Review of ‘The Radical Disciple’ by John Stott

The-Radical-Disciple John Stott, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). Hardcover / Kindle

John Stott died in 2011, but his legacy lives on through his writings. The Radical Disciple is his final book, which he self-consciously wrote as a “valedictory message.” In eight short chapters, simply written but spiritually deep, Stott addresses “some neglected aspects of our [Christian] calling.” They are nonconformity, Christlikeness, maturity, creation care, simplicity, balance, dependence, and death.

Stott’s concern throughout the book is the discrepancy between Christians’ stated beliefs and their actual behavior. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’” Stott quotes Jesus saying in Luke 6:46, “and not do what I say?” Radical discipleship, then, is “wholehearted discipleship,” a form of following Jesus that is not “selective” about “which commitment suits us” and avoids those areas which are “costly.”

The “neglected aspects of our calling” relate to Western Christians’ practice of the faith. Were Stott writing at a different time or for different readers, no doubt his list would’ve looked different. As it is, the eight aspects he identifies have a prophetic edge to them.

Two chapters in particular struck me with particular force. The first is chapter 5 on simplicity. This is the book’s longest chapter and includes excerpts from “An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Life-Style,” published by the Lausanne Committee in 1980. Americans—Westerners more generally—are among the world’s wealthiest persons by any imaginable metric. We are used to high levels of consumption. Unfortunately, American Christian giving habits have been declining for decades. The solution is a simple lifestyle that minimizes consumption and maximizes generosity.

The second is chapter 7 on dependence. In this chapter, the book’s most personal and intimate, Stott shares the personal indignities he experienced when he fell and broke his hip. Using his personal experience as a window onto Scripture, Stott writes, “I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else…’ But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others… ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).” This is an apt reminded that none of us can live in isolation from others. We need, and are needed by, family, friends, fellow citizens, and even strangers.

The Radical Disciple is a short book, simply written, and filled with the unique grace that is characteristic of a long-time disciple of Jesus Christ. It is worth reading and will repay re-reading, especially if its wisdom is taken to heart and put into practice.

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Review of ‘QUANTUM MORTIS: A Mind Programmed’ by Vox Day

A-Mind-Programmed Vox Day, Quantum Mortis: A Mind Programmed (Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2014). Kindle

James Jesus Angleton famous described the eternal battle between espionage and counterintelligence as “a wilderness of mirrors.” I thought of that phrase while reading A Mind Programmed, the latest installation in the Quantum Mortis series of science fiction stories. Few people or things are what they seem in this story, and even when you see what they really are, you still have questions.

Here is the plot: Humankind has spread throughout the universe. It is governed by the Ascendancy, which in turn is ruled by the House of Malhedron. Not everyone is happy with Malhedron’s rule, however. Prince Li-Hu of the House of Dai Zhan, for example, aims to challenge its power. So does the Integration, the confederation of man-machine cyborgs existing on the edge of the Ascendancy’s borders.

When agents of Dai Zhan somehow hijack the Shiva-class Navy vessel Rigel, with its sunbuster technology (basically, a weapon that makes a sun go nova), the Ascendancy and the Integration move their best agents into play—Daniela York and Miranda Flare, respectively. Using false identities, hiding their true purposes, ruthlessly working to uncover the location of the Rigel and recover (or steal) its sunbuster before it’s too late.

But just when you think the mystery has been resolved, the plot twists, and you find yourself with a new set of questions.

I’m new to science fiction, but I enjoyed A Mind Programmed. Though a bit dialogue heavy and slow in the middle, the book spun a good yarn and kept my interest throughout. I plan to read the previous and future installments of this series.

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Review of ‘Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul’ by Bill Hybels

Simplify Bill Hybels, Simplify: Ten Practices to Unclutter Your Soul (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

This past summer was exhausting. Between work, chauffeuring our son to three sports on four different days, shuttling our oldest foster daughter to daycare and speech care, waking up several times a night to bottle feed our youngest foster daughter, and church and other activities, my wife and I felt tapped out. And so, when Bill Hybels mentioned the words “exhausted, overwhelmed, overscheduled, anxious, isolated, dissatisfied” on page 1 of his new book, he immediately grabbed my attention.

“Simplified living is about more than doing less,” Hybels writes. “It’s being who God called us to be, with a wholehearted, single-minded focus. It’s walking away from innumerable lesser opportunities in favor of the few to which we’ve been called and for which we’ve been created. It’s a lifestyle that allows us, when our heads hit the pillow at night, to reflect with gratitude that our day was well invested and the varied responsibilities of our lives are in order” (pp. 2–3). He goes on to write, “Simplified life requires more than just organizing your closets or cleaning out your desk drawers. It requires uncluttering your soul” (p. 3, emphasis in original).

Hybels shares Bible-based, experience-tested advice about how to do this in the book’s ten chapters. He shows you how to move from

  • exhausted to energized by replenishing your energy,
  • overscheduled to organized by prioritizing your calendar,
  • overwhelmed to in control by mastering your finances,
  • restless to fulfilled by refining your career choices,
  • wounded to whole by practicing forgiveness,
  • anxious to peaceful by confronting your fears,
  • isolated to connected by deepening your friendships,
  • drifting to focused by choosing and then living out your life verse,
  • stuck to moving on by welcoming new seasons in your life,
  • and from meaningless to satisfied by choosing to live now in the light of eternity.

Different readers will be attracted to different sections of this book. At this season in my life—feeling busy and tired all the time—I was especially interested in the first two chapters dealing with energy and calendar. As I read the book, however, I found myself reading the chapter on friendships with closer attention. Could it be that my life has too few deep relationships with non-family members? Whatever your interests or needs, my guess is that several of these chapters will address felt needs in your life.

So, what’s the best way to make use of this book? First, it’s tailor-made for individual use. Each chapter ends with an action step for readers to journal about. Page 311 gives a URL and promo code for online resources that readers can access for 90 days. Second, there is a DVD-based small group curriculum that can be used alongside the book. And third, I can imagine enterprising pastors using the book and DVD curriculum as elements of a multiweek sermon series campaign.

Now that I’ve read the book, I intend to read it again with my wife, working through those chapters that address issues we are experiencing in our current season of life. “We get one shot at this life,” Hybels writes in conclusion. “Choose a purposeful, God-first life, and you will reap rewards for today and for eternity” (p. 282).

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Review of ‘MindWar’ by Andrew Klavan

MindWar Andrew Klavan, MindWar: A Novel (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

Rick Dial has had a bad six months. A truck T-boned his car, resulting in back surgery, crutches, and the end of a promising future in college football before it even started. Topping it off, his college-professor father has skipped town with an old flame, leaving him, his mom, and his kid brother in emotional turmoil and straitened financial circumstances. To cope, Rick closes himself in his bedroom and plays endless hours of video games online.

Which brings him to the attention of a secretive agency within the U.S. government. The agency has been tasked with a project called MindWar, whose purpose is to defeat the Realm, a game-like virtual reality created by a Russian genius named Kurodar. Unfortunately, Kurodar created the Realm so that terrorists could take control of the good guys’ computer systems and wreak real-world havoc. The only way to defeat the Realm is to portal into the game. Who better to win the game than a gamer like Rick Dial?

The deeper Rick goes into the Realm, however the greater the real-world dangers he faces, and the more he realizes that his bad six months—his car accident, his dad leaving home—are not what they first seemed to be.

MindWar is the first book in a trilogy by Andrew Klavan. It is written for young adults and has a faith-based perspective. On the whole, I thought it was an entertaining read, though I couldn’t help but wonder whether it might make for a better graphic novel or movie than a print book. The virtual reality Klavan describes is so intense that showing it might be a better way to go than saying it, if you know what I mean.

Here’s to hoping that some faith-based movie production company picks the MindWar Trilogy up and turns it into a entertaining film series!

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Review of ‘Personal’ by Lee Child

Personal Lee Child, Personal (New York: Delacorte Press, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle 

Lee Child has done it again. With Personal, he has written yet another Jack Reacher novel—the 19th in the franchise!—that is unputdownable. From the first sentence to the last, Child grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go.

Reacher owes a guy a favor. The guy happens to be a one-star general and the protégé of a master spy. To repay the favor, Reacher needs to track down the military-trained sniper who took a .50-caliber shot at France’s president before he tries to assassinate other G8 leaders at an upcoming conference in London.

Here’s the thing, though. Reacher knows the sniper. He put him in prison 16 years ago, and now the sniper has a bullet with his name on it. Tracking him down takes Reacher to London and a game of cat-and-mouse with English and Serbian gangsters, including a psychopath ironically named Little Joey. As always, Reacher gets his man, but not before he discovers that truth is not what it seems and the baddest guys aren’t who he thought they were.

Reading a Lee Child novel is a guilty pleasure. What his books lack in philosophical depth, they more than make up for in tight prose, a whip-smart plot, plenty of action, and pacing that’ll make you want to lose sleep rather than close the book.

The only problem? You don’t know when Lee Child will publish his next book.

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Review of ‘The Next America’ by Paul Taylor and the Pew Research Center

Unknown Paul Taylor, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown (New York: PublicAffairs, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

The Next America is not a book about how to contextualize the gospel in contemporary America. At least, that was not Paul Taylor’s intention in writing it. And yet, as I read his fascinating new study, I couldn’t help but notice its missiological significance.

Drawing on reams of research by the Pew Research Center, which he serves as executive vice president, Taylor describes “the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and technological changes that are remaking not just our politics but our families, livelihoods, relationships, and identities. These shifts have left no realm of society untouched.” He goes on to summarize the effects of those changes this way: “As a people, we’re growing older, more unequal, more diverse, more mixed race, more digitally linked, more tolerant, less married, less fertile, less religious, less mobile, and less confident” (p. 6). Throughout the book, he focuses specifically on the generational differences between “boomers” (Americans born from 1946 to 1964) and “millennials” (Americans born after 1980), the former often being parents of the latter.

After an introductory chapter, successive chapters delve into the specifics of generation gaps (chs. 2–4), economic differences (ch. 5), immigration (ch. 6), racial identity (ch. 7), marriage (ch. 8), religion (ch. 9), use of technology (ch. 10), aging (chs. 11–12), and the effect of these changes on America’s social welfare programs (ch. 13). Rather than summarizing the content of these chapters, let me briefly highlight the kinds of questions missionally minded Christians might ask after reading this book:

  • Taylor writes, “Young and old in America are poles apart. Demographically, politically, economically, socially, and technologically, the generations are more different from each other now than at any time in living memory” (p. 29). That being the case, how can Christians show the gospel’s relevance to the hopes and fears of each generation without being captured by the prejudices and proclivities of any of them?
  • “Millennials and Xers [Americans born 1965–1980] are not only in far worse financial shape than Boomers and Silents [Americans born 1928–1945] now, they are also in worse shape than these older generations were back when they were the age Millennials and Xers are now” (p. 60). Moreover, “The young today are paying taxes to support a level of benefits [such as Social Security and Medicare] for the old that they themselves have no prospect of receiving when they become old” (p. 184). That being the case, how can Christians disciple believers, both young and old, to become better stewards of the financial resources God has given them as well as advocates of what Taylor calls “generational equity” (p. 184)?
  • “America is already one of the most racially and ethnically diverse nations in history, and the modern immigration wave is making our tapestry more intricate with each passing year” (p. 71). That being the case, how should Christians evangelize and disciple immigrant populations, welcome them into our churches, and utilize their networks in their lands of birth for missional ends?
  • “Our culture has traded the melting pot for the mosaic. We glory in our distinctive hues. In this new milieu, being mixed race—a stigma not just in our society but in most societies for most of human history—carries cultural cachet” (pp. 95–96). That being the case, how do Christians promote greater racial and ethnic diversity at all levels of their congregations? How do we overcome the de facto segregation so characteristic of American churches?
  • “Lots of particular marriages fail for lots of particular reasons. But nowadays it’s the institution itself that’s in big trouble. And the biggest problem isn’t that people who try marriage are failing at it. It’s that fewer are trying at all” (p. 107). That being the case, how should Christians minister to people among whom extramarital sex and cohabitation are routine, to parents who consider nonmarital childbirth nonproblematic (41 percent of all childbirths in America are now nonmarital), to older people who in increasing numbers divorce their spouses after decades of marriage, and to gay and lesbian persons who want their relationships recognized on par with traditional, opposite-sex marriages?
  • Quoting Mark Chaves, Taylor writes, “there is much continuity [in American religion], and there is some decline, but no traditional religious belief or practice as increased in recent decades” (p. 129). That being the case, how can Christians best serve the growing ranks of “religious nones,” people who, while not necessarily secular or atheist, are nonetheless not interested in institutional churches and traditional dogma?
  • Millennials’ “information ecosystem and social platforms are vastly different from those of her forebears. The ever-changing digital landscape is likely to keep those generation gaps quite wide for the foreseeable future. It may even change the very nature of what it means to be human and to grow old” (p. 156). That being the case, how do contemporary Christians make best use of digital technology? How do we leverage it for gospel ends, without becoming unwise users of it?
  • “Between now and midcentury, even absent any breakthroughs in life extension, the graying of the world’s population [because of both better healthcare and fewer births] will put enormous stress on economics, families, and governments in the US and around the world” (p. 167). That being the case, how should Christians think about aging, generational equity, the importance of having children, and other issues that, while not being explicitly missional issues, nonetheless have implicit consequences for Christian mission in the modern world?

I recognize that my missiological reading of The Next America may not appeal to all readers. For example, I doubt that atheists, agnostics, or adherents of non-Christian religions and worldviews will purchase this book because of the slant of my review. If so, that’s a shame, for this book provides important information about social changes in America that raise questions all Americans—religious or irreligious—will need to answer in the coming years. If I’ve highlighted this book’s relevance for Christians, it’s only because the trends Taylor analyzes have such clear missiological import.

I highly encourage Christian pastors, educators, and lay leaders to readers this book. I also encourage readers to bookmark both and in their web browsers. These websites, among many sites maintained by the Pew Research Center, provide timely studies that are always worth reading.

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Review of ‘The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade’ by Philip Jenkins

The-Great-and-Holy-War Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (New York: HarperOne, 2014). Hardcover / Kindle

The Great War (1914–1918) is a turning point in world history. It destroyed empires and created nations. It wrecked Christendom, catalyzed secularism, and unleashed global religious forces that continue to affect the world today. “Only now, after a century,” writes Philip Jenkins in The Great and Holy War, “are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another.”

Many books have been published to mark the centennial of the start of World War I. Some narrate the history of the entire conflict; others study this or that aspect of it in depth. Jenkins’s book belongs to the latter category. It focuses on how European combatants framed the conflict using the holy war rhetoric of medieval Christendom. Nations used this rhetoric whether or not they had an established state church. Soldiers were viewed as martyrs. They claimed angelic and miraculous interventions on the battlefield. Among the heterodox, paranormal, occult experiences were common. Even radical social movements such as Soviet Communism, though they were avowedly godless, expressed their aspirations in apocalyptic and millenarian terms.

After surveying the religious dimension of the rhetoric and experience of the combatants, Jenkins then shows some of the global consequences that arose in the aftermath of war. The Great War was truly a world war in that the empires fought over their colonies and enlisted their colonized subjects to fight on European soil. As they enlisted this or that colonized group to fight for them, they unleashed forces such as Zionism, anticolonialism, Armenian genocide, African indigenous churches, and politicized Islam—forces that had sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit religious dimensions.

These forces continue to influence world events today. Consider the Israel-Gaza conflict. The British Mandate in Palestine came about because of the Entente Powers defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which until then had held sway in that region. The United Kingdom had promised Zionists that it would work to establish a national Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1917. But it also made promises to Arabs, and established Hashemite kingdoms in Transjordan and Iraq after the war. Facing Western dominance in their ancestral homelands, Arabs developed two contrary responses: a secularized Arab pan-nationalism and a politicized Islam. Secularism was the choice of many Arab Christians and other minorities, who longed for Arab statehood but did not want Muslim dominance. Politicized Islam, on the other hand, longed to reestablish the caliphate, the Muslim umma (peoplehood, empire), and sharia as the law of the land. In Palestine, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas represent these contrary responses.

Or consider the depredations of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has been in the news of late for expelling Christians from their ancestral homelands. Until the Great War, the Middle East, though predominantly Muslim, contained substantial Christian minorities, groups that claimed direct links to the Apostolic Age and whose tenure in the land preceded the rise of Islam by centuries. This was especially the case in the region now known as Turkey, whose major cities were mentioned in the New Testament and which had been the Byzantine heartland in the 1100 years between Constantine and the fall of Constantinople. In 1915, fearing that the Entente Powers—who explicitly interpreted the Great War in terms of crusade and holy war—would destroy the caliphate and restore Christendom in Asia Minor, the Ottoman Turks began a genocide and expulsion of the Armenians, the Ottoman Empire’s largest Christian minority, as well as against Assyrian and Chalcedonian Christians. The genocide of the Armenians gave the Nazis hope that they likewise could murder the Jews with impunity. “Who, after all,” asked Adolph Hitler, “speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

It is easy for a Christian to point out these problems, which involve politicized Islam. But Christian readers of The Great and Holy War need to take to heart the lesson it teaches us about how easily biblical images and rhetoric, as well as the images and rhetoric of Christian tradition, can be used to incite, support, and sustain brutal warfare that kills millions. “[I]t is God who has summoned us to this war,” proclaimed Randolph McKim of Washington DC’s Episcopal Church of the Epiphany as the United States entered the war in 1917. “It is his war we are fighting.… This conflict is indeed a crusade. The greatest in history—the holiest. It is in the profoundest and truest sense a Holy War…. Yes, it is Christ, the King of Righteousness, who calls us to grapple in deadly strife with this unholy and blasphemous power [Germany].”

But just three years earlier, German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Vorwerk had reworked the Lord’s Prayer to say, in part, this: “Our Father, from the height of heaven, / Make haste to succor Thy German people. / Help us in the holy war…. In thy merciful patience, forgive / Each bullet and each blow / That misses the mark. / Lead us not into the temptation / Of letting our wrath be too gentle / In carrying out They divine judgment…. Thine is the kingdom, / The German land. / May we, through Thy mailed hand / Come to power and glory.”

Even granting, as Jenkins does, that the Entente Powers had more justice in their cause than the Central Powers had in theirs, the contrary rhetoric of the Christians on both sides of this conflict call into question whether God was truly on either side or whether each was simply using him to justify their nation’s actions. No wonder, in the aftermath of the war, Christendom died in Europe and secularism began to take its place. It had been killed by Christians.

For revealing the religious contours of a European (and American) religious world order now gone; for demonstrating that Christians—not just Muslims—have a history of politicizing their religion for violent purposes, even in recent times; and for showing how the religious world we inhabit is one birthed in the fires of the Great War, I highly recommend Philip Jenkins’s The Great and Holy War.

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