Drop into some Amazon site or an equivalent at some point and have a look at the reviews for fairly substantial books by reasonably substantial authors of a fairly solidly evangelical stripe. Or look at the endorsements on some of the slim volumes and weighty tomes that issue ceaselessly from the presses of more or less evangelical publishing houses.
I had cause to look at some reviews recently, and I still contribute my own from time to time. I also check out various new books and even get asked to consider writing an endorsement from time to time. I confess to being concerned by a lack of properly critical engagement that borders on the lazy on the one hand and the dishonest on the other.
With regard to reviews, it is far from unusual to see the fanboy reviews in which, because Author Smith has written it, it gets a five star review because … well, how could it get anything else? Either that, or some other book gets an absolute slamming because it is written by Author Jones, and it goes without saying that Author Jones produces nothing but unmitigated tripe. Has anyone stopped actually to engage with Authors Smith and Jones and to consider and assess their assumptions, reasonings, and conclusions? Another class of laziness is seen in those middling reviews in which the reviewer seems disappointed to discover that the book was not the one which he had been expecting, and still less the far better one he clearly would have written had a cruel world not deprived him of the opportunity. Really? How about judging the book on its merits and intentions, or would that require stepping away from pre-judgments and presumptions and necessitating a little careful and critical participation?
One is tempted to conclude that if this is the vox populi, then it really needs to get its act together before it makes a future pronouncement. I am not suggesting that every reviewer needs to be an expert, as if every response must be a genuine peer review, but such contributions really help no one and offer no valuable insights. I recognise, too, that most reviewers review because moved to do so by a strong reaction, which tends to skew the system. However, when so many ordinary books are awarded five stars or the equivalent, it devalues the whole rating system, and robs one of the ability to recognise the rare but genuinely outstanding title.
If anything, the situation is even worse when it comes to endorsements. Given the amount of written applause generated by some blokes, it would not be surprising to read in a future biography that Pastor Brown had dedicated the year 2015 to the perusal of unpublished manuscripts, while Professor Green was grateful to be offered a sabbatical for the same purpose in 2013. I know that a lot of the top men know and appreciate and esteem one another, and that there is some kind of pecking order to differentiate those of us who lie in the gutter gazing at the stars. In some respects, I don’t have a beef with that, especially with regard to rightfully earned credibility and genuine relationship.
However, whether it comes from the top of the tree or slightly further down among the branches, it is disconcerting to read of decidedly average books that they are destined to be instant classics, read for years to come. Really? How often has that actually been the case? Will some of these instant classic really be recognised as such in fifty or one hundred years time? We open the pages of a treatise which we have been guaranteed will revolutionise our spiritual life (such a claim should always provoke the raised eyebrow). We find ourselves confronted with recycled mundanities or eccentric novelties communicated in a decidedly flat fashion or with self-important extravagance. Perhaps more troubling is the kind of professional puff that announces a triumph of insight and a model of precision on the back of something that is anything but. One is tempted to ask, “Has Endorser McKay actually read this dangerously vague and evasive tosh?” One begins to fear that Endorser MacDuff may be a little too close to Author McTavish to give a properly thoughtful and careful endorsement, or that McTavish saw fit to hint to MacDuff that favours in kind were available in return for something generous. I have seen evangelical cheeses of the largest sort give two thumbs up to volumes which border on the suspect and even flirt with the heretical, though whether by accident or design cannot be discerned thanks to the ineptitude of the apparently “brilliantly perspicuous” writer in question. The good stuff may benefit from a few honest and reliable voices underlining its value. Derivative and diluted drivel is not worthy of entering the arena to the kind of fanfare reserved for an unusually unrestrained Wrestlemania. I have wondered how this strange state of affairs has come about, and whether or not anyone cares that said big cheese seems to have lost or suspended his alleged capacity for spiritual discernment.
I appreciate that an endorsement is not a review, but neither is it a hearty pat on the back for trying hard and failing. It is a commendation intended to demonstrate to the reading public that the book in their hands or on their screen is indeed worthy of their investment and attention. Surely all the more reason for endorsers, especially those who name the name of Christ, only to give their stamp of approval to those volumes that they have properly read, and then to do so only in terms that they could properly explain if asked to do so? When endorsements prove to be nothing more than overcooked soufflés, they provide neither flavour nor sustenance for those who hope to be nourished by them.
It would be grand if 2016 would prove to be the year of the thoughtful review and the sincere endorsement. For those of us who seek them, write them, or read and use them, surely honesty and integrity, fairness and openness, ought to be appreciated above all? Sure, they may not be as dashing or glowing as the vacuities we presently endure, but at least they will be true and substantial. So here’s to crisp and clear endorsements that carry weight, and to truthfully appreciative four star and necessarily stinging two star reviews! Here’s to a bit more honesty and integrity! May we cultivate a spirit of generous but genuinely critical engagement that serves authors and readers well, promotes the health of God’s kingdom, and reflects a desire for righteousness even in the smallest things.
Not so long ago I received the kind of warning that puts you to and keeps you looking over your shoulder. It came from an older and wiser man in the aftermath of a particular event, and it sent chills down my spine. In essence, I was warned to look out for the assaults of the wicked one, because – in his estimation – the distinctive circumstances suggested to him that the Adversary would be bristling.
Needless to say, this put me on my guard. I would not go so far as to say that I was on tenterhooks, but it would be reasonable to suggest that I left in a heightened state of spiritual alertness. Conscious of some of my particular, personal weaknesses and frailties, I sought to guard my heart, keeping Eye-Gate, Ear-Gate, Nose-Gate, Mouth-Gate and Feel-Gate well defended. My prayers took on a particular edge. Having had reason to mention the excellent little book by Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, I was left considering what might be the particular points at which I should expect the warned-against assaults.
As I pondered, a number of possibilities passed through my mind. And then I realised that several of them I could substantially discount. In themselves, it seemed that they were less likely to be the immediate occasion of the attack. Specifically, I did not need overmuch to fear physical death or damage. To be sure, there might be pressures associated with those circumstances which could be the assaults, but that is not, typically, the way Satan seeks to attack pastors.
He does not so much seek to harm or destroy us physically as to hurt or damage us in our role as ambassadors of Christ. He would no doubt be very content to see certain warriors carried away from the field of battle, but his greater concern is to damage the cause of Christ, if he could. He is much more likely to seek to destroy our reputations, and so to bring dishonour to our Saviour, than anything else. It is not trials alone, but trials as a means to temptation, that are most to be feared. Sufferings, even to death, can be occasions for the glorifying of God and his grace in Christ. However, the temptations that come in suffering, or the danger of being drawn or driven into the kinds of iniquities that allow men to mock our testimony and discount our witness – those are the things most to fear.
I know of at least one man of God who prays that the Lord would rather take his life than permit him to discredit or dishonour his Saviour by acting in a way that would be contrary to his testimony and would undermine his witness.
And so, if not quite on tenterhooks, it is good for God’s servant to cultivate this heightened sense of spiritual alertness. We should buttress the various gates that give entrance to the heart. We should consider afresh the distinctive points in our own humanity at which the Adversary is most likely to strike. We should watch and pray, lest we enter into temptation, and succumb to it in ways which not only bring us to disgrace but – in doing so – expose the name of Christ to dishonour. May the Lord in his mercy, and for his own name’s sake, rather take us away, than allow us to be the means of bringing scorn upon the name and cause of the best of Masters.
Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Productivity
Cruciform Press, 2015, 132pp., paperback, $9.99
In the kingdom of the distracted, the focused man is king. I often wonder if one of the prime saleable skills in the job market of the near-future will be the ability to concentrate over an extended period of diligent effort. If that is so, too many of us are going to be out of work.
As Christians, we accept that work is a gift, a privilege, and a duty. Before Adam fell, he was put in the perfect garden to tend and to keep it. Now, we contend with thorns and with thistles that cumber the ground – a host of obstacles and awkwardnesses that make our work hard. We contend, too, with our own sinful laziness. We contend with streams of diversions and distractions from our vocations and their moment-by-moment expressions.
Into that environment have come a number of books from Christian authors intended to assist us. Two that spring quickly to mind are Crazy Busy by Kevin DeYoung, a book which could have been entitled Deeply Distracted as I think it has as much if not more to do with the problem of distractedness than busyness. Then there are more developed volumes like Matt Perman’s What’s Best Next?, a sort of holy Getting Things Done book, full of helpful counsels.
Somewhere in the space between comes Tim Challies’ Do More Better. Challies’ book is shorter than Perman, more personal than DeYoung. Let me confess that I know Tim a little; I like Tim very much; I respect Tim a great deal. I am also in the slightly awkward situation of discovering that my own attempts at productivity use a very similar system to Tim, and some of that is due to the fact that I have taken his counsels once or twice over the years.
In brief, the author has spent a lot of time trying to work out how to be genuinely and responsibly productive to the glory of God and in the service of others, and here is the counsel he passes on. His definition of productivity is “effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” The answer is not so much a checklist as the cultivation of a certain kind of character.
The productivity process begins with definition: working out what you’re actually supposed to be doing then defining your mission(s) in those spheres. Tim then identifies three tools: one for task management, one for scheduling, and one for information, each one organised around the simple principle that there is a home for everything, and like goes with like. As a creature of the digital age, Tim suggests three programmes (and some equivalents and alternatives) that provide these functions. Those who have turned their backs on (or never turned their faces to) the digital realm will have to find their own equivalents. Basically, Tim has a well-ordered set of filing cabinets and calendars floating in the electronic ether and well-stocked with information. With each tool comes some comments and counsels on how to make the most of each in integration with each other. Planning and prioritising and reviewing and maintaining also get a few words, before the whole is closed with some thoughts on taming email and twenty miscellaneous tips.
In short, it’s short and sweet. You may not use all the tools that Tim recommends, but the overall approach is – I think – a good one, and the structures within which Tim is operating are profitable to work through even if one does not necessarily arrive at all the same spots. I found myself going back over some of my own systems and fine-tuning under the gentle prods and reminders of Do More Better. This book may not have all your answers, but it contains very good questions and offers very helpful pointers. Like so much in this and other spheres, it provides the toolbox but it requires diligence and effort to learn and use the tools. Do that in dependence on God, and you will very likely thank God that someone like Tim bothered to write something like this.
And now, having checked off this task, Tim urges me on to another. Thank you, brother!
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.
I wonder if you have a praying man? In God’s kindness, I think I have just gained another. I know I already have at least one. He is an older friend, a man who assures me that I can safely get on with the work that the Lord has given me to do, because he is interceding for me. I know he is entirely reliable. I have heard him pray. It is a blessing to my heart to know that this father in the faith is storming heaven on my behalf day by day, that I need only to drop him a note with a particular request and he is sure to take it to the Lord. It is almost a dangerous confidence – so certain am I of his efficacious dealings with God through Christ that I could become inclined to pray less for myself (and how I wish I were inclined to pray more). I also know that he is not the only one.
And now I have at least one more. A man who has lived a long, first very painful but now very fruitful life. A man who feels he cannot do much any more as he might wish, but a man who knows that he can still pray. He is the kind of man who does not talk about ‘only’ praying or ‘just’ praying as if it would be nice if he could do something worthwhile, but is now disappointingly reduced to dealing with God at the throne of grace. This is a man who is confident that he is accepted in Christ, and who enjoys a holy familiarity with his heavenly Father. And he asked if he could pray for me. Not just once, but daily. He asked if, should I need it, I send him prayer requests and he would be sure to carry them to our God and plead for a blessing.
I know that we have one who ever lives to intercede for us, and that his pleadings on our behalf are those pleadings upon which our continuing and advancing experience of salvation depends. But I also know that there are some choice servants of God who can be relied upon to go to God, through Christ, to seek his face and favour: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you” (2Thes 3.1).
I cannot forget that when Spurgeon was asked the secret to his ‘success’ he replied, “My people pray for me.” If I desire a blessing, if I am to see fruitfulness, if I am to know particular mercies in my particular labours, I need people who pray for me. This man I mention is not ‘my people’ but I know he will pray for me, and I am grateful. With such a Moses on the mountaintop, a Joshua can fight with confidence in the valley, and anticipate that God will give the victory. May God give us more praying men and women.
Richard Baxter to gospel ministers:
O then let us hear those arguments of Christ, whenever we feel ourselves grow dull and careless: ‘Did I die for them, and wilt not thou look after them? Were they worth my blood, and are they not worth thy labour? Did I come down from heaven to earth, to seek and to save that which was lost; and wilt not thou go to the next door, or street, or village to seek them? How small is thy labour and condescension as to mine? I debased myself to this, but it is thy honour to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make thee a co-worker with me, and wilt thou refuse that little that lieth upon thy hands?’ Every time we look upon our Congregations, let us believingly remember, that they are the purchase of Christ’s blood, and therefore should be regarded accordingly by us.
And think what a confusion it will be at the last day to a negligent Minister, to have this blood of the Son of God to be pleaded against him, and for Christ to say, ‘It was the purchase of my blood that thou didst so make light of, and dost thou think to be saved by it thyself?’ O, brethren, seeing Christ will bring his blood to plead with us, let it plead us to our duty, lest it plead us to damnation.