Category Archives: book review

The War Prayer

Hello, all. I know I’ve said this at least¬†twice already, but the new blog is on the way. Having a few difficulties in the transition, but believe me, it’s coming. ūüôā

In the meantime, I thought I would¬†direct¬†your attention¬†to a little book I read recently by Mark Twain called The War Prayer. I would love to hear the reaction of every evangelical Christian in America to this book.¬†¬†The War Prayer is¬†a fictional tale, written during the Philippine-American War¬†which took place in¬†the first decade of the twentieth century, about a¬†man who interrupts the service of a local church to inform the patriotic congregation of what their prayers to God for victory in their nation’s latest campaign really mean.

This book is for¬†anyone who has ever felt¬†uneasy about¬†the rampant idolatry of American Christianity’s unchecked devotion to “God and country.” Twain (whose real name was Samuel Clemens) was aware of this terrible wickedness, and The War Prayer was his not-so-subtle way of exposing it.

From the preface:

To Dan Beard, who dropped in to see him, Clemens read the ‘War Prayer,’ stating that he had read it to his daughter Jean, and others, who had told him he must not print it, for it would be regarded as sacrilege.

‘Still, you are going to publish it, are you not?’

Clemens, pacing up and down the room in his dressing-gown and slippers, shook his head.

‘No,’ he said, ‘I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world.

‘It can be published after I am dead.’

Thankfully¬†The War Prayer¬†was published, and I highly recommend it¬†to all my readers. It’s so short it only took me ten minutes to read, so really you have no excuse. Find a copy, read it, let its message sink into your heart, and then I would love to hear your reaction.


The story of Adam & Eve

Through the past six years I’ve worked on and off at¬†a local Christian bookstore.¬†While the experience is rare¬†you still can find something on the shelves from time to time that is actually worth reading. Not long ago I purchased one such product-a¬†chunky white paperback with a¬†pencil drawing on the front of it bearing the title The Lost Books of the Bible & the Forgotten Books of Eden. Within its covers I found a collection of Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical writings whose dates and places of composition can only be guessed at.

Some of the stuff I’ve read in this book so far is downright silly. Other parts, however,¬†are nothing short of intriguing, even beautiful in both style and content. Of the latter, one of the titles¬†I took immediate interest in¬†was a two-part saga simply called Adam & Eve. Come to find out it is¬†the story of Adam and Eve after their banishment from the Garden by God, starting from the day they leave Eden and ending with the assumption of Enoch into heaven before the Flood, a story I never even knew existed.

Sounds interesting? It did to me.

The book is far too long to go into much detail about here. While there is¬†certainly some of the aforementioned silliness contained in its pages (for instance, at one point God¬†delivers Adam from¬†the devil’s attack¬†by stirring a great wind and blowing the serpent, whose form¬†the deceiver¬†had again taken, far away onto the shores of distant India), there is¬†still a very great deal worth taking note of.

The dialogue between Adam and Eve when they compare their new, fallen condition to the way their minds and bodies were in the garden is most intriguing, and the promises made to them by God that one day He Himself will come as their Savior are nothing short of profound. Once, upon Adam being overwhelmed with fear at the darkness of the cave he and Eve were living in, the story goes that God came to him and said,

All this misery that you have been made to take upon yourself because of your transgression will not free you from the hand of Satan, and it will not save you. But I will. When I shall come down from heaven, and shall become flesh of your seed, and take upon myself the infirmity from which you now suffer, then the darkness that came upon you in this cave shall come upon me in the grave, when I am in the flesh of your seed. And I, who am without years, shall be subject to the reckoning of years, of times, of months, and of days, and I shall be reckoned as one of the sons of men, in order to save you.

Part 1 of the story deals mainly with the interactions of Adam and¬†Eve with God, each other, and the devil. Emphasis is laid upon man’s ignorance and repeated failure in the face of temptation, the devil’s craftiness in deceiving, and God’s repeated mercy towards His created couple. Some very interesting things are said about the nature of man, God, and Satan as well. It ends with the birth of their children and the murder of¬†Abel at the hand of his brother Cain.

Part 2 takes up the story from there and¬†proceeds all the way to the falling away of Seth’s righteous seed and the preservation of only three righteous men-Methuselah, Lamech, and Noah-who remained on the earth¬†prior to¬†the Flood. The ending forms a¬†perfect setup for The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, which immediately follows the story of Adam and Eve in the collection of books.

Most¬†readers will no doubt recognize many¬†corresponding elements¬†between¬†the story of Adam and Eve and the more familiar account found in the book of Genesis. Nothing here contradicts that account from what I can tell, but¬†what you¬†will find¬†is far more detail given about the people, places, and events with which most of us¬†are already familiar. If you are at all interested in the¬†stories of antiquity which form the link, as the editor¬†puts it, between “the time when human life began, [and] the time when the human mind could express itself and the human hand could write,” you will want to check out this story of Adam and Eve for yourself. At the very least it forms an interesting supplement to the Genesis account, filling in many of the blanks left to us by¬†scripture. So go grab a copy and let me know what you think.

Paul: Apostle of the heart set free

Recently I decided to wade out a bit into the deep and sometimes murky waters of scholastic literature. So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by what I’ve found, believe it or not. Having begun a couple months back with N.T. Wright’s little book about the gnostic gospel of Judas, more recently I finished F.F. Bruce’s colossal work, Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free.

F.F. Bruce was the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester in England prior to his passing in 1990. I’d heard nothing but good things about his¬†writings from various sources in the past, so I figured I’d give him a shot. Seeing that I have a particular interest in the historical context of first-century Christianity I was immediately drawn to Bruce’s work on Paul, which, according to¬†the¬†preface, was developed from lectures given over the¬†course of¬†eighteen years as part of the syllabus for the¬†Honors School of Biblical Studies entitled, “The Missionary Career of Paul in its Historical Setting.”¬†In Bruce’s own words:

I have not attempted to expound Paul’s teaching systematically but rather to treat its main themes in their historical context, as Paul himself had occasion to develop them in his letters.

Perhaps my expectations were set too high going into the opening chapters, because at first I wasn’t impressed. The writing was good, the information solid, and the presentation fluid enough, but it took some time for me to really get into it. In fact, I shelved¬†the book¬†for a number of weeks before returning to finish it out of a sense of¬†obligation to complete what I’d begun. Fortunately I did¬†come back, because about mid-way through the book really began to pick up steam. It was probably about the time of Paul’s first visit to Corinth where I began to stumble upon one gold mine after another of valuable information, and from there on out every chapter was littered with the insightful gems of Bruce’s scholarly research.

Should you decide to read this book for yourself, though, let me forewarn you: Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free is very long. 474 pages long, to be exact. Yet it was well worth the investment of time and attention in my case, and I trust it will be for you as well.

Looking for a Jesus-shaped spirituality

Many months ago a friend sent me a copy of Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity in the mail. I¬†had only recently heard about the book, and I knew vaguely of Michael Spencer through his blog, which I gathered had¬†gained quite a large readership over the years leading up to Michael’s passing away due to cancer in April of 2010.

Known throughout the blogosphere as the Internet Monk, Michael wrote a great deal about¬†what he called “Jesus-shaped spirituality.” Mere Churchianity,¬†published¬†only a¬†month after his¬†passing, deals heavily with this thought. His¬†intended audience is the scores of people who have left or are thinking about leaving¬†the traditional church, and his¬†expressed goal is to help¬†us find our way back (or encourage us further in) to¬†this Jesus-shaped spirituality.

The thing I like most about this book is its refreshing honesty. Michael¬†himself pastored in a traditional church,¬†yet he¬†wasted no time trying to cover up or excuse the glaring inconsistencies which he saw between modern Christianity and the person of¬†Christ. Throughout his¬†writing he constantly urges the reader to look to Jesus Himself and not to any other thing for the spiritual reality that all men seek. In fact, there were many times while reading when I thought to myself, “Ok, here it comes, he’s about to spring the trap and try to convince me to return to the ‘church’,” but it never happened. In fact, Michael makes it¬†clear that¬†this¬†is not¬†his intention. He even admits, “for many of you, leaving the church may have been the most spiritually healthy thing you ever did.”¬†I appreciated hearing that from the brother.

To me, one of the signs of a really good book is that you find yourself underlining practically every page; much of Mere Churchianity was like that for me.  I also found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion at the aforementioned honesty with which Michael writes about the inconsistencies of organized religion and the absurdities of human nature. It was just a fun read, if I could put it that way.  

So go have a look at Michael’s website if you haven’t already, and maybe even read the book for yourself if you get a chance. His “dispatches from the post-evangelical wilderness” will surely resonate with you on one level or another, I guarantee it.

Jessie Penn-Lewis & the centrality of the cross

I’m gonna guess that eight out of ten of¬†my readers¬†have never heard of a woman named Jessie Penn-Lewis. That’s ok. I’m writing today to introduce you to her ministry. ūüôā

Actually, I don’t know a whole lot¬†about Mrs. Penn-Lewis’ personal history. I’m aware there is¬†some controversy surrounding her teachings, associated as she was with the Keswick convention and other “deeper life”¬†movements of her day. She did seem to be a little overly obsessed with Satan and demonic activity, in my own opinion.¬†Otherwise,¬†what little of her stuff I’ve read has the imprint of Christ all over it, no doubt about it.

In particular, allow me to direct your attention to a little booklet entitled The Centrality of the Cross. Only 142 pages long, including ten brief, easy-to-read chapters which explore various aspects of the cross and its relation to the spiritual life of a believer, this¬†little work is a gem. The book begins with a¬†quote from Henry C. Mabie and goes¬†on to¬†further unfold the meaning of¬†what he said, from the author’s own experience:

The Greek word used by Paul in First Corinthians 1:18 is logos… [not] ‘preaching but¬†‘the subject matter of preaching; with the very essence of that which was to be preached; with that ‘Logos’ of the cross which constituted its rationale, its Divine reason, a reason which… he¬†declares to be ‘the wisdom of God’…

This ‘Logos of the cross’ is conceived by Paul to be the key which unlocks the riddle of the universe, solves all mysteries, and reconciles all things…

I believe this book is actually a transcription of spoken messages delivered by Mrs. Penn-Lewis in conference.¬†I’m not sure if it is still¬†available through mainstream distributors, but fortunately¬†the seeking reader¬†always has¬†Amazon¬†for all of his out-of-print needs. ūüôā

Also, for those¬†who enjoy exploring¬†the various historical connections between past servants of God, I know that T. Austin Sparks was briefly associated with Mrs. Penn-Lewis in her “Overcomer” ministry toward the beginning of his own public foray, and that her writings¬†were¬†likewise¬†influential in the early formation of Watchman Nee’s thought as a young man.¬†Again, I’ve not read much of Penn-Lewis other than The Centrality of the Cross, but I highly recommend it. If any of you are familiar with other of her works, I’d love to hear about it.

The Torch of the Testimony

An old friend recently asked me about¬†a book called The Torch of the Testimony by John W. Kennedy. I assume he’s thinking about reading it, so I figured what the heck, I’ll do a review. The¬†following quote is taken from the back cover and I think sums it up pretty well:

The 2,000 year history of those Christians-and churches-that have stood outside the Protestant-Catholic tradition. This book was originally published in India in 1964 and is little known in the western world. Beginning in the first century John Kennedy traces the history of Christian groups who remained outside formalized religion down through the ages. A stirring, passionate and sometime heart-rending story of suffering to the centrality of Christ within the Body of Christ.

I first¬†got my hands on a copy of this book about seven years ago,¬†sometime during my tenure at Bible college. I wasn’t nearly as interested in history then as I am now-hardly at all,¬†to be honest-so nothing about the¬†Torch really stood out to me at that point in time. I was a little intrigued by the thought of believers coming together outside of formalized religion, but¬†I knew so little of what that meant that I wasn’t really¬†compelled to give Kennedy’s book the time it deserved. All I remember from my brief perusal was being struck by a passing comment¬†the author made about the testimony of the Moravians fading away because they did not have an adequate wineskin to contain¬†the flow of spiritual life they were experiencing.¬†I found this interesting, but I just wasn’t ready¬†to hear it.

Add a couple more years to the journey, throw in¬†some fresh light on the Lord’s eternal purpose, not to mention an experience of fellowship in the Body of Christ that¬†cut¬†straight across the grain of everything I formerly associated with the¬†word “church,” and I¬†became ready¬†for the message of this book.

Kennedy begins by exploring the origin of the Jewish synagogue and the historical context of the first Christian communities. He highlights how God was pressing on from the day of Pentecost to gain a full and undivided expression of His Son through the church, which He found first at Antioch and then in the Gentile assemblies spread throughout the Empire.

Chapters three and four examine the spiritual life and order of those churches, as best as they can be garnered from scripture, and the signs of declension which were in evidence as early on as the Jerusalem church. Ultimately threats of division, self-appointed leadership, and false teaching culminated in a widespread departure from primitive order stemming from the loss of spiritual life among the people. The development of the clergy system, consolidation of power in a single man, the rise of a federated church system-Kennedy shows how all these were unfortunate reactions of human expediency against the many perils facing the community of believers.

From there he goes on to consider the triumph of Constantine and¬†his alliance of church and state, various reactions against the ensuing¬†spiritual fornication of the “church” (so-called) with the world, and then the long and often overlooked history of the “torch bearers”-nameless groups of believers who held to the primitive testimony of Jesus Christ as preeminent over all things. Here is where the story gets especially bloody.

Eventually the path leads us to the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the believers called Anabaptists (independent churches who received as much persecution from the hands of the Protestants as they did Catholics), and a number of other groups who sought namelessness but were again and again labeled by their accusors according to the name of some outstanding figure among them or some practice which roused the particular hatred of the establishment. Sadly, according to historian Will Durant, “the church has killed only two types of people: those who do not believe in the teachings of Jesus and those who do.” And¬†again, from¬†Philip Schaff:¬†‚ÄúMore Christian blood has been shed by Christians than by heathens and Mohammedans.‚ÄĚ

Kennedy¬†concludes with¬†a general¬†history of the Plymouth Brethren in the mid-1800’s (I’m still waiting for someone to take up the story from there)¬†and a summary chapter on¬†some of the lessons we¬†may¬†learn from both¬†the mistakes and triumphs of the past.¬†“The denominations of today are often the churches of yesterday,” he reminds us, and¬†declares to¬†the reader in no uncertain terms that

The testimony of the church is positive, not merely reactionary… It is a testimony to the truth that all who are born of the Spirit into the family of Christ are one, and must grow and witness together in the fellowship of the church where the Lord dwells in their midst. The church meets on that positive ground, neither adding anything to it, nor taking anything away. But it entails sacrifice. It means the taking up of the cross, the cross of misunderstanding, of shame, of being called ‘separationists.’ Yet every spiritual movement has begun in sacrifice. That is another of history’s lessons.

The true church is the scene of a continual spiritual struggle for its own existence… If we do not hold firmly on to the fellowship of the church, it will slip from our grasp. It is of all things most vehemently assailed. It is tempted to compromise with organized Christianity. It is tempted to organize itself in order to conserve what it has gained. It is tempted to sectarianism by limiting its growth to a certain emphasis of Christian truth. When it succumbs to any of¬†these temptations, declension follows, for progress has been limited, and when it has reached the end of its possible progress, it must fade out as a spiritual power.

There are just so many lines like this one to quote from¬†The Torch of the Testimony that I have struggled with what to leave out and what to include in this review. At any rate, I highly recommend this work to anyone who is interested in the history of the church in the margins. You will be convicted, intrigued, inspired, and challenged by the¬†witness of history, whose testimony unequivocaly declares, in Kennedy’s own words, that

Churches as they were in the times of the apostles have never ceased to exist… wherever God works through the power of His unchangeable Word, people made partakers of the divine nature, anxious to obey the Word which has shed a flood of light into their souls, have gathered together and are gathering together as the disciples did in Acts.

Practicing His Presence: A Review

Most people are familiar with Brother Lawrence’s¬†classic work from the 17th century, The Practice of¬†the Presence of God.¬†Less well-known are the writings of Frank Laubach from the early 20th century in which Laubach-a missionary to the Philllipines and author of over fifty books-chronicles¬†his own journey of seeking to maintain a constant¬†fellowship with the Lord. Seedsowers has put these writings together for us in a single compilation entitled Practicing His Presence.¬†“This book,” according to the foreword,

carries the testimony of two men’s unique relationship with God… walking in the awareness of the presence of Christ… just a Christ walked about on earth, constantly aware of His Father.

The editor immediately challenges us as to whether such a relationship is really attainable in life, if it is to be desired, and asks if such an experience is actually central to all that we know of the Christian life.¬† However our own stories may read up to this point, the testimonies of Lawrence and Laubach answer a resounding “yes” to each of¬†these questions.

Reading this book is like searching through a chest full of treasure. Every page is an open window into spiritual reality. Best of all, it is not only spiritual but practical. Both Laubach and Brother Lawrence offer practical tips on how to find and cultivate the kind of fellowship with an indwelling Lord that they themselves enjoyed.

Personally, I benefited more from Laubach’s portion than I did Brother Lawrence’s.¬†Listen to these¬†quotes from¬†Laubach, taken from letters he wrote to his father while living as a missionary on the island of Mindanao:

It is… that ‘moment by moment,’ every waking moment, surrender, responsiveness, obedience, sensitiveness, pliability, ‘lost in His love,’ that I now have the mind-bent to explore with all my might, to respond to Jesus Christ as a violin responds to the bow of the master.

Why do I constantly harp upon this inner experience? Because I feel convinced that for me,. and for you who read, there lie ahead undiscovered continents of spiritual living compared with which we are infants in arms.

I have tasted a thrill of fellowship with God which has made anything discordant with God disgusting.

Oh, this thing of keeping in constant touch with God, of making Him the object of my thought and the companion of my conversations, is the most amazing thing I ever ran across. It is working.

The most important discovery of my whole life is that one can take a little rough cabin and transform it into a palace just by flooding it with God.

It is our duty to live in the beauty of the presence of God on some mount of transfiguration until we become white with Christ. After all, the deepest truth is that the Christ-like life is glorious, undefeatably glorious. There is no defeat unless one loses God, and then all is defeat, though it be housed in castles and buried in fortunes.

If there is any contribution that I have to make to the world that will live, surely it must be my experience of God on Signal Hill.

If that isn’t enough to stir your hunger to read the book for yourself then¬†I don’t know what will.¬†¬†Brother Lawrence brings us more of the same in the second section, only now¬†we have it in a modern English that is very easy to read.¬†Practicing His Presence¬†is volume 1 in a library of spiritual classics released by the publisher. The front cover touts it as “one of the greatest pieces of Christian literature of all time”-a lofty status, but well-deserved in my opinion. Get this gem online, or better yet through your local bookstore. Or give me a call and I’ll let you borrow my copy. Whatever you do, just get your hands on this book.