The Marleyborne Drop | Book Review



Mick Herron’s Joe Country comes out on June 11, 2019, and features the usual suspects from Slough House, where MI5 sends the incompetent agents it can’t fire outright but would like to resign. I eagerly anticipate its publication, as Herron is easily one of the best suspense writers currently in operation—and funny to boot.

The events of The Marleyborne Drop, a Slough House novella, take place between London Rules and Joe Country. Solomon Dortmund, a pensioned Cold War asset, thinks he has witnessed a drop—an exchange of intelligence between an asset and her foreign handler—and informs his own semi-retired handler, John Bachelor. Bachelor passes along the information to Alec Wicinski, an MI5 analyst, who on the sly queries the identity of one of the parties involved.

Dortmund winds up dead. Wicinski winds up disgraced (and headed to Slough House). Bachelor ends up defrauding the British government. But the asset gets a promotion and her foreign handler gets away scot free.

As per usual, Herron’s writing is a delight, and this little story keeps you turning pages. The ending left me feeling meh, however, which is why I’m giving the novella three stars. On the other hand, I look forward to seeing what happens to Alec Wicinski. If Joe Country builds on The Marleyborne Drop and makes sense of the ending, my review will be revised upward.

Book Reviewed
Mick Herron, The Marleyborne Drop: A Novella(New York: Soho Press, 2018).

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Blood for Blood | Book Review


Ziba MacKenzie is a criminal profiler who consults with Scotland Yard. On her way to dinner one night, the train she’s riding collides with a derailed tanker car, killing more than a dozen and wounding several hundred. Though injured herself, Ziba comforts a dying woman who with her last breath whispers an enigmatic confession: “He did it.” Who did it? What did he do? And why? are the questions Ziba asks herself.

But these questions get pushed to the side as Scotland Yard requests her services to help them catch the London Lacerator, a serial killer who’s started murdering again after a two-decade hiatus. The catch? While she’s profiling him, it turns out he’s profiling her too. Now the question is: Who will get to the other first?

Eventually, both sets of questions collide in Blood for Blood, the first book in a new series featuring Ziba MacKenzie and penned by Victoria Selman. It’s a page-turner with a likable protagonist, a plot with several twists, and a backstory and ensemble of secondary characters that grow on you. As a devoted reader of Sue Grafton and Michael Connelly, I’m always on the lookout for a new murder mystery series, and this one fits the bill. I’m looking forward to Nothing to Lose, the second book in the series, which releases March 26, 2019.

Book Reviewed
Victoria Selman, Blood for Blood: Ziba MacKenzie Book One (Thomas & Mercer, 2019).

P.S. If my review helps you form an opinion of the book, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Recommended Reading for Leaders | Influence Magazine


I write the Read Like a Leader section of each issue of Influence magazine. In the January-February 2019 issue, I recommended these three leadership books. My recommendations first appeared at InfluenceMagazine.com, and they are posted here with permission.

FIX IT!
Rob Ketterling (River Valley Resources)

When your church faces a problem, who is responsible to fix it? Pastors often say, “I am,” but taking responsibility for every problem results in burned-out pastors and underutilized church members. Rob Ketterling suggests a better way forward in Fix It!, one that revolves around three simple words: you, them, and God. “Define what you’re responsible to do, delegate to others who will share the load, and expect God to do what only He can do, including a change in direction from time to time.” This book is filled with biblical insight, practical suggestions, and real-life examples.

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HELP! I’M IN CHARGE
Rod Loy (Influence Resources)

Help! I’m in Chargeexamines “stuff leadership excerpts didn’t tell you,” in the words of the subtitle. Most church leadership experts discuss mission, vision, and values from a 30,000-foot level. In this book, Rod Loy gets into the weeds, talking about the nitty-gritty of leadership on the ground. Chapter 5, “Your Ability Won’t Get You Far if People Don’t Like You,” and chapter 9, “Everyone Wants to Be Treated with Respect,” alone are worth the price of the book. Help! I’m in Chargeis biblically grounded, personally authentic, and seasoned advice for pastors and other church leaders.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page, where I’ve posted a longer review. 

LEADERS: MYTH AND REALITY
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone (Portfolio/Penguin)

John Maxwell famously defined leadership as “influence.” That’s true to an extent, but it’s also too simple because it’s leader-centric, as if influence flowed only one way. In Leaders, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Jeff Eggers, and Jason Mangone profile 13 leaders from diverse backgrounds and fields of endeavor. Based on those profiles, they identify three myths people believe about leaders, then offer a new definition of leadership. It is “a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.” This is a fascinating book, biographically informative and analytically shrewd.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page, where I’ve posted a longer review.

The Soul in Paraphrase | Book Review


The Soul in Paraphrase is “an anthology of the best devotional poetry in English” edited by Leland Ryken, a long-time professor of English at Wheaton College, now retired. It takes its title from a line in George Herbert’s “Prayer,” which describes praying as “The soul in paraphrase,” among other things.  The anthology presents 98 poems from “Caedmon’s Hymn” (the oldest extant English poem) to works by T. S. Eliot. Ryken’s scholarly remarks follow each poem.

Ryken defines devotional poetry in both objective and subjective terms. Objectively, it “takes specifically spiritual experience for its subject matter,” which for Christian poets can include topics such as “the person and work of God, conviction and confession of sin, forgiveness, worship of God, and the church calendar with events like Christmas and Easter.”

Subjectively, devotional poetry has an “effect on a reader.” It “fixes our thoughts on the spiritual life and inspires us toward excellence in it.” Because of this subjective effect, Ryken includes in his anthology poems of what he calls “the poetry of common experience or clarification.” Such poetry “does not signal a specifically Christian identity but is congruent with Christianity.” Because of this, it need not be written by Christian poets.

As noted above, each poem is followed by Ryken’s “Notes on selected words” and “Commentary.” At first, I thought the definitions and commentary had an unweaving-the-rainbow quality to them. However, the deeper into the volume I got, the more I valued Ryken’s scholarly remarks because they helped me better understand what I had read.

Because of that, I would recommend that you read the poem first, then read Ryken’s explanatory words, then go back and re-read the poem. Doing so will help you better appreciate the literary art and spiritual insight of each poem. These poems repay careful and repeated reading.

I should add that I took two courses on English literature from Prof. Ryken when I attended Wheaton College (1987–1991). I thoroughly enjoyed both classes, especially the one on John Milton’s poetry. If you like this volume, I would encourage you to read his books on reading the Bible as literature, especially Words of Delight, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and Literary Introductions to Books of the Bible.

One final note: Crossway is to be commended for printing an anthology of poetry in a beautiful hardcover with thick pages. Good poetry is a marriage of form and content, so it’s nice to see a publisher recognizing that good books are too.

Book Reviewed
Leland Ryken, ed., The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

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The State of the Evangelical Mind | Book Review


In 1994, Prof. Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind which opened with this arresting sentence: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” For Noll, the word mind pointed to “serious intellectual life,” “the effort to think like a Christian…across the whole spectrum of modern learning.” The book offered a historical explanation for the scandal, outlined its effects on how evangelicals approach politics and science, and suggested that an “evangelical renaissance” might be underway.

The State of the Evangelical Mind picks the story up twenty-five years later, assessing the quality of evangelical intellectual life across four sets of institutions: churches, parachurch organizations, colleges and universities, and seminaries. Noll himself kicks off the volume with an essay titled, “Reflections on the Past.” His paradoxical conclusion? “The evangelical mind…seems to be fading fast, even as more and more evangelicals cultivate with more and more integrate the life of the mind.” In other words, while many evangelicals are making contributions to “serious intellectual life,” their contributions are not “specifically evangelical.”

Jo Anne Lyon, former superintendent of the Wesleyan Church, argues that evangelical churches need to recover “the [historic] evangelical commitment to works of love, mercy, and justice,” even as they recognize that it is an “imperfect tradition” All movements are guided by a “strong narrative,” she points out, but when they lose that narrative, “it becomes very difficult to resist the seduction of political power that results in moving from prophetic to partisan to nationalism and civil religion.” Additionally, it leads to “seclusion and hopelessness,” on the one hand, and the attempt “to find hope in secularism,” on the other. Lyon’s analysis seems to me to perfectly capture the current state of white evangelicalism.

David Mahan and Don Smedley survey the state of the evangelical mind in parachurch organizations. Both work with the Rivendell Institute at Yale University, which is part of the Consortium of Christian Study Centers. Mahan investigates “the impact of secular university-based parachurch organizations on the growth and development of evangelicalism” as well as how these organizations might impact “the future of evangelicalism and evangelical thought.” Smedley critiques aspects of Noll’s thesis in Scandaland suggests that “evangelicals move more of the focus [on forming an evangelical mind] from the public square to the pew.”

Drawing on John Henry Newman’s classic work, The Idea of a University, Timothy Larsen outlines the five foundational ideas of a university and shows how Christian schools contribute to them. His conclusion: “Not only students, but the entire academy will be better off throughout the twenty-first century if there continues to be a thriving sector of Christian liberal arts colleges embodying the best ideas offered in John Henry Newman’s classic text.”

In her chapter on seminaries, Lauren Winner argues that “the most basic thing seminaries [should] do” is “teach people to speak Christian language as the primary language through which all else is arranged and construed, and serve as a space where people practice seeing with Jesus-adapted eyes.”

Whereas Noll offered “Reflections on the Past,” James K. A. Smith forecasts “Prospects for the Future” in his chapter. Like Noll, Smith sees evangelical intellectuals making serious contributions to the life of the mind. “But now the problem: we simply have to recognize and confess how utterly disconnected all of this is from the vast majority of evangelical congregations and the networks that comprise ‘evangelicalism’ in the United States.” Smith goes on: “The chasm between the aspirations and hopes of ‘the evangelical mind’ and the habits and dispositions of the celebrity cult that is evangelicalism is no smaller now than it was in 1994. If anything, it is worse.” The solution? “We need a generation of Christian scholars who articulate a fundamental critique of evangelical assimilation [to American culture] but who nonetheless are invested in reform. You cannot be a prophet on your way out the door.”

This book will hold special interest for those who lead evangelical institutions such as churches, parachurch ministries, and graduate and undergraduate schools. Other readers will have to catch as catch can. While all the chapters in The State of the Evangelical Mind have something interesting to say, in my opinion, the essays by Noll and Smith are worth the price of the book.

Book Reviewed
Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers, eds., The State of the Evangelical Mind: Reflections on the Past, Prospects for the Future (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018).

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

My 14 Favorite Books in 2018


I read many good books in 2018. Here are my 14 favorites, alphabetized by author’s last name. For each, I’ve excerpted a paragraph from my review of the book and provided a link to the full review on Amazon. If you like my review of a particular book (or of all of them), please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page for it. That will help me to achieve my #NerdGoal of being a Top 100 Reviewer on Amazon. I’m currently ranked 351st.

Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (Encounter)
Popular culture and political action may have normalized transgender identity, but Anderson reminds readers how radical it is. “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be, regardless of contrary evidence. A transgender boy is a boy, not merely a girl who identifies as a boy.” This is a metaphysical claim, one that needs to be subjected to more scrutiny than it has been. When Harry Became Sallyoffers a multidisciplinary critique of transgender identity

If you like my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Mary Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God (Templeton Press)
I haven’t yet written a full-blown review of this one yet, but here’s what I have up on Amazon right now:

Eberstadt is to be commended for writing a thought-provoking book, even if you don’t agree with all her thoughts. At a certain level of abstraction, I think the Family Factor makes sense as an explanation—a theory of variation—as to why Christian faith and practice has declined in some places and at some times, and why it has risen at others. At least to a degree. With Eberstadt, I do not think one can entirely discount other explanations, however. Moreover, as a Pentecostal, I don’t track with her fingering sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers as the first link in the chain toward family decline. The centuries between Luther and the 1960s are just too long. Still, I found How the West Really Lost Godan interesting, page-turning read and commend it to you to read.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin,Leadership in Turbulent Times (Simon & Schuster)
The best way to study leadership is to study leaders. How they exercised influence in their contexts provides examples of how we can do so in ours. For this reason, it is paramount for leaders to be well-versed in biography and history, the knowledge of people and their times Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times provides case studies of the leadership of four U.S. presidents at critical junctures in their administrations:

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Timothy Keller, The Prodigal Prophet (Viking)
The ProdigalProphet makes for compelling reading. It explains the meaning of the Book of Jonah in its original context, but it draws out the implications of that meaning for our context. It shows the baleful ways Christians can worship ideological idols, misuse Scripture, and fail to love their neighbors as they should. But it also shows what a gospel-centered mission looks like, as well as how the gospel shapes our relationship with neighbors in our everyday lives.

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Matthew D. Kim, Preaching with Cultural Intelligence (Baker Academic)
America is increasingly diverse, and so are American churches. Matthew D. Kim wants “to prepare twenty-first-century preachers for the realities of congregational diversity in North America and beyond.” To do so, he outlines a “homiletical template” to help preachers more effectively take into account their communities’ diversity in their preaching. He focuses specifically on diversity of denominations, ethnicities, genders, locations and religions. Preaching with Cultural Intelligenceis a must-read for preachers who want to effectively minister to people different from themselves.

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Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin Press)
As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I am serious when I say that every American concerned with the future of our nation’s public discourse and democratic culture should read The Coddling of the American Mind. It stimulated my thinking as a parent and helped form a better opinion of contemporary events as a concerned citizen. As a person, it provided an accessible introduction to cognitive behavioral therapy, identifying the cognitive distortions that misshape our opinions and hence misguide our actions. And it reminded me that people across the aisle from me—politically and religiously—are also intelligent and public-minded and can have things to say I need to hear. So, buy this book. Read it. Then share it.

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Christian B. Miller, The Character Gap (Oxford)
The cover of Christian B. Miller’s book, The Character Gap, has a picture of Gandhi at the top and Hitler at the bottom with a graded spectrum between them. The picture is fitting, for one of Miller’s central theses is that most people are neither as bad as we could be nor as good as we should be. We are, instead, a muddle. The question that arises, then, is how we can become better than we are.

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Russell Moore, The Storm-Tossed Family (B&H Books)
The Lord redeeming the mess we have made of our families constitutes the bulk of Moore’s book. He discusses family milestones such as gender differences, marriage, sexuality, childbearing and adoption, parenting, divorce, trauma and aging. His words are wise, irenic and filled with astute theological insight, often expressed in memorable aphorisms. I’ll conclude with just such an aphorism, for it succinctly captures the theme of the entire book: “The only safe harbor for a storm-tossed family is a nail-scarred home.”

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Jonathan Neumann, To Heal the World (All Points)
Tikkun olam is Hebrew for “to heal the world.” It has become a popular catchphrase among leftwing American Jewish rabbis and social activists. According to them, it is an ancient teaching of Judaism, and therefore a religious foundation for their politics. The only problem is that it isn’t. At least that’s what Jonathan Neumann concludes in To Heal the World. He argues that tikkun olam provides a religious covering for a political ideology that has been arrived at via nonreligious means. And that political ideology is “social justice.”

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Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well (Brazos)
I have nothing but praise for this book. It exemplifies how to read well, both in the sense of reading closely and of reading through the lens of moral analysis. Perhaps the highest praise I can give the book is that when I turned its last page, I wanted to read (or re-read) the works of fiction it studied.

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Joy E. A. Qualls, God Forgive Us for Being Women (Pickwick)
Even as hundreds of early Pentecostal women pioneered mission fields and planted churches, they often met resistance from men (typically) who felt the need to put them in their place by limiting their authority in the local church. My friend Joy Qualls explores this tension — between Pentecostal empowerment and hierarchical resistance, especially in the Assemblies of God — in her new book, God Forgive Us for Being Women.

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Hans Rosling, Factfulness (Flatiron Books)
I highly recommend reading Factfulness. Learning about material improvements to the human condition is exciting. But I also recommend it because it offers sound guidance about how to interpret the barrage of information presented to us daily. Knowing how to read, interpret, and filter out the noise in trends is a necessary component of a contemporary worldview, leading to better informed—and hence more productive—action.

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Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage (Tyndale Momentum)
The vicious cycle of outrage and counter-outrage has got to stop, for the good of our culture and for the sake of the gospel. Christians need to demonstrate a better way. After all, if the Church is “the hermeneutic of the gospel,” as Lesslie Newbigin put it, then our unrighteous outrage may lead people away from God, giving Him a bad reputation in the process. You can be outraged or you can fulfill the Great Commission. You can’t do both. That’s why I highly recommend both Christians in the Age of Outrage and its author. If you’d like to see how he deals online with controversial issues in a Christian manner, follow @EdStetzer on major social media. Or check out his blog at ChristianityToday.com.

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Karl Vaters, Small Church Essentials (Moody)
Small Church Essentials isn’t anti-big church by any stretch of the imagination. By the same token, though, it’s not uncritically pro-small church. “Small churches are not a problem, a virtue, or an excuse,” Vaters writes. “Jesus calls every church and every church leader for a purpose,” he concludes, “and He equips us with everything we need to accomplish that purpose.” Regardless of size. If you’re a small-church pastor who wants to increase your own capacity and your church’s capacity for effective ministry, I highly recommend this hopeful, helpful book.

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The Unlucky Woman | Book Review


Hilda Lipkind is an unlucky woman. Seven months pregnant–after three miscarriages–she is worried that her husband David is cheating on her. So, she hires Adam Lapid to track down David’s paramour. The truth, however, is more complex and results in tragedy.

The Unlucky Woman is a short story, not a novel, and a quick read. While I am a fan of the Adam Lapid mysteries, set in post-Independence Tel Aviv, I didn’t enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed the previous novels, hence the three-star rating.

Book Reviewed
Jonathan Dunsky, The Unlucky Woman: An Adam Lapid Short Story (Self-published, 2018).

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