Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Books for June and most of July, 2012

Because of our vacation at the end of July (spanning into August), I don't expect to be in a position to complete this list in a way that would include the books I finish while on vacation! Coupled with the fact that I've missed a month or so, and the date range here is an odd one. Nevertheless…

(I've already included my survey of resources on 1 Peter, which I guess technically counts in this category.)

All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin MemoirAll Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir by Brennan Manning

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked Manning’s memoir, and found it to be a great encouragement to me, both as a writer and as a minister.

When I was in college, Manning’s books (especially Ragamuffin Gospel and Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging) were in vogue with my fellow Young Life leaders, but I never quite got around to reading as much of him as my peers. Still, I was deeply aware of the sense of personal brokenness and need that was present in this man’s rich writings, and I valued that extremely.

I can’t fully agree with some of the other readers/raters who want to give Manning lower ratings because he has continued to struggle with his sinful patterns (including divorce and alcoholism) throughout his life. Let’s face it: all of us struggle with sin all of our lives! If we expect authors, teachers, and pastors to be above such struggles, we will always be disappointed. I find Manning’s frank dealing with his own sin (in this memoir and in other books) to be refreshing in that way.

The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church CommunitiesThe Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities by C. Christopher Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked the topic and appreciated the simple, narrative description of what the author’s congregation had done, why they had done it, and how they believe it has been profitable to them. The book wasn’t preachy or prescriptive in any way, but the author sought to encourage other congregations to follow suit for the sake of the benefits that seem inherent to the approaches to community life they have embraced.

The book was written clearly and in a manner that was quite readable; I didn’t want for a better editor (or an editor at all!) as I do often in such “practical theology” books.

While I liked the book and found it readable, for whatever reason it didn’t stand out to me as a “must-read” for me or for my leaders. I certainly don’t recommend against it(!), but neither do I feel like this must take priority over the many other books that I wish to put before my congregation’s leadership.

Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing LifeWordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life by Douglas Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked Wilson’s book very much. It's well-written, which you would hope and expect, both because of the topic and the author; it’s also well-structured and quite economical in terms of “price-earnings ratio” if you will. This was a quick read, but not without great value and encouragement.

Operation Family Secrets: How a Mobster's Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago's Murderous Crime FamilyOperation Family Secrets: How a Mobster's Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago's Murderous Crime Family by Frank Calabrese Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many other readers, I heard an NPR interview with the author, Frank Calabrese Jr., in which he discussed the events he describes in detail in the book. Here’s a man who turned against his “made-man” mobster father and helped the FBI, then elected NOT to enter witness protection after. I was struck by one particular moment in the interview when questioned how he feels about the fact that, if his father should ever get out of prison, his father may come looking for him? His response was simply that, if his father finds him and kills him, that’s his father’s choice; meanwhile, HIS conscience is clear.

The book does a good job of elaborating on this interesting story, while also keeping the pace moving at a good clip. At times there may be more detail about gangster activity than some may prefer (though not me, as I’ve always had an inexplicable pet interest in organized crime). The language is a bit coarse at times, too — though one may think, what should I expect from Chicago mobsters?

In all, the book is a believable, yet remarkable, account of how one man stood against his family in a way that mattered. There’s nothing about the story that leads me to believe that the author did what he did out of motivation for some level of ethics, religious experience, or anything other than simply that he recognized that this was a life he could no longer lead— and he loved his father enough to see that the life would kill him, too, if he were ever to get out of jail. Basically, he loved himself and his father too much to allow either to continue in what he had come to know as a lifestyle incompatible with living.

If you like mob stories, you’d probably like this book.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Bits & Tidbits, Midsummer 2012 edition

Here's a look at some of the better/more interesting/funnier/more profound articles and blog posts I've read in the last little while…

Monday, July 23, 2012

What do we do with those?

[From Pastor Ed… for July 22, 29]

As we've been working through the first several psalms in our sermons this summer, already we've encountered a number of quirks and descriptions that may be perplexing. Psalms contains a handful of features and aspects for which a little extra explanation might be helpful. Even the name of the book itself (and of the 150 individual parts that make it up) is different from the rest of the Bible!

The psalms were songs and prayers that were used in Jewish worship; thus, in a sense you could think of the book that we call Psalms as something like a combination of hymnal and Book of Common Prayer for the people of Israel in biblical times. The collection of them together, particularly when found outside of a bound Bible, is often called "The Psalter" — because a psalter is simply a volume that contains all of the psalms. Many churches and traditions would have a printed, bound Psalter in the pews, just as we have hymnals available; indeed, there are some traditions that still believe that the use of the Psalter is the only right, biblical musical selection for public worship.

Another way that the book as a whole is different from the rest of the Bible is how we refer to the individual psalms. Whereas most of scripture was written with the intent that any given section would be coherently connected to the rest of the content around it, the psalms were almost always written individually, and even when they were done in pairs or groups they were meant to stand alone to a degree. Thus, while we might refer to Genesis chapter 40 or Luke chapter 3, it is incorrect to speak of "Psalms chapter 100" — instead, it is Psalm 100.

(Incidentally, Psalms is also the only book in the Bible that had pre-existing divisions; the rest of the chapter divisions, as well as ALL of the verse divisions, were imposed on the texts much later.)

The contents of the individual psalms also introduces peculiar features. For example, in Psalm 3 we encounter the first preamble-like content: "A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son." These are often mistaken as simply helpful comments that were inserted at some point down the line — sort of like the first Study Bible notes! In fact, these are actually verses in the psalms themselves, and as far as we know they were written by psalmists. In the Hebrew Bible, these are noted as verse #1 — which can confuse those engaged in translation, if they're not paying attention! — but in English Bibles are usually not given an explicit verse number, and thus can be referred to as verse 0. Regardless, they should be read as what they are: part of Scripture, the divinely-inspired Word of God.

Psalm 3 also introduces another very common element that people will often wonder about: the word Selah. This word occurs 71 times in the psalms, and in generally understood to be a very old musical term. Its meaning is unknown, but our best guess is that it was some sort of musical marker — maybe a rest of sorts, or perhaps something of a da capo, a cue to return to the beginning of the music. Since we don't know what it meant, we can't exactly use it the way it was intended in our reading or worship! Most folks choose to leave it silent (and unread), and perhaps simply pause briefly where it appears.

Psalms 4, 5, and 6 have also introduced us to more of these quirks, especially in verse 0: notes to the choirmaster (all three psalms) and a comment instructing that the psalm be sung "according to The Sheminith" (in Psalm 6). These too are musical notations, some more obvious than others. Clearly, if this collection was for public worship, it makes sense that there would be a choirmaster, arrangements for the instruments, preferred tunes that the psalms be sung to, and so forth. "The Sheminith" is related to the Hebrew word for eight, so a song sung according to The Sheminith may span eight octaves (an incredible range!) or perhaps require eight instruments to accompany it, or an instrument with eight strings.

Psalm 7 is described in v. 0 as "a Shiggaion of David" (the only Shiggaion in the entire Psalter), which once again is unknown in its precise meaning, but again is probably a musical notation or perhaps a literary designation, and because the word shiggaion has the Hebrew root that means, "wander" it might suggest that either the tune, the lyrics, or the style of poetry employed are a bit irregular. Psalm 8 contains a similar note, "according to The Gittith", which (like The Sheminith) probably describes a particular style of music or instrumentation; it may have linked this psalm to the playing of a particular kind of instrument called a "Gittite Lyre", or it may have indicated that this was a festival song.

There are other similar designations and comments (though we won't encounter any others than these in our series this summer). What do we make of all of these? I can think of three ways that these peculiar quirks may serve to edify us in our spiritual growth:
  • They remind us of our limits in understanding Scripture. We have very good, quite reliable translations of the Bible to read and use in English; nevertheless, it is always helpful to be reminded that our Bible was written in other languages (that most of us have little or no knowledge of), and in another historical context. Both of these facts are important in how we understand and interpret Scripture, and these unknown parts can be helpful prompts to actively remember this.
  • They teach us of the worship-centered nature of the Psalms. Because we have our own Bibles, and many of us spend time in private reading of them, we can be inclined to think of Scripture as having only, or at least mostly, individual implications. The Psalms — and especially these words and phrases that give instruction for how they are to be used in corporate, public worship — give us a lot to think about in challenging our tendency toward individualistic thinking.
  • They move us to sing! I find it interesting that so many of these are musical in their nature. That God would be concerned with giving definite instruction to the singing of His Word should move us to want to sing the Psalms. Fortunately, too, there are many wonderful resources that make it possible to sing these beautiful and rich expressions of Scriptural truths.

Psalms is a wonderful and fascinating book, full of interesting and sometimes strangely-foreign things. Hopefully, we will find even the most unfamiliar aspects of the psalms to be edifying to our faith.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Survey of Resources on 1 Peter

At the very beginning of summer, we finished a series of sermons from the first letter of the Apostle Peter. Here are my thoughts on the resources I used (some more, some less) in fortifying that study and those sermons. I'll rate them on a scale of 1-10 based on how useful I found them.


  • Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament XI: James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude by Gerald Bray (ed.). I find this series of commentaries novel and intriguing, yet I seldom consult them with any regularity for my sermons or teaching. Likewise here: I think I turned to Bray's collection two or three times, and each time found only the merest help for what I needed. Perhaps this sort of commentary is relatively incompatible with my teaching/preaching study style? (2)
  • The Message of 1 Peter by Edmund Clowney. I generally like this series of commentaries (IVP's "The Bible Speaks Today" series) a lot, and there's usually good material to be found here. These are, in my estimation, very good lay-level commentaries, and I often already have the meat of its content in mind before I turn to them. Still, the 1 Peter volume is rich and full of great insight from Dr. Clowney. I love to pass these along to folks who indicate their desire for some good help with reading along in devotional ways with the sermon series, and I have great confidence in recommending this one in that way. (6, only because of the limited use for this context.
  • The First Epistle of Peter by Peter H. Davids. By far, this was/is my favorite commentary on 1 Peter, and the one I consulted the most. There is rich insight here for the understanding of this letter, and I think this commentary is a useful addition to any library. I first found Davids on 1 Peter in seminary, and would admit that this is not the most homiletically-oriented commentary (though it fits my preparation style very well). Davids is very occasionally on the critical/liberal side of interpretation, but when he is it is mild and he is respectful and accommodating to a more conservative/traditional interpretation. (10)
  • A Commentary on 1 Peter by Leonard Goppelt. This is another one that I picked up (and found quite useful) in seminary, though its highly-academic and technical nature did not transfer as well as Davids into a homiletic setting. I believe I consulted Goppelt twice on more technical matters, and when I did I found him quite helpful. (There are a couple of sections of 1 Peter that need more extensive technical investigation.) Overall, I wasn't hurt by having Goppelt on my shelf, but I'm not sure I would encourage most pastors to buy it for the few times its handy. (6)
  • 1 Peter by Joel B. Green. I was excited to get Green's commentary when I started this series, because I loved his work on Luke when I preached through that book (see my Luke survey here). While I didn't find Green's work noticeably different or lesser in any way, for whatever reason this one didn't become a go-to resource like the Luke volume did. Green hits on the same wavelength as Peter Davids, so perhaps it was because of my familiarity with Davids that I didn't latch onto Green this time. Still, I like Green's work on 1 Peter a lot, and would certainly recommend it. (7)
  • 1 Peter by Karen H. Jobes. Another fine work, along the same lines as Davids and Green in terms of its place and use in the schema of commentaries. I liked Jobes' approach and discussion of the text, and found hers to be a good complement to Davids when I wasn't quite satisfied (or in agreement) with his take. Much like Davids, I consulted Jobes most weeks during my study. (9)
  • 1 Peter by I. Howard Marshall. Perhaps my one regret in this series through 1 Peter was that I seldom had time to consult my second-tier references (like this one) more frequently, and I'm sure I missed out on some keen insights and strong application points because of it. Marshall is a scholar that I respect highly, even though he doesn't come to mind as readily as others, and his work on 1 Peter is very solid. This volume strikes at a level somewhere between the more technical (like Davids, Goppelt, Green, and Jobes) and the more lay-level; it's sort of a "preacher's commentary" in the sense that so much of the content would approximate what you would expect to hear in a good sermon — which also makes this kind of commentary dangerous, in a way, because of the temptation to slack off on the hard work of crafting your own sermon. I probably picked up Marshall six or eight times, but given more prep time I might have doubled that. (8)
  • The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Peter by Scot McKnight. As I've mentioned before, I like this series for what it offers a preacher, and I found the insights here on "bridging contexts" to often be quite valuable. Unlike Darrell Bock on Luke (in the same series), I didn't find McKnight's thoughts on "original meaning" to be as compelling, and like Bock I sometimes felt McKnight's "contemporary significance" reflections missed the mark. Another difficulty I had was that my outline of 1 Peter didn't match McKnight's, so often I was jumping around or poking into half a chapter. All of this combined to make this round from the series less helpful than others have been, but I still got value out of it. This was probably the first go-to commentary of my second-tier references. (8)

Other References

I didn't use a lot of additional resources for 1 Peter, partly because I had done some study on the book in seminary and was familiar with the context and background material more than I might be in a less-familiar book. I did sometimes consult IVP's Dictionary of New Testament Background and their Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, and as usual I highly recommend these and others in IVP's series of Old and New Testament dictionaries. (Which reminds me that there are a couple of newer ones that I need to add to my library!)

Also, I recommend William W. Harrell's Let's Study 1 Peter from Banner of Truth. I only made use of it once or twice in this particular study, but I've taught 1 Peter in a Sunday School class before where we used this study guide as the basis for the class; it is very solid, and a profitable supplement to any study through the text. Some folks from Dove Mountain Church asked me about doing additional study in 1 Peter through the week, and I pointed them to this book first.