Book Reviews

From Weakness to Strength

Scott Sauls

This is an outstanding book by Scott Sauls, who is the lead pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Formerly Sauls served on the lead team and on the preaching team with Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

In this book Sauls discusses eight vulnerabilities – eight things to be alert to that can cause problems for leaders. But at the same time, these are eight weaknesses that God can use to make us better leaders.

The book is quite good. Sauls is insightful and bright. He is well read and the book has excellent quotes and anecdotes. He is also humble and transparent about his own struggles.

Here are the eight vulnerabilities: ambition, isolation, criticism, envy, insecurity, anti-climax (disappointment), opposition, suffering. I would say that the chapters on ambition, criticism, envy and insecurity are especially good, but all of them are good.

Near the outset of the book, he makes these comments:

Jesus also offers a radically different understanding of what it means to be a leader. His vision for leadership often parts ways with the typical American view of such things. For example:

In America, credentials qualify a person to lead. In Jesus, the chief qualification is character.

In America, what matters most are the results we produce. In Jesus, what matters most is the kind of people we are becoming.

In America, success if measured by material accumulation, power, and the positions that we hold. In Jesus, success is measured by material generosity, humility, and the people whom we serve. (p. 21)

Because of his own struggles, he makes this prayer a daily prayer for himself:

Father in heaven,

Always grant me character

that is greater than my gifts

and humility

that is greater than my influence.


(p. 64)

The book is rooted in the Scriptures. For example, he has very good sections on the rivalry of Jacob and Esau, and on Jacob’s wrestling with God in Genesis 32.

Here is an example of the kind of honesty and vulnerability that he models:

One season flattened me physically, spiritually, and emotionally to the point where, though not suicidal, I prayed daily that God would either heal the affliction or end my life. I could not sleep despite taking sleeping pills, lost thirty pounds, and could barely eat or get out of bed. If you had quoted Romans 8:28 to me or referenced other Scripture promising that God would work my situation out for good, it would have fallen on deaf ears.

In retrospect, however, I can now see the hand of God in that horrid season. (p. 179-180)

Finally, he concludes with a tribute to Tim Keller. He wrote this tribute after Tim Keller announced his planned retirement in March, 2017. There is much to be learned simply by reading about Keller’s life in this tribute.

Overall, I highly recommend this book.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is an American writer who has written both novels and non-fiction books. She has taught classes on writing. This book is the substance of what she teaches.

The book is a helpful guide to writing. She makes some excellent points. Here are some of the suggestions that I found most helpful:

* Write a little each day.

* Write a bad first draft. Just get the words on the paper. Then you can edit and re-write.

* If you get stuck in your writing, you might write your story as if it’s a letter to someone. The informality of a letter might deliver you from perfectionism.

* Publication is overrated. Writing is its own reward.

* To be a good writer, write a lot.

She gets the title from a little story about her dad:

I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (p. 18-19)

One of her big points in the book is that publication is overrated. Rather, writing is its own reward. These are her words:

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. (p. xxvi)

Anne Lamott is an excellent writer. She is honest and vulnerable. She is funny – at times, hilarious. Unfortunately, she is profane at times.

For those who are interested in the art of writing, Anne Lamott is a helpful teacher.

God & Churchill: How the Great Leader's Sense of Divine Destiny Changed His Troubled World and Offers Hope For Ours

Jonathan Sandys and Wallace Henley

The book is written by Churchill’s great-grandson, Jonathan Sandys, who lives in Houston, Texas, and is a devoted follower of Jesus. He teams up with one of the pastors at Second Baptist Church.

What makes this book unique is that it focuses on the spiritual journey of Churchill. At first, I thought they were going to make the case that Churchill was a strong believer, a tenuous thesis. But I learned that it was not the case. Rather, here is the main point: Churchill was a believer with a Christian worldview and what we see in his life is the sovereignty of God to raise up a leader to rescue the world from Hitler. The point is not Churchill’s spirituality, but God’s sovereignty in preparing him.

They show that Churchill’s nanny, Elizabeth Everest, was a strong believer, who prayed with Churchill as a young boy, who taught him the Bible, and who remained very close to Churchill until she died. Even when Churchill died in 1965, he had a picture of his nanny at his bedside. She introduced Churchill to a Christian worldview and to faith in God, a worldview to which he returned after a period of unbelief as a young man.

They bring in a variety of topics to make their case about God’s sovereignty in raising up Churchill. I think they could have been more forthcoming about his weaknesses, but they certainly acknowledged them.

A few highlights include the following quotes:

* “By the standard he set, all political leaders since have been mere pygmies – with the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Yet even they pale in his shadow. No one else can touch Churchill for his vision, leadership, and persistence.” (Cal Thomas, p. xv)

* “There has been no one remotely like him before or since.” (Former London Mayor Boris Johnson, p. xviii)

* “This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London, and I shall save London and England from disaster.” (Winston Churchill, age 16)

* “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. Ten years in the political wilderness had freed me from ordinary party antagonisms. My warnings over the last six years had been so numerous, so detailed, and were now so terribly vindicated, that no one could gainsay me. I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.” (The Gathering Storm, p. 82. Churchill writing about the day when he was named prime minister.)

* “We began our research into the life and times of Winston Churchill with an eye towards discovering the ‘hidden something’ behind his singular role in world history. What we found, ultimately, was a testimony not as much to Churchill’s spirituality as it was to God’s sovereignty. What we’ve endeavored to show in these pages is not that Churchill had particular beliefs about God but that God, in his wisdom, was able to use this ordinary human being for extraordinary purposes.” (p. 227)

* “Churchill biographer (and current mayor of London) Boris Johnson, for example, provides a scenario for a ‘non-Churchill universe’:

[If we] take Churchill out of the equation … we leave the fate of Britain and the world in the hands of Halifax, Chamberlain, and the representatives of the Labour and Liberal parties. Would they have treated with Hitler, as the Foreign Secretary was proposing? It seems overwhelmingly likely …

It was Churchill – and only Churchill – who had made resistance to the Nazis his political mission.” (p. 228)

* “Our contention is that Winston Churchill was a deliverer prepared and brought onto the human scene through a sovereign act of God to counteract the work of Adolf Hitler, who manifested the dark power he worshiped and was its agent in his historical moment and geographical sphere. We have not tried to cast Churchill as a religious pietist. But he was a willing and available leader with an intuitive sense of divine destiny. As we have shown, Churchill grew in his understanding that his destiny was set by God himself. He is a wonderful example of how God ‘looks at the heart,’ not at ‘the outward appearance.’” (p. 236)

This was a good book, interesting and solid, but it was not a great biography of Churchill.

Girl in the Song

Chrissy Cymbala Toledo

This is the powerful story by Chrissy Cymbala Toledo of her journey away from God beginning when she was 13 years old. She writes with honesty and candor of her rebellion against God, including having a baby out of wedlock and being estranged from her parents for several years. She also relates the path back, which was highlighted by a night of intense prayer at a prayer service at Brooklyn Tabernacle, the same night of her repentance and brokenness.

It is a well-told and even riveting story

How to Think

Alan Jacobs

This is a small volume by a professor at Baylor University. Jacobs is the author of my favorite biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian. Moreover, the book received favorable reviews when it was published. For both of these reasons I decided to read it. Unfortunately, I found it a bit underwhelming.

Though Jacobs is certainly both intelligent and erudite, the book was not that helpful. Perhaps my expectations were too high. In some ways, the book focuses on how to think while engaging in a polemical discussion.

Despite all that, there were some nuggets here, and I include several of them here:

* This is what thinking is: not the decision itself but what goes into the decision, the consideration, the assessment. It’s testing your own responses and weighing the available evidence; it’s grasping, as best you can and with all available and relevant senses, what is, and it’s also speculating, as carefully and responsibly as you can, about what might be. And it’s knowing when not to go it alone, and whom you should ask for help. (p. 14)

* I’d bet a large pile of cash money that thousands of people read Adrian Chen’s profile of Megan Phelps-Roper and said, to others or to themselves, “Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start “thinking for herself” – she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.” (p. 36-37)

* Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option. (p. 39)

* The Thinking Person’s Checklist

1) When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes. Take a walk, or weed the garden, or chop some vegetables. Get your body involved: your body knows the rhythms to live by, and if your mind falls into your body’s rhythm, you’ll have a better chance of thinking.

2) Value learning over debating. Don’t “talk for victory.”

3) As best you can, online and off, avoid the people who fan flames.

4) Remember that you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.

5) If you do have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.

6) Gravitate as best you can, in every way you can, toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.

7) Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with. Listen to them for a time without responding. Whatever they say, think it over.

8) Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use, without indulging in in-other-wordsing. (p. 155-156)