Book Review – The Barber Who Wanted to Pray

In The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, the story unfolds as we join a family gathered together for family worship.  One of the children asks her father how come he could pray so beautifully.  In answer, the father tells them the true story of how Herr Peter once asked his famous client, Martin Luther, a very similar question.  Luther replies by writing the simple, yet profound classic, A Simple Way to Pray. He emphasizes three things to focus on or pray through: the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed.  In the end, the family clusters together again to practice this new and exciting way of learning to pray.

I love children’s books and love that my children love books.  We were given R.C. Sproul’s book, The Prince’s Poison Cup a few years ago and my children have asked me to read and reread it.  It is a beautiful illustration of how Jesus Christ died willingly, taking God’s punishment for sin on himself and how the “poison” turns to sweet water.

When I received The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, I was expecting the same caliber of storytelling.  Alas, this was not the case.  In The Barber Who Wanted to Pray, I felt like the storyline was too forced and dry.  Much detail is given to the barber’s preparation for Luther’s shave (including a somewhat graphic musing about the possibility of killing Luther by cutting his throat with the razor!).  The opening details of the dad’s family worship routine seem overdone and geared towards providing an illustration of how family worship time could look.  Although I certainly think that such illustrations can be valuable, it felt misplaced in a children’s story.  A true test of a book’s ability to capture a child’s attention is, well, to read it to them.  Unlike The Prince’s Poison Cup, my children had a very hard time sitting through this book.

While the intent of the book (teaching our children how to pray) is very important, the execution of it in this particular book felt rushed and lacking the wonder of many of Sproul’s other children’s books.  The message of the book, especially Luther’s method of praying, is worth learning.  I would recommend those looking for resources on family worship to turn to Luther’s book itself  or to Voddie Bauchum’s book, Family Driven Faith  (a book which has issues of its own, but the chapter on family worship is invaluable.) 2/5 stars

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review copy of this book.)

Book Review – Give Them Grace

Are you a parent who wants perfect kids?  Adjust your parenting style to any number of the hundreds of books on parenting currently in print and you’ll be the successful parent you’ve always wanted to be with the successful children you’ve always wanted!

Sadly, this is the message of many parenting books that draw the hopeful and discouraged to their pages with each new publication.  In Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus, mother and daughter team Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson want parents to be the best Christian parents they can be, raising Godly children.  So what makes this book any different?  The answer is found in the gospel and grace of Jesus Christ.  The path to successful parenting isn’t found in what parents do or even how children react to what parents do.  Such a method leads only to law and, as the book cover says, the law is “a set of standards that is not only unable to save our children, but also powerless to change them.”  Not only do they take aim at the path to successful parenting, but they offer a rethinking of what it means to be a successful parent.

Much of the book is focused, not on the behavior of the child, but rather the belief system of the parent.  You won’t find very much in the way of the “how-to’s” of child discipline, but rather solid principles intended to have parents examine their own attitudes and understanding of the concept of grace.  Further, this idea of grace is firmly grounded in what believers have been given through Christ’s finished work on the cross in paying God’s penalty for sin and obtaining our right standing before God.  Based on the parents’ understanding of gospel work in their own hearts, the authors then answer the question of successful parenting – that is pointing our children to God by modeling the grace of God in our lives.

There were two chapters that I appreciated the most: one (“The One Good Story) offers wise principles for pointing our children to the grace and love of God in various situations.  For example, the question often comes up (at least it does in my family) of which movies to allow children to watch.  Instead of giving a bulleted list of do’s and don’ts, the authors offer several questions to ask about how that movie (or other entertainment medium) will either point to or prevent them from seeing gospel truths.  In their own words, “Our hope is that if we have taught them how to discern the one good story and judge every other story by it, they’ll be better equipped to answer the wicked Imposter’s lies when they hear them.” (p.120) They also touch on the subject of modesty and, instead of going straight to the obvious question of “is it revealing?” they suggest principles that will get to the heart of the child and not simply outward appearances.

The second chapter I appreciated the most was Chapter 9 (“Weak Parents and Their Strong Savior”) in which the authors gently point out that sometimes, even after all our best efforts and trusting in God, our children may not live as believers.  This chapter dealt with seeming failure as parents.  But even here, the authors point us to the fact that God is honored and glorified in everything.  In what was perhaps the most poignant statement of the chapter, they write “What if he has called us to Jeremiah’s ministry rather than to Daniel’s? Is there room in your parenting paradigm for weakness and failure if weakness and failure glorify God?” (p.149)

Perhaps the one negative aspect of the book is the examples of conversations between parent and child.  The table in Appendix 2 (“Common Problems and the Gospel”) is helpful in keeping our focus on Christ and the gospel in various situations, but the examples of conversations given seem too overblown and forced.  While I certainly want to teach my children the beauty of the gospel and of Christ, it seems more than a little forced to relate losing a baseball game to the suffering of Christ.  There are times when we as parents simply need to be there for our children, encouraging them when they fail/lose and helping them to do better next time.  Does this mean that we are ignoring the gospel and only promoting selfish little bootstrap hoisters?  Absolutely not!  However, the adage “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good” seems to apply here.

Give Them Grace gives us a much needed reminder as parents that changing our children’s hearts and the outcome of our parenting is not dependent on us.  Oh yes, God uses this tool for this change but ultimately it is God who does the changing.  I was encouraged to continually point my children to the love, beauty and grace of God that is ours because of Jesus.  (4/5 stars)

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review of this book.)

Book Review – The Greener Grass Conspiracy

Every now and then, I’ll come across a book that hits me right where I need to be hit.  Such is Stephen Altrogge’s new book, The Greener Grass Conspiracy which, as can be deduced from the title, is about contentment.

Altrogge points out virtually everyone’s complicity in this conspiracy of thinking that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  While he doesn’t necessarily present anything new and earth shattering, the down-to-earth perspective and humor he uses shone the light on my discontentment.   In one chapter, Altrogge points out the lies we believe in that fuel our discontentment, lies such as “God is withholding from me” or “God owes me” or “If I get it, I’ll be happy.”

Instead of constantly berating his readers for not having perfect contentment, he points the way to Godly contentment by showcasing the glories of the gospel.  He encourages the reader to focus on the blessings we have been given (such as life, health and/or food), but even with this his emphasis is to continually point to the cross.  That is not to say that Altrogge encourages a Pollyanna-ish attitude of just being glad no matter what our circumstances.  In Chapter 11, he specifically addresses those who are going through “the furnace of suffering.”  In this chapter, he says “I don’t want to give you pat, trite answers.  I don’t want to tell you just to trust in God and everything will be okay…I want to connect you to the only person who can carry you through and give you contentment in the midst of suffering.  I want to connect you to Jesus.” (pp.119-120)

Although it’s a relatively short book, this book to me is one that I need to read again, not only to be reminded of my lack of contentment in Christ but also to encourage me to do something about it.  The Greener Grass Conspiracy is a huge help in prying off the tinfoil hats of discontentment.

Many thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy of this book.   (5/5 stars)

Book Review – The Organized HomeSchooler

As the principal of the “School of Smooches,” I’m always interested in learning different ways to encourage both my wife and my children in their academic activities.  Even though it’s my wife who does 99.9% of the teaching (and more than earns her title of Director of Family Operations), I try to be on the lookout for ways in which I can help.  When I received Vicki Caruana’s book The Organized Home Schooler from Crossway’s Home School Book Review program, I was very interested in learning how we could be more organized.

In her book, Caruana goes over the importance of organization.  She points out areas where organization could be of benefit such as Thoughts (ch.3), Time (ch.4), Space (ch.5) Supplies and Materials (ch.6),  Paperwork (ch.7) and Family (ch.8).  The chapters dealing with supplies and paperwork contained the most practical information , offering advice on how best to file away your school items.  She offers good suggestions on keeping the organizational system simple (K.I.S.S.) and making sure to involve everyone.  If everyone isn’t on board, the system won’t be as effective.

Sadly, this is the extent of worthwhile nuggets from the book.  The vast majority of the book is spent trying to convince the reader of the importance of an organizational system and comparatively little amount of space actually being organized.  As I read through the book, I felt like saying “Ok, I get it.  You think organization is important.  Now where is the practical advice?”

The worst part of the book, however, was not the browbeating of “you need to be organized” but rather the spiritual implications the author made of NOT being organized and the complete misapplications of Scripture (such as her comments on Proverbs 31) in order to defend her view of organization.  According to this author, an individual who is “anxious, confused, full of despair, fearful, [and] even angry…[is] experiencing the consequences of a disorderly life.” (p.18)  Further, in one of the end-of-chapter Check Lists, Caruana states: “I realize that my children and the success of their homeschool experience depends upon my level of organization.” (p.20)  Caruana ties disorganization together with unbelief and simply not trusting God.  Still further, Caruana gives a list of reasons why someone might not be as organized as they could be in their schedules and in response to these reasons states, “If any of these statements or others like them describe your reaction to the word schedule, I suggest you prayerfully consider your motives for saying them.” (p.48)  Even a person’s choice of “escape” is targeted by Caruana’s misinterpretation of Jesus’ invitation to “come to me and I will give you rest.”  She says, “God asks that we come to Him for rest—not to television or the Internet or even a good book.  This isn’t to say that these things are off-limits, but don’t use them as an escape.  God is our refuge and strength.  When we choose to ‘veg out,’ we leave room for the enemy to corrupt our thinking.  So as you look to rejuvenate, focus on the things above by going to God’s Word.”  (p.108)  Trite comments like these abound throughout the book that the author does not expound on or explain just what this is supposed to look like.  Apparently, the organized homeschooler should only find “rejuvenation” in reading his or her Bible and praying, a concept that I find nowhere in Scripture.

Ultimately, while the book has a few things of value, they are so wrapped up in a warped view of Scripture as to not be worth the time trying to sift them out.  Many homeschool teachers are perhaps so stressed out about having the perfect schooling system, that for them to read this book that ties their spirituality to their lack of organization would certainly do more harm than good.  A much better book on homeschooling would be “Homeschooling for the Rest of Us” by Sonya Haskins.  (1/5 stars)

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review copy of this book.)

The Best Books of 2010

At the beginning of 2010, I set a goal to read at least 30 books this year. As the year winds down, I thought I would take a look back at the best of these. I’ve tried to put them into five different categories: Biographical, Theological, Historical, Advice/Self-help, or Children’s Books. Here is a list of the books I’ve read this year (authors are in parentheses).

Biographical
Abigail Adams (Woody Holton)
Einstein (Walter Isaacson)
Thomas Jefferson (Joyce Appleby)
Night (Elie Wiesel)
John Newton (Jonathan Aitken)
Devoted (Dick Hoyt)
Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (David Aikman)
Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (Robert Dallek)
Father Fiction (Donald Miller)
My Father, Maker of the Trees (Eric Irivuzumugabe)

Theological
What is the Gospel? (Greg Gilbert)
Scandalous (D.A. Carson)
In My Place Condemned He Stood (J.I. Packer)
Radical (David Platt)
Should We Fire God? (Jim Pace)
The Cost of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Start Here (Alex and Brett Harris)
Imaginary Jesus (Matt Mikalatos)
Hear No Evil (Matthew Paul Turner)
Humility (CJ Mahaney)
Where is God? (John Townsend)
A Sweet and Bitter Providence (John Piper)
God’s Passion for His Glory (John Piper and Jonathan Edwards)
The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)

Historical (non-biographical)
The Terrible Hours (Peter Maas)
The Ghost Map (Steven Johnson)
Hamilton’s Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of our National Debt (John Steele Gordon)
On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery (Robert M. Poole)
Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People (Calvin R. Stapert)

Self-help/Advice
Bringing Up Girls (James Dobson)
What your son isn’t telling you (Michael Ross & Susie Shellenberger)
Homeschooling for the Rest of Us (Sonya Haskins)
Parenting in the Pew (Robbie Castleman)
Just Do Something (Kevin DeYoung)

Children’s Books
The Prince’s Poison Cup (R.C. Sproul)
I Love God’s Green Earth (Michael & Caroline Carroll)
Big Picture Story Bible (David Helm)
Mighty Acts of God (Starr Meade)
The Church History ABCs (Stephen J. Nichols)
God’s Mighty Acts in Creation (Starr Meade)
The Charlatan’s Boy (Jonathan Rogers)

Since there were several very good books in most of the categories, narrowing it down to the best one was difficult.  Out of the five categories, here are my favorites (where applicable, I’ve linked to my fuller review of the books).

Biographical: While there were several books about great men such as John Newton and Billy Graham, my favorite was Abigail Adams: A Life, by Woody Holton.  Holton does an excellent job of highlighting Adams’ strengths as well as her weaknesses, giving us a well-rounded, quite readable biography of this great woman.  He certainly does Adams justice in examining her life as a woman and not simply as the wife of a founding father.

Theological: J.I. Packer’s In My Place Condemned He Stood was the best book in this category.  The arguments and Scriptural support he and others (such as Mark Dever and C.J. Mahaney) present in support of the teaching of penal substitutionary atonement is stimulating.  Packer’s chapter “Saved by His Precious Blood” taken from his introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is a must read.

Historical: This was the easiest category to pick a favorite.  Robert M. Poole’s narrative of the history of Arlington National Cemetery in On Hallowed Ground is, in a word, excellent.  Poole has taken what could have been a dry retelling of a graveyard’s history, and has written instead an intimate account of a cherished resting place for many men and women.

Self-help/Advice: My favorite for this category was a toss-up between Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something and Sonya Haskins’ Homeschooling for the Rest of Us.   Just Do Something is crammed full with very practical advice.  While the main target audience seems to be college age readers, there is much in the book that more mature readers will glean from.  Ultimately, if we are seeking to follow God’s will of desire as found in Scripture, we can have the freedom to make choices and, as the title suggests, just DO something.  In Homeschooling for the Rest of Us, Haskins encourages the homeschooling family (or prospective homeschooling family) to first and most importantly develop positive parent-child relationships.  She also addresses the topic of routines, academics, extracurricular activities, and the seemingly all-pervasive concern of socialization.  I was very encouraged by Haskins down-to-earth approach.

Children’s Books:  This was by far the hardest category to pick a favorite, mainly because there were so many great books sent to me for review.  Many of them were sent to me from Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program.  Crossway consistently publishes very solid children’s books.  Because there were so many good books, I’ve only been able to narrow it down to the top three, each equally good.

The first is The Church History ABCs by Stephen J. Nichols.   Each letter of the alphabet features a prominent figure from the history of the church.  There are the more well-known ones such as Calvin, Edwards and Spurgeon.  But there are also some not-so-well-known people like John Donne, Hippolytus (“Let’s get one thing straight, my name is Hippolytus, not hippopotamus”), Tertullian, Vivaldi and Florence Young.  Each person is accompanied by a brief informational snippet about that particular person, written from his or her perspective.

The second is God’s Mighty Acts in Creation, by Starr Meade.   While the book is rather small (only 109 pages), it is jam packed with wonderful truths about God as illustrated through creation.  Because each chapter is a short two pages long, it is perfect for family devotions or for middle aged children to read on their own.  Very few children’s books have left me excited to start using it for our family Bible time, but God’s Mighty Acts in Creation certainly left me looking forward to reading with our children the many ways God’s beauty is seen in creation.

The last, and perhaps the best of the best is a book given to us entitled The Prince’s Poison Cup by R.C. Sproul.   Every time I read this story to my children, I am moved by the love God has for us.  In the story, a grandfather tells his granddaughter the story of a people who disobeyed a King’s command not to drink from a beautiful fountain.  Even though the fountain was beautiful to look at, the water was bad for them and turned their hearts to stone.  In order to heal them, the King’s son takes his Father’s cup to another fountain in the City of Man to drink the poisonous brew, even though he knows the drink will kill him.  The Prince dies, but is raised again by his Father.  As a result, many of the people’s hearts are changed and love the King once more.

The Biblical parallels in this story are unmistakable.  Sproul weaves the story in a way that makes it very easy to point out to children the similarities to Jesus’ death and why it was that he died.  There are two strong parallels made to the Scriptures.  The first is that Jesus (the Prince) willingly does what His Father asks of him out of love for the Father and for the people.  The second parallel is that because Jesus drank the cup of poison made up of the Father’s anger, this poison/anger is turned into the sweetest water.  It is a beautiful picture of the love and grace we find in Christ’s atoning sacrifice for us.

And that’s the list for 2010!  What books have you read this year that you would recommend?

Book Review – God’s Mighty Acts in Creation

There is an abundance of children’s books that talk about the various aspects of creation.  These books usually go something like this: “On day 1, God created this, on day 5 God created that, etc.  What a wonderful world we live in!”  Illustrations abound picturing the different things created on different days.  More often than not, what is missing is turning a child’s focus from the creation back to the Creator.  When asked to review Starr Meade’s book God’s Mighty Acts in Creation, I thought this would simply be another book along those lines.

However, from the first chapter in the book, I realized that this book was very different from other stereotypical creation books.  Meade does follow the Day 1, Day 2 pattern seen in Genesis 1, but that’s as far as the similarities go.  Each two-page chapter discusses something created on a particular day and how that created thing illustrates an aspect of God’s character.  For example, for Day 1 Meade points us to the holiness of God, illustrated in the creation of light (“God is light and in him is no darkness at all” – 1 John 1:5); or to Jesus, the Light of the World.  We see the mountains pointing us to the eternity and unchangeableness of God.  God’s goodness is seen in the abundant variety of foods that were created.  The vastness of space points us to a God without limit.  Additionally, for each thing created, we are told about a time when God overruled how the created thing usually operates, showing that God is owns every part of creation and can do what he pleases with it.  For example, he showed his power over the sun and moon when he made them stand still for Joshua and the children of Israel.  Meade starts with an aspect of creation and beautifully draws our attention to the One who created it.

While the book is rather small (only 109 pages), it is jam packed with wonderful truths about God as illustrated through creation.  Because each chapter is a short two pages long, it is perfect for family devotions or for middle aged children to read on their own.  Very few children’s books have left me excited to start using it for our family Bible time, but God’s Mighty Acts in Creation certainly does have me looking forward to reading with our children the many ways God’s beauty is seen in creation.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review program for providing a review copy of this book.  I was under no obligation to write a positive review.

Book Review – The Church History ABCs

Children’s books on church history are rare, good ones even rarer and ones that can appeal to all ages rarer still.  The Church History ABCs by Stephen J. Nichols and Ned Bustard is a children’s book that certainly falls into the latter category.  You would think that a book about church history would be geared towards older children and a book about ABCs would be to kindergarten-age children.  How then does Nichols and Bustard manage to quite successfully marry the two concepts?

Each letter of the alphabet features a prominent figure from the history of the church.  There are the more well-known ones such as Calvin, Edwards and Spurgeon.  But there are also some not-so-well-known people like John Donne, Hippolytus (“Let’s get one thing straight, my name is Hippolytus, not hippopotamus”), Tertullian, Vivaldi and Florence Young.  Each person is accompanied by a brief informational snippet about that particular person, written from his or her perspective.

The beauty of each letter/person is that every piece of information can stand on its own depending on the age of the children.  For instance: “’A’ is for apricot, apple and Augustine – Africa’s ancient bishop.”  That alone is enough to teach a younger student to associate a letter with a name as well as other common items such as an apple.  For the student that is a little older, the biographical information can be included.  For the more curious/able student desiring to know more, there is still further information about each person at the end of the book.

The real fun part, however, is in the illustrations and can probably be turned into a game of sorts.  Hidden in each illustration are clues about that person that will be answered either in the brief biographical sketch on the same page or in the fuller paragraphs at the end of the book.  For example, “A” is for apricot and apple, but why is there a pear on Augustine’s page?  What’s up with the heart John Calvin is holding?  Why on earth is Jonathan Edwards wearing an Indian headdress and eating chocolate?  Why is Spurgeon holding a sword and a trowel?  The subtleties in each illustration make discovering more “secrets” about that person all the more interesting.  (And don’t think we didn’t notice the cigars in Spurgeon’s pocket!)

This is an excellent resource for children of all ages to learn about great people God has used down through church history.  I’d give this book 6 out of 5 stars if I could.

(Thanks to Crossway’s Homeschool Book Review Program for the opportunity to read and review this book.)