Book Review: Answering Jihad

51vdsgwfozlQureshi, Nabeel. Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward.

Last year, I read Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus (SAFJ) and found it to be a compelling story of Nabeel Qureshi’s conversion from Islam to Christianity. With clarity and compassion, he spoke with deep respect for his family and heritage, with searching honesty at his struggles, and with insightful commentary at his discoveries about Islam and Christianity.

Now, Qureshi writes Answering Jihad (AJ)tackling 18 of the most common questions he is asked about Islam in general and jihad in particular, especially in the wake of Islamic-related attacks post-September 11.

AJ continues the same spirit of concision, clarity, and deep-rooted compassion that characterizes SAFJ. This is not a book of fear-mongering or alarmism; it is the unvarnished honesty of looking someone in the eye and answering hard questions honestly.

This book is an excellent introduction to the questions and issues that are circling today: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Which Muslims are the “true” Muslims: the violent or peaceful ones? Where did the idea of “jihad” come from?

You can preorder Answering Jihad here, and preordering allows you access to two chapters immediately, plus videos of Nabeel Qureshi discussing the content of those chapters.

NOTE: I was provided an advanced copy of the book as a part of the release team. I was not expected, required, nor pressured to provide a favorable review.

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Review: God’s Crime Scene

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Wallace, J. Warner. God’s Crime Scene: A Cold-Case Detective Examines the Case for a Divinely Created Universe.

Wallace is a former cold-case detective who has applied his investigative expertise towards the historical reliability of the Gospels in Cold-Case Christianity, his first book, and now towards the plausibility of a created universe in God’s Crime Scene.

God’s Crime Scene is far more philosophically dense and rigorous (that’s not a criticism, by the way) than Cold-Case Christianity, but the investigation motif of the book is an excellent way of presenting the information in a compelling, understandable way.

Each chapter begins with an anecdote from Wallace’s experience as a detective, and each case he mentions highlights a particular aspect of the “investigation” into the nature of the origin of the universe. He returns again and again to the crime scene, detective analogy to help clarify and reinforce the points he’s making about the evidence that points toward the plausibility and likelihood of a Creator.

The primary crime scene illustration he uses throughout the book is evidence that is “in the room” which inevitably points “outside the room.” In a crime scene, the objects and arrangement of the room often indicate that what happened was the result of another person, not an accident that befell the victim. Likewise, the evidence “in the room” of the universe that we observe consistently points to a “suspect” that is necessarily “outside the room.”

The weakest discussion is the final chapter on the problem of evil. Wallace’s case is built quite substantially on the reality, importance, and divine emphasis placed upon humanity’s possession of free will. I would have preferred a more nuanced definition and usage of “free will” than he offers; I don’t think I disagree as much as it seemed at first, but he’s not as careful as I would have liked. Furthermore, and more problematic, was the lack of any substantive discussion of the reality and effect of sin and the mission of God to deal with sin once and for all. Granted, this is an apologetics work that is primarily philosophical and not exegetical, but the Christian answer to the problem of evil and the existence of the world necessarily includes the origin of sin and its ultimate end. This is a major weakness in the book.

Other than that final chapter, the book as a whole is well done and a useful tool in the arsenal of faith. It’s a worthwhile read (even if you skim or skip that last chapter).

Top Reads of 2015

The final tally for 2015 is 113 books read at a total of 32,642 pages. The book and page counts are based on books I’ve completed, not books in progress. Thus, books listed under a particular month are those finished, but not necessarily started, in same month.

I tried to read somewhat broadly, trying to balance my tendency toward theology and commentaries. Areas included math/science, history, historical fiction, biography, fantasy, poetry (ancient and modern), and yes, theology and commentaries.

My favorite reads of the year, in no particular order:

Qureshi, Nabeel. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity (329 pages, Kindle Edition).

See my review here.

Stein, Robert H. Jesus, the Temple, and the Coming Son of Man: A Commentary on Mark 13 (160 pages, Kindle Edition).

See my review here.

Butler, Joshua Ryan. The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, the Hope of Holy War (353 pages, Paperback).

See my review here.

Akin, Daniel L. Exalting Jesus in Mark (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (368 pages, Kindle Edition).

Gregory, Bryan R. Inconspicuous Providence: The Gospel according to Esther (212 pages, Paperback).

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America (447 pages, Kindle Edition).

Walker, Lars. The Year of the Warrior (576 pages, Kindle Edition).

Walker, Lars. West Oversea: A Norse Saga of Mystery, Adventure, and Faith (296 pages, Kindle Edition).

Walker, Lars. Hailstone Mountain (The Erling Skjalgsson Saga) (290 pages, Kindle Edition).

See my posts here and here on these three books.

Robertson, O Palmer. The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology (336 pages, Kindle Edition).

 

Book Review: The Last Viking

5172b28do5mlBrown, Stephen. The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen (400 pages, Kindle Edition).

Brown takes the reader along as the unseen passenger on Amundsen’s various adventures: his most famous trek to the South Pole, but also the Northwest Passage, the Northeast Passage, and the dirigible flyover of the North Pole.

The portrait of Amundsen as “the last Viking” seems to be an apt one: the conqueror of lands, the indomitable explorer, the strange mixture of harshness and costly loyalty are all on display.

The thought struck me while reading The Last Viking: Amundsen seems a lot like Doug Wilson’s description of Beowulf. Beowulf, Wilson argues, is presented by the anonymous author as the pinnacle of the old pagan ways, the best the unbelieving world has to offer. Even so, Beowulf is not enough; his flaws and mortality cannot win every battle. The unstated assumption by Beowulf’s presumably Christian author is that there is One greater than Beowulf, whose missionaries would have arrived about the time it was written.

Amundsen seems to fit the Beowulf mold, having all the worldly admirable qualities still in esteem even today. He’s the self-made man who accomplished the goals he set for himself in childhood. He’s popular and aloof. He’s fiercely loyal–even at great personal cost–but not afraid to blast those who betray him. His affairs with married women (both requited and unrequited) happen on his timetable between expeditions. He’s an international hero at times and an international heel.

But the cracks in Amundsen’s armor are telling: once he had conquered both Poles, he was too old to explore anymore. The purpose of his life, his childhood dream, was now in the past. What more was there to do? Brown notes that he spent more time on ice or in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York than his “home” outside Oslo.

It was not Brown’s intention to do so, but in seeing the highs and lows of “the last Viking,” we see the emptiness of worldly pursuits. As John Newton puts it,

Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show.

What did it profit Amundsen to gain the top of the world (or the bottom), only to lose his soul? What did he gain from international fame? from the unrequited love of Elizabeth Bennett? from the pettiness of his feuds with brothers and the British? from having his name and flag at the Poles, only for his heart to be frozen harder than the (Ant)Arctic ice?

The balm for Amundsen’s worldliness is the rest of the verse from Newton:

Solid joys and lasting treasures
None but Zion’s children know.

Amundsen is rightly lauded for his resourcefulness, his loyalty, his respect for indigenous cultures, and for accomplishing what no one else had done. But Brown does us a great service by showing (however unwittingly) the emptiness of Amundsen’s life; may we turn away from “boasted pomp and show” to “solid joys and lasting pleasures”–those lavished by Zion’s King, the Lord Jesus.

Viking Sagas

I recently finished two excellent historical fiction series: Lars Walker’s Erling Skjalgsson saga (review here) and Giles Kristian’s Raven series. I read the first book of the Raven series, then the Erling Skjalgsson saga, then the last two books of the Raven series.

Both stories are about proud Viking warriors and the struggle between the old ways of Norse mythology and the “new” worship of Jesus. While Kristian’s Raven is a “none” at the beginning, he adopts the Norse pantheon as his own and remains hostile to the “White Christ” and His followers throughout the tale. Walker’s Aillill agrees to be a priest at the beginning merely to save his own hide, but grows into both the faith and his role as a priest. Each story presents its main character’s faith in as strong and honest terms as possible, and the comparison is telling.

Raven and the Wolfpack fiercely defend their beliefs and their gods against the Christian Englishmen and the African Muslims, but they consistently reveal that their devotion is rarely mutual. Men perform rituals and habits for the sake of maybe getting Odin or Thor or Loki or Tyr to notice them and help them. There is no confidence in their help, only a shot-in-the-dark wish. They even question whether their gods will notice them in faraway Constantinople.

On the contrary, Father Aillill finds Jesus consistently faithful and dependable–far more than he expects, and certainly far more than he deserves. The Wolfpack do everything they can to merit divine help; Aillill makes clear time and again that he does not merit anything good, and time and again receives it.

What you believe matters, because the one(s) you believe in matter(s). Odin and Thor are elilim–no-gods, nothings. They have, at best, limited reach and fickle wills. Yahweh, on the other hand, is God above all gods; the song of the saints is “Who among the gods is like You?” There is no limit to His reach, and His will never changes.

Kristian’s storytelling is excellent, and you genuinely care about the Wolfpack. You can’t help but admire Sigurd; you can’t help but love and laugh along with the brutes. But for me at least, I couldn’t help but noticing how helpless and hopeless they were without Jesus.

Good fiction accomplishes a lot. It reveals so much that we might otherwise ignore via direct statement. I was once as helpless and hopeless as Raven and the Wolfpack, but the true God of Aillill saved me and has been faithful to me all along. He is the only hope for those around me who are as helpless and hopeless as I was, and I may be the undeserving, unwitting, and stumbling priest who shows the way.

Book Review: The Erling Skjalgsson Saga

Walker, Lars. The Year of the WarriorWest Oversea: A Norse Saga of Mystery, Adventure, and Faith; Hailstone Mountain: The Erling Skjalgsson Saga.

This four-book series (books 1 and 2 combined in a single volume in The Year of the Warrior) is told from the perspective of Ailill the Irishman, who was captured in a Viking raid and claimed to be a priest in order to save his skin. His tale is one of becoming what he initially pretended to be: Ailill’s struggles with God and faith and ministry are as visceral as the aftermath of the battles strewn across Scandinavia.

The Saga is refreshing in its viscerality (I made that word up; trademark pending). If you’re looking for clean, sterile, cookie-cutter, not-found-in-reality Christianity, look elsewhere.

Like every good story, the characters learn and grow and fight their way to the end, neither unscathed or unchanged.

On a different level, Walker’s turn-of-phrase is stunning. Of the passages that I highlighted in the Kindle version, no small percentage of them were simply his metaphors and similes. For example, from Hailstone Mountain:

It went on an on, like a bishop’s homily… (Kindle Location 3059).

The path was as narrow as a maiden’s waist, and the ice that coated it as smooth as a Pelagian’s tongue (Kindle Location 3062).

Or these from The Year of the Warrior:

unruly as another man’s dog (KL 2891).

The noise of their howling and our screaming would have given Azazel nightmares (KL 4416).

I felt like a fat man on thin ice (KL 6635).

I was sicker than a pregnant bride (KL 6784).

But above all, this was a series of glorying in the power of Jesus and His gospel over sin and self and Satan. I quoted often from the series to my Facebook page; the passages were too good to not pass on. (They’re even better in context, obviously.)

Do any of us love Him worth the use of the word? He loves us–that’s the point. Even the best of us raise our pitiful love to Him as a child raises some dead thing he’s found in the field and brought home to his father, and the father pretends it doesn’t stink and says thank you because he loves his child (KL 3186).

But there is one act of courage that can be done only with God’s help. That is to set aside all the rags you’ve covered yourself with and all the props you’ve stood yourself up with, and risk your life on starting fresh under His mercy (KL 4539).

I can definitely see this being a series I’ll return to often. It’s great storytelling–the kind that confronts you, inspires you, and leads you to wonder and worship.

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America.

I’m convinced that the majority of people who hate history do so because history is so often taught so badly one couldn’t help but hate it. In order to kindle (or rekindle) our affection for history, we should take note of the fact that the bulk of the word itself is story.

History is simply a reflection upon the reality of life from a particular perspective, possibly with a particular goal. Life is not a stark collection of dusty dates and impossible-to-remember names; life is a story: events flowing after one another, flowing from one another, flowing to another. A good historian is one who does the hard work of research and analysis and then proceeds to do the possibly harder work of presenting that as a coherent story.

Erik Larson does so well at this that he has to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the book: this is not fiction. Whatever is in quotation marks is an actual quote taken from memoirs, letters, newspapers, etc. This is history so well done that we have to be reminded that it is, in fact, fact.

This is the story of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, the birthplace of Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, and the world-famous Ferris Wheel. The buildings were painted white to showcase the natural beauty of Lake Michigan behind and to reach for splendor and glory in themselves–at least more than New York could do. Larson details the hardships, tragedies, and triumphs of the architects who saw the White City come to pass and be the success it turned out to be.

Larson also tells the story of a ruthless, psychopathic serial killer whose personality and methods seem to be taken straight from police procedural shows of today. Mudgett’s (alias Holmes alias …) murders are not recounted in lurid detail; Larson’s masterful storytelling comes through as much in his discretion as his research and detail. The effect turns out to be far more effective and chilling. The heart of a truly evil–perhaps even demonic–man is shown for all to see.

This is a great book–history very well done. I’m curious about Larson’s other works, given how well this one was done.

Book Review: The Black Star of Kingston

Smith, S D. The Black Star of Kingston.

My place beside you,
My life for yours,
‘Til the Green Ember rises
Or the end of the world!

The second book of the Green Ember series is a prequel, looking to the story of famed rabbit Lord Blackstar, originally known as Fleck.

The Black Star of Kingston is a shorter book than The Green Ember, but it doesn’t lack for adventure or intensity. Smith’s storytelling is driven, striking the right notes of tenderness and action in all the right places.

Smith excels in the old adage of “show, don’t tell,” particularly when it comes to the virtues of the characters. We’re shown the beauty of loyalty and love. We feel the weight of guilt and heartache. We feel the excitement and fear of battle. We’re shown the honor of good, hard work and its inherent value, even in spite of how unglamorous or unnoticed it may be.

I finished The Green Ember curious about the series, but not yet sold. I finished The Black Star of Kingston sold on the series and curious when the next one is coming out.

This is a great story and series for kids of all ages.

Book Review: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist

Bannister, Andy. The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: On the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments.

One of the lessons learned from RUF Summer Conference in my college days was this one-liner: There are no such things as airtight arguments; only airtight people. In fact, many arguments for many issues consist primarily of bluster instead of substance, and the arguments promoted by unbelievers today are no different.

Andy Bannister sets out to poke holes in the balloons of popular anti-theistic and anti-Christian arguments, often with humor that’s as dry as his logic is devastating. I even found myself anticipating a couple of his jokes and puns, which tremendously added to my enjoyment of the book.

As I’ve thought about apologetics over the years, I’ve reached the conclusion that its value is not merely in engaging with unbelievers, but also in bolstering the confidence of Christians. This is a very entertaining book–the puns are gloriously groan-inducing, and the dry humor is marvelous. But through it all runs the thread of a confident faith in Jesus that is not frightened by the Goliath taunts of the so-called New Atheists. The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist is an excellent stone from the stream to add to our pouch.

2015 Reading List: The Unquenchable Flame

Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation.

The Unquenchable Flame is a brief introduction to the Reformation. Dr. Reeves begins by outlining the circumstances that led up to the Reformation, and then he walks through the lives and ministries of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. He also examines the English Reformation, comparing and contrasting it with the continental and magisterial Reformation that preceded it.

The common thread running through all these different men from different countries in different decades and different political situations is this: God’s Word prevails. Over and over again, mere men insisted on getting as many people as possible as much of the Bible as possible, and the world was changed as a result.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Reformation and the main figures involved in it, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to start than this. You’ll learn, you’ll laugh, you’ll be amazed, and you’ll be encouraged. This is a tremendous book, and it’s an incredibly applicable read for our times today.