Monday, March 31, 2008

Of All Sad Words – Bill Crider

© 2008 St. Martin’s Minotaur, New York

Readers of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes stories will know that this is the fifteenth feature-length novel starring the laid-back east Texas lawman since he first appeared in the Anthony Award-winning Too Late to Die in 1986. Those same readers will also be glad to note that the good sheriff is alive and well and busting crime in Blacklin County.

The newest in the series has Rhodes investigating the explosion of a mobile home, death of its owner, and related death of a local café owner. Along the way, Rhodes has to deal with possums that aren’t there, flying saucers that are probably not there, the crankiness of a county commissioner, and the exasperating banter of the beloved (?) Hack and Lawton—who are supposed to be his friends.

Terry Crawford is found dead away from the wreck of his mobile home. His brother who was at the Wal-mart to buy groceries seems more intent on suing the propane company (and anyone else he can think of) for wrongful death than he is about the fact that Terry is dead. The investigation turns up not one but two stills and an apparent new market for bootleg whiskey. This brings an appearance of a Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission investigator to the county. As such goings on will do, the vermin shows up to be active in the criminal activity. In this case it takes the form of Rapper and Nellie who have confounded Rhodes on several previous occasions. Each time, Rapper gets permanently wounded (though not fatally) and then gets away. Maybe he’ll stay away from Blacklin County this time. In the words of the sheriff, “Right.”

For entertainment value, Crider throws in the news that the book loosely built around Rhodes and his crime busting career, Blood Fever, is now published and Dan finds himself roped into joining the co-authors at a book signing at the local Wal-mart. One of the new (and hopefully recurring) characters takes time to write a tribute song to Rhodes called “The Ballad of Sheriff Rhodes” and sung to the tune of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”

This story is written in the typical quick-paced style that Crider’s readers have come to expect in the Rhodes stories (novels and shorts alike). Crider also lets us work the puzzle with the sheriff without revealing his hand too early or broadcasting it too loudly, which is often the temptation when writing genre mysteries. In addition to a rocking cover, readers will encounter the parade of kooks and characters they know inhabit the little east Texas town. Other references will delight readers of mystery stories such as the honorable hat tip to Crider’s friend and successful east Texas writer
Joe Lansdale (of course the reference might be a plug to encourage Joe’s daughter Kasey in her burgeoning singing career). If Crider had been able he would also have linked you to Hard Case Crime when he gives them a nice fat juicy plug. (I’ve done it for you, Bill; lovers of nostalgic pulp crime novels and covers will be delighted.)

Crider is on his game with Of All Sad Words. I’d have to give him 4 reading glasses. For the editors at Minotaur, I’d have to ask whose doing their research. They’ve lumped Dead Soldiers in the list with the Sally Good Mysteries in their listing of the author’s previous works. If they’d read the book they would remember that it was the long-awaited reappearance of Professor Carl Burns. Happy reading, everyone.

—Benjamin Potter, March 31, 2008

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Journeys – Todd Wright and Marty Duren

© 2008 Missional Press, Smyrna, DE

Few books dig so deeply into the heart of the reader as to force life change. In the church culture we have, over the last decade or so, been bombarded with a mountain of books that have a tendency to approach this kind of effect. Several have made it across my desk, and have even influenced my thinking.
The Purpose Driven Church, Transitioning, Simple Church, and Chazown have all had similar interest-piquing effects as they outlined either a new approach to church or personal discipleship, and have all created a desire to see a more effective ministry happen in my life and the church I serve (or served at the time). What these books did not do was drive me to my knees in search of the face of God. In this, Journeys: Transitioning Churches to Relevance is different.

Within the pages of this short volume, you will find the candid report from two pastors broken by a vision from God that allowed no rest, no relying on the status quo, and no looking back with integrity. With the admonition that both men and the churches where they lead are on a continuing journey into reaching their respective communities for Christ, they share the journey so far. It is a journey that brings under indictment the Church Culture that has developed in America (and the West) that efficiently builds a wall around itself to keep the outside world outside while claiming to love and pray for that lost and dying world.

Reader be warned: this is not a casual perusal, and if read in all seriousness will send you to the Bible to discover again the face of God that first called you out of the darkness. It is not a how-to book to change or jumpstart your church. On the contrary it is the open heart of two young pastors as they tell their progress through that change. It will challenge you to seek a renewed vision, or it will anger you because of the conviction that hits like that after a powerful sermon. Your choice at the end of the reading will be to burn the book or be consumed by the fire lit within you by the Holy Spirit.

Each chapter is divided into Todd’s and then Marty’s step in the journey, with the final two chapters (one by Todd and one by Marty) issuing what we in Baptist circles would call an “invitation” (play the extended version of “Just as I Am” while reading them). The authors admonish us as readers not to take lightly the journey if we so choose to take it. It is not an easy road, nor one of little cost—to man and church alike. It is a journey well worth the consideration. Many a pastor will hear his own voice in the words of Wright and Duren, weeping, laughing, and shouting for joy over the roller coaster ride that is church change.

I would recommend this book to any minister ready to be effective in Kingdom work in a culture that has relegated that work to an ever-shrinking corner (often accepted gladly by the church culture, if not built by her). It would be an excellent “read together” for church staff members who are ready to become effective in doing more than attracting people who are already part of the church culture. It is a must for any church member who wants to see real ministry develop from their church that meets the scope laid out by Christ in Acts 1:8. Understand when you read this book that you will not want to put it down, nor will you be able to leave its message behind once you’ve turned the last page.

Journeys is worth not only five full sets of reading glasses, but five thumbs as well. Blessings on you Todd and Marty, for your candor and for leading those of us in a denomination plagued with political posturing into a moment of repentance.

—Benjamin Potter, March 26, 2008

Monday, March 24, 2008

Vintage Jesus – Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears

© 2008 Crossway, Wheaton, IL

I had been fascinated by this title ever since I came across it last fall. To be truthful, I really wanted to figure out how to get an ARC so I wouldn’t have to wait until publication to read it. Then, when it came in I had a pile three deep to get through before I could open it. (Enough of my pity party, and on to the review.) At any rate, I found that I was also fascinated as I read the book.

Driscoll, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, jumps right in to answer twelve heavy questions that commonly surface about the person and work of Jesus Christ. This volume is promised to be the first in a series bearing the name Vintage Jesus, and offers a Christology that speaks to the newer generations. Driscoll takes the old questions about Jesus, and answers them with the time-honored answers (based on biblical foundations) wrapped in contemporary language and highlighted with up-to-date illustrations.

Driscoll uncompromisingly approaches each question with strong, sound theology without backing down in the way many today would when pressed for an answer. There is no nonsense in the voice of this book, and there is no double talk either. It is refreshing to encounter a preacher whose heart is to reach the modern generation without compromising the gospel in the process.

Taking illustrations from the Bible, from history, and from the ever-looming pop culture in which we live, Driscoll leaves no doubt as to the nature and identity of Christ and what He has done, and will do, in the world. Tagging each chapter with a Q & A session with professor Gerry Breshears helps provide a little depth to the answers in the main part of each chapter. Breshears gives answers to FAQs related to each of the chapters’ main headings.

It is my opinion that the book would hold its own without the chapterly appearance of Dr. Breshears, but having the recurring approval of a respected mentor makes any author feel good. And the FAQ sections only serve to support the answers given by Driscoll.

The book is well-written and engaging, as well as including an extensive note section providing sources for the eggheads among us who want to know where he “got that.” This is an excellent resource in addressing the questions that people have been asking for hundreds of years. When using the book as a resource readers will find the indices of subjects and scripture references handily located in the back. Pastors and theologians will want to add this short book to their libraries and reference it often. Thanks, Mark, for saying what we all want to say, and saying it better than we could, so that we can answer this generation with thoughtful responses.

For those who need to know, here are the chapter titles:

  1. Is Jesus the Only God?

  2. How Human Was Jesus?

  3. How Did People Know Jesus Was Coming?

  4. Why Did Jesus Come to Earth?

  5. Why Did Jesus’ Mom Need to Be a Virgin?

  6. What Did Jesus Accomplish on the Cross?

  7. Did Jesus Rise from Death?

  8. Where Is Jesus Today?

  9. Why Should We Worship Jesus?

  10. What Makes Jesus Superior to Other Saviors?

  11. What Difference Has Jesus Made in History?

  12. What Will Jesus Do upon His Return?

Vintage Jesus is worth your time. It gets four and three-quarters reading glasses from me. (And the cool cover gets 5.)

—Benjamin Potter, March 24, 2008

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Character Makes a Difference – Mike Huckabee

I’ve purposely held this review back so that no one would start shouting about my getting into the political scene or endorsing a candidate. I got the chance to meet Mike Huckabee at the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, Texas, where I picked up a copy of this book and he graciously signed it, smiled and joked a bit with me, and shook my hand. The process took longer at the cash register of the LifeWay booth than in the presence of the governor. He won’t remember the encounter except that he did a book signing there and met a pile of Baptists. Anyway—here’s my thoughts on this book, although they are posted several weeks after the reading of the book.

© 2007 B & H Publishing Group, Nashville

A quick glance at the copyright page of this volume reveals that it combines material previously published by the former Arkansas governor in 1997 (Character Is the Issue) and 2000 (Living Beyond Your Lifetime). Glancing further at the Introduction and the Table of Contents gives the reader a feel for the book. It is divided into three parts—part 1, background on what it is that brought Huckabee to the political place where he recently ran for the presidency; part 2, a general call to living a life of character; and part 3, a collection of selected speeches from Huckabee printed in the form of appendices rather than chapters. The book boils down to a simple primer on character and behavior.

The historical matter is presented, as one would expect, from Huckabee’s point of view. In the telling, the governor presents a case that indicates that people should do their best to rise above the goading of enemies, seen and unseen. Also in the telling, Huckabee comes across as a magnanimous person—something that is difficult to swallow when we see him for a politician.

The advice on character and the building of such, we see much more of the preacher in the background of the politician. Huckabee leaves no question as to where he stands in either the political or the religious arena. He has no qualms in quoting the Bible and bringing to his writing the assumption that the Bible is and ought to be the foundational document for life in general. In his analysis of the biblical passages he uses, he stays pretty close to his Southern Baptist roots. One flag that might be raised on this point is the secularization of the exegesis that may be a little too preach-y for the mainstream politicos and a tad over-simplified for the deep-thinking theologs out there.

The inclusion of part 3, the appendices, seems to be the examples from Huckabee’s public political persona that show how he has tried to marry his faith with his public life, living what he says. The speeches often read like the sermons of his early career, even if they are not scripturally based lessons but challenges to do the right thing in politics, education, or disaster relief.

As a reader for young politicians, I’d recommend this book. As a readable poly-sci text, I’d give it the thumbs up. As a usable offering for teaching people how to do politics in America, I’d have to say that it falls a bit short. Is it a likable book? Sure, it even makes Mike likable (at least in my opinion) to some of those who would be his detractors.

Does the book achieve its purpose? I’d say so, because the appearance when it did, gave the governor more opportunities to glad-hand potential voters just as he was starting his bid for the oval office. It certainly paints a pleasant portrait of Mike Huckabee, making him personable and wise in his daily decisions. Is it worth your time? Sure. I’d give it 4 out of 5 reading glasses.

—Benjamin Potter, February 5, 2008

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Lightlings – R.C. Sproul

© 2006 Reformation Trust, Lake Mary, FL

Here we have two of my favorites rolled into one—stories about Christmas, and stories for children. R.C. Sproul—pastor, teacher, founder of Ligonier Ministries, and radio/tv personality from Renewing Your Mind—has penned a pleasant little allegory that speaks to children. He teams up with artist Justin Gerard to present this book for children dealing with fear of the dark.

I’ll start with the artwork. The images are beautiful and inspiring to the young mind. Imaginations will run wild when your children are paging through this book. The book is worth your money and your time for the pictures alone.

In terms of literature, the book begins with almost too much detail before the story begins. We are introduced to Charlie Cobb who is afraid of the dark. Even with the specific details into his nightly bedtime routine, we fall in love with Charlie, and want to comfort him. But like his mom, we feel much better leaving the answers to tough questions like “why am I afraid of the dark?” to Grandpa (who conveniently will be over tomorrow for dinner).

Grandpa’s story, told to a Charlie snuggled into Grandpa’s lap, is one that tells of the history of a beautiful people who turned away from their maker and lost their inner “light”. People familiar with biblical stories will see the stories of creation, the Fall, and the birth of Jesus all wrapped up in a short readable tale. It is heartwarming and helps Charlie deal with his fear of the dark even offering advice on how to overcome that fear in the future. While the book isn’t strictly a Christmas book, it would be a great read during the holiday season because it explains not only the coming of the Son of God, but why He came in the first place.

Like many children’s books, this one is less written on the child’s level for reading than written as a “read to me” book. It provides great time for parents or grandparents to read with their little loved ones. The book includes some learning questions after the story to help guide discussion about issues addressed. Sproul also includes Bible verses to help parents in their discussion of the questions.

The Lightlings is an excellent tool to use not only in answering questions about fear of the dark, but also to aid in giving word pictures to help children to understand God and salvation as well. The beautiful pictures, the heartwarming story, and the prospect of spending special time with the little ones makes this a book that should be sought after by parents and grandparents alike. It has made me want to search for Sproul’s other children’s books – The King without a Shadow and The Priest with Dirty Clothes. I can’t help but give The Lightlings 5 reading glasses—for the kids.

—Benjamin Potter, March 3, 2008

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