Archive | Book Reviews

Hillbilly Elegy lives up to the hype

Today, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis officially earned the top rank on The New York Times bestseller list, and deservedly so. I finished this book yesterday, and I think it lived up to the hype. There are already many capable reviews out there, so I won’t offer a full review here. Nevertheless, I would offer a handful of brief reflections.

It would be misleading to say that the book is about the plight of the working poor in America. It is not nearly so abstract. The book is actually a searching, introspective look at the author’s own troubled childhood in the Appalachian region of Kentucky and southern Ohio. Vance tells the story of his life. He is the son of a drug-addicted mother and of a family-deserting father. His mother’s dissolution pressed him and his sister into an endless parade of temporary live-in boyfriends and husbands. He was surrounded by drugs, alcohol, violence, and emotional abuse. The picture he draws of his own childhood is nothing short of heart-breaking. Nevertheless, some key influences “saved” him from repeating the mistakes of his parents.

The book demonstrates in spades that there is no simple statist solution to the so-called “plight of the working poor.” Vance’s experience shows that the problems in these communities lie far beyond the reach of the nanny state. Rather, broken people produce broken cultures and social pathologies. The only way to fix the culture and eliminate the pathologies is to fix the people. And that is the primary conflict of the book. Can people really change? Indeed, Vance’s own doubt about whether he himself could truly escape the demons of his past is one of the most poignant aspects of this story. It is clear that the problems he describes are primarily moral/spiritual in nature, and therefore so are the solutions.

This book is salty. Big time. But I hope that doesn’t turn readers away from this story. It is a story that all of us need to hear and understand. Why? Because it is the story of our neighbors. It is the story of us. That is why reviewers like Rod Dreher have had such high praise for Hillbilly Elegy. Dreher writes:

It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… For Americans who care about politics and the future of our country, Hillbilly Elegy is the most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance. His book does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.

This is no exaggeration. The book is really that good and that important. Highly recommended.

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Is disagreement about homosexuality an “intra-evangelical” discussion?

Zondervan will be releasing later this year a new book on homosexuality in their Counterpoints series—a series I appreciate and have recently contributed to. This new volume features two writers who believe homosexuality is not sinful and two writers who do. I have not read this book yet, but I am eager to see it as soon as it is available. Having said that, here are a few things to be watching for:

1. Framing Sexual Immorality as an Evangelical Option – The publisher’s description has a section that caught my eye:

Until recently most books fit neatly into two camps: non-affirming books were written by evangelicals and affirming books by non-evangelicals. Today, this divide no longer exists. Recent books written by evangelicals appeal to the authority and inspiration of Scripture as they argue for an affirming view. The question of what the Bible says about homosexuality is now an intra-evangelical discussion.

Again, I have not read this book yet. But the publisher says this book frames the discussion as an intra-evangelical dialog. This seems to suggest that one can be an evangelical Christian while affirming sexual immorality as a moral good. It seems to suggest that homosexuality is an issue over which faithful evangelicals can have disagreement and nevertheless still be considered evangelical. If the publisher’s copy is indeed borne-out in the book, that would be a whole new departure in evangelical works on this topic. It would not be a middle-of-the-road view. Framing the issue that way would give the “affirming” side what they always wanted. If not total agreement, it at least acknowledges that their views are within the pale. Such an impression would be quite misleading, but it is the impression left by the publisher’s description.

2. Are there enough views represented? – In the book Heath Lambert and I recently wrote, we identify at least four different “views” on the question of homosexuality: liberal, revisionist, neo-traditional, and traditional. This classification is important in our view because the Bible’s teaching is the central issue, not whether one is construed as “affirming” or “non-affirming” according to some non-biblical standard. Differences on this issue revolve around biblical authority and willingness to adopt revisionist readings. Additionally, the Bible’s teaching on sexual orientation is also at the center of this conflict. Both sides of the “intra-evangelical” debate affirm the Bible’s authority and its prohibition on homosexual behavior. The “intra-evangelical” debate between neo-traditionalists and traditionalists concerns the ethics of sexual orientation. Neither the liberal nor the revisionist approach can be in any way labelled as faithfully Christian, much less evangelical. The former denies the authority of scripture outright, and the latter denies it by distorting its message beyond recognition. In any case, these are meaningful distinctions, and as far as I can tell there is no one representing the “traditional” view in this volume.

3. “Affirming” vs. “Non-Affirming” – Related to the above, I am persuaded that the labels “affirming” and “non-affirming” frame the issue in a way that is already biased against what the church has always believed about homosexuality. When the labels are applied to questions of human identity, they sound as if one group likes gay people and the other doesn’t. The label “non-affirming” seems to imply animus against same-sex attracted people, while “affirming” seems to suggest openness and grace. This is an unfair and misleading way to frame this discussion, and it certainly is not a framing that originates with this book. Maybe this book will make better use of the terms than I have seen elsewhere, but I am obviously skeptical about that.

In any case, the book releases in November. Stay tuned.

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An unseemly troll but a fine review

Several weeks (months?) ago I received a package in my faculty mailbox at work. I was so taken aback by it that I snapped a photo of it (at right). It was obviously a book mailer, but the label on the outside said this:

“Are Conservative Evangelical Men More Likely To Abuse Their Wives?”

I didn’t even know what was inside the package, but I already knew that this was a transparent troll—a marketing ploy. They send out a book to a bunch of conservative evangelical men, and then they put a label on the outside of the package with an ugly insinuation about conservative evangelical men. The publisher wasn’t merely trying to get me to read the book. They were trying to provoke me. Continue Reading →

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A must-read about the evangelical gender debate

Without question, 1 Timothy 2:12 is the most contested verse in the wider debate among evangelicals about women in ministry. The most contested clause within this most contested verse is “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” And the most contested word within this most contested clause is without a doubt authentein (often translated as “exercise authority”).

The meaning of this term and even of its syntax has been the subject of no little dispute. And it has long been a crux interpretum among those engaged in the debate between complementarians and egalitarians.

For two decades now, the most important book on this crucial text is Women in the Church: An Interpretation & Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, edited by Andreas Köstenberger and Tom Schreiner. The entire volume is devoted to explaining in rigorous exegetical detail what these words mean in their historical and literary context. The first edition appeared in 1995, the second in 2005, and now the third has come out just a few weeks ago. Continue Reading →

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Held in Honor: Wisdom for Your Marriage from Voices of the Past

Matt Haste and Rob Plummer have put together a little gem of a book on marriage titled Held in Honor: Wisdom for Your Marriage from Voices of the Past. I’ve never seen a book like this. It is an anthology of statements on marriage from major figures of church history. Some of the material is theological (like the entry from John Calvin). Some of it is deeply personal (like the poem Anne Bradstreet wrote for her husband). The book is formatted as a devotional and has a practical orientation. These voices from the past are marshalled to help marriages in the present.

Each reading has three parts: (1) a brief introduction from the authors, (2) the reading, and (3) devotional. I will include will include the first two parts from the Jonathan Edwards section below. This is a delightful little book that I am pleased to have received. Continue Reading →

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Boycotting gay weddings? A distorted take on an important book

Albert Mohler appeared on the front page of The Louisville Courier Journal yesterday next to the headline “Mohler: Christians should boycott gay weddings.” The story was later picked up by USA Today which ran a similar headline Baptist leader: Christians should boycott gay weddings. Since then, it has been featured in news outlets across the country.

It turns out that the report is about Mohler’s new book We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong. This book tells the story of our particular moment in American life in the aftermath of the sexual revolution. And yet if all you had were the headlines, you might conclude that he just wrote a book-length treatise on how to boycott gay weddings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Continue Reading →

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Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change

I am happy to announce that my new book that I co-wrote with Heath Lambert has just been released. The book deals with issues that readers of this blog have seen me discussing for a long time—sexual orientation and change. In fact, the title of the book says as much: Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change (P&R, 2015).

This book is different from other Christian books about homosexuality. First, the book isn’t focused on the ethics of homosexual behavior but on the ethics of homosexual desire. Some people believe that homosexual behavior is sinful but that homosexual desire is not. For that reason, they believe and teach that homosexual orientation and same-sex attraction are morally neutral concepts. We argue from scripture against that perspective.

Second, this book isn’t just about ethics. It’s also about ministry. Given what the Bible teaches about the ethics of desire, is change possible? We believe that change is not only possible but also necessary. The title Transforming Homosexuality comes from Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 3:18: Continue Reading →

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Designed for Joy: How the Gospel Impacts Men and Women, Identity and Practice

I contributed a chapter to a new book just published by Crossway: Designed for Joy: How the Gospel Impacts Men and Women, Identity and Practice. My chapter deals with transgender, but the rest of the book deals with gender issues more broadly. All of the contributors are complementarian. John Piper waxes nostalgic in the Foreword to the volume. He writes:

My amazement is that decades into this struggle, there is such a widespread and robust embrace of the beautiful biblical vision of complementary manhood and womanhood. This may strike you as an evidence of small faith on my part. Perhaps it is. But if you had tasted the vitriol of our audiences in the 1970s and 1980s, you might understand.

In the late seventies, we were called “obscene” for suggesting that God’s Word taught distinct, complementary roles for men and women based on manhood and womanhood, not just competency. Therefore, the breadth and maturity and creativity and joyfulness of the complementarian crowd today triggers happy amazement in me.

Here’s a list of contributors and their chapters: Continue Reading →

Jim Hamilton on the Song of Songs

James M. Hamilton, Jr., Song of Songs: A Biblical-Theological, Allegorical, Christological Interpretation, Focus on the Bible (Scotland: Christian Focus, 2015). 154pp. $14.99.

Jim Hamilton has recently published a stimulating commentary on the Song of Songs. Readers familiar with Jim’s work know his passion for doing whole Bible theology. Likewise, this volume exposits the Song with respect to the overall storyline of scripture. In short, it’s a work of biblical theology.

One of the big questions that any commentator on the Song has to answer is what this book is all about. Is it to be interpreted literally or allegorically? Is it about human love only or about Christ’s love for his church? Jim’s answer to those questions is “yes.” It’s not an either/or thing but a both/and thing. The Song depicts real human love, but that love serves to illustrate Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. Yes, the Song is about the King’s love for his bride, but it is also about Christ’s love for the church.

This is an accessible exposition of the text and highly recommended for anyone trying to understand the message of the Song. Purchase it here.

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A short review of Pres. Bush’s biography of his father

President George W. Bush’s biography of his father is like no other I have ever read. It is unusual for both father and son to serve terms as President of the United States, much less that one would write a book about the other. But that is precisely what we have in 41: A Portrait of My Father. Historian David McCullough once told the younger Bush how much history would have been served if Pres. John Quincy Adams would have written about his father Pres. John Adams. Pres. Bush says that he wrote the current book in part as a result of that conversation.

Pres. Bush begins by explaining that his account of his Dad’s life will not be objective. He admits up front that he loves his dad and wishes to honor him with the book. He leaves the objective account to historians. But if you think that lack of objectivity ruins the work, you would be wrong. What makes this book so compelling is the son’s love and admiration for his father. No matter how you feel about either of these men’s presidencies, the personal narrative on display in this book is gripping. There is not a dad on the planet who wouldn’t want to have a son view him with the same regard that Pres. Bush regards his father. His father is his hero. Continue Reading →

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