Home Cooked [A Review]

Cooking good food is one of those things we just do not seem to have time for these days. Most folks subsist on a combination of microwaved dinners, takeout, or dine-in. When we do cook, it’s usually a matter of popping open boxes from the pantry or pouring a frozen bag into a pan and coating it with a tear-open packet of sauce. After all, when creating a relatively decent hot meal is this easy, is it really justifiable to pour extra time into a meal just to make it from scratch?

home-cookedIn her new Home Cooked: Essential Recipes For a New Way to Cook (10 Speed Press, April 2016), Anya Fernald offers a middle ground between slow-cooked, high quality foods and fast but flavorless cooking. Her suggestion is simple, yet genius: put in time creating quality base ingredients and preserve them, and then when time is short on a weeknight you’ve got flavor-packed ingredients that are ready for use immediately.

Take, for instance, her sofritto: there’s nothing to it but olive oil, onions, carrots, and celery, and I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve made this to start a soup. I usually rush it, cooking it hot just to get it done, and the flavor is never as good as it could be. Her innovation is to cook it ahead of time and freeze it in ice cube trays for ready-to-go flavor later on.

The first portion of the book is devoted to such recipes for base ingredients, and then the rest of the book is divided up into appetizers/cocktails, meals, and desserts that utilize these base ingredients. Interspersed throughout are her various thoughts on cooking as well as stunning photography.

If there’s anything that turned me off about the book, it was the many recipes that I personally found rather unappealing (fried chicken hearts? raw beef?). I imagine it’s mostly because I’m vegetarian, but my omnivorous wife had much the same reaction as me.

That being said, there are plenty of other interesting recipes in the book that are appealing. I normally link to both the physical copy and a digital copy of the book, but in this case just do yourself a favor and pick up a hardback copy of the book from Amazon for $17.50. Not only is the Kindle Edition actually more expensive, but the hardback is worth it. It’s well-bound and sturdy, and quite aesthetically pleasing.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Water-Saving Garden [A Review]

When my wife and I got married, we thought we’d try our hand at gardening—the fruits of our labor that summer were pitiful, but the joy of growing our own food carried us on. It’s a wonderful feeling to grow so much food for free, but the thing is that when you sit down and do the math, it’s not that free anymore. After the cost of seeds, good soil, fertilizer, and most importantly, water, it can end up being fairly expensive. If you don’t get a good yield from your plants, it can actually be more expensive than just buying groceries from the store.

61bu6y4v2yl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Because of these concerns, I was intrigued to pick up a copy of The Water-Saving Garden by Pam Penick. If I could learn ways to make a gallon of water go further in my garden, I would love to. While Penick offers plenty of advice on how to be more thrifty in terms of water usage, unfortunately most of her advice wasn’t very applicable to those who are trying to simply grow a small sustenance garden. I’ll offer a fuller critique in a moment, but first, what I appreciated about the book.

The Water-Saving Garden is divided up into 5 parts: motivation and inspiration for a water-saving garden, practical strategies and habits to use less water in the first place, how to landscape and pick more drought-resistant plants, how to evoke the illusion of water abundance, and a list of specific water-saving plants to consider.

Parts two and three were probably the most helpful bits; she gets very practical about how to collect and use (free) rainwater as well as the importance of permeable paving that lets rainwater soak into the ground, as well as mulching that slows the evaporation of that same water. Further, she also helps the reader understand that lawns gently sloping away from the house are good for the house’s foundation, but bad for water utilization because so much of what you sprinkle runs directly into the street. To that end, she gives practical ideas about how to replace lawns (which need tons of water in the first place) and re-landscape with native plants that are less thirsty and can trap water from running into the gutter.

Rainwater collection is a legitimately good idea that would help with my vegetable garden, except for the fact that I live in Colorado where it is very illegal to do so. I am very interested in trying some of her ideas with my front lawn, however, which is currently the epitome of water wastefulness. That’s a lot of money that I don’t need to be sending down the street! It was also valuable for me to think through the role of mulch in trapping water from evaporating, but I wish she would’ve spoken explicitly about vegetables (especially root vegetables) where you have to disturb the soil more frequently.

I hate to say it, but in general the book struck me as having a fairly pretentious tone. The introduction is mostly a guilt trip about using so much water in our country, and names sustainable living and climate change as the primary reasons anyone would want to save water. The pictures of gardens she presents in part one are these grand, sweeping vistas of beautiful shrubbery and carefully landscaped paths. I think gardens are beautiful as much as the next person, but it just seems like she’s writing exclusively to upper class middle-aged Americans who garden because they can and because they don’t have much else to do. Saving water, for this demographic, is mainly a moral concern rather than a financial one. I’m not in any way saying that these people shouldn’t save water, but only that it comes across as very pretentious to those who need to save water in order to make gardening a feasible endeavor.

For what it is, the book is a good one, which is to say that it accomplishes what it intends. That being said, it wasn’t the book I was hoping for. If you tend a largely non-edible garden, this will probably be a great read for you. You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $13.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Imperfect Pastor [A Book Review]

The Imperfect PastorPost-apocalyptic movies always begin the same way. The scene opens upon the heels of catastrophe—all of humanity’s best laid plans have quite literally exploded around us, and the few survivors are left to pull together what remains and eke out some semblance of meaning and purpose from the ashes.

So call Zack Eswine’s latest book, The Imperfect Pastor, something like a post-apocalyptic pastoral theology. Having experienced desolation himself, both personal and pastoral, Eswine forges a way forward for pastors in the far from perfect world we live in. Simply put, he explores the calling we pursue (part 1), the temptations we face (part 2), reshaping our inner life (part 3), and reshaping the work we do (part 4).

What is immediately striking about the book is its tone. There are many books in pastoral theology today promising seven steps to a better church, or the secret key to unlocking ministry leadership potential in order to grow your church tenfold. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many other books that react against this sort of “Leadership Industrial Complex” (to quote Jared Wilson) with uneasiness, distrust, and even cynicism. Having seen such grand promises fall through, the second sort of book warns the reader against the church growth movement and its allurement. While they rightly (in my opinion) point out the errors of the first, few go so far as to chart a practical way forward.

This is what is remarkable about Eswine’s work: his own personal disasters and disillusionment with chasing “professional” ministry seem to have chastened him and created in him a humble wisdom that is grateful for small things. What does pastoral ministry look like without speaking platforms, book deals, podcasts, and networks? What is a pastor to think when his church is not large, influential, strategic, or well-known? Consider these words:

We have trouble seeing how it is glorifying to God to eat food, learn to love, go to bed, and get up the next day for the same old work. The thought of living and ministering in one or two unknown and ordinary places for fifty years and then going home to be with the Lord feels like death. Of what account to God is an ordinary life in the grain fields?

As Eswine painted ever more clearly his picture of ministry, my heart kept saying, “Yes!” The cult of personality that the pastorate has become is neither good nor safe. Furthermore, it is hard to reconcile pastoral platform-building with, say, the attitude of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Eswine speaks an encouraging word to the majority of pastors in the world laboring in small congregations in the middle of nowhere, helping them shepherd their flocks with practical advice about how to care for the sick and how to handle well-meaning but hurtful comparisons to the former pastor.

If the book has any weaknesses, it is in its verbosity. Sometimes Eswine says in ten words what he could say in two. Notwithstanding, The Imperfect Pastor is a thought-provoking, incisive, and valuable meditation on what it means to be a pastor. I had something to gain by sitting at Eswine’s feet, and I trust that many others will, too.

You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $15, or from WTS Books for the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Bible Story Handbook: a Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible [A Review]

The Bible Story Handbook is a useful tool that I’m glad to have on my bookshelf. I envision myself referring to this book in all my future teaching of Scripture.

My wife and I are big readers, and a little while ago she reviewed a cookbook here. We have a young son whom we wish to teach the Bible to, and so when we had the opportunity to read and review John Walton’s Bible Story Handbook, she decided to look it over to see if it would be a good resource for us.

One love that I very dearly hope to pass on to my child is a love for the Word of God. And yet, as I interact with my eleven-month-old son, I often find myself looking for fresh insights on how to do this. How can I effectively teach a small child (who understands very little about the world to begin with) the deep and precious truths of the Bible that still teach and challenge me daily? In their resource, The Bible Story Handbook, John and Kim Walton offer guidance to parents and children’s ministry volunteers in thinking through the weighty task of teaching the Bible to children.

The Bible Story Handbook consists mainly of case-by-case analyses of 175 Bible stories, designed to be referenced as needed. Each analysis includes key points of focus and application for the Bible story lesson, as well as brief essays on biblical context, interpretational issues, background information, and mistakes to avoid. Before jumping into this index of stories, though, the Waltons offer three general articles discussing the purpose of teaching the Bible to children, and asserting what they believe to be the right and wrong ways to accomplish it.

These front articles are, in my opinion, as essential to the book as the story surveys themselves. The articles guide the reader to consider the self-revelation of God’s glory found in the Bible, and then to note common fallacies in children’s curricula that present the text in ways that fall far short of this glory. While I do not necessarily agree with all of the Waltons’ conclusions in these articles, they are certainly instructive for any parent or Sunday school teacher in recognizing foolish ways we try to make Bible stories more relevant and digestible to children… and, in doing so, how we wrongly water down the truth of God! Instead, the Waltons encourage us to “allow the text to set the agenda, to speak for itself.” The subsequent Bible story analyses aim to do just that, carefully studying each story in pursuit of the truth God intends to reveal about Himself.

The structure of this book is what I would deem to be its greatest weakness. In addition to some distracting typos and layout issues (at least in the Kindle edition), I found myself wishing that the story analysis sections had been ordered quite differently, so that the background, context, and discussion of interpretational issues were treated first and built up logically to the summaries of lesson focus and application. With the lesson focus and application summaries at the top of each synopsis, it feels like the authors are asking the reader to simply trust their conclusions rather than taking a more inductive approach that includes the reader in the exegetical process. I would have loved to see more detailed explanations of each story – but of course that would have called for a much larger book and is, after all, what commentaries are for. Besides, it would sort of defeat the purpose of having a concise Bible story reference.

Even with these structural challenges, a copy of The Bible Story Handbook is a useful tool that I’m glad to have on my bookshelf. I envision myself referring to this book in all my future teaching of Scripture (directed to children or anyone else), both for its exegetical insight on specific stories and for the principles of correctly handling the word of truth. Whether or not you agree with all of the Waltons’ reasoning, the book is certainly thought-provoking and will at least guide you in the right direction.

You can pick up a hard copy of the book from Amazon for $18, or for $10 on Kindle.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment [A Book Review]

Allison offers concise, exegetically specific reasons why a certain Catholic doctrine is wanting. If there is substantial agreement, on the other hand, he says so.

Roman Catholic Theology: An Evangelical AssessmentCatholic theology, to the average outsider, is a mysterium tremendum. Being an evangelical and somewhat of a theology geek myself, I’ve always been curious to know what Catholics really believe—to cut through the layers of misinformation, Protestant biases, and sheer hearsay. Such a curiosity is only sated by a comprehensive, systematic overview: it wouldn’t do to simply learn about the immaculate conception of Mary, for example, without understanding the overarching framework in which it makes sense. As luck would have it, that is precisely the project that Theologian Gregg Allison has recently accomplished.

In his work Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment, he walks through the Catholic Catechism offering a brief summary of each doctrine without comment. After each summary he then presents an Evangelical response wherein he weighs both points of agreement and departure between the two theological perspectives. Though Allison himself comes from a Reformed perspective, he strives to speak for the entire Evangelical ecosystem, giving every side of a doctrine where intramural disagreement exists.

What is the value of such a book? Perhaps those who would be most inclined to pick up a reference like this are not simply those who have an academic curiosity like myself, but those who live on the social border to Catholicism. Whether it’s a friend or a relative or a coworker, we all likely know someone who is Catholic. This book aims to help you engage in more fruitful dialog with them by having an accurate portrayal of their belief system. Though one could read straight through the whole thing, I envisage a reader picking it up and flipping to a specific section to read up either before or after a conversation with a Catholic.

The book’s strength lies in Allison’s Evangelical response sections: he strikes me as being fair-handed with both sides (of course, I’m biased to agree with him) yet he offers concise, exegetically specific reasons why a certain Catholic doctrine is wanting. If there is substantial agreement, he says so. I especially appreciate that he maintains a charitable tone throughout, as Evangelicals can tend to become rather vitriolic and unnecessarily offensive when dealing with those Papists.

One potential weakness of the book is its highly intricate structure. Given the complexity of the task at hand, Allison does an admirable job of keeping the book as simple as possible, but a brief perusal of the table of contents can be a bit daunting. Nonetheless, I would heartily recommend this work to anyone who has a reason to know what Catholics believe in contrast to Evangelical Orthodoxy. Secondarily, a Catholic who wonders what Evangelical Protestants are all about might benefit from it as well.

You can pick up the book from Amazon for $23 ($12.50 on Kindle) or from Westminster Books for approximately the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Wonder-Working God [A Review]

What are we supposed to do with miracles? Sigh. We could write them off as pre-scientific descriptions of very natural phenomena or we could look at them as mythological tales designed to communicate theological truth. Both of these options allow us to breathe a sigh of relief as we neatly sidestep the awkwardness of actually taking them at face value. After all, you and I have no context to believe in the miraculous save for children’s stories, so it makes us feel uncomfortable when someone suggests that these miracles are real, historical events. Pass the tinfoil hat on over, right?

Yet if we want to take the Bible seriously (and offer it the respect we would wish for ourselves), we can’t write miracles off at all! Thus, we have before us three questions that demand answers. First, what is a miracle, precisely? Second, how valid is it to believe the miraculous could actually happen? Third, why do miracles happen? With his latest release, The Wonder-Working God, Jared Wilson seeks to examine these questions head-on.

Moving Beyond “Just Because He Could”

Wilson has gained a reputation in my eyes as a thoughtful, reflective, and exultant The Wonder-Working Godpastor/author who knows how to craft exquisite prose that keeps the gospel primary. I was hesitant to pick up this book, thinking that it might focus inordinately on the second question raised above. Apologetic works defending the validity of miracles are valuable, but in my opinion the third question above is far and away the most important question to ask and answer. We need to know what purpose miracles serve. 

Here’s why I think so: if we prove that Jesus could turn water into wine or feed 5,000 people with a lunchbox, we still haven’t justified his actions as meaningful or even sane. I’m an evangelical through and through, by which I mean that I see the gospel (the evangel) as central to the Christian faith along with its saving power. Yet if we believe that Jesus came chiefly to save sinners, then what role do miracles play? Enabling the blind to see is nice, but it doesn’t deal with sin, right? If we say, “Why, they prove Jesus to be the Son of God!” then we have to struggle with the fact that Jesus was often urging people to keep his miracles on the down-low. I cured your leprosy to prove that I’m God, but don’t tell anyone

 Wilson seems to sense the great importance of the Why question. In exploring the water-into-wine miracle, he says this: “Jesus is not performing a neat trick. He isn’t just supplying a need. He is signaling the immediate presence of the ancient promise” (ch. 2). When he explains the purpose of miracles within the grander scheme of scripture, Wilson draws from CS Lewis and NT Wright: “The glory these miracles reveal is that of the Creator God come to bend creation back to order” (ch. 4). In other words, Wilson firmly plants his interpretation of the miraculous in the arch of redemptive history. 

There is nothing in the created order that wasn’t created by Jesus, and he has come back to straighten out what we have bent and broken. Here we have our answer to question one, about what miracles are: “Then comes Jesus Christ, bending, it seems, the very laws of nature. In fact, he is straightening them out” (ch. 1). Miracles, according to Wilson, are not aberrations of natural law, but corrections to natural law. Jesus says, You bend to my will, not the other way around.

He does not spend an inordinate amount of time on question two about the historical validity of miracles, but if you start with his definition above, the question becomes far less of an irritant. If we have the humility to accept that we could be the ones who are wrong, who are broken and bent, then our natural law begins to look like an unnatural law and we become receptive of the True King who has come to set things right. We who are living in a land of death yearn for the impossible, namely, the conquering of death. No wonder the allure of the Harry Potter series! No wonder that I see articles pop up in my news feed all the time about the latest scientist claiming that he’s figured out how to help people live forever! If you’ve ever been to a funeral then you know how foreign and unjust death is, like the intrusion of an unwelcome visitor who has set up camp in the world that was meant to be. Well, that’s precisely what Wilson’s thesis is–Jesus the Wonder-Working God is coming and cleaning house in a very real, non-metaphorical way. “My death,” he says, “will not be symbolic. It will be real. Therefore, a metaphorical resurrection is no hope to me. I am looking forward to those rekindled amino acids” (ch. 10). 

Conclusion

Wilson has no use for a Jesus who is anything less than God himself. Jesus works wonders because he is God. His miracles are real and historical because he is God, and we are not. One of the great things about Wilson’s writing is how big and central Jesus is–lots of us claim to have a high view of the scripture and the gospel, but when it comes down to brass tacks we spend a lot of our time talking about anything and everything else. Wonder-Working God reads like a running stream-of-consciousness devotional commentary on the miracles of the gospels, and for the most part it works well. Wilson’s prose is less exquisite and precise than something like Gospel Deeps, but is nevertheless still clear and comprehensible.

I hesitate to mentions this concern, for it is only tangentially related, but I worry for Wilson as a human being because over the past few years he has seemed to grow more grim in his writing. I don’t know him in person at all, but I have noticed him subtly growing more polemical over time. I’m thankful that he takes a hard line on things like the prosperity gospel and the “leadership industrial complex” of middle class mega church evangelicalism, but the value I find in sitting under Wilson is how authentically and beautifully he exults in the gospel, not in how angrily he castigates his nemeses. Such angry rants are present in this book, but are thankfully not dominant. My hope for Jared Wilson is that he never becomes a crotchety old cynic, but instead sets an example of how to stay centered on the gospel throughout one’s life without letting the threats to the gospel take the spotlight.

All in all, I would recommend The Wonder-Working God to you if you’re looking for some help in understanding the place of Jesus’ miracles in the greater flow of redemptive history. 

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $13.50 (paper) | $10 (digital) or on WTS books for $8 (both paper and digital).

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.

On Preaching

Preaching is one of those things that just about everyone has a strong opinion about. Outside of Christian circles, it’s a derogatory verb to describe what intolerant people do. Within Christian circles it has a more positive connotation, but still little consensus on what separates the good from the bad. If you’re contemporvant, good preaching is done with a coffee table and compelling storytelling. If you’re old school, you need a suit and tie with an imposing wooden pulpit. Verse-by-verse? Expositional? Topical? Depending on who you ask, one is right and the others are damnably wrong. Don’t get me wrong: I have an opinion too; everyone does. Including H.B. Charles, Jr.

On Preaching by H.B. Charles

In his recent book On Preaching, Charles writes his way through various different facets of the preaching task. In the introduction he explains that the book is largely the result of compiling various blog posts he has written over the years, and it shows in both good and bad ways. On the positive side, he is refreshingly concise and to-the-point. The book weighs in at just a little over 150 pages, and each chapter is at most only a few pages long. On the negative side, he recycles illustrations and even major points throughout the book. This is perfectly acceptable on a blog where a reader only consumes an article at a time, but in a book it feels a bit awkward (“Didn’t I already read this? Oh yes, I did”). All things considered, this is a very minor complaint for an otherwise helpful and wise book.

Charles divides the book into three parts. The first part is a discussion about preparing for preaching, which is probably most helpful for aspiring preachers. Here he stays fairly ideological, such as the benefits of theological training, having a sermon calendar, and the role of prayer in preaching. The second part is where he dives down into the nuts and bolts of actually crafting a sermon. He pulls back the curtain a bit on his own process of getting from exegesis to homiletics, which is helpful for an inexperienced preacher like myself to be able to see. He also spends some time lobbying for the value of consecutive exposition, but other than that he generally stays on the level of how and what here. Part three is an eclectic grab-bag of thoughts on tangentially related topics, such as style, plagiarism, guest preaching, being an associate pastor, and even ego.

He has been around the block, and he has something to say. I found myself responding at various times throughout the book with comments such as, “I need to adopt this!” or “Good Lord, forgive me. I have been doing this so wrong.” You can tell that Charles is passionate about preaching, and it makes his words all the richer. Even better, he’s passionate about the right thing: Jesus. “Jesus should be the hero of every sermon” (p. 94). That being said, I could not agree with everything he asserts; I am as opinionated as he, and you probably are too. He comes out strongly in favor of preaching without notes, which in my experience often results in directionless, meandering sermons that are big on heat and low on light. He names this problem and explains how he resolves it in his own preaching (via writing a word-for-word that he then leaves in his study on Sunday morning), but I still disagree that note-free preaching is a paradigm that preachers should strive for.

All in all, my quibbles are relatively negligible. If you’re a pastor passionate about preaching, consider picking up a copy. We all have read plenty of books on preaching, but this is one that just may inspire you to continue honing your craft by looking at it from a different angle.

You can purchase a copy on Amazon (paperback $9/kindle $7.50) or CBD Reformed (paperback $9).

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.