13 October 2015

Introducing the Book Pile.

There’s this well-known pastor in my denomination. I’ve heard him preach, and found it impressive. When I found out he had a blog, I decided to subscribe to it. At the time it was mostly things he’d discovered in the process of writing his sermons, and the occasional rant about his politics. But two years ago it turned into nothing but book reviews.

Y’see, once your blog starts racking up the viewers, book publishers find out about it, and start offering you books for review. They hope your readers might wanna become their readers. And they’re not wrong; I’ve come across some really interesting books through some of my favorite blogs. So when they contacted me, I figured why not.

But lest you worry, Christ Almighty! is not gonna turn into a book blog, like that pastor’s site did. He began with books on Christian discipleship, branched into novels (and his novels aren’t my cup of tea), and doesn’t bother to write about Jesus anymore. I really need to unsubscribe from his blog sometime.

I’ll keep it to once a month. (Less often, if I haven’t found anything good.) No, not every book was sent to me for review, ’cause I’m gonna include the books I get on my own, and liked enough to let you know about. And no, not every book is gonna get a four-star review, ’cause if publishers send me something I don’t care for, I’ll say so. Too many bloggers seem to take the attitude of, “If you can’t say anything nice, be really vague or they’ll stop sending you books”—forgetting that if they send you nothing but crap, maybe you kinda want them to stop sending you books.

The New Pastor’s Handbook: Help and Encouragement for the First Years of Ministry.
By Jason Helopoulos; forward by Ligon Duncan.
210 pages, ½-in. paperback. Baker Books: 2015.

The New Pastor’s Handbook.

I’m not a pastor. I’ve worked with pastors, and seen the crap they go through. That’s why I’m not a pastor. I much prefer working behind the scenes. You can accomplish way more when nobody’s looking.

However, if you’re foolhardy enough to climb the pedestal and let the public have at you with their rotten vegetables, here’s a book which may mitigate some of that. The purpose of Jason Helopoulos’s The New Pastor’s Handbook is to offer lots of practical, useful advice to new pastors. How to know you’re cut out for this vocation (or, as we call it in Christianese, “how to know you have the calling”). How to start well, and not burn out. How to deal with the fact certain people think it’s now okay for them to nitpick every single little thing you do. How to not get so bogged down by busywork, you forget to follow Jesus, and forget to really minister to people.

You know: Advice Helopoulos wishes he was given when he first took the job. ’Cause behind every bit of advice he offers in his book, there’s likely a whole story of what happened when someone didn’t do that, and now they’re holed up in a motel room somewhere, surrounded by liquor bottles and Calvin’s Commentaries. Or not. But they too would offer you the very same advice.

The book’s meant to be for everyone. It’s not really. Helopoulos’s background and biases slip through every once in a while. He assumes you went to seminary (and you really should have). He assumes you’re in your 20s, and married, like he was. He assumes you have a penis, ’cause his denomination doesn’t believe women can pastor. Which is mighty short-sighted of him, for just about every denomination believes women can minister, and any woman in ministry might find this book just as useful. He should’ve taken his own advice: “Consider your audience.” (Oh wait; he didn’t actually advise that. My hermeneutics professor did.)

That concern aside, it’s a lot of really good advice for any minister. And hey, if you’re the hypocritical type, you can compare Helopoulos’s advice for what pastors should do, with what your own pastors do do, and find it way easier to peck them to death.

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.
By Nadia Bolz-Weber.
224 pages, ⅔-in. paperback. Jericho Books: 2013.


One thing Martin Luther, and the generations of Lutherans who’ve followed his tradition, have absolutely got right is grace. God saves us by his grace. God wants us to pay his grace forward. We’re all screw-ups and God loves us anyway. We don’t have to clean up our act before we come to him; we come to him and he cleans up our act. In love; not because he’s trying to conform us to what he thinks a proper Christian oughta look like, but to make us more like Jesus.

Nadia Bolz-Weber gets this. (And if she didn’t, she’d be the world’s suckiest Lutheran.) She realized she’s been the recipient of a lot of God’s grace, realized she had a ministry to show his grace to the marginalized in Denver, Colo., and founded a church, the House for All Sinners and Saints. Pastrix is her story of how she got there.

As the title of the book indicates, plenty of people have a problem with her ministry. “Pastrix” was meant to be a derogatory slam by one of those folks who forgot Jesus had women apostles, and can’t abide a present-day one. The fact she accepts the people their own churches have cast out, and the fact she drops a lot of F-bombs, weirds them out. If that sort of thing makes you lunge for the smelling salts, best to not read this book. It’ll [naughty verb] you over.

Thing is, I’ve known a lot of people who embraced the “rebel pastor” persona. They get a little pushback from the pearl-clutching sort, but seldom any real opposition: Their bishops love ’em ’cause they actually reach real people with the gospel, and their haters are all talk. All slander and gossip and screeds on their websites, all out-of-context bible verses to cover up their own jealousy and bigotry. The rebel pastor’s actual biggest hurdle: Christian bookstores won’t carry their titles ’cause of the swears. But fortunately there’s Amazon.

The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines.
By Nathan Foster; forward by Richard Foster.
208 pages, ½-inch paperback. Baker Books: 2014.

The Making of an Ordinary Saint.

If you’re looking for a really simple introduction to the spiritual disciplines, this’ll do ya. Nathan Foster’s The Making of an Ordinary Saint introduces us to 12 of the disciplines—submission, fasting, study, solitude, meditation, confession, simplicity, service, prayer, guidance, worship, and celebration. He shares a little of his own experiences (and, briefly, someone else’s) in tackling each of these areas.

Why’s Foster qualified to write a book on the subject? Well, why isn’t he? Spiritual disciplines are for anyone who’s trying to live like a Christian—an “ordinary saint,” as the book’s title goes. Any such person is qualified to pitch their two cents on what makes these practices hard, yet helpful.

But Foster has a slightly unique perspective: He’s the son of Richard Foster, author of the 1978 bestseller Celebration of Discipline, founder of Renovaré, an interdenominational organization which promotes spiritual disciplines. A Quaker, Foster’s denomination emphasizes a disciplined Christian life—something which was greatly lacking among the new Christian converts of the 1970s. (And Evangelicals today.) Celebration introduced these ideas to the new audience, as have Richard Foster’s many follow-up books. (They make up a pile on my own bookshelf.)

Richard Foster wrote the forward to Ordinary Saint, and his writings introduce every chapter. He’s quoted extensively. From time to time Nathan Foster shares personal conversations between he and his father as he tries to navigate the disciplines better. No, this isn’t Richard Foster’s book; it’s his son’s experiences and conclusions. But his dad is the guru. This is Nathan Foster’s faith journey, but he’s clearly seeking his father’s God.

For good or ill, some of us are curious how a famous Christian leader’s beliefs and teachings have passed down to their children. And young Foster confesses he went through a few youthful years of not being Christian at all; then returning to Christ, working on his marriage, trying to follow Jesus as his dad taught, and not having all the answers—but striving to find ’em anyway. He picks his dad’s brain, picks himself up and tries again, and here’s what he’s learned so far.

Nathan Foster points out his father is a little concerned spiritual formation was nothing more than a fad—a brief bout of holiness which Christians tried for a time, but have since moved on to other things. For in our pragmatic culture, we often miss the big-picture idea that these disciplines aren’t just a Christian patch on a messy life: They’re meant to replace our messy lives.

Well, if it’s a fad, it’s one the Holy Spirit regularly keeps bringing back to Christianity’s collective consciousness. Sometimes with a revival; sometimes with a paperback. Like this one. Or even Celebration of Discipline, which wouldn’t hurt.

The Boy Born Dead: A Story of Friendship, Courage, and Triumph
By David Ring, David Wideman, and John Driver; forward by Mike Huckabee.
257 pages, 1-in. hardback. Baker Books: 2015.

The Boy Born Dead.

If you’re not familiar with the phenomenon of the person who overcomes incredible adversity, and as a result becomes a motivational speaker who tells that story for a living, you really need to hang out with Christians more often. We eat up that stuff like a fat kid eats tater tots.

Often becoming a speaker was how these folks overcame adversity. They didn’t actually try anything else, like winning medals in the Olympics, or starting a successful business, or getting a law passed to address the stuff they suffered. Not that they couldn’t have, but it’s a lot quicker to take the direct suffering-to-speaker route. As David Ring did. Born with cerebral palsy, he became a motivational speaker way back in high school, in Liberty, Ark., in October 1970.

The Boy Born Dead tells that story. Ring’s credited as the author, but ghostwriter John Driver took the odd route of telling Ring’s story from the point of view of a third party, Ring’s high school chum David Wideman. Once you get that straight, it works. Plus it has the bonus of letting Ring compliment himself effusively. ’Cause it’s “not really him” telling the story. (Sure it’s not.)

So here’s the story: Ring starts high school, Wideman befriends him, Ring comes to Jesus, his change in personality makes him really popular, and a motivational teacher convinces him to be a motivational speaker. Driver bounces around between the main high school narrative, and Ring’s rough and abusive childhood. Yes, Ring was stillborn, but if you thought the book was about his struggle with childhood illness, you got played.

The characters, Driver admits, are a bit fictionalized. No kidding. They’ve all been reduced to clichés. Typical bullies, typical abusers, typical Southern mama who never gives up on her boy, typical wise pastor with sage advice, typical football coach who sees something promising in his kids, typical everything. To be fair, it makes it that much easier to adapt the book into a heartwarming screenplay, and later a film starring B-list celebrities, which wins no awards but turns a tidy profit.