#BookReview: Tongue Tied by Sara Wenger Shenk

Interesting Counter And Companion To Learning To Speak God From Scratch By Jonathan Merritt. Having now completed ARC readings of both of these books about Christians speaking about their religion, I can definitely see why Merritt’s work is quoted so often in the first part of this work. Whereas Merritt spends much of the back part of his book looking at individual words heard nearly every time Christians speak, Shenk spends more of her time looking at *how* Christians speak. Their tones, their mannerisms, the very way we speak religion as a social construct. Which is a very interesting dichotomy when Merritt’s work is also something you’ve considered. But be forewarned: Shenk *does* come from a “progressive”/ leftist background, so there is quite a bit of “white man evil!!!!” and other standard leftist tropes here, and even a degree of radicalism not even any vegan I’ve ever encountered professes as it relates to her eating habits (discussed in a late chapter). However, whereas Merritt’s work could strike some as being a tad too conservative – he comes from a background where his dad was the President of the Southern Baptist Convention during his later teens/ the early George W Bush years, including 9/11 – the dichotomy continues here with Shenk’s leftist background. Which is yet another reason the two books are so intertwined to me, and why they balance each other so well in my mind. Beyond the leftist drivel (and hypocrisies), Shenk makes a lot of genuinely great points and has a truly solid discussion about the need for Christians to reconsider exactly how we speak religion both within our communities and to the larger world, and indeed *that* we need to be more proactive in doing so. Ultimately, the reduced star here isn’t over Shenk’s beyond-the-scope-of-this-narrative commentary, but because she, as so many others in this genre, prooftexts. In one case late in the text, *literally the next paragraph after decrying the practice*. Still, on the beyond-the-narrative-scope stuff here, the book is very much YMMV level – the more partisan you are either direction, the more you’ll love or hate that part of the book. On the actual thesis of the book, the book is enlightening in areas and thought provoking, at minimum, in many others. And thus, very much recommended.

This review of Tongue Tied by Sara Wenger Shenk was originally written on December 23, 2020.

#BookReview: Solemn Reverence by Randall Balmer

Solid If Brief History Marred By No True Scotsmen. This is a seemingly comprehensive – more comprehensive than any other I’ve ever read, and I’ve read many – yet brief (around 100 pages, including all non-narrative book material such as table of contents and bibliography) look at the issue. It even manages to include several historical facts of which I was hitherto unaware. Which is not overly easy to do, given that I’ve been speaking on this exact issue, from both sides at varying times, in depth off and on for over 20 years now. HOWEVER, particularly in its later chapters when it begins to get into more modern times – the last 40-50 years or so -, Balmer allows a tinge of “No True Scotsman” to invade his narrative. Even though I largely concur with these particular points, that the Baptists of the modern era – particularly the Southern Baptist Convention post “Conservative Resurgence” – have lost much of what it historically meant to be a Baptist (*even in the SBC itself!*), it taints what is otherwise a largely strictly fact based discussion of the history of the separation of Church and State in the land now known as the United States of America. Still, I don’t find it quite significant enough to downgrade the overall rating a full 20% that the loss of one of five stars would denote (though if I were grading on a typical A-F scale, I would probably drop this into B+ territory over the issue). Very much recommended.

This review of Solemn Reverence by Randall Balmer was originally written on December 21, 2020.

#BookReview: Beautiful Resistance by Jon Tyson

Interesting But Not Revolutionary. This is a fairly standard “Christian Living” book written by a pastor, this time an Australian living in NYC – which at least makes it a bit atypical in that regard. Those outside of Christendom probably will have little interest here, and honestly there is little value for that crowd. For those inside the Church who are looking for a new book to read, eh, there are much worse options. One note here is that, as with far too many books of its type, prooftexting – citing random Bible verses out of context – is rampant in this text as well, and is an automatic star deduction in any review I do for a book that contains it. The 4* total here are because even with the prooftexting, the other sporadic issues with the book don’t amount to much either by themselves or in combination. To borrow Tyson’s own construction, this book could best be summed up as (Mostly) Solid But Not Remarkable. Recommended.

This review of Beautiful Resistance by Jon Tyson was originally written on July 4, 2020.

Featured New Release Of The Week: Anchored In Jesus by Johnny Hunt

This week we’re looking at another former Southern Baptist Convention President’s latest book. This week, we’re looking at Anchored In Jesus by Johnny Hunt.

As I say in the Goodreads review below, just to be completely upfront: I’ve been in the crowd a few times when Johnny Hunt has preached. The church he has been at for over 20 years, Woodstock First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga, was where some relatives were members for several years and was not far from my grandfather’s home in nearby Hickory Flat. One aunt in particular damn near considers the guy one of her favorite preachers ever.

So I know the guy and his style, despite neither of us ever saying a single word to the other in any medium I am aware of, including face to face. And I knew what I was getting into in reading this book. And the only thing that struck me as somewhat unexpected was when he specifically speaks of showing love for everyone, no matter their sins. Some of his parishioners… well, they’re some of the reasons I began using the term “Talibaptist” many years ago, and some of them are fairly influential in local and State politics there.

But the book itself very much reads as though you are sitting in the sanctuary for his Sunday morning sermons for a month or two (twelve total chapters, but a couple of them could be combined into one sermon). And they really are pretty much exactly what he would say on a Sunday morning, all the way down to outright including the Sinner’s Prayer a couple of times. If you’re a conservative evangelical American christian, you’re going to love this book. The further you are away from that philosophy… the more you likely won’t. If you don’t want a preachy book even if you are in that mindset, I cannot emphasize enough that this book reads as though he strung several sermons together.

Theologically, I can and over the last 20 yrs have several times poked so many holes in the overall theology that it begins to resemble swiss cheese, but again, I knew what I was getting into here so I’m not overly going to lambast it in this review. Hunt is a bit more hard headed and blunt than I prefer, and absolutely old school – at one point he tells the story of talking to his daughter about the birds and the bees years ago and says that he told her “if a boy tries to get you in the backseat of a car, you better not go back there!”. Basically the dude is one of those that you listen to while letting most of his points go in one ear and out the other, because he does occasionally have a solid if not excellent point, and those are usually worth sticking around to find. Kind of like a bitter grandmother or crazy aunt. You respect them, and you’ve heard it all before, but occasionally you get an “aha” moment.

Thus, I think the three stars I decided on for this book are pretty solid for my own feelings with it. Again, someone more ardently in Hunt’s particular mindset will likely rate it higher, those brave souls who read this book despite being even less inclined to Hunt’s mindset than I will likely be a bit more harsh. But I’m comfortable with this, and this is my review and my blog. 🙂

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:

A Few Good Points. A Few Troubling Ones. Standard Johnny Hunt. Full disclosure up front: I’ve been in a few crowds Johnny Hunt has preached to, and some relatives have been members of First Baptist Woodstock, where he preaches. So I know most of Johnny’s story, what he believes, and his style. And this book is effectively sitting through a month or two of his sermons – each chapter tends to sound nearly identical to a given weekly sermon, in at least two instances complete with the Sinner’s Prayer. And that is why I can’t rate this book any higher, yet also don’t feel comfortable rating it any lower. Conservative American Evangelical Christians will likely hit this book with 5*, the further away you are from that group, the lower your rating will likely be. Overall he does in fact make some solid points, he just does it in the lazy country preacher style I’ve known him to employ for the last 20 yrs – which works well in a region that 20 yrs ago still composed a fair amount of farmland, despite being in the middle of Metro Atlanta’s northward surge. Recommended, just do your own research any time he makes a claim.

Featured New Release Of The Week: Character Still Counts by James Merritt

This week we are looking at a book of nuanced fire from a former Southern Baptist Convention President. This week we are looking at Character Still Counts by James Merritt.

Outside of my own pastors over the years, there is no single preacher I’ve listened to more over the years than Dr. James Merritt. Among those preachers I don’t personally know, he is easily the singular one I respect the most. I grew up listening to Dr. Merritt’s sermons on TV as our family was getting ready for church, and I’ve been known to download his sermons from time to time in the years since. Nearly a decade ago when I listened to him for the first time in roughly that long, I discovered that this man who had been the SBC President at the time of the 9/11 attacks and was known to be quite cozy with then-President George W. Bush had mellowed quite a bit and had developed quite a bit of nuance to his preaching.

This level of nuance continues into this book, where Merritt makes it quite clear that we are all in the same boat, no matter our stage or position in life. In speaking of integrity, Merritt does not negate his own by taking partisan sides and instead condemns the adulteries of both former US President Bill Clinton and current US President Donald Trump in the same breath. He uses jokes and anecdotes both to illustrate his points and to provide a bit of levity in the midst of some at times very hard hitting passages where he is pulling no punches… even while his fist is wrapped in a velvet glove.

One geek out moment for me, and a moment that had to be very cool for his son, was when Dr. Merritt actually quoted and cited his son Jonathan’s most recent book Learning To Speak God From Scratch at one point. Behind the scenes, Jonathan has had a bit of a situation that caused a fair amount of drama in some circles, and this moment was a very blatant case of the father publicly standing beside the son. Truly, it nearly brought tears to my eyes, and I only know the very barest of hints of the details of the overall situation. (Indeed, 90%+ of what I know comes from when Jonathan himself addresses it in Scratch.) While not a “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased” level moment, it was instead a very subtle yet public simply stepping up beside the son and making it clear that the son has the father’s support. In a book all about character it was an excellent display of the father’s character and faith in the son’s character.

On the whole an excellent book, no matter whether you agree with Merritt’s own conservative evangelical American Christian mindset or not. Very much recommended.

As always, the Goodreads/ Amazon review:
Continue reading “Featured New Release Of The Week: Character Still Counts by James Merritt”

#BookReview: I Died Swallowing A Goldfish by Kent Holloway

Max Lucado Meets CSI. Holloway has been writing fiction stories for many years, sometimes involving various cryptids, other times involving various folklores, and even one time using his day job to create a fictional tale of a crime scene “cleaner”. This is his first foray into the nonfiction realm, and here he uses his day job to talk about Christian ideals in a style very reminiscent of Max Lucado. Each chapter is roughly half “here’s a story from my day job as a forensic death investigator” and roughly half “here’s how that tale impacts the Christian life”. Because Holloway consistently uses prooftexting – the technique of citing Bible verses out of context in support of one’s thesis – I personally cannot give it any more than the four stars I’ve chosen to give it here. Others, particularly Christians or at least those than enjoy reading books such as Lucado’s works, will likely rate it higher and honestly I cannot fault them for it. It was a solid tale in that vein, I simply am so adamantly against prooftexting that I cannot allow myself to give 5 stars to any text that uses the technique. Others more critical of Christian beliefs reading this more for the CSI side of it (which is a valid approach, that side is truly fascinating) might rate the book a bit more critically specifically because of the Christian points, and that too would be fair-ish. Holloway, as he admits in the text, is an ordained minister and a Southern Baptist, and what he says throughout the text is mostly solidly in line with current Southern Baptist theology. So if you’re reading this book just for the CSI side, maybe just skip over the back half of most chapters, or skim them for any conclusions about the CSI side of the chapter. Overall a very well written book with a rare if not unique perspective in this field, and one that is very much recommended.

This review of I Died Swallowing A Goldfish by Kent Holloway was originally written on November 20, 2019.

#BookReview: How Happiness Happens by Max Lucado

Solid Pointers, Regardless of Philosophy. This is a partial review based on the first 5 chapters of this text being provided by the publisher.

Here, one of the icons of my childhood, Max Lucado, takes on the topic “how can I be happy?”. And regardless of your particular belief system, he makes some really great points. Yes, the man has been a preacher most of my life if not longer. His first book was published when I was just 6 yrs old and learning to read, and his style really hasn’t changed in all that time. And honestly, that is one of the things that makes him so great. His style is very conversational and quite funny, and that makes any of his books – this one certainly included – very easy reads.

And yet, it is exactly that approach that gets him 4 stars here. Why? Because I *need* to see the back half of the book to see exactly where between 3 and 5 stars this text will ultimately land. With what he has laid out in the beginning of this book, combined with the titles for the back half that I don’t yet have access to, this book could go anywhere from mind blowing to just run of the mill Lucado (which, again, is still great – particularly in regards to how easy it is to read his books). Based on what I know of him from reading his books for literally most of the time I’ve had the ability to read and of his situation from having grown up in the same types of circles he has lived in throughout my life, I *expect* Lucado to play it a bit safe in that back half. He likely isn’t going to say anything that will get too many people too angry either direction. What he likely says will be theologically orthodox, but verbally kind – that is pretty much Lucado in a nutshell. But man, if he does the unexpected and actually takes some bold-for-his-age-and-position stances… it could be revolutionary.

A pessimist will find several faults here, chief among them the continued use of proof texting, and likely hit that 3* ranking.

An optimist is going to see how readable this text is and how refreshing its message is and likely hit it with the 5*.

This realist could agree with both of them and really needs more information to make a more sound judgement, so the 4* feels like the right option at least for now.

Excellent work, and it truly is an honor to be able to ARC a book from one of my childhood literary heroes.

This review of How Happiness Happens by Max Lucado was originally written on August 22, 2019.

#BookReview: Hearing God by Nathan Finochio

Awesome Premise. Flawed Execution. In this book, Finochio makes several excellent points, and it is a book genuinely worthy of reading. But yet again we get a book from a Christian pastor that decries the practice of “proof texting” – citing an out of context verse from the Bible in support of whatever claim the person is making at the time – … while doing it in seemingly nearly every paragraph of the 200 pages of text of this book. We see, yet again, the modern Christian phenomenon of worshiping the Bible as God’s Word, despite the very book itself (in John 1:1) declaring that *Jesus Christ* is God’s Word. And indeed, Finochio uses some genuinely impressive mental gymnastics somewhat frequently to claim that both the Bible and Jesus Christ are God’s Word at the same time. For the Christian mainstream in America, this book will probably go over quite well and hell, he does make good points throughout the book even in his flawed execution, so I’ll recommend it to that crowd at least. It simply could have been so much more and so much stronger, and is disappointing in not being so.

This review of Hearing God by Nathan Finochio was originally published on June 11, 2019.

#BookReview: Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans

I’m going to treat this #BookReview entry more like a Featured New Release of the Week column just because of what it is and why I’m reading it and when.

In reading Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans today, I knew that today was the day of her funeral – announcements had been made a few days ago. And despite one final book coming from Rachel, likely this fall (she had finished writing it before the illness that ultimately took her life struck, from what I am told), I knew that this was effectively my way of saying goodbye to Rachel.

I never actually met Rachel, to my knowledge we were never so much as in the same city at the same time. But, as I do with Jonathan Merritt, I considered her a contemporary as we were all within a couple of years or so of the same age and were all raised in similar conservative evangelical environments in the same general region of planet earth. And like Merritt’s books, Evans’ spoke to my own journey even while actually speaking about hers, because we were all so similar. When I found Evans’ book Searching for Sunday a few years ago, I wanted to have Thor’s reaction to seeing Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok with virtually every sentence. It was simply transcendant, and I had finally found a contemporary who could speak that which even I found difficult to put into words at times. It was on the strength of that book that I jumped at the chance to help launch her next book, Inspired, last year. While that book hewed closer to Rachel’s beliefs that I didn’t share, I continued to hope that she would come back to the transcendence of Searching for Sunday, and particularly now that this followup to Inspired will be her last.

As I say in the Goodreads/ Amazon review below, this book shows several glimpses of being as amazing as Searching for Sunday was. In speaking of her early life and through college and into meeting Dan, her husband, she speaks to a lot of the same things that many young Christians were going through at those same points in those heady days of the 80s and 90s and early 2000s as the oldest of the Millenials grew up and came of age.

I never actually met Rachel, but I do know that the world is now just a little more dim without her in it – and I know that she will live on as long as her books do, if only in her writing and the memories of those she knew and who knew her.

And now, the Amazon/ Goodreads review:
Continue reading “#BookReview: Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans”

#BookReview: Misquoted by Dan Suelzle

Problem Platitudes Ravaged. In this debut book from Rev Dan Suelzle of the Wittenberg Chapel, he takes on infamously misquoted Bible verses and examines both what they actually say and the comfort they seem to give when being misquoted. The point is repeatedly hammered home that while a particular thought may *seem* palliative, more often than not at least some level of pain is needed in order to fully grow and heal, and the misquotes thus harm the person they are intended to help. While not making it a particular point to “go after” any particular thought process or person other than simply explaining the quotes and why the misconstruction of them is incorrect, Suelzle also doesn’t hold any punches and actively calls out by name – a rarity in books, in my experience – at least a few particular practitioners who have built entire careers around at least two of the misquotes he writes about here. Truly an excellent work, particularly for fans of Jonathan Merritt’s 2018 book “Learning to Speak God from Scratch”, as both books take common language apart and reconstruct it in its real form. Fascinating and very much recommended.

This review of Misquoted by Dan Suelzle was originally published on May 19, 2019.