Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview

BOOK REVIEWS and NEWS

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My Devotional Books for 2017

voices-from-the-pastVoices from the Past: Puritan Devotional Readings. Edited by Richard Rushing. Banner of Truth. 428 pages. 2009
****

The author writes that over the past fifty years there has been a great resurgence of interest in the writings of the Puritans.  I was personally introduced to the Puritans about twenty years ago by my pastor through the wonderful Puritan reprints of Dr. Don Kistler and also via The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions. Richard Rushing has developed this book of daily readings extracted from some of his favorite Puritan authors (a second volume was recently published). His prayer is that these readings will stimulate the reader to explore further the writings of these spiritual giants.

Each of the short readings (approximately 350 words), begins with a Scripture verse. The author selected the verse according to the theme of the reading. While some of the devotions appear almost as written, others have been condensed by the author so that several pages form a single devotional reading. At the end of each reading is the Puritan author and a citation from where Richard Rushing pulled the reading.  I plan to use this wonderful resource as a part of my devotional reading for 2017.

60-days-of-happiness60 Days of Happiness: Discover God’s Promise of Relentless Joy by Randy Alcorn. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 304 pages. 2017
****

Respected author Randy Alcorn states that our problem isn’t that we want to be happy. Rather, our problem is that we keep looking for happiness in all of the wrong places. He writes that this new book, drawn from selected portions of his acclaimed 2016 book Happiness, will take you to God, the primary source of happiness in the universe. The book then connects the secondary sources of happiness back to the God who created them and graciously gives them to us.

The author has reworked the material from Happiness to present it here in a fresh and different way. I have not yet read Happiness, which is nearly 500 pages in length, though have read his small God’s Promise of Happiness, which encouraged me to read this medium sized book. For this book, the author and editor have selected subjects that most lend themselves to personal growth and worshipful meditation on God and his Word, which will be an excellent way to start 2017. Each of the 60 daily readings begin with a scripture verse and an inspirational quote (Tim Keller, Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, etc.), and end with a prayer. I am using the book for daily devotional reading, though it can certainly be read straight through as you would a regular book. Whether you have read the larger Happiness and would like to return to the subject in a devotional format, or whether you haven’t read Happiness but want to learn what God and his people have said about the subject of happiness throughout the centuries, I think you will enjoy and be blessed by this new book.

BOOK REVIEWS:

troublemakerTroublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini with Rebecca Paley. Ballantine Books (2016 Edition)
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I decided to read this book after starting to watch Leah Remini’s fascinating Scientology and the Aftermath documentary series. The book is both an autobiography, in which she talks about her family and career as an actress, and an interesting and disturbing look inside the world of the multi-billion dollar organization Scientology, in which she spent thirty-plus years. The author was just nine years old when her mother joined the Church of Scientology, and as a result she began being raised as a Scientologist.

Scientology is a “religion” that is difficult to understand. There is no god that the members of the “church” worship. It was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, and actor Tom Cruise is its most famous member. The author writes that Scientology offers a clearly laid out scientific process that helps you to overcome your limitations and realize your full potential for greatness. It is presented as a well-defined path to achieving total spiritual freedom and enlightenment and a full understanding of yourself and others.

As a Scientologist you are expected to spend a significant time studying and/or in counseling. The author writes that she spent close to $2 million for services and training, and donated roughly $3 million to church causes. Where that money goes is never specifically explained to church members, who regardless of their income, over a lifetime in the church spend upwards of $500,000 to get to the highest levels, which often takes more than twenty years. The author states that during this time, they are required to purchase roughly 300 books, 3000 lectures, and 100 courses.

The author speaks of Scientology’s terms such as a “Suppressive Person”, “Knowledge Reports” and “Disconnection”, “Fair Game”, etc. The religion is based on thousands of policies that leave no room for interpretation. Your actions are either “on policy” or “off policy.”  Levels, OT is short for “Operating Thetan”—are the secret advanced levels of the Scientology Bridge that you move onto only after you achieve the State of Clear. The goal of Scientology is to get the whole planet up to Clear. The author was asked to pledge herself for an eternal commitment to the Sea Org for a billion years in order to bring ethics to the whole universe. In accordance with Scientology beliefs, members are expected to return to the Sea Org when they are reborn over time in multiple lives.

The author writes of her acting jobs on television series such as Head of the Class, Who’s the Boss, Living Dolls, Cheers, Fired Up, and the role she is best known for, as Carrie Heffernan on The King of Queens, which ran for nine seasons.  She would later work for one season on the show The Talk.

The author married Angelo Pagán in 2003. He had three sons from previous relationships. The couple has one daughter together, born in 2004.

Although the author has always been outspoken, she began to have concerns about what she was seeing in Scientology when she attended the 2006 wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. She had concerns about the church’s hypocrisy shown toward Cruise, questions about where the Scientology leader David Miscavige’s wife was (she still hasn’t been seen for years), physical abuse of church members at the Hole, and at times physical abuse dealt out by the Chairman of the Board (COB) Miscavige, etc.

When she eventually left Scientology in 2013, she writes that all of those whom she considered to be her extended family, and many more, turned their backs on her. Even those who at first said they would stand by her, eventually disconnected.  Fortunately, from her immediate family, she received nothing but support, though some other family members did disconnect from her.

She writes that most Scientologists are in the church because their hearts are in the right place and they really believe they’re helping the planet. She writes that the big mistake she made was in trying to change the system instead of just changing herself.

So where is Lemini today regarding Scientology? She has been declared by the church to be a Suppressive Person because she questioned, spoke out against, and refused to abide by the hypocrisy that had become her life. Still, she writes that she’s able to ascertain which concepts and precepts were helpful to her, and still apply them. Discerning believers reading the book will see that Scientology bears no resemblance to biblical Christianity or any other world religion.

This a well-written and informative book. It explains the basics of Scientology in language that is easy to understand. Unfortunately, the book does contain a significant amount of adult language.

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster 528 pages. 2016
****

This was quite simply one of the best memoirs that I’ve read. Springsteen writes, often poetically, about his life from a small boy in Freehold, New Jersey, to the current day, when in his 60’s, he has suffered from significant periods of depression. His narration of the audiobook version is outstanding, less like reading the book, than actually talking to us about his life. He is transparent and humble, as he talks about his music, his depression and long-time therapy, his failed first marriage to Julianne Phillips, his long-time relationship and marriage to Patti Scialfa, his three children and his relationship with his father.

As he writes about most (some in great detail), though not all of his albums (noticeable exceptions were Human Touch, Lucky Town and Working on a Dream), I went back and listened to the albums, reminding myself why I loved his music in the first place. A companion album to the book, Chapter and Verse, was released, including 18 songs personally chosen by Springsteen to reflect the themes and sections of the book.

Springsteen writes of growing up in Freehold, New Jersey, in the shadow of the Catholic Church. His music has often included religious imagery. He attended Catholic school in the fifties, which left a mean taste in his mouth and estranged him from the church, though he writes that though he doesn’t often participate in his religion, he came to realize that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic.

He writes lovingly of his grandmother, mother (who was his protector from his father), and sisters, and throughout the book he writes much about his complicated relationship with his father, who he admits he hasn’t been completely fair to in his music.

He takes us through his early bands – the Castiles, Child, Steel Mill, then the Bruce Springsteen Band, and eventually meeting the members of what would become the E Street Band. Early influences were doo-wop music, Elvis and the Beatles. He also writes of his appreciation of artists such as Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones and U2.

He writes of auditioning for John Hammond and Clive Davis, being signed by Columbia Records and hearing one of his songs (“Spirit in the Night”) on a car radio for the first time. He writes that he still enjoys hearing his new music being played on the radio.  Jon Landau, who famously wrote in 1974 “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen” has been Springsteen’s long-time manager and friend. Springsteen writes of being on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines the same week and his painful contract dispute with Mike Appel.

He writes that his music first started being political on Darkness on the Edge of Town, with his liberal views later showing up particularly on Magic and Wrecking Ball. He writes of how some of his songs have been misunderstood, particularly “American Skin (41 Shots)” and “Born in the USA”.

Springsteen has never been predictable musically. After the full band sound and success of The River, he returned with the stark, recorded at home, Nebraska. Similarly, after his most commercially successful album Born to Run, he returned with the solo, recorded mostly at home Tunnel of Love.

I most enjoyed hearing his reflections of his music. His reflections about his relationship with his father, and in particular their later years together was moving, as were his reflections about Clarence “Big Man” Clemons and  Danny Federici, E Street Band members who have died.

The book unfortunately includes a significant amount of adult language.

My reflections on Bruce Springsteen:
So what should Christians think of Bruce Springsteen? I’ve enjoyed his music for about forty years. The first album of his that I bought new was 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town while I was in college. I’ve seen him in concert a few times, and although U2 and Paul McCartney are close, Springsteen is the best live act I’ve ever seen.

I wouldn’t agree with his political views, but there are other artists that I don’t agree with as well (John Fogerty and James Taylor, for example).  I was disappointed that he cancelled a concert in North Carolina last year on short notice in protest of the state’s “bathroom law”.

Interestingly, some of the working class people that he has sung about over the years, those depicted in J.D. Vance’s excellent book Hillbilly Elegy, have recently moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

Springsteen writes “As funny as it sounds, I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save . . . but not to damn . . . enough of that.” But Jesus said “I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). You can’t have it both ways. You can’t just see Jesus as one of your fathers. Either Jesus is who he said he was (God), or as C.S. Lewis said he was a liar and a lunatic.

So my recommendation is that we enjoy his music and the immense talent that he has been blessed with and also pray for him that he will be “Blinded by the Light”.

book news

BOOK CLUBS – Won’t you read along with us?

Jesus Outside the LinesJesus Outside the Lines BOOK CLUB

Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who Are Tired of Taking Sides by Scott Sauls

This is a book I’ve been wanting – and not wanting – to read for a while. I’ve wanted to read it because I enjoy Scott Sauls’ blog posts and I’ve heard a lot of good things about the book. He’s a pastor in the same denomination I serve in, he served with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, graduated from Covenant Seminary and is a St. Louis Cardinals fan. What’s not to like about the guy?

I’ve not wanted to read the book because I think it’s going to challenge me to get out of my comfortable box. How about reading along with Tammy and I?

This week we look at highlights from Chapter Nine: Hope or Realism?

  • The problem of pain and suffering is one of the biggest reasons why people keep their distance from God.
  • When suffering invades the human experience, people usually respond in one of three ways. Some assume a “pie in the sky” perspective, clinging to superficial “Bible Band-Aids.”
  • Others become cynical, maybe even dismissing the idea of God because they can’t believe that a good, all-powerful God would allow horrific things to happen.
  • Still others are hopeful realists. These are the ones who continue to believe that God is good even through suffering, and that the painful realities of life can lead to the development of perseverance, character, and hope. But hopeful realists are also deeply honest about the difficult circumstances of life.
  • The Job account presses us to ask, “Are there clear answers on this side of heaven for why a good God would allow suffering in his world?”
  • If Christianity has something significant to contribute to the question of suffering and evil, it is that Christianity is incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is.
  • Paradise demonstrates not only fallen humanity’s past but also a redeemed humanity’s future.
  • Our equilibrium is thrown off by suffering. It disorients us, makes us restless, and creates longing for restoration and renewal.
  • What would you say if I told you that God invites you to be honest and raw and realistic about suffering instead of being phony about it and sweeping it under the rug?
  • He would speak Lazarus the dead man back to life. But before he did any of this, Jesus stopped, got angry, and wept. Before he fixed a broken situation, he entered into it and shared it. He entered in. He shared and felt their sorrows before mending their sorrows. He does the same for us.
  • He wants to fix everything that’s broken about us and everything that’s broken around us. But before he does this, he wants us to know that he is with us and for us in what’s broken about us and around us.
  • This is not the end of the story for those whose hope is anchored in Jesus. In the future world, those who suffered in this life but who anchored their hope in the next will look back on death, mourning, crying, and pain as if they were part of a nightmare, a suspension of reality versus reality itself. Everything sad will come untrue. Their capacity to enjoy life will be even greater than it would be had they never lived through a nightmare in the first place.
  • Jesus has already begun his renovation project of making all things new.
  • Why did Jesus bring Lazarus back? Because Jesus came to bring God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven, not only to imagine God’s future into the present but to bring glimpses and foretastes of God’s future into the present. In a world in which God’s reality is suspended for a time, Jesus zealously refuses to allow death, mourning, crying, and pain to dictate the story line.
  • We, too, must wage war against conditions that threaten the flourishing of the people and world that God has made.
  • A great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.
  • In the end, hope will win. In the end, life will overcome death, joy will overcome sorrow, freedom will overcome bondage, and triumph will overcome loss.
  • God has set a place for me at the wedding feast of Jesus, and I will be part of the church, his bride, forever.
  • He will never leave or forsake me. The long-term, worst-case scenario is that I will never be alone, that I will always be known, loved, and received.
  • Whether I live in poverty or wealth, I will always be able to say with the Puritan who was stripped to nothing but a piece of bread and a glass of water, “What? All of this and Jesus Christ, too?”
  • God’s long-term promises are infinitely more real than any present, broken reality.

Studies in the Sermon on the Mount BOOK CLUBStudies in the Sermon on the Mount

Studies in the Sermon on the Mount by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

This book made a significant impact on my wife Tammy when she read and discussed it with friends thirty years ago. When I picked up my diploma the day after graduation ceremonies from Covenant Seminary last year I was given a copy of this book. After enjoying Lloyd-Jones book Spiritual Depression (and the sermons the book was taken from), I couldn’t wait to read this book, which is the printed form of sermons preached for the most part on successive Sunday mornings at Westminster Chapel in London.

This week we look at Chapter 11 from Volume 2, “Birds and Flowers”:

  • With regard to the whole question of food and drink and the maintenance of life, our Lord provides us with a double argument, or, if you like, with two main arguments. The first is derived from the birds of the air.
  • Man has to sow; he is commanded by God to do so. But he is to rely upon God who alone can give the increase.
  • These little birds who make no provision in the sense of preparing or producing food for themselves, have it provided for them. God looks after them and takes care of them. He sees to it that there is something for them to eat. He sees to it that their life is sustained.
  • God is our Father, and if our Father takes this great care of the birds to whom He is related only in His general providence, how much greater, of necessity, must be His care for us.
  • An earthly father may be kind, for instance, to the birds or to animals; but it is inconceivable that a man should provide sustenance for mere creatures and neglect his own children. If this is true of an earthly father, how much more is it true of our heavenly Father?
  • God is not to me merely a Creator. He is the Creator, but He is more than that; He is my God and Father in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. We should reason thus with ourselves, according to our Lord; and the moment we do that, care and anxiety and worry are quite impossible. The moment we begin to apply these truths to our minds fear goes out immediately and of necessity.

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Author: Bill Pence

I’m Bill Pence. I’m married to my best friend. I’m a St. Louis Cardinals fan, a manager at a Fortune 100 company, a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, and in leadership at my local church. I am a life-long learner and have a passion to help people determine their callings, develop to their fullest potential and to utilize their strengths more fully. My favorite book is the Bible, and some other favorite books are Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper, The Holiness of God by R.C. Sproul and Crazy Love by Francis Chan.

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