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.

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

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:

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.”

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

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.”

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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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).

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

Helping the Hurting During the Holidays | Influence Podcast


For most people, the Christmas holiday is a wonderful time of the year. Families come together to celebrate Christ’s birth and exchange gifts. Churches welcome one and all to worship Christ, the real Reason for the season. The words “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy Holidays!” seem to be on everyone’s lips.

Not everyone is having a good time, though. It’s a myth that suicides increase at Christmastime. But it’s a very real fact that some people are sad and lonely during this season. As Christian leaders, how do we help the hurting during the holidays?

That’s the question I’m talking about with Dr. Don Lichi in Episode 162 of the Influence Podcast. Dr. Lichi is a licensed psychologist and interim president of Emerge Counseling Services in Akron, Ohio.

 

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year | Influence Podcast


Andy Williams sang that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” He was right, though for the wrong reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong! “Parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow” are great and everything, but they’re not what Christmas is ultimately about.

In Episode 161 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Joseph Castleberry about the real reason why Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year. We also debunk a few myths people believe about Christmas.

Dr. Castleberry is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and a former missionary to Central America. More germane to this podcast, he’s author of 40 Days of Christmas, published by Broadstreet (which I reviewed here).

A Killing at the Creek | Book Review


“All in the world Elsie Arnold wanted was a murder case,” and in A Killing at the Creek, Nancy Allen gives her one.

This is the second crime novel in Allen’s series of mysteries set in fictional McCown County in southwest Missouri. Like the first novel, The Code of the Hills, Allen’s writing is pitch-perfect in its depiction of the Ozarks, right down to a throwaway mention on page 116 of the Assemblies of God—“No drinking, no cussing. No dancing”—which is headquartered in Springfield. (I’m an AG minister and Springfield resident.)

Elsie Arnold is an assistant prosecutor in McCown County, and she wants to try a murder case to advance her career. The problem is that her boss, Madeleine Thompson, hates her and takes the case herself, assigning second chair to Chuck Harris, the newly hired chief assistant from Kansas City. (Newly hired in no small part to block Elsie’s advancement.) But when police capture a suspect, who’s a 15-year-old juvenile from St. Louis, Thompson and Harris get cold feet and had Elsie the legal briefs.

The suspect, Tanner Monroe, is an unlikable kid who insists on an ODDI defense (“other dude did it”). His cagey defense lawyer, Billy Yocum, seeks a “MD or D” defense—“mental disease or defect”— since there’s no evidence of the other dude, but Monroe refuses to cooperate. What starts out as a strong case gets weakened due to questionable prosecutorial decisions and Elsie’s romantic entanglement with Bob Ashlock, the detective running the investigation. Will these errors doom Elsie’s prosecution, or will she close the case?

I liked this novel in most respects. What Sue Grafton did for Santa Barbara in her Alphabet Mysteries is like what Nancy Allen is doing in these Ozark Mysteries. The book has a strong regional flair, the plot is believable, and the legal ups and downs of the story reflect the author’s years as a Missouri prosecuting attorney.

Even so, the last few pages have a deux ex machina feel to it. Allen drives the story line forward and then, seemingly out of nowhere, she takes the solution of the case in a suddenly different direction. To this reader, that ending just didn’t set right.

Still, I liked the novel and read it in one sitting. I look forward to reading the remaining two books in the series and hope more are forthcoming.

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, A Killing and the Creek: An Ozarks Mystery (New York: WitnessImpulse, 2015).

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

5 Lessons I Learned by Fasting Social Media | Influence Magazine


My wife Tiffany could tell something was wrong with me. We had just spent a day with the kids at the local amusement park, Silver Dollar City. (Tiffany calls it “Steal Your Dollar City.”) The weather was perfect, the ride lines were short, the food was delicious, and the kids had a great time. And yet, my face gave away my inner turmoil.

“What’s wrong, honey?” Tiffany asked.

“My emotions are off,” I replied. “I’m not responding emotionally as I should.”

The immediate cause of my unease was an exchange on Facebook. A friend posted about a national tragedy that had just occurred. Rather than grieving about that tragedy, I commented about how people were using that tragedy to score political points. A third person jumped all over me for my comment, going so far as to question my Christianity. It got ugly.

All this took place while my family enjoyed their day out. In the midst of an amusement park, I was angry and unamused. My kids were riding rides. I was on my iPhone arguing with a stranger.

My wife asked, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to fast social media for a while,” I finally responded.

Right then and there, I resolved to fast social media through the month of November. When I got home, I announced on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that I was taking a break from social media — except for work-related matters— and then deleted those apps from my iPhone and iPad. I kept my resolution, except on a handful of occasions, for which my wife gently reproached me.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that my fast instantly solved the problem of my emotional out-of-whackness. It didn’t. I’ve still got work to do. But my fast did teach me a few lessons about myself and social media that I think are worth sharing, five in particular. Here they are:

First, I spend too much time on my iPhone. According to my most recent Screen Time report, I spend, on average, four hours, 7 minutes per day on my iPhone. And that’s after my social media fast. Evidently, I was spending even more timeon my iPhone before the fast.

In my defense, I do a lot of work on my iPhone. Plus, I usually stream TV shows on it when I’m at home. (At my house, Tiffany controls the remote.) Still, more than one day out of every week seems like an excessive amount of time to stare at a small pixelated screen. And yet, studies I’ve seen peg the average time Americans spend on smartphones at between three and five hours daily. So I’m average in my excessiveness. That’s not good.

Second, time is an exclusive commodity. Each day, God gives us 24 hours. Time doesn’t come with a pause button, let alone one for rewind or fast-forward. We use it; then we lose it.

The question I have to ask myself is whether spending more than four hours a day on an iPhone is the best use of my time. Just asking the question answers it. No, of course not!

Even granting that I need a smartphone to do smart work — which is true in a modern economy, to a certain degree — I’ve been reminded again and again that there are other things to do than stare at my iPhone. At the very least, arguing on Facebook with a stranger while my kids are riding roller coasters at an amusement park is a waste of time — mine, his, theirs.

Third, I have learned that I am easily distracted. In his Pensées— “Thoughts” — the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

In other words, we long for the distraction of constant activity. If you don’t believe me, try sitting quietly in a room for an hour all by yourself. No TV. No radio. No book or newspaper or crossword puzzle. And definitely no smartphone or tablet.

It’s difficult. In my case, it’s difficult in large part because I have three kids, ages 5, 6 and 10, clamoring for my attention, as well as a wife who likes to unwind by watching reality TV. There’s not a quiet room at Chez Wood.

And yet, it’s also difficult because I don’t like being left alone with my thoughts. So, I unlock my iPhone and browse the web for news. I like and comment on friends’ posts on Facebook. I unleash a string of bon mots on Twitter. I look at pictures on Instagram. I stream a movie on Netflix.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Think about that for a moment. It implies that unless we can be still, we cannot know God. No wonder Pascal thought all of humanity’s problems stemmed from our inability to be still!

Fourth, I fear missing out. When I am still, I know God. I know that He loves me because of what Christ has done, not because of what I have done. This roots my identity in His grace, mercy, and forgiveness rather than in any accomplishment on my part. And this identity gives me a deep satisfaction with life, whatever my lot in it might be. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” Paul writes (Philippians 4:11).

Compare that statement with what social scientists call FOMO — the fear of missing out. One of the reasons I spend so much time on social media is because I fear missing out on the news, on the latest gossip, on the newest and best in online entertainment.

And yet, there is an irony at work on social media. Think of it this way: I present my best life online. I take (and retake) pictures to get just the best one. I write (and rewrite) posts to be the funniest or most insightful. What you see of me is the me I want you to see.

And that means what I see of you is the you that you want me to see. I’m not seeing reality online. I’m seeing filtered reality.

The problem is that when we view others’ filtered lives online, we get jealous. We think others are leading better lives than our own, and we want the lives they appearto be leading more the lives we ourselves are actuallyleading. Ironically, then, we end up fearing that we have missed a reality that is in fact fake.

No wonder studies indicate that people who spend too much time on social reality are depressed! After spending nearly a month off social media — with clearly defined exceptions — I found that my mood had improved considerably. As I said above, I’m still working on out-of-whack emotions, but I’m in a much better place than I was at the end of October.

That brings me to a fifth and final lesson: I need discernment and discipline. At one point, I considered trading in my smartphone for a dumbphone and deleting all my social media accounts.

I didn’t do that for two reasons. For one thing, my iPhone has become a helpful tool at work. For another thing, the real problem isn’t the tool; it’s how I use the tool. The abuse or misuse of a thing doesn’t destroy its proper use, after all.

So, after my social media fast, I’m trying to be more discerning about how I use my iPhone, starting with simply using it less. Less time on it is more time for my wife and kids, friends, coworkers, neighbors … and for God.

I’m also trying to be more disciplined. Instead of reaching for my iPhone to distract me from my boredom, I’m trying to sit quietly in that room, attentive to God and to how He might be leading me. That’s always more important than whatever is happening online.

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

The Code of the Hills | Book Review


The Code of the Hills is the first of four (so far) crime novels by Nancy Allen featuring Elsie Arnold. It is set in the Ozarks of southwestern Missouri, in Barton, the seat of McCown County, for which Elsie works as a prosecuting attorney. Both the town and the county are fictional, but Allen’s portrayal of southwestern Missouri is pitch perfect, from the patois (you’uns, not y’all) to the overworked foster care system, from the poverty and meth to backcountry Pentecostals. The Baldknobbers—a vigilante group from the postbellum era—get a nod, and there’s even a jibe or two thrown in at Springfield, the third largest city in Missouri and “The Queen City of the Ozarks.”

The crime at the heart of The Code of the Hills is incest, and the mystery is whether Elsie Arnold will be able to successfully prosecute Kris Taney for it. (Even the name Taney has Ozarks resonance, by the way, since Taney County is real and has its own lake, Lake Taneycomo—for Taney County, Missouri, of course.) The witness who called in the crime—Kris’s brother Al—has disappeared. The Taney women—mom Donita, daughters Charlene, Kristy, and Tiffany—aren’t cooperating. Mom has taken up with a new beau while Dad is in jail, which Kris’s defense attorney thinks points to a setup. A key piece of evidence gets incinerated. A group of misinformed “Apostolic” Pentecostals take up Kris’s defense on the grounds of “family values,” and make Elsie’s life miserable in the process. (The scene where their itinerant pastor sets them straight in a sermon was a hoot, at least to this member of the clergy.) And Elsie’s incompetent boss—Madeleine Thompson—has it out for her. If Elsie loses the case, she loses her job.

You’ll have to read The Code of the Hills to discover the outcome. (And to find out what “the code of the hills” is.) What I liked about the novel is that it tells a story that feels like the Ozarks. If you live here, you’ll know what I mean. As a former foster parent, I’ve seen the reality of abuse and neglect, the poverty of many families, and the overwhelmed resources of the state of Missouri up close. This novel has a ring of truth to it. That’s probably because Nancy Allen is a native Missourian, former prosecuting attorney, and law professor at Missouri State University in my home town of Springfield.

I enjoyed The Code of the Hills. It kept me turning pages, which is my number-one criteria for mystery novels. So, I look forward to reading the next three novels in the series. I’m sincerely hoping Elsie Arnold comes to Springfield in one of them…

Book Reviewed
Nancy Allen, The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery(New York: WitnessImpulse, 2014).

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