Book Review: John Calvin: After Darkness Light

Catherine Mackenzie. John Calvin: After Darkness Light. CF4K, 2009. 160 pages. $8.99.

This biography was really a pleasant surprise for a few reasons. I’m skeptical at times about biographies for children or young adults, as a good number of the ones I’ve read end up dumbing down the real issues at stake in the story. Especially in Christian biographies, the subject matter tends to be a little light on the theological side of things, focusing sometimes on moral lessons from the subject’s life rather than really delving unashamedly into the trials and glories of the Christian life. Kids can handle this kind of stuff, and biographies would do well to include more of the whole story, because the Christian life isn’t just nice, or “chipper” as John Piper has said. The Christian story has its dark moments, but light really does win out in the end. And we would all do well to glory in our King’s victory over sin and the enemy, all the more because we’ve seen sin and the enemy for the adversaries they are.

Good Writing and Storytelling Really Matter

This particular biography is very well written from the start as it tells the story of John Calvin in narrative form. Some creative liberties are taken by Mackenzie, but overall they don’t detract from, or change the real substance of the story of Calvin’s life; the well-paced narrative puts Calvin in historical context and brings to life the wondrous work God brought accomplished through the reformers.The quality of the storytelling is truly a valuable mark for this little book. For example, the opening sentences read,

“Thundering hooves clattered along the cobbled streets. The heaving breath of a hard ridden horse left soft clouds of steam in the rider’s wake […] Occasional street torches cast a dull amber light at the corners of chapels and inns as the horse and rider rode on – otherwise the city of Noyon was both dark and silent.”

Mackenzie doesn’t divorce theological study and debate from the real adventure that it is to live as part of God’s big story of redemption. The Reformation, and Calvin’s life took place in the real world, where “thundering hooves” of horses “clattered on cobbled streets.” Theology doesn’t just affect the intellectual world, it affects everything. And the way Mackenzie tells her story reinforces this, and is what she shows about Calvin’s life – that knowing God rightly is truly an adventure, affecting all of life. Her storytelling is very, very important.

A Theological Study

The book really is part biography, part theological study. Again, it’s wonderful how Mackenzie combines the storytelling of Calvin’s life, with the important theological truths that he defended. The heavy theology could also be seen as a drawback, as there are parts where Calvin takes an aside with another character, together expounding or conversing over a point of theological debate. The downside would be that it interrupts the flow of the story, but it’s really pretty valuable all the same.

Mackenzie even goes so far as to include an appendix at the end of the book, explaining the Doctrines of Grace in case readers are wondering about Reformed theology at all, which they probably won’t be after the clear treatment of Calvin’s theology they’ve already had in the book proper. The storytelling, and the theology are robust and biblical.

Here’s a wonderful quote from Calvin at the end of his life, that Mackenzie includes among several, and which sums up the kind of picture her book paints of the Reformer:

“I cherish no other hope for my salvation than God’s merciful adoption on which alone my salvation depends. I accept the mercy God shows me through Jesus Christ, on whose atonement for all my sins I completely rely, because his blood cleanses and purifies me, so that I may now stand in his image before his judgement seat… I have endeavored in my sermons and in my writings to teach and explain the Word of God purely and faithfully. I have never, in my conflict with the enemies of the Gospel made use of cunning and subtlety, but have always defended the truth candidly and sincerely…”

Book Review: “John Stott: The Humble Leader” by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron. John Stott: The Humble Leader. CF4K, 2012. 160 pages. $8.99.

Many thanks to Christian Focus Publications, who generously gave a group of bloggers the opportunity to read and review they’re brand new young adult biography on John Stott.

A few other biographies have been written about the life and work of John Stott, but this one stands out in that it’s geared toward a young audience. I was extra excited for the chance to read and review it because of this, since I have two small kids and a third on the way. I feel, as a reader myself, that I’m frequently on the lookout for good books to read to and with my kids in the next few years. And this biography does well at making the life of Stott accessible to kids, and drawing out the significance of what God did through Stott for the good of the Church. However, I also only gave The Humble Leader 3 out of 5 stars on my Goodreads account; so I’ll try both to explain the great value in this small volume, as well as the weak points.

The biography starts with the story of Stott’s early life, and is both informative, and just plain fun. I learned much about Stott I did not know before: that his nanny often took him and his sister on walks through Regent’s Park, home of the London Zoo, where they would sometimes see the future queen Elizabeth II (who was 5 years younger than Stott) and her sister Margaret. This is the time that Stott grew up in – very formative times for our modern world and culture. Stott was also arrogant and rebellious as a youth, and that he was an unlikely conversion to Christ, humanly-speaking. In the first chapter, Cameron paints a picture of Stott’s life with family and at school that helps the reader see even stalwart shepherds in the faith like John Stott are saved from the darkness of sin and blindness to the Gospel. He was by no means an angelic youth, destined for a life of faithfulness to God. None of us are, apart from God’s sovereign, gracious call, and preserving power.

The Drawbacks

Before I continue to even more of the biography’s good points, I do want to point out the couple of its drawbacks. These are worth mentioning, though they do not take much away from the value of this volume, especially for young readers.

1. Choppy Narrative

First, after about the first half of the book’s chapters, the narrative becomes very choppy and disjointed in places. I found myself, as an adult reader, lost as a result of the choppiness. What happens is this: the author is narrating Stott’s life, but breaks to develop an aspect of Stott’s character further, often referring to events from another period in his life. These breaks in narrative take up some space in places, and it takes a little bit figure out where the story left off.

Also, there are “Fact File” blurbs at the ends of the chapters that add interesting thoughts about a particular aspect of culture connecting to Stott’s story, or other isolated anecdotes from his life. These are often very interesting and fun to read, but they’re also disjointed back and forth across the chronology of Stott’s life that the chapters try to follow. Again, lots of good information that could be better organized.

2. Generational Pigeonholing

This point has pros and cons. The author gears the biography toward the current generation of young readers, by mentioning iPhones, emailing, etc. This happens several times throughout the book. For this reason it’s a very relevant treatment of John Stott for today’s segment of young readers, but, in many ways, only them. This biography pigeonholes itself into a brief window of cultural relevancy, and will very likely be dated in a few years, in how it relates to its readers. Again, it’s perhaps a sacrifice of timelessness, for the sake of relevancy.

More Great Things

Here’s why I really enjoyed this biography, and would absolutely read it with my kids in a few years when they’re old enough to appreciate it (they’re 4 and 2 at present). We live in a culture of sensationalism – lots of folks have written about this elsewhere, but basically, our attention is usually drawn to the extraordinary, the unusual, or the shocking. We tend to value celebrities and model ourselves after them, rather than after faithful “everyday people.” John Stott became a “celebrity” of sorts a little way into his life, but he became so because he was a faithful shepherd, teacher, writer, and preacher of the Word of God, for the sake of God’s Church. Cameron’s biography showcases this – nothing “sensational” is really discussed in this short story of Stott’s life; but his story really is made interesting, and great value is placed on his faithfulness as a humble servant of Christ.

Young readers would do well to read a biography like this, or have it read to them, hopefully to take some of the focus off of the empty value our culture gives to sensational celebrities. This type of biography can work alongside the more “unusual” stories from Church history, to provide a picture of what it means to thoroughly love God in thankfulness, to be a disciplined, diligent student of God’s Word, and to faithfully shepherd the Church and proclaim the message of Christ crucified.

Here is an example of the book’s emphasis on Stott’s radical faithfulness and discipline:

“Each day began with Bible reading, following the McCheyne reading plan. John wanted to master the whole Bible. Or rather, he wanted the whole Bible to master him.”

And also,

“John Stott was truly radical. He worked from the roots, and he himself was firmly rooted. His days were rooted in Christ from the moment he got out of bed, and said ‘Good morning’ to the Holy Trinity. This was the secret of his effectiveness.”

What the book really does end up showing in places like these is that spiritual discipline and faithfulness make one truly radical, in a world that constantly shifts and changes, abandoning old truths for the next new thing. John Stott made some phenomenal contributions to the Church, that aren’t things our culture would necessarily find exciting. He was one of the main writers of the Lausanne Covenant, and was appointed chaplain to Elizabeth II – just a couple of many outstanding achievements for the sake of the Gospel. All in all, even in spite of some drawbacks, this little biography is a great volume to read as an adult, and/or to add to the repertoire of your young reader.

Book Review: Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, Thomas Nelson 2011.

Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer really impacted me, I suspect in a very lasting way. It’s engaging, fast paced though comprehensive and detailed, and written from a very deeply true Christian conviction about the roles of the Church and the individual Christian in society. It’s a monster of a book, but it goes quick and is absolutely worth multiple readings. As I said a couple posts ago, this book reminded me how valuable biographies are for our growth in character and faith, but I want to give just a few more detailed reasons why this book was so helpful and important.

1. Theology brought into the crucible of real-life experience.

While reading this, our shepherding group was right in the middle of studying 1 Peter. Peter talks about living as a sojourn and exile in this world the way it is now, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to live this way in Nazi Germany, and wrestled hard with how to do this. It wasn’t an option for him – he was right in the middle of it, and really had to deal with how biblical theology plays out in real-time, real-life struggles. This book urges the reader to truly count the cost of their faith in Christ.

Bonhoeffer’s Germany, once so founded on Christian principles, turned away from those principles to the idols of power and nationalistic pride. Churches themselves abandoned sound theology and sided with the German nationalist “Christians.” The supposedly God-fearing country sided with Hitler and with satanic heresies. But Bonhoeffer and a handful of others fought to stay the course and worship God in the midst of a world truly gone mad. They really fought to apply the principles of Scripture to a unique and drastic situation in their lives. Metaxas’ book gives a great picture of what it means to live for Christ in one’s unique circumstances and trials.

2. Bonhoeffer’s faith: deeply true, and rooted in enjoyment of God, not comfort.

Bonhoeffer didn’t have a desire for the Church to avoid suffering at any point during Germany’s plight under Hitler. Bonhoeffer was convinced (and only became more and more firm in the idea) that all suffering is ordained by God and Christians are to accept it, count it all joy, and bear up with resolution and worship in the midst of great darkness. Bonhoeffer said, “Christians do not wish to escape repentance, or chaos, if it is God’s will to bring it upon us. We must take this judgement as Christians,” and Metaxas adds, “Christians must be like Jesus in their willingness to suffer for others, and Germany must now do this before the world. God could be trusted to sort out the details.”

Even though the Church in Germany lived in fear and suffered because of the sins of others, they could resolve to bear up under the persecution. This isn’t to downplay the injustices committed by Hitler against the Church and against God; but God ordains how and when persecution comes, and calls His Church to bear up under suffering like Christ did, not avoid it.

3. Bonhoeffer’s resolve to enjoy God, even to death.

I’ll end with this quote. By the end of the book, you’ve gotten to know Bonhoeffer and his death at Flossenburg is heart-wrenching. Metaxas has done us this one huge favor among others: he makes us feel what it’s like to lose a brother to the martyr’s gallows. And Metaxas lets us in on as many details of Bonhoeffer’s last weeks and days as he can. Here’s what Bonhoeffer said about possible impending death:

“I do not think that death can take us by surprise now. After what we have been through during the war, we hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake.”

And later,

“To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human.”

Bonhoeffer’s joy in God ran deep. He loved Christ, and knew the worth and glory of Jesus surpassed any comfort a broken world could offer. May we also embrace suffering and slander in the name of Christ, for the sake of the “full life and its real joys” that Christ purchased for us with His own blood.

Read And Listen To Biographies – It’s Biblical

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

About a month ago I finished Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas, which gave me a fresh reminder of how important biographies have been for my faith. I was thinking to myself that I really haven’t read many biographies in book-form – just a handful. And I wondered why I haven’t read more, since I always get so much from them. But as I was thinking about it I realized I also needed to lump all of the John Piper biography lectures I’ve listened to into the group. Which got me thinking about how much those have formed me over the past 6 or 7 years.

Someone told me about Piper’s biographies about 7 or 8 years ago, sometime in the year before my wife and I got married. These things weren’t as popular as they are now, and not as many people knew they were all online for download. I think the first one I listened to was Piper’s talk on John Calvin – it hooked me, and I had to listen to these as often as I could.

I’ve listened to most of the lectures at this point (except for a couple), and some are better than others. But I have to say, I remember quite a bit from all my listens. Piper’s lectures taught me how the grace of God has worked in the lives of all of these great figures of the Church – how they all read the same Scriptures, and knew the same triune God, and how they went through the same trials and griefs of the Christian life. And the importance of getting to know biography and history from the Church can’t be understated. Hebrews 11 lists describes the lives of saints who have gone before us, and for the same reasons. The writer of the book tells us that since we’re surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, run the race with intensity. We’ve seen God work so faithfully and prove Himself sure and true so many times, we press on to the day Christ comes for His Church with full assurance and joy. Even through the blasting fires of suffering.

I love knowing so many faithful saints have gone before, and that they prove God’s promises to always hold onto His people. A good Christian biography should put all the emphasis on God’s faithfulness, not our own. And it’s good to build up and strengthen our faith by knowing the lives of other saints, to build that strong foundation for when God ordains suffering for our own lives.

So I thought I’d list off the couple Piper biographies that have really been  a special help to me, and why. I hope you have a chance to give them a listen.

John Newton

1. John Newton

I’ve listened to this one all the way through about 5 or 6 times at least, at home, at the gym, on runs, and in the car. This lecture is great for 2 big reasons:

  1. The intense, aggressive way God worked His grace in the life of Newton. His life makes me appreciate afresh God’s saving grace that came to me too.
  2. What it means to be a shepherd, and to be both tender and tough as we lead and minister in the family of God. Newton had a great balance of these two things.

2. Charles Spurgeon

I’ve been listening to this one over and over at the gym currently. Spurgeon is called the “Prince of Preachers,” and was such a great pillar of the Faith, but he dealt with severe slander from others, and intense depression and sickness. But he had a joyful, Calvinistic outlook on his trials. He believed that the good that God worked in his life because of trials was incalculable. It’s so helpful to know other great men and women of the faith dealt with the same difficulties we do, and worse.

J. Gresham Machen

3. J. Gresham Machen

Machen was a Calvinist who came to this theological position in some unique ways, and had some really unique things to say about it. And Machen stood firm as a biblical, Calvinistic, Doctrines of Grace type of Christian when Modernism was taking over Western culture, and seeping into the Church. This one’s very relevant for our current trends in American culture.