Archive | book review

The Gospel of Ruth by Carolyn Custis James

Carolyn Custis James has drawn no small amount of criticism from the conservative wing of her denomination. Her books seek to challenge and empower women to step up in ministry. And depending on your background and subsequent perspective, that is either a good thing or a troubling thing. In my neck of the woods, we have a woman governor and two women senators. And that is probably a good reflection of how our state as a whole thinks about women. As women here come to Christ, most don’t struggle to feel empowered for ministry. Instead, most struggle with giving up parts of their dominion in submission to God.

My perception is that Carolyn Custis James comes from a completely different background. Despite accusations against her, I don’t think she is lobbying against gender roles in the church and home. I have never seen anything explicit in her writings that indicate anything like that. Instead, I think she is well aware that in certain areas in Christianity, many women are indeed weak-willed, and the state of these weak women is as hurtful to the church as the state of those who seek to rule in ways that God did not intend.

More than any other word in my vocabulary, I think the word gentle gives the most insight into the balance to which God has called us as women. Gentle does not mean weak. This is so important to get!!! Gentle means strength under control. A baby isn’t gentle. A baby is weak. The adult is gentle, because though they are strong enough to crush the baby with their hand, instead they cradle it. They temper their strength. This is God’s call to women. “Don’t be weak. Be strong!!! But keep your strength under My control.”

Now on to the review. I have finished 2/3 of the book, and I really like it so far. I should wait until I’m finished to post this, but I’m burning to put my thoughts so far on paper (or blog). A friend let me borrow hers, but I had to stop reading it and order my own because there were too many places I wanted to mark up with my pen. This book is making me think, and phrases from the book have haunted me hours after I put the book aside. Maybe it will all fall apart in the end, but so far, I have enjoyed it.

This book is not an expositional look at Ruth. I love John Stott’s commentaries, but this was nothing like that. The author reads a lot into Ruth, but I am not uncomfortable with the way she does this or the conclusions she draws (so far). In fact, I think she gets it right most of the time. In particular, she spends a good bit of time exploring the implications in that culture of being a widow and childless, as both Naomi and Ruth are at the beginning of the story. And this was a beautiful, honest, painful look at these issues from someone who has been there.

This book may push you out of your comfort zone. James is a reformed female theologian. She has done her study and has an annoying number of references to prove it. But she also has a passionate, vulnerable voice. She has experienced the things that shake women to their core and is honest with the hard questions about God that these things raise.

If you like your books neat and tidy, laid out with linear logic and devoid of emotion, this book is probably not for you. But if you are interested in a somewhat messy but still God-centered exploration of the themes of Ruth that doesn’t let you hide from the hard truths of the Word, this book is a good read.

Trust by Lydia Brownback

I really like this short, easily readable devotional book from Crossway. Here’s a long excerpt from the Introduction that I thought was really good.

“The only way we will learn to trust God is by getting to know God. When our understanding of him is deficient, we are going to view him wrongly. We are going to have a low view of him. If God is low in our estimation, then the things of this world are going to rate too high, which will snow us under. If we believe that somehow it is up to us to take control of our lives and the lives of those we love, fear is inevitable, because we simply aren’t in control of anything. Many of us are quick to dismiss a link between our stress and our view of God. “I don’t hold God in low regard,” we object. “I live a Christian life and attend worship each Sunday, and I spend lots of time with other believers.” But if we suffer from chronic anxiety and fear, we are kidding ourselves. Our view of God isn’t as majestic as we think. A right view of God is the only thing that will dispel our illusion that we have to
control our lives and that everything depends on us.

…Some of us don’t realize that we are trying to pull the wrong yoke. We reach toward dreams and goals designed to further God’s kingdom and to bring blessing, and our prayer requests are for good things. But how do we react when things don’t go according to plan? If, when our plans don’t work out or our prayers aren’t answered in the way or time we think best, we get frustrated and impatient and worried and fearful, that’s a tip-off that something is off-kilter. All wrong views about God result in anxieties and fears about life. The health of our vertical relationship—our relationship with God—will always determine the health of our horizontal relationships—those we have with people, with life, and with ourselves. So the first thing to get straight is our view of God.

Since God overarches everything, we must view our lives and everything that happens to us through that lens. But we often don’t. Instead we allow our circumstances to shape our view of God. We experience something bad, and we allow it to throw our belief about a loving, compassionate Father right out the window. “Where is the God of all comfort in this heartache?” “How could a powerful God let my baby die?” “Why would a good God allow my marriage to fall apart?”

… Perhaps the most faith-shaking, fear-generating experiences are those in which God provides a blessing and then seems to pull the rug out from under us by taking away the blessing as soon as we get a taste of it. The single woman who has waited years for a godly husband meets Mr. Right. God has provided at last! She feels God’s smile as she prepares for her wedding and her new life as a married woman. And then two days before the wedding, Mr. Right changes his mind and calls the whole thing off. The grief-stricken bride wonders why God allowed her to get her hopes up, only to see them dashed to pieces. “Why would a loving God do that?” she asks, and her faith crumbles. God is not who she thought he was.

When we go through that sort of experience, our foundations can be shaken to the core. “I obviously cannot depend on God,” we think, “so somehow I have to fix everything. And if God could do this to me, what other painful thing might he do?” What we don’t see at such times and in the swirl of such thoughts is the fact that we were resting on the wrong foundation in the first place. Our view of God has actually been wrong all along. We thought we’d been relying on God, but the truth is, we’d actually been relying on our idea of God and on what we were hoping God would do for us to make our lives happier. What we don’t see is that disappointments and other difficulties that seem to threaten our faith are really blessings in disguise. They are designed by God to draw us closer to him, to enable us to see him as he really is, and to dispel our misconceptions about him and our wrong understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

When we first discover that God isn’t who we’d thought, when he doesn’t turn out to fit our image of him, our fall into doubt or unbelief can be extraordinary. “Who is God if he is not the one I can count on to rescue me from bad things?” we ask. “Is he a God I can be close to after all? I’ve always gone to him with everything large and small. Does he care? Or have I been kidding myself all this time?” When our view of a loving God is called into question, we don’t know where to turn.

We don’t realize during the throes of such an experience that he is, indeed, all those good things we’d believed before our fall into trouble. But how he works that goodness into our lives is often very different from what we expected—or wanted. Bad things happen to us because God is actually calling us into a deeper faith, one that trusts him and chooses to stay with him even when his love for us includes losses,the relinquishment of dreams and earthly hopes, and painful experiences for which there will be no remedy in this lifetime.

Disappointments do not come from the hand of a cruel God; they come to us from the God who longs to relate and is actually drawing us nearer. Times of intense disappointment and difficulty may well be indicators that God is drawing nearer to us, even though he may seem farther away.”

You can read more here.

Keeping a Quiet Heart

I am mesmerized by the phrase in I Peter 3:4, “…the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” I want to be that kind of beautiful—a beauty that is “very precious” in God’s vision. But “a gentle and quiet spirit” seems so illusive to me. How do I do that? How do I become a woman characterized that way?

I know what the words mean. Gentle means meek, not weak. It means strength under God’s control. Our culture tends to link the term gentleness with weakness. But gentleness is the strong arm cuddling a tiny infant. Instead of using strength to crush the baby, gentleness is tempering that strength, controlling it, and using it instead to bring comfort. Gentleness and weakness are two entirely different things. The other term in I Pet. 3:4 is “quiet”, meaning tranquil and at peace. I know all that—I know the definitions of the Greek words behind the English translation. And, yet, I struggle to practice such attitudes. I wrestle with how to not wrestle.

I have had times of worry and fear periodically in my life. Yet God has always met me in my need. This led me to believe that the worst was over—that I was heading into the twilight years of Christian maturity where I could rest confidently in all I have already learned of God. I got married, learned more of God, had times of struggle and times of peace—but peace generally won. Then I had kids. A wise pastor once told me that after you have children, it’s like your heart is walking around outside of your body for the rest of your life. Now I have 3 people I love dearly (my husband and children) who all have the power to tear my heart out and stomp that sucker flat (as Lewis Grizzard would say). And my response to the ice-cold fear that grips my heart at times is anything but gentle and peaceful. I respond with control. With agenda.With manipulation. I can’t handle being out of control on something that means so much to me—but I am learning how devastating my efforts at control are on the very things I value.

I sat with a wise, long married elder’s wife recently, and she shared with me great, simple words of wisdom. In a nutshell, let go of my agenda and expectations, and trust the One Whose faithfulness supercedes all of our own unfaithfulness. As Paul says in Phil, 1:6, “He who began the good work in you will be faithful to complete it …”. It all leads back to the simple idea of TRUST. “Let go and let God” is becoming less of a cheesy Christian saying and more of a foundational guiding principle for my life.

Let go of my agenda that I may be completely available to the Holy Spirit’s agenda for me. I can’t change people. I can’t even change myself. But God is faithful and loses none of His children. And now keeping a quiet heart seems possible. Suddenly, the fog clears and it makes sense to me. God says a woman who trusts Him, who lets go of her expectations and waits quietly and expectantly on Him to work, reflects a beauty that is of GREAT PRICE. God says a woman that tempers her strength and responds with graciousness rather than manipulation and anger to situations out of her control is in possession of a beauty that does not fade with age. These are inspiring words from Scripture.

I have found Elisabeth Elliott’s book by this title an easy, encouraging, inspiring, convicting read.

Infertility v. Barrenness

I had a very brief bout with infertility before getting pregnant with my son–just long enough to get a good taste of the intense mental battles that accompany this trial for many women. I have a good friend who has gone through it much longer than I, and she has an interesting perspective on the terms infertility and barrenness. There was something about the term barrenness that really bothered her. Infertility made her think of a field that needed to be fertilized–it needed proper nutrients to make it healthy again. But barrenness implied a much more stark reality–like a field had been given over and had no hope of use in the future.

She shared all this during a discussion on the book Blessings of Barrenness, a rare book on infertility written by and for Christian women. I recommend it. My main criticism of the book is that it is poorly edited, which can be distracting as you read it. My neutral disclaimer of the book is that I don’t know the doctrinal background of the author, and there were a few places that I disagreed with a statement she made. I don’t know that I need to point that out, since all of my friends are discerning readers. But there it is anyway.

Now on the good points of the book–well, everything else was good. The author writes with hard-earned practical wisdom from her years of struggle with infertility. She well understands the struggles of this season of life. She shared the story of her crippling grief and the feelings of abandonment by God when the mother of the son they were soon to adopt decides to keep him after all. She has vast experience with others’ well-meaning but still hurtful comments. She knows the struggle of deciding how far to travel down the path of fertility treatments. She explains the painful situations well and writes with compassion. But she also points consistently to the One who is sovereign over it all and well able to sustain us in the trial.

One thing I especially appreciated about the book is that she shares stories of women from a variety of backgrounds, including those experiencing secondary infertility (infertility after successfully giving birth previously). There were women who adopted, had successful fertility treatments, got pregnant miraculously with no intervention, and those who remained childless after deciding not to adopt. I appreciated their different perspectives. Another plus is that the book had good information on the ins and outs of fertility treatment options from someone who had been through many of them.

So if you or someone you love is experiencing infertility and would like a first hand account by someone who has battled this with faith and confidence in her God, this book is a good resource. Most of us who have been there equally despise the terms infertile and barren, and I hope more Christian women will write on this topic. There is a serious lack of helpful resources from a Christian perspective on this topic.