Land of Wolves | Book Review


Craig Johnson’s fifteenth Walt Longmire novel, Land of Wolves, hit bookstores on September 17, 2019. I didn’t get around to reading it for seven months because, to be honest, I was no longer excited by the series. As I wrote in my review of Depth of Winter, “I’ll give Johnson one more novel in this series to recapture my interest, but at this point, absent a great follow-up novel to this one, I think it’s time for the sheriff to retire.”

I’m happy to report that Walt didn’t retire. With Land of Wolves, we’re back to what made the Longmire novels such page-turners in the first place. It all starts with a dead sheep, killed by a wolf. Or so it appears. But that dead sheep leads to a dead shepherd which leads to the revelation of an unspeakable crime. All this gets peeled back slowly, like taking layers off an onion one at a time.

In my review of Depth of Winter, I complained that Johnson had drawn caricatures rather than believable characters, had tested readers’ willing suspension of disbelief, and had transferred Longmire out of the mystery genre into the suspense genre, which didn’t suit him well. I don’t have those complaints about Land of Wolves.

It’s not a perfect novel. Walt still pulls off too many physical exploits for his age and physical condition. (Especially since he was so badly wounded in the previous novel.) But I’ll give Craig Johnson this: He’s recaptured my interest in the fate of the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming.

I look forward to the next Longmire mystery.

Book Reviewed
Craig Johnson, Land of Wolves (New York: Viking, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Messy Prayers, Loud Tables, and Open Doors | Influence Podcast


“While God can (and does) interact with individuals in a vacuum,” writes Don Everts, “he often uses the household as a reliable laboratory for discipleship.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Everts about three characteristics of spiritually vibrant homes. This conversation arises from his book, The Spiritually Vibrant Home, published earlier this year by InterVarsity Press.

Don Everts is a writer for Lutheran Hour Ministries and associate pastor at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

 

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by the Assemblies of God, publisher of the Church Relaunch Kit.

For more than a month, public health orders have closed church doors through the United States in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. When those order are lifted, don’t just re-open your church, relaunch it! The Church Relaunch Kit offers church leaders valuable insights about relaunching your church’s ministries to the community.

To download this free resource, as well as other related resources for your church, go to COVID19.AG.org.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Open and Unafraid | Book Review


Life is complicated, so we need to learn to pray complicatedly. The Book of Psalms helps us do that because it touches on all the conditions of life — high, low and in-between. As Denise Dombkowski Hopkins writes, “A journey through the Psalms is a journey of the life of faith.”

David O. Taylor’s Open and Unafraid is a guidebook for that journey. Neither an introduction to nor a commentary on the Psalter, it focuses on “the formative power of the psalms, for both individual and communities.” It does this by exploring many of Psalms’ recurring themes.

The first, honesty, sets the tone for those that follow. “What the psalms offer us is a powerful aid to un-hide,” Taylor writes: “to stand honestly before God without fear, to face one another vulnerably without shame, and to encounter life in the world without any of the secrets that would demean and distort our humanity.”

Psalms’ honesty shows up in its prayers about sadness, anger and joy. When the psalmists imprecate their enemies and demand justice, when they worry about death and hope for life, when they consider the nations or reflect on Creation, they model how we can do the same.

Most importantly, when read through the eyes of Christian faith, Psalms points us to Jesus. “The psalms teach us how to pray as Jesus himself prayed,” Taylor explains. But also, “to pray with Jesus in the psalms is to pray with the one who embodies our prayers.” Psalms is both Jesus’ prayer book, we might say, and a prayer book about Jesus.

For centuries, the Church recognized this and used the Psalter as its own prayer book. Many Christian traditions continue to do so. Unfortunately, American evangelicals and Pentecostals have not adopted this practice, perhaps due to concerns about rote prayers, questions about Christian use of the Old Testament, or worries that some laments and all imprecations are inappropriate on believers’ lips.

Open and Unafraid shows both why such concerns are misplaced and how Christians can make use of the Psalter today. Indeed, according to the New Testament, praying the Psalms is a Pentecostal activity. Ephesians 5:18–19 tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.”

May the Spirit who inspired Psalms inspire us to pray its prayers!

Book Reviewed
David O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2020).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This short review appears in the May-June 2020 issue of Influence magazine and is posted here with permission.

Analog Church | Book Review


Jay Y. Kim’s Analog Church had the misfortune of hitting bookstores at the precise moment American churches were rushing to go digital due to COVID-19-related shelter-at-home orders in many places across the nation.

Bad timing aside, the book’s message is timely. “People are hungry for human experiences,” Kim writes, “and the church is perfectly positioned to offer exactly that.” The longer people shelter at home, the more that hunger will grow, and the greater the Church’s opportunity will be.

But will churches be able to satisfy that hunger? Kim worries they won’t. (His worries long predate the current crisis.) The reason is not that churches use digital technology. Rather, it is that they often embrace digital values, which Kim enumerates:

  1. Speed. We have access to what we want when we want, as quickly as our fingers can type and scroll.
  2. Choices. We have access to an endless array of options when it comes to just about anything.
  3. Individualism. Everything, from online profiles to gadgets is endlessly customizable, allowing us to emphasize our preferences and personalities.

Kim acknowledges that digital technology has made “major contributions to the improvement of human experience.” Sheltered at home with my family, I can confirm that a speedy internet, multiple iPads, and an array of online entertainment choices vastly improved our experience of confinement. Additionally, digital technology made church services and small groups accessible to believers who couldn’t walk through their church doors.

And yet, those digital values also have a downside. In Kim’s words:

The speed of the digital age has made us impatient.
The choices of the digital age have made us shallow.
The individualism of the digital age has made us isolated.

Digital values are good if you’re talking about consuming things. If you’re talking about making disciples, however, impatience, shallowness and isolation are nonstarters. Consequently, Kim warns: “Leading our churches headlong into digital spaces in hopes of creating an easy-to-consume Christian product severely diminishes our ability to meaningfully impact the culture around us and invite them into more meaningful spaces.”

Because of this danger, Kim encourages churches to “lean into analog opportunities” in three areas: worship, community and Scripture. He captures the basic difference between digital and analog with this couplet: “Digital informs. Analog transforms.”

Both information and transformation are important, of course — the former as the means, the latter as an end. But, as opposed to analog, digital has the quality of seeing rather than being. (These are my words, not Kim’s.) Seeing pictures of Yosemite, for example, simply cannot capture the wonder of being there.

So how does this information-transformation distinction apply to worship, community and Scripture?

By worship, Kim means the public gatherings of Christians characterized by “songs and sermons,” two forms easy to represent via digital media. The danger of digital worship is that it takes place in your head, not your whole body. Seeing others sing or preach isn’t the same as being in the room where it happened. An observer isn’t a participant.

The being-there quality of analog applies even more to community. “Digital technologies are exceptional and efficient when it comes to the exchange of information,” Kim writes, “but they are abject failures when it comes to the exchange of presence.” We may speak of “online communities,” but that is a useful fiction. Communities must commune, not just communicate.

The gospel didn’t come to us as a movie played on the screen of heaven, after all. It came as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who gathered around himself a community called His “body.” Digital technology cannot do this. It cannot reproduce the embodied character of community.

Finally, Bible. Digital technology provides tremendous tools for Bible study. I use YouVersion’s search function all the time, for example. The problem is that a search-function approach to Scripture is reductive.

Consider that God did not inspire the Bible as an answer to a Google prompt, “What does the Bible say about ______?” Instead, over the course of 1,500 years, He inspired 66 books that tell a unified story: the gospel. Understanding that story requires reading slowly for “deep comprehension,” rather than swiftly searching for “self-help tidbits or small morsels of encouragement or inspiration for the day.” Unfortunately, this latter approach is how millions now “read” the Bible.

Kim concludes Analog Church by talking about Communion, which is so analog — “you can’t eat and drink together online” — that it is an antidote to digital values. Given the extraordinary circumstances of the current pandemic, some have experimented with “virtual communion” as a concession to short-term realities.

Pandemic aside, though, the long-term reality is that the Church is intrinsically analog. Facebook and FaceTime may supplement a church’s communication capabilities, especially in a crisis, but they cannot substitute for face-to-face experience. If we Christians fail to remember this, we fail to feed the very hunger our contemporaries so strongly feel.

Book Reviewed
Jay Y. Kim, Analog Church: Why We Need Real People, Places, and Things in the Digital Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020).

P.S. If you like this review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review appears in the May-June 2020 issue of Influence magazine.

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