Best Books for 2011

Considering we’re over two weeks into 2012 and I’ve had this on my to-do-list since the end of December, it’s time for me to compile my list of favorite books I’ve read and reviewed in the last year.  But I’m going to do this a little differently than you’d probably expect.  I’m not going to pick my highest-rated books based on my reviews, but I’m going to list the books that have had the biggest impact on my life.  Yes, I read for enjoyment, but most of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog have also been because I’m seeking to learn and grow, so at the end of the year I’m looking back to reflect on which ones led to the most growth and change in my life.

So here goes – my best books of 2011 – and what I learned from them (for the record, these are listed in the alphabetical order, not in rank-order):

  • Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge – This one almost seems obvious, given my love of Eldredge’s works, but when you also consider that I’ve reviewed other books by favorite authors (Yancey and Lucado to name a couple) and not included them on my list, you’ll realize this isn’t an exercise in listing my favorite authors. No, this is an exercise in listing those books that had the biggest impact on my growth over the past 12 months. It’s sad to say, but when I looked at the list of all my reviews I found myself saying, “Wow – I don’t even remember what that book was about!” That’s not the case with this one, though. Beautiful Outlaw challenged my view of Jesus in a way that few other books have ever done so. While I have some reservations (mentioned in the two reviews I post), I put this book down with a desire to know Jesus more personally and deeply than I had when I started – and it motivated me to spend more time in the Word and in conversation and fellowship with Him and others. To me that’s the mark of a book leading to change and growth.
  • Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby – just like Now I Walk on Death Row and While the World Watched helped me once again see the world through another’s eyes: this time through the eyes of those who are lost believing the lies of Islam. And it opened my heart to the necessity of reaching those people through my own actions – including gifts and prayers.
  • Church Diversity by Scott Williams – take Transformational Church and combine it with While the World Watched and you have an idea of the impact of Williams’ book. This book challenged me to think about worship and leadership in many new ways, it confirmed much of what I thought was happening in situations I was facing at various times throughout the year, and it offered insight into how I needed to approach some of those situations. This book is definitely deserving of being named to my list.
  • Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me by Ian Morgan Cron – Here’s the surprise book on my list, especially considering I gave it such a horrible review. But here’s why I’ve got to put it on my list of best reads: it caused me to reflect on how often I share Jesus with other people and ask myself the question, “Do others see Jesus in me?” My complaint about the book was that it didn’t focus me enough on the life and work of Christ – which then convicted me to say, “How can I do a better job than this book did?” I guess it’s like the old adage that says “You can learn just as much (if not more) from a non-example than you can from an example.” As I said in my original the review, the book is an absolute blast to read – it just didn’t have the focus I was looking for. But, six months after I read it, I still find myself thinking about it and recognizing it had a positive impact on my spiritual growth, so I’ve got to put it on my list.
  • Money & Marriage by Matt Bell – I wish I could say that all our money struggles were fixed after I read this book and that I was able to take every suggestion Bell had and put it into practice. What I can tell you is that it did lead to changes in how I view and manage money – all for the better – and so in that sense this book marked the beginning of a slow process for the better.
  • Now I Walk on Death Row by Dale Recinella – Here’s a book that tells the story of a real-life person who gives up everything this world counts as precious and trades it for the opportunity to minister to “the least of these”. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to be a prison chaplain, or even that I am looking to be one, but this book helped remind me there are lost and hurting people everywhere who need the love of Jesus – and that it is possible to be an agent for good in a lost and hurting world.
  • Radical by David Platt – to this day I still think back to the seemingly simple challenge Dr. Platt refers to as “radical” (read your Bible, pray, and give). And to this day I still struggle to do it! One of the best lessons I learned from the book, though, is the importance of sharing Jesus with other people and being motivated to do it. Platt’s comment that there “is no plan B” has been on my mind practically every day for the past year – and I find it convicting and motivating.
  • Simply Sacred by Gary Thomas – I’m still reading this book every day and finding more and more truth in it than the first time I read it. Melissa and I have been working through it as our daily devotional now for a couple of months and the insights Thomas shares have caused me to really examine my own beliefs and behaviors as I work to match them up with what God has called us to be and do. And since it’s the book we’re using for our couple’s devotional, it’s also challenged me to reflect on how we can grow spiritually as both a couple and family. Perhaps more than any other book on the list, this book has led to real change in how I act.
  • Transformational Church – I’ve spent the last eight years studying and working to better understand what it means to worship and what a church should be. Transformational Church is one of the best book I’ve ever read that answers that question. Without going into a lot of detail, the concepts and teachings in this book are ones that I applied in my own ministry and ones everyone in ministry should study, learn, and implement.
  • While the World Watched by Carolyn Maull McKinstry – I really didn’t anticipate or plan for this to be a “Top 10” list, but I guess it has ended up that way. This book really helped me see what it was like to live in a segregated society through the eyes of a black person. While segregation is something we learn about in school, since I was born after it was illegal (and because I grew up in the North) it was never anything I experienced. When I moved to North Carolina eight years ago I was shocked by the amount of racial tension I found here. While the past certainly doesn’t justify certain actions and policies that are present now, it absolutely helps explain them. This book really helped me see the world through someone else’s eyes.

So there you have it – my list of the most influential books on my life for the year 2011.  While I don’t make resolutions, I did start last year with a goal of reading at least one book a month – a goal I more than kept when I looked back and realized I reviewed 33 books last year.  While most were wonderful (and there are some I really considered putting on this list), the ones listed here are the ones that a year after reading them I can look back and say (without even looking at the list of my reviews), “I remember reading this book – here’s what I thought of it and here’s how it changed me.”  To me that’s what reading to grow is all about.  Sure, in reviewing the list of books I read I saw titles that caused me to say, “Oh yeah, I remember that – that was a great book!”  But their recollection needed a little reminder.  The ones on this list, though?  No reminder at all was needed.

So what’s coming next?  Here are some on my “To Read” shelf that will have reviews posted as soon as they’re completed:

  • Real Marriage by Mark & Grace Driscoll
  • Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas
  • Radical Together by David Platt
  • Out of a Far Country by Christopher Yuan
  • Why Jesus? by Ravi Zacharias
  • Doctrine by Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson

That’s just a small list – thank you to all those who follow this blog and listen to my ramblings and reviews.  Hopefully you find them enlightening, encouraging, and maybe even a little entertaining.  Here’s looking forward to another year.


The Invasion (Part I) (4.9)

“Christmas time is here,
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

“Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share

“Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there

“Christmas time is here
We’ll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year…”

So we are reminded by the Peanuts Gang…  Even one of our songs (my favorite Christmas choral song of all time), Christmastide, proclaims that Christmas is a time when “Peace, and love, and hope abide.”  Who doesn’t think of Christmas as a time of peace and tranquility?  Certainly that’s what we see portrayed in movies, read about in stories, and hear sung on the radio.  But “Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more…”  So suggested one of the greatest philosophers of our day: Theodore Geisel (more commonly known as Dr. Seuss).

I think too often we allow non-scriptural references to infect our doctrine (I was having a conversation about this yesterday with someone, actually!), and our understanding of Christmas (and it’s impact) is no different.  Too much of our belief about what Christmas was (and is) are drawn more from Silent Night and Away in a Manger than they are from Scripture.  Read how the birth of Christ is described by the Apostle John….

Then I witnessed in heaven an event of great significance.  I saw a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant, and she cried out because of her labor pains and the agony of giving birth. Then I witnessed in heaven another significant event.  I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with seven crowns on his heads.  His tail swept away one-third of the stars in the sky, and he threw them to the earth.  He stood in front of the woman as she was about to give birth, ready to devour her baby as soon as it was born.  She gave birth to a son who was to rule all nations with an iron rod.  And her child was snatched away from the dragon and was caught up to God and to his throne.  Then there was war in heaven.  Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels.  And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven…And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.  (Rev 12:1-5, 7-8, 18)

What happened in Matthew when the King learned of the birth of Jesus?  “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”  (2:16)

John Eldredge writes, “The birth of Christ was an act of war, an invasion.  The Enemy knew it and tried to kill him as a babe.”  This morning Pastor quoted Matthew 16:18 when Jesus said to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  This is not an image of defense for the church, but of offense.  Too often Christians think this verse paints the picture of us standing inside a walled city, resting in peace and tranquility, and that Satan can’t get through the defenses (so we respond by relaxing in some tropical paradise).  But that image couldn’t be further from the truth!

The image is one of war – of a fierce battle, where we are soldiers on the offense attacking the walled fortress (we’re on the outside) – and it’s a promise that the “gates of Hell” won’t withstand the onslaught!  It is not an image of resting in a tropical paradise, but of residing on a battlefield deep behind enemy lines – a place where most of us have never been and those who have would tell us we don’t ever want to go.  Yet that is exactly where Christ (and Christmas) places us.

When was the last time you ever thought, read, or heard about that understanding of Christmas?  We’ll look at this a little more next week.

Book Review: Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge

Last week I posted my response to Chapter 12 of Beautiful Outlaw as part of the daily blog tour, as well as referred to chapter 10 in last week’s choir devotional so today I want to give a general review of the book.

Let me start by giving the disclaimer that John Eldredge is one of my favorite authors – for many reasons.  Having said that, though I do caution people when I share his books.  While I find it difficult to find specific parts of his books that I disagree with, I do read his words carefully and make sure they line up with scripture.  Eldredge is one of those people who is, quite frankly, very controversial in the church.  Many of the more conservative pastors and authors out there have some serious disagreements with his theology as presented in his books.  I, for one, though have found that when read in context I find very little to disagree with.

What one must understand when reading Eldredge, at least in my opinion, is that he bases much of what he writes and teachers on his own interpretation of how God has worked in his own personal life – ie, his experiences.  Now to be fair, Eldredge always uses scripture to back-up what he says, but I believe it is dangerous to use personal experience and psychology to read the scripture.  Beautiful Outlaw is the perfect example of this.  The first 11 chapters focus on different characteristics of Christ’s character – characteristics that, while they are not necessarily anti-scriptural, requiring a reading-in to the scripture.  Do I think Jesus had a sense of humor?  Absolutely.  Do I think he laughed and played practical jokes?  Sure.  Do I find support for that in scripture?  No, not really.  Am I going to base a theology or view of Jesus on what I think about Jesus?  Not in this case – at least not to the point that I feel Eldredge does.

The second area I struggle with Eldredge – and I wish he’d just come right out and address this for everyone – is his view (or lack-there-of) of the Church.  Eldredge’s books – including Beautiful Outlaw – attack the “religious” experience at every chance he gets.  Too often “religious” can be read as “church.”  We know from his writings that Eldredge left the church for a year – and I don’t have a problem with that – and we know from past interviews that he is the member of a house church (or at least was several years ago).  Again, to be fair, here are two posts from Eldredge on his views on the Church: Finding Church and a FAQ from Ransomed Heart’s website.  Do I agree with Eldredge that the church has a lot of problems?  Absolutely and without question.  But I guess I’m just one of those people more inclined to stay in the church and fight to make it better instead of leaving to find (or create) something different.  He writes on his site about how churches around the globe generally follow the house-church format, except here in the US (and I assume he actually means in the developed world), but I don’t see how that can be a reason to put down the organized church.  If for no other purpose, organized church – for better or worse – helps provide a system of accountability for individual congregations.  Am I one who subscribes to a specific denomination?  No – but I do believe it important for a church to maintain membership with some sort of organization, denomination, or network of churches so that it does have some outside accountability.  I also know that throughout scripture we read that the Church is the Bride of Christ.  For the past several years it seems to be in vogue to bash the church – and I just have a hard time doing that considering the church is Jesus’ bride.  Does the church (global and local) have problems?  Yes – but, again, I feel it only right to try and work on those problems to fix them, not run away.  Ultimately, though, I think this is a perfect example of how Eldredge’s views have been a result of his experiences through life (see point #1 above).

Finally, and this is a touchy one, I struggle anytime I read or hear anyone say they have received a message directly from God.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe God speaks directly to people today and there are specific instances I can look back on in my life where I believe I heard God speak to me.  So it’s not that I don’t believe it happens; it’s just that I believe we need to be careful when we say, “God told me.”  Why?  Because if anyone disagrees with us (with good or bad reason) then we are actually telling them, “If you disagree you aren’t disagreeing with me – you’re disagreeing with God.”  And that’s a dangerous place to be.  Again, this ties in with struggle #1 – just because God tells Eldredge something (or me something for that matter) doesn’t make it something to be applied to everyone.

Take music for example – there are those out there who can never set foot in a bar because of the lifestyle they used to live and the fact that if they go back in they run a very high chance of slipping back into sin.  And God may tell those people, “Do not go into a bar – if you do it is a sin.”  But then there are other people who have the same background and same struggles that have been overcome and God says to them, “Go into the bar and witness – you’re the one with whom they can connect.”  The point here is that if the first person takes that message from God and then transfers it to everyone else they are invalidating the message the second person has received (and vice versa).

Does God speak to us individually?  Absolutely.  Has he spoken to me in very direct words?  Yes.  Have those words changed my life?  Of course.  But will I take them and put them forth for others as a requirement?  No.  I don’t put them on the same level as scripture, but all too often when I hear people say, “God told me” they seem to elevate it to a command for everyone.  Again, to be fair, I’m not sure Eldredge has actually done that – it’s just that it is so easy to interpret his writings as such.  He specifically points out in the book that every message we believe we get from God must be measured against scripture and, if it doesn’t fit with scripture we know it is not from God.  So he’s right – I just wish he would have devoted a little more time to helping the reader understand how to do that (I guess that’s what his previous book, Walking with God, was for, though :))

Now before I close and you think that I absolutely despised the book let me say I think it’s one of the best books on the life and character of Christ I have ever read – and it challenged me (more than any other book on Jesus) to dig into the gospels and study Jesus more, to spend more time with him in prayer getting to know him, and to really think about who Jesus is.  So in that sense it can’t be a bad book <grin>!  Read the first 11 chapters as one man’s opinion on who Jesus was – and if you disagree with something don’t worry about it.  In all honesty, if you just start reading at chapter 12 and read to the end you’ll have read the heart of what there is to read.  As I mentioned in my earlier review, chapters 1-11 seem at times disjointed and I struggled to find a common theme.  But once I came upon chapter 12 I just couldn’t put the book down – I almost wish he has started with chapters 12 & 13 and then inserted 1-11 before going on to finish the book.  They provided the big-picture for what those individual chapters was trying to communicate.

My thoughts in short?  Read this book.  But read it with a firm grasp of your own beliefs and understanding of Christ.  Allow the book to challenge your beliefs, and then examine the book’s claims and your own beliefs in light of scripture.  I honestly think you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything in the book as anti-scriptural, and you may even find some of your own beliefs are in conflict with scripture.  Just be careful not to read too much into what he says.  As someone who’s read all of his books over the past few years it’s easier to understand what he writes in light of his past experiences – but there are no prerequisites required (though after reading it you may want to go and read some of his other stuff).

I’ll give this book 5/5 stars because it is worth every minute you invest in it (didn’t expect that when you read my first three paragraphs, did you?)  Yes, I received a free copy from the publisher in return for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

Book Review: Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge (Part I)

This post marks the 8th stop on a 9 day blog tour on John Eldredge’s new book, Beautiful Outlaw.  If you’d like to review the previous stops on the tour here are the links:

Though I didn’t intend to write multiple posts on Eldredge’s book, yesterday’s devotional contained comments on chapter 10 (Humility), and today’s post will focus purely on responding to chapter 12 (which is my assigned chapter).  Later this week I’ll do a wrap-up review of the entire book because I have some thoughts that really take me outside the scope of Chapter 12.  Having said that, this post is titled “Part I” because “Part II” is yet to come.

Beautiful Outlaw is a book examining the character of Jesus, but from a perspective many of us have probably never considered.  Each of the first 11 chapters could really be read independently of each other, almost as short essays on a different aspect of Jesus’ character: his playfulness, his generosity, his honesty, his humility, his cunning, and so on.  But Chapter 12 marks a transition in the book – no longer are the chapters separate perspectives on the same Jesus, but Eldredge begins to draw everything together; it’s as if chapters 1-11 are all pieces of a puzzle and in chapter 12 we finally begin to put the pieces together.

This was actually a criticism I had of the book reading through it – that the chapters seemed very disjointed, in a sense. I felt I was being ripped from one topic to another as I read it without very little to tie them all together.  But then I arrived at chapter 12 and realized the frustration was was all worth it.  Totaling only 3.5 pages, chapter 12 reflects the shortest chapter in the book, but without it the book would fail miserably.  Chapter 12 offers a key turning point in the book – no longer do we just look at these different aspects of Christ’s character, but we draw them all together under the term “Beautiful”, and then prepare the way for more fully experiencing Christ (which begins in chapter 13 – so check back tomorrow for the link to the final stop on the blog tour!)  Eldredge won me over much more to his book in chapter 12, and I want to share where it happened….  Eldredge shares the story of the woman at Bethany who anointed Jesus’ head with an expensive perfume shortly before his death.  The disciples criticized the woman, but Christ praised her, telling the disciples she had done, “a beautiful thing.”  And then he writes the following (as a summary not only of this story but, as I read it, the first 11 chapters of his book):

“All of this is merely entertaining unless it opens the door for us to experience Jesus.  The best thing we can do now is pause, before we are saturated with more information about Jesus, and being to discover him for ourselves.  Experience him personally in these ways.

“Come and see,” as Phillip said to Nathaniel (John 1:46).  Come and see for yourself.”

So for those who feel like they are laboring through chapters 1-11, realize that Chapter 12 offers the turning point in the book.  Push through your frustration – don’t give up – because it all starts to make sense once you get to these 3.5 short pages.

For the record, I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest (though not necessarily favorable) review.

A Lesson in Humility (4.4)

I’m currently reading a new book by John Eldredge entitled Beautiful Outlaw.  The book is a look at the character of Jesus, which chapters on different aspects of his character.

This past week I read the chapter on Humility, which, in all honesty, was one of the best chapters of the book (in my opinion).  While I’ve thought a lot about the humility of Christ and consider Philippians 2:3-8 to be one of my life goals, this chapter helped place the humility of Christ in a new perspective.

Eldredge spent the chapter focusing with laser-precision on aspects of Christ we have all heard but, I feel, never fully considered.  Issues like the  eternal Son of God spending nine months developing in Mary’s uterus and then passing through her birth canal.  The fact that God had to learn to walk, that the one who created all the stars and could “Call them all by name” had to learn to speak, or that the one who “hung galaxies in such perfect poise…has to be shown how to nail two boards together.” (p109)

But here’s the one that made it hit home for me…  Eldredge asks this question, “What about the humility of simply getting from here to there by means of walking?”

Last weekend while Melissa and Chloe were in Florida I took the car in to have the annual inspection performed, as well as my regular oil change, and so while it was in the shop Celeste and I went a-walking…  We walked to Chick-fila for lunch, we walked to Target, then to Barnes and Noble, and finally to Best Buy, before walking back to the shop.  All told, we walked perhaps ¾ of a mile.  Now I’m not saying I was exhausted (or even tired) after it was said and done, because it wasn’t that far to walk, the point is that we had to take the time to walk when we normally would have just jumped in the car and driven.  I have gotten spoiled because I can drive – Jesus, however, was used to being everywhere at all times, yet when he came to Earth as a human all of a sudden he had to be absent from locations and take time to go from point A to point B.

So now consider this…  We read in John 4 that Jesus “left Judea and went back…to Galilee.”  How far is that?  Is it like walking from Target to Barnes and Noble?  No, it’s like walking from Target to downtown New Bern AND BACK.  Or what about all the times we read that Jesus went to Jerusalem?  I think I thought of that kinda like “going to work”.  Nope, I was wrong…  Bethany (where he raised Lazarus from the dead) to Jerusalem is about 105 miles – or like walking from Greenville to the Raleigh-Durham airport!

After focusing us on some of these startling ideas, Eldredge then brings the chapter to a close by saying, “[W]hat Jesus primarily models for us is how to draw our life from the Father.”

So here’s the question for the week: If Jesus, who is God, needed to draw life from God the Father, don’t you and I need to do the same?  It truly is pride that would allow us to think we could live this life on our own.

Beautiful Outlaw Blog Tour: Day 7

A Musing Reviews has the honor of posting today’s entry on the 11 day blog tour for John Eldredge’s new book Beautiful Outlaw – and it’s one of the most personal reviews to be posted yet (I highly recommend it).  I’ll have my response to chapter 12 tomorrow, and then on Tuesday I’ll post my full review (though if you want a sneak-peak at some of what I thought check back after 6:00 tonight when I post thoughts on chapter 10, which form the basis of this week’s choir devotional).