely in telling other people’s stories. David Brooks’ The Road to Character focuses chapter by chapter on individuals as different as Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, Bayard Rustin, and Augustine. None are perfect by any means but Brooks teases out the growth of their characters as they struggled with the conflict between noble aspirations and fallen nature that besets each of us.

The Religion of Democracy by Amy Kittelstrom focuses on seven classically liberal figures in American religious history and the beliefs and dispositions that shaped their lives. She covers figures as diverse as John Adams and William Ellery Channing (a key figure in the development of the Unitarian movement), to William James and Jane Addams, showing the development of an American liberal creed that was less doctrinal than focused around personal judgment and moral effort that included the benefit of one’s fellow human beings, encouraged within intellectual communities of the like-minded.

The Religion of DemocracyThe last is Miriam Adeney’s Kingdom without Borders which narrates the stories of Christians on every continent past and present who have developed Christian movements through compassionate character, personal sacrifice, and in some cases, martyrdom. For example, she narrates the life of Sadhu Sundar Singh, one of the most profound of India’s Christians.

You can look for full reviews of these books in weeks ahead, but I’m struck by the choice of each of these writers to develop the central themes of their books around telling other people’s stories. In each of these, the writers put flesh and blood on abstract ideas like compassion, moral restraint, or liberal notions of moral improvement. Often abstractions leave us cold, but when we see the stories of people who attempt to embody these commitments and shape their lives around them, it helps makes sense of these both as we relate to our own experiences past, and the life choices before us.

Kingdom without BordersWhat also strikes me as I read these three books is that they present differently grounded moral visions, sometimes within the pages as in Brooks’s book, although it centers around classic Judeo-Christian ideas. Kittelstrom’s and Adeney’s book give a sharper contrast, between the American Transcendalist tradition, and a global evangelical Christian one. One begins to see how different moral groundings sometimes lead to similar, and sometimes divergent ends. And since all of us in some way, either explicitly or implicitly, live toward some vision of a life well-lived, these narratives all help us assess both the beliefs and moral ends toward which we are living.

Is this not why we also read great fiction (if we do)? Whether it is Jane Austen, or Anthony Doerr, or even an Elizabeth Peters mystery, are we not immersing ourselves in a world where convictions, circumstances, and moral choices, and human impulse all come together, for better or worse? Yes, we can read just to be amused, and yet the truth is that the most profound works also hold a mirror up to us quietly posing the question, “how then will you live?”

George Marsden: 5 Recommended Biographies

George Marsden: 5 Recommended Biographies

George Marsden wrote what most think is the landmark biography of Jonathan Edwards. When he recommends a biography, I think that has some “street cred”. I’ve read the multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, which is outstanding. The others await me, as well as Marsden’s biography of Edwards.