New Studies in Biblical Theology

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Yesterday, I reviewed W. Ross Blackburn’s The God Who Makes Himself Known. This is one of forty-four volumes currently in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (with more forthcoming) jointly published by the Apollos imprint of InterVarsity Press in the United Kingdom and InterVarsity Press in the United States. The series strives for readability, avoiding specialist jargon or untransliterated terms in the biblical languages. D. A. Carson is the series editor and has articulated the goals as follows:

New Studies in Biblical Theology volumes focus on three areas:

  • the nature and status of biblical theology, including its relationship to other disciplines
  • the articulation and exposition of the structure of thought from a particular biblical writer or text
  • the delineation of a biblical theme across the biblical corpus

I try to pick up new volumes as they are released because I have found them of high quality, combining scholarship and devotional insight. Here are the reviews that have appeared in posts at Bob on Books over the years, to give you a sampling of this series. You can count on more in the future.

The God Who Became Human (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Graham Cole. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A biblical theology of the incarnation. Review

Hear My Son (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Daniel J. Estes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. Studies on the first nine chapters of Proverbs. Review

Covenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review

With the Clouds of Heaven (New Studies in Biblical Theology), James M. Hamilton, Jr. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the biblical theology of Daniel, including its structure, key themes, how the book influences both early Jewish literature and the New Testament, and how it connects to key themes throughout scripture. Review

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

The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Andrew T. Abernethy. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A thematic approach to understanding Isaiah organized around the idea of ‘kingdom’ exploring the nature of the king, the agents of the king, and the realm and people of the king as elaborated throughout the book. Review

Unceasing Kindness (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Peter H. W. Lau and Gregory Goswell. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. A study of the theological themes that may be discerned in the various placements of Ruth in the canon, and the broader themes of unceasing kindness, famine, redemption, divine and human initiative, and the mission of God connecting Ruth with the rest of scripture. Review

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012. A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel. Review

The distinctive cover design looks good on your bookshelves. If you’ve acquired some of these and would like to fill out your set, InterVarsity Press offers a special discount as high as 50% off depending on the number of titles you are purchasing at their website. Of greater importance is that these works are great references at a reasonable price that complement the teacher’s personal study of biblical texts or theological themes in scripture.

James W. Sire (1933-2018)

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The Christian world lost a wonderful scholar and apologist Tuesday night. And I lost a friend. James W. Sire passed into the more immediate presence of the Lord he so deeply loved on Tuesday evening.

I first came in contact with Jim’s ideas long before I ever met him. I was a college student at a leadership camp in 1974. One of our sessions was on this idea of “Christian world view.” One of the presenters shared material he had heard in a seminar with a university professor by the name of James Sire. He included seven “world view questions” that became a valuable tool whether reading a textbook on counseling psychology or talking with someone who was not a Christ-follower whose view of life I was trying to understand. His questions were:

  1. What is prime reality—the really real? To this we might answer: God, or the gods, or the material cosmos. Our answer here is the most fundamental. It sets the boundaries for the answers that can consistently be given to the other six questions. This will become clear as we move from worldview to worldview in the chapters that follow.
  2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?Here our answers point to whether we see the world as created or autonomous, as chaotic or orderly, as matter or spirit; or whether we emphasize our subjective, personal relationship to the world or its objectivity apart from us.
  3. What is a human being? To this we might answer: a highly complex machine, a sleeping god, a person made in theimage of God, a naked ape.
  4. What happens to a person at death? Here we might reply: personal extinction, or transformation to a higher state, or reincarnation, or departure to a shadowy existence on “the other side.”
  5. Why is it possible to know anything at all? Sample answers include the idea that we are made in the image of an all-knowing God or that consciousness and rationality developed under the contingencies of survival in a long process of evolution.
  6. How do we know what is right and wrong? Again, perhaps we are made in the image of a God whose character is good, or right and wrong are determined by human choice alone or what feels good, or the notions simply developed under an impetus toward cultural or physical survival.
  7. What is the meaning of human history? To this we might answer: to realize the purposes of God or the gods, to make a paradise on earth, to prepare a people for a life in community with a loving and holy God, and so forth.

Eventually, he added an eighth question as he understood that world view wasn’t simply about ideas but also how we lived and oriented our affections and commitments in light of them.

8. What personal, life-orienting core commitments are consistent with this worldview?

I was delighted a few years later when this list of questions on a handout was turned into a book, The Universe Next Door. By that time, I had begun working in collegiate ministry and this was one of my “go to” books as I engaged with people from all sorts of backgrounds, and as I sought to help Christian students confidently engage others with different ideas.

Meanwhile, Jim had left his teaching position to work for InterVarsity Press. Even before his own work was published, he played a key role in editing a number of the works the Press published by Francis Schaeffer. He served for a number of years as Senior Editor at the Press and played a key role in its growth in the world of Christian publishing. All during this time, he continued publishing his own works, including Scripture Twisting, Discipleship of the Mind, and one of my favorites that actually was mocked by Jimmy Fallon, How to Read Slowly (about which I subsequently wrote). He eventually published four more editions of Universe Next Door, selling over 350,000 copies. (I understand from an email I received from him in December that he was working on a sixth edition at the time of his death.)

That would be enough for many people, but not for Jim. His next career was as a campus lecturer. I had the privilege to host him several times at Ohio State, and what I appreciated was not only his winsome and witty engagements with students and faculty, but how he would delight in personal conversation with someone seriously questioning.

It was during this time that I had several opportunities to get to know Jim more personally. One year, I was assigned as one of the staff leaders in a seminar called “Agents of Transformation.” I had never gone through the seminar before. The person leading became ill just beforehand and the powers-that-be decided that they wanted me to lead the seminar. I would have been lost had it not been that Jim was with us that week as a “resource.” What so impressed me was how he supported me in leading sessions that he probably knew backwards and forwards while I was making it up as I went. We ended up having a marvelous time with the 40 students on hand, often just one step ahead. His humility and support was an incredible encouragement.

Jim never stopped learning and growing. Habits of the Mind and Naming the Elephant both reflected his own evolving and deepening understanding of the idea of worldview, and how we think. A couple of his last books, Why Good Arguments Often Fail and Apologetics Beyond Reason (review) reflected his experience as an apologist and a deepening understanding of the spiritual dynamics of engaging with people in their journey to faith.

We saw each other regularly over the last twenty years at our InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministry meetings. Jim always cared deeply about the university world and our efforts to connect the love of God and the love of learning. One of the talks I remember him giving spoke about the divide between the humanities and the sciences, and his belief that this, too, was reconciled in Christ.

Because so many of Jim’s books had to do with topics related to the life of the mind, people may not have been aware of how much Jim loved God, and loved what he saw of God in the scriptures. He wrote a number of Bible studies and Learning to Pray Through the Psalms and Praying the Psalms of Jesus. In Learning to Pray Through the Psalms he wrote:

“How can I not begin without thanking our great God who inspired the psalmists and gave us those marvelous records of the prayers of the ancient Hebrews! This book is a meditation and an encouragement to meditation prompted by the texts of those who poured out their souls to God. So thanks quickly go to those hearty souls who wrote the psalms and displayed for us such a vast panorama of human thought and emotion, thus freeing us so many centuries later to bare our heart and mind before the God who fashioned us and intended us to be like himself.”

This man’s work touched the arc of my adult life. He helped build a publishing house with a sterling reputation for evangelical conviction coupled with fine scholarship. He engaged with countless seekers and sceptics. He gave valuable advice and support to a ministry seeking to reach the elite world of scholarship. And all of it was with grace, wit, and humility. And now he joins the “hearty souls” of the ages in the more immediate presence of the God to whom he spent his life pouring out his heart. Further up and further in, my friend!

Still Evangelical?

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I follow different publishers on Twitter as one way of learning about their latest books. On Saturday, I saw and responded to this tweet from InterVarsity Press:

Bob Trube on Twitter Yes I am still evangelical Evangelicals who have become ensnared with the politics of the Left or the Right have left in sacrificing the centrality of Christ …

I sent this reply:

“Yes, I am still evangelical. Evangelicals who have become ensnared with the politics of the Left or the Right have left [evangelicalism] in sacrificing the centrality of Christ [for political access and influence].” (Bracketed words add clarity for what was an abbreviated, tweet response.)

The tweet is no doubt part of a campaign to promote a new book, Still Evangelical?, that wrestles with the question, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, whether they still want to identify with the evangelical tribe. The book is on my “to read” pile, so look for a review in the near future.

My response reflected a “moment of clarity” earlier in the week. I was participating in a retreat of faith leaders involved in collegiate ministry at the university where I have worked in collegiate ministry over twenty years. The majority of those in the room were mainline Protestant, Catholic, or representatives of other religions. In the course of the day, exercises moved from fun, but relatively non-threatening discussion to the point of sharing about our religious identity. I was paired with a woman from what I would characterize as a “progressive Protestant denomination” and her views reflected that. Do I play coy, go vague, or tell the truth?

I went for truth with the qualification that evangelicalism for me had nothing to do with political captivity to the Left or the Right (and I do think both have occurred in recent American religious and political history). I went on to say that for me, this identifier goes back to the root of the word “evangel” as good news, and that David Bebbington’s “Quadrilateral” is still a useful rubric for what I consider near and dear, and in what I believe this good news consists:

  • Biblicism doesn’t mean for me a wooden literalism but that God hasn’t left us in the dark, but in a variety of ways from poetry to prophecy to history, God has spoken a trustworthy word to bring us the light of God’s grace and how we might live in consequence of that grace, and that the Bible is crucial in defining the character of the new community of God’s people and how they live out the life of faith together.
  • Crucicentrism,  that God has broken into our estrangement from him in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, what we desperately needed. As I said in my tweet, Christ is central to my faith, the focal point of all of scripture and my hope in life and death.
  • Conversionism. The good news is that because of what Christ accomplished, we are no longer left to efforts to try harder to be better, struggling against the tyranny of self. We are “new creations” in Christ, people in whom life has begun anew, cleaning the slate of all our wrongs, and providing a new capacity, the indwelling Spirit of God, enabling us to live into that new creation life.
  • Activism. The grace of God moves us to a life of pursuing the beauty and goodness that reflects that grace, while making known in our words as well as our deeds the extravagant love of God revealed in Christ and the offer of new life in him for all who believe.

This movement, with all its flaws led the way to the abolition of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic, provided the basis of social work in our cities, has fought human trafficking on a global basis, as well as provided the impetus for a missions movement, flawed at times, but also resulting in indigenously led Christian movements throughout the world, including one in China that may soon be the largest in the world.

In sharing this, I came to a moment of clarity that “evangel” and “evangelical” are good words, and there is really nothing quite like them as identifiers for a life shaped by this good news. I have also been reading To Light a Fire on Earth by Bishop Robert A. Barron, one of the leaders of the “New Evangelization” in the Catholic Church and have been impressed by how unashamedly he uses the terms “evangelism,” “evangelical,” and “evangel” throughout the work.

No doubt these carry some distinctive valences for Barron, and yet what strikes me is not only his unashamed use of these good words that so many evangelicals are fleeing from, but also that in the effort he is leading within Catholicism, one can detect some of the same distinctives one sees in Bebbington’s Quadrilateral, distinctives I will elaborate in my forthcoming review.

All this leads me to the conclusion that it is time to reclaim this identity, and this good word rather than to slink away from it, either in identification or affiliation. It’s time for us to say to those who have co-opted this identity for a politically captive idolatry that they have lost their way, they have strayed from their first love, and we would love for them to repent, but that they should not use “evangelical” for what is a type of “national” or “political”  or racially homogeneous religion.

My fear, and it is a temptation I recognize in myself, is that in walking away from the identifier “evangelical,” whether we leave the “tribe” or not, is that we will also walk away from the good distinctives that are part of Bebbington’s Quadrilateral. (I am aware that some, like Timothy Gloege have advocated that we ought to abandon these, and I think John Fea has responded well to this contention.) This temptation to mute our identification and what makes it distinctive seems to leave us with a vague religion defined by what we are not, perhaps some form of personal piety, and maybe an impetus toward do-good-ism.

My sense is that instead we need to press more fully into that identity in ways that address our present crisis. I could see us pressing into listening hard to the whole counsel of God in the Bible rather than our selective readings. I could see us pressing into the way the work of Christ is for all without distinctions of gender, class, race, or national origins and the implications for a society deeply riven by these divisions. I could see us pressing into the transforming power of conversion and what that means for so many in our society without hope. I could see us pressing into an activism that explores how each and all of us might live out callings that pursue beauty, goodness and truth in a world where there is far too much ugliness, evil, and lie.

All this lies behind my response to InterVarsity Press’s tweet. Yes, I’m still evangelical. And unashamedly so.

[I would also commend a great article by a colleague that explores this same landscape, Evangelicalism: It’s a Brand but its Also a Space.]

InterVarsity Press Website Update

InterVarsity PressAnyone who has followed this blog for a while knows that a number of the books I review (about a quarter I would estimate) are published by InterVarsity Press. Call it an occupational hazard of working for the collegiate ministry that is the parent organization of which InterVarsity Press is part. We have the opportunity to purchase new releases at a significant discount, all books for a good discount, and they send us occasional freebies. Not a bad fringe benefit, eh?

Recently, when I went to link to a book I was reviewing, I discovered that InterVarsity Press (hereafter, IVP) has completed an elegant update of the website. I visit a number of publisher websites and was very impressed with the look, navigability, and content of the site.

First the homepage. For those searching for a specific title, there is a search bar just below the IVP logo allowing searches by keywords, titles, authors, or series names like “LifeGuide.” Opposite the search bar is a free shipping offer, log in and cart (yes you can have an account and buy stuff direct!). Below the searchbar you see the site menu. “Books” lists categories of books you can search under. “IVP Academic” includes a listing of their academic line books, a textbook locator for professors, instructor resources, an exam or desk copy request form and a catalog request. “About our authors” features authors, provides author booking information and allows you to contact authors through IVP. “Special offers” includes info on their book club, and special programs for commentaries, sets and bulk discounts. There is finally a selection just related to the book club.

Below a rotating banner with clickable features appear IVP’s latest releases. Scrolling down the page, one finds a row of boxes (which may change over time) but feature a “Hard Saying of the Day,” an e-book of the week, a “Meet Our Authors,” and a chance to subscribe to newsletters for the different publishing lines of IVP.  Further down, is a row of “Trending Now Books”. By clicking on the covers you can go to the page for the book. Then you come to a row listing the different lines of IVP books and currently featured titles in each line — IVP Academic, IVP Books, IVP Connect, Formatio, and Praxis. Each drop down describes the line, and in addition to featured books shows featured authors and news.

At the very bottom of the page you can access a number of options under “Resources,” “Partners,” “Help” and “About. Two that I will highlight:

  • The “Daily Quiet Time Study,” a long time feature that provides a biblical passage and discussion questions from one of IVP’s study guides. I was glad to see they kept this feature–a great place to go for substantive daily Bible reading and study.
  • “Discussion guides” leads to a page showing over sixty discussion guides for books published by IVP, a great resource if you are looking for a book to discuss in a group.

If you go to a page for a book, you will find a good size rendering of the cover, publication data including page counts and ISBN numbers, a discounted price and order button. Below these are a description of the book, endorsements, and an author profile. To the right of these are a table of contents, a press kit link for the book (downloadable PDF), related IVP books, and other books by the author published by IVP. One thing I noted that they eliminated from the former website were Goodreads reviews from readers (I suppose one can go to Goodreads for these). Overall, this makes for a cleaner appearance of these pages.

I suspect they are still refining some features on the site. I discovered that clicking on the “Hard Saying of the Day” takes one to a “this page does not exist” page.  When the site first went up, I was dismayed that the former links to the site I had used for many of the books I reviewed had the same problem. Now when you click on links for a book under the old website system, they forward to the current site for the book. Thanks for fixing that,  IVP, so that I don’t have hundreds of links that don’t work on my blog! I should also note that I have not tried using the mobile version of the site extensively. I did discover that for some reason, when I tried entering something in the searchbar, I could not keep the search bar or my Android keyboard visible, and thus could not search. At this point, I would say the site feels more computer- than mobile-friendly.

All in all, IVP has created a new, very up to date looking site with a clean appearance, easy navigability, and many features for book buyers and for readers. There are no pop-ups or overlay ads that can be so annoying. What one finds is a site that makes getting information about a book you might be interested in easy, allows you to order that book, or in many cases, an e-book easily (which provides a higher return to the publisher than going to that big online seller) and offers some wonderful free resources to enhance your devotional and reading life.

Interview: Robert A. Fryling, Publisher, InterVarsity Press: Part Two

Robert Fryling IVPYesterday, I posted the first part of a conversation I had recently with the publisher of InterVarsity Press. As the interview went on we discussed changes in the publishing world and reading habits, and some of the most significant publishing milestones of Bob Fryling’s tenure. Here’s the second part of our interview:

During the time you have been publisher at InterVarsity Press, how have you seen reading habits change, your target audiences, how have you adjusted to some of the changes you are seeing in the market?

That’s a question we are always trying to answer because things are always changing. A good example of this you would be familiar with is Jim Sire’s The Universe Next Door. That used to be a general book that was sold in Christian bookstores and lay people and students would read that. Now it is primarily an academic text, a secondary text, and most Christian bookstores do not carry it.

You can see the effect of people not reading serious non-fiction at the same level they would have twenty years ago. It’s not so much a “dumbing down” as people not having the time or attention span to focus on thoughtful non-fiction. There has been a lot of increase in fictional reading in the general Christian market and inspirational reading.

It takes work to think through well-honed arguments and issues and so our market has changed from more general readers to pastors and people in ministry and parachurch ministries and Christian colleges and seminaries. So now about fifty percent of our books are academic books [IVP has a sub-imprint IVP Academic] or reference books whereas twenty years ago it would have been about twenty percent. There is a very intentional group who read, and read your blogs, but it is a shrinking group of people and it does tend to be more those in ministry or the academy rather than general lay people.

Could we talk a bit about the role of InterVarsity Press as part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and how you’ve seen the role of supporting student and faculty mission continue to develop and change during the years of your tenure?

I think there are two major areas in which IVP is particularly appreciated by staff. One is for the public relations value. Often staff find that pastors and donors know about InterVarsity Press and not InterVarsity and so it can be a nice bridge because the name is the same. In fact, in the publishing world we are often just referred to as InterVarsity. Jim Lundgren [Interim President of InterVarsity/USA] was saying sometimes he has been with donors and they thought he was representing IVP because that was the “brand” that was known. Staff use books a lot with donors and pastors. We are glad we can do that and provide a sense of culture, of who InterVarsity is as a thoughtful engaged ministry.

The other area obviously is in its teaching. We publish books that support the core values of InterVarsity — life of the mind, evangelism, discipleship, world missions, vocational stewardship –all the aspects that are part of InterVarsity’s identity. IVP supports and sometimes leads InterVarsity as staff read some of these books, and then teach and lead students in some of these issues. One of the big differences that you would probably appreciate was that at one time staff would have booktables and buy lots of books and sell them to students. Now staff will get the books and teach them to students. We are getting less sales to students. Many staff are also using IVP books as part of their own education and training.

Looking over the nineteen years of your tenure at InterVarsity Press what are some of the publishing projects that you take the most pride in, that you’ve had a chance to oversee to publication?

Without a doubt, the most significant one was the publication of The Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture as a twenty-nine volume enterprise that was started before I came here but was published after I started at IVP. I was involved in choosing the cover design and the latter aspects of that and working with Tom Oden who was the general editor with whom I worked for fifteen years as that project was coming about.

The second thing was the development of the Formatio sub-imprint, focusing on spiritual formation. At the time we started that, spiritual formation wasn’t even used as a term among most evangelicals. Now that obviously is very widespread and I think we’ve had a hand in promoting spiritual formation issues in general evangelicalism, whereas before it was limited to mostly Catholic audiences or mainline audiences. I think that has been a tremendously successful project that I’m very grateful for. We’ve not so much cornered the market, but authors come to us because they realize that for evangelicals looking for spiritual formation books, IVP is the place to go.

The third thing I would say is we have developed a lot of partnerships, for instance with the Apprentice Institute with James Bryan Smith. We’ve done some things with Veritas Forum and Veritas Riff and with Ruth Haley Barton and the Transforming Center. We probably have about twelve or thirteen different partnerships with different organizations. CAPS [Christian Association for Psychological Studies] with psychology is a significant area of partnership. We are grateful for these partnerships as they help us connect with their audiences.

The other thing I might add which is very different is that we have been very intentional in trying to recruit minority authors and women authors and so we’ve had a series of consultations where we pay the full freight for unpublished authors to attend. We had one for African-American authors, for Asian-American authors. This year we are having one for Hispanic leaders. We do one for women in the academy. We bring people together for a few days and tell them about publishing, the editorial process, the marketing process, and really try to encourage them to write for us as their voices need to be heard within evangelicalism. We have published roughly 160 books over the last fifteen years by minority authors.

In wrapping up, I wondered what you could share about your plans after retirement?

Actually, I don’t have any right now. It feels like a time to wait on the Lord. I plan my life, I am a planner and I’ve been doing that for all of my life. It just seems that this is a time that I’m not to be anxious about that but to see what might come about. I have about another eight months or so before I retire. I’m not trying to find another job or do things but just see what might come about. I feel very open-handed about that right now.

Any writing plans that you might have?

That would be a category of things I might pursue. Right now I am so busy with our business as such that I haven’t had much time to think about that but after Urbana [InterVarsity’s triennial conference on world mission at which InterVarsity Press has a significant presence] I will probably start thinking about those things. I might indeed write something after retirement but at this time have no specific plans to do so.

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Postscript: I would like to take this opportunity to thank Bob Fryling, not only for the time he took for this interview, but also for all those books that have been part of my own “education and training.”

Interview: Robert A Fryling, Publisher, InterVarsity Press: Part One

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Robert A. Fryling, Publisher, InterVarsity Press

Recently, Robert (Bob) Fryling announced he will be retiring as publisher of InterVarsity Press (IVP) in June 2016. Bob Fryling also serves as a Vice President of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. Out of his leadership experiences, he published The Leadership Ellipse in 2009. Recently we sat down via Skype for an interview in which we discussed his career, his tenure at InterVarsity Press, how IVP relates to its parent organization, changes he has seen in publishing, and what publishing accomplishments he thought most significant during his time at InterVarsity Press.

This interview has a bit of a flavor of an “inside conversation” due to the fact that Bob Fryling and I are both employed with InterVarsity/USA and have had a long association, Bob Fryling in the publishing division and I in Collegiate Ministries. I have inserted clarifications in a few places where a reference might be particularly unclear to an outsider. Otherwise, this is a very lightly edited transcript of the conversation. I should also mention that Bob on Books is a private endeavor, and not an official social media outlet of InterVarsity Press or InterVarsity/USA. With that, here is the first part of the interview:

You’ve had a pretty interesting career before you came to the publishing world. Could you recap for us your career before you came to InterVarsity Press?

I started off as a Campus Staff Worker in New England responsible for thirteen campuses in New Hampshire and Maine. I spent a lot of time driving on the turnpike. That was a great experience. I had large state schools like the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire and smaller schools like Colby and Bates. It was a great way to learn about ministry and to be involved with InterVarsity. I became a team leader and then Area Director in New England and then Regional Director for the Northeast.  In 1980 I moved to Madison and was national Director of Campus Ministries. I lived in Madison for seventeen years with two stints as Director of Campus Ministries and with a stint as Director of Human Resources in between. I started our NISET [National Institute of Staff Education and Training] program and led a lot of our management training. I came back to Campus Ministries when asked by Gordon MacDonald when he became President. I served in that role for a total of 14 years. I moved to the Press in 1997. It will be nineteen years by the end of June of 2016 as IVP publisher.

What was the biggest change or transition in moving from the collegiate ministry world to the publishing world?

A number of interesting things. I wasn’t asked to speak as much! As Director of Campus Ministries I spoke often at student and regional staff conferences. Somehow the publisher’s role was not seen as a ministerial role in the same sense. I had a lot to learn about the publishing industry. The publisher role was more of a CEO role. I was able to be in more of a leadership role without having to process things through three or four levels of people spread across the country. We have a lot of process at IVP but having most of the people in the building makes the process easier and the pace of decision-making was much, much faster because we have to get books out on time and sign authors. It was figuring out how to marry a ministry and a business. With Collegiate Ministries you don’t have the sense of the business aspect in the sense of time or urgency or money, although there is fund-raising, but it is not the same thing as making financial decisions every day as to how your business is going to turn out. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of bringing together both parts and that business is a ministry, too.

One of the things I’ve heard about InterVarsity Press is that you’ve won some awards for being a great place to work. I wonder if you could talk about that and what makes it such a good place to work?

I can answer the second part first. We have a lot of great people here. People come because they appreciate the books that we publish. We have been recognized by the Best Christian Workplaces Survey, I believe it is six straight times, and one of the questions that is asked is, “what do you most appreciate about IVP?” Usually the top answer to that across the whole company are the books that we publish. People are attracted to that. People are affected by the books. You can’t edit books and mark up books that don’t affect you as to its content. So that’s a big piece.

We have a strong leadership working team. Five of us have been together for eighteen years and so we’ve been able to benefit from each other’s gifts. We are fairly transparent in our leadership. We have a daily sales record so everyone in the company knows where we are on our sales on a day to day basis. We give quarterly financial reports and we share everything about what’s going on. I think people feel a high sense of ownership for IVP, a great deal of loyalty, great communication, and fine people. It sort of all comes together.

One of the things that may be indicative of this is that we have office meetings on a regular basis but we only have them when we need them. So we try to avoid perfunctory meetings but when we get together, everyone is expected to be there, so there is this sense of real community. We celebrate anniversaries, we share announcements, there may be times when we have authors that visit and usually those meetings are a morale boosting time and celebration time when we are together.  We have special Christmas parties, we honor people when they leave, when people get married, when they have children. We try to celebrate each other, we try to celebrate our authors and our books and that creates a very positive environment.

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In Part Two of the interview, which will appear tomorrow, we will discuss how InterVarsity Press has responded to trends in reading and publishing, how IVP continues to support the collegiate ministry of InterVarsity, what Bob Fryling sees as IVP’s most significant accomplishments under his tenure, and his plans for retirement.

Conflicts of Interest and Bias in Reviewing

managing-coiThe last few years of writing reviews on Goodreads and on this blog have been an interesting journey from writing reviews simply because I want to remember what the book was about and my “takeaways” to having a group of people following my reviews who are interested readers, and in some cases authors or publishers. I’ve gone from only reviewing books I’ve bought to getting review copies of books from publishers. Friends have asked me to review books they’ve written, and sometimes I’ve done so. I also review a fair number of books from InterVarsity Press, the publishing division of the organization for whom I work. Most of these books I purchase at a discount and some I receive on a complimentary basis, not for review, but for use in my work.

What this raises, which was called to my attention by a friend who forwarded this NY Times article, is the question of reviewer bias and conflict of interest. My first response as I think about this is that it is impossible to not be biased unless I am utterly ignorant of a subject, and even then, I have my own preferences about writing style and more. If I’m utterly ignorant of a subject, I may actually be an unhelpful reviewer, even if relatively unbiased.

On the matter of conflict of interest, it was interesting to discover what the New York Times Book Review considered to be conflicts of interest: writing a blurb for the book, having the same agent, or publishing under the same imprint, particularly if it is a small publishing house (none of which is an issue for me at present). They did not consider a personal relationship with the author to be a conflict of interest or strong feelings on the book’s subject to be a problem. Rather it may be an asset if it adds depth and insight to the review and is acknowledged.

So here are a few thoughts of how I am learning to deal with this that I hope will be helpful to those who read my reviews. I also would welcome the comments of other reviewers.

1. I do make a disclosure at the end of my reviews when a book I am reviewing was obtained on a complimentary basis for review. As I understand this, it may be an FTC requirement to do so and publishers actually request this. I have been critical of books I’ve received as review copies and try not to treat them any differently than other books I review. I send the reviews to the publishers as well as publish them on social media. So far no one has cut me off.

2. If I would consider the author a friend, as opposed to an acquaintance, I would disclose this and perhaps give a personal slant to the review where this is relevant. I consider someone a “friend” if we’ve had what I consider a significant and ongoing personal or professional relationship. If I end up considering the book really bad, I just won’t publish a review (I’ve never had this come up yet). I have raised questions or differences in reviewing the books of friends, as I have others.

3. Where I have strong feelings or a definite perspective that is similar to the author’s, I will often ask the question as I review of “what is missing?” or “what might I add?” to what they have written. In general, this would follow my summary of the basic content of their work, and appreciation for what they’ve written. I sometimes will mention books or authors with opposing views, as I’m aware of these.

4. Where I would hold a perspective differing from the author, I would first of all try to fairly represent what they’ve written and the merits of their work and only then, acknowledge questions, reservation, or critique of what they’ve written. I don’t always do this. If they’ve written well and presented their case well, I may simply try to situate their contribution within the context of the larger discussion and differing points of view. Sometimes, I may commend works giving differing perspectives that I’ve found helpful.

5. When would I acknowledge personal bias? I don’t like doing this all the time because I think the review should be about the book, not about me. I think if I come to the review with a strong bias against the book or author, I need to say so. Sometimes that will be true of me and I’ll be favorably surprised by some aspect of the book, or the book as a whole. I’ll say that as well.

6. So, what about those reviews I do of InterVarsity Press? I’ve acknowledged my connection to the publisher both here and previously. I don’t think I need to do this with each book. This is a private blog and not done for my organization. I try to approach reviews as I would for books from other publishers, trying to respect the author’s effort, give some idea of the content and value of the book, and critique where this is warranted. Actually some of my toughest criticism has been of a few of their books. That said, I do appreciate the high quality of books they’ve published over many years, and certainly am happy if people decide to buy one of their books because of a review I’ve written.

The truth is, I have a passion for seeing people buy and read good literature, no matter who publishes it, and even if I disagree with the perspective. I think what it comes down to for me is that in whatever I review, I want to be fair to the author and honestly represent the book to the prospective reader, whether people like what I write or not. If at some point, I fail at this, feel free to let me know. After all, that’s the social in social media.

So Where Do You Find Those Books You Review?

Someone asked this question on a recent post, and I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this directly.  Finding books that interest me has never been a problem, in one sense. Finding time to read all the books I’m interested in is probably the challenge–and keeping up with other important things in life. But learning about my sources might be interesting for others, so here goes:

1. My most tried and true way of finding books is simply the local second hand bookstore (in our case, Half Price Books, of which there are several outlets in my home town). Often I do not go there looking for a particular book. My usual practice is that I have several sections (science, fiction, history, and religion) in which I particularly look. I also check out the bargain section–I’ve made some great finds of books I was interested in that I picked up for a song.

2. Of course, these trips are supplemented from time to time with library book sales and visits to other book stores.

3. I also attend some conferences related to my work. There is often a book table with books related to the conference theme and our broader work. Many of the academically oriented books, and those on higher education come from these book tables.

4. The organization I work with has a publishing house, InterVarsity Press. You may notice that a fair number of the books reviewed here come from them. We have the option to purchase new releases at a steep discount, and receive complimentary copies of some books related to collegiate ministry. I read these books because they deal with issues I’m interested in, often quite well. When that’s not the case, I feel free to say so. I am paying for most of those books, even if they are at discount!

5. Some of my books are e-books and I learn of these through three sources: Amazon via their Kindle Daily Deal emails, BookBub, which also emails about daily deals, and NetGalley, which is a website where bona fide book reviewers (in print or on blogs) can request e-galleys of new releases in exchange for posting reviews not only on their own sites but on NetGalley’s site, which provides feedback to publishers. Big danger here is that in the ease of downloading to a reader, you will acquire far more than you can read.

6. I follow reviews of others on Goodreads, in Books and Culture, the New York Times Book Review, First Things, and other periodicals that include reviews. Hearts and Minds Books “Booknotes” is another great source. I often look more at reviews than articles in some journals. Then I keep an eye out for a good deal on the books I’m interested in.

7. One of the things I’ve begun doing is requesting review copies of books I’m interested in reading and reviewing. Review copies are furnished at no cost but involve the commitment to read and review the book often within a 30 to 60 day period, send a copy of the review to the publisher that they can re-post, and to post a review on commercial media like Amazon. So you need to be a legit reviewer with a review platform like a blog. I suggest being sparing in your requests so that you can honor your commitment to review the book in a timely fashion.

8. Occasionally a book will be an “assigned” reading for work purposes. My usual reaction is, “Oh boy–I can even justify reading as a work-related activity!

9. Every so often, I stop by our local library. They have a section with their new acquisitions and this is one more way to learn about recent publications in areas of interest.

10. Finally, there are those books friends suggest or even give you and tell you you “HAVE” to read. I will if I’m interested. My son is a source of a number of these, and thankfully, he knows enough about my propensities to buy stuff that I actually AM interested in!

So there it is. Those are some of the ways I find out about books, and find the books I review. As I said, this has never been a problem in my “bookish” world. But maybe some of these ideas will connect you with new sources of learning about good books. Hopefully, it doesn’t open up new avenues of temptation!

 

Books Out, Books In

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So we really are trying to clear out some books.  Sold a box load at our local bookstore last weekend.  Gave away another box load this weekend at a grad student retreat.  So what is awaiting me when I get home?  You guessed it–two box loads of books from my good friends at InterVarsity Press!  Right back where I started.

Here are 10 that caught my attention:

1.  Troubled Minds:  Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission by Amy Simpson.  I have several friends dealing with loved ones facing mental illness.

2.  On a related theme is Restoring the Shattered Self:  A Christian Counselor’s Guide to Complex Trauma by Heather Davediuk Gingrich.  Once again, because I know people who have survived such traumas and carry the wounds of these.

3.  The next two address our digital world.  The first is Ministry in the Digital Age, by David T Bourgeois.  The cover mentions that we are in a “post-website” world.  Sigh!

4.  The second is a bit more profound.  Shaping a Digital World by Derek C Schuurman focuses on how the big narrative of creation, fall, and redemption might shape our use and development of digital technologies.

5.  The next book moves from shaping the digital world to shaping our brains.  The God-Shaped Brain by Timothy R Jennings, M.D. explores how our beliefs about God change our brains.  I have some neuroscience friends who might find that intriguing!

6.  While we are on the shaping theme, my good friend Robbie F Castleman has recently published a new book: Story Shaped Worship.  What she explores is how the narrative of scripture shaped a pattern of worship for Israel and the early church and what it means to have our worship today shaped by this timeless story.

7.  The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism:  The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott by Brian Stanley is the latest volume in IVP’s History of Evangelicalism series.  Every one of these has been outstanding and I look forward to this installment centered around two of my heroes.

8.  This one should be a great resource for our Dead Theologians group:  Reading the Christian Spiritual Classics by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel.

9.  The new atheists love to fix on the idea of holy war in the Old Testament as an argument for rejecting God.  Holy War in the Bible, a collection of articles edited by Heath A Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan (who wrote Is God a Moral Monster–here is my review) promises to be an excellent resource in responding to this argument.

10.  Bonhoeffer, Christ, and Culture is another collection of articles edited by Keith L Johnson and Timothy Larsen.  Bonhoeffer’s life and work has captured much attention of late.

I haven’t read any of these yet and probably won’t get to all of them.  Local friends, let me know if there is something you are interested in.  But I’m sure, Lord willing, that you will see some of these reviewed down the road.

OK, now for some shut-eye!