Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

22 08 2009

I’ve always been attracted to Russian literature in translation, and have found that time spent with it is universally rewarding. A few years ago I read Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and promised myself that one day I would give Dostoyevsky a go!

Living in Arequipa means that I have limited access to book buying. I purchased this edition of ‘Crime and Punishment’ in a local bookstore, and was enthralled from the first page. Many reviews of the novel carry comments on the worth of the translation. I don’t speak or read Russian and therefore am incapable of giving any verdict on the faithfulness of this book to original Russian – but it reads tremendously well. The pace, tone and dialogue of the book belie the fact that it is a translation, giving the text a winning feel, and compelling force.

The story itself is at once bleak, intriguing, suspenseful, meditative, and inspiring. The main character, Raskolnikov, is bewitched by new and atheistic teaching, the ultimate consequences of which lead him to murder an elderly and wretched pawnbroker lady in St. Petersburg. The remainder of the book extrapolates the consequences of this action, giving an insight into Raskolnikov’s fevered reaction to his own iniquity, and ultimately leading to a thought provoking treatment of redemption and renewal.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and read it in just seven days. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read something which combines a well paced storyline, realistic characterisation, psychological depth, and moral weight.


Book Review: Future Grace by John Piper

19 08 2009

Future Grace by John Piper is one of his most enduring works, and one in which he sets out some of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of his life and ministry. The basic premise of the book is that ‘Future Grace’ ought to be a major impetus for godly living and dying. Piper’s contention throughout is that looking back at the past actions of God (particularly the life and death of Christ) is a hugely benefical exercise for the Christian – but that it is not enough in and of itself. The past goodness of God ought to serve as a spur for placing fresh faith in Him, and trusting Him for what lies ahead.

Future Grace is a long book, stretching to 399 pages, and ranging across 31 chapters. The book is purportedly designed in such a way that the reader can cover one chapter per day, pace him or herself through it, and take time to meditate on it with application and prayer. Whether it actually works in this way will be covered a little later on in this review.

One of the real successes of Future Grace is its potent mingling of theological argument and practical application. There are ten sections in the volume, and eight of them have a chapter at the end entitled ‘Applying the Purifying Power’ where the theological convictions of previous chapters are brought into confrontation with modern issues for godly living.

Piper begins by discrediting what he describes as ‘The Debtor’s Ethic’, whereby Christians seek to ‘pay God back’ for what He has done in the past. The author eschews this approach, and instead advocates a view of God which puts faith in Him for the future, falling as much on His mercy for what is to come as we have done in the past.

For me (and this might sound a little risque in our current evangelical climate of Piper veneration) this author’s books are not easy or straightforward to read. His prose can be opaque, his approach can be repetitive, and his logic torturously intense. Piper’s great gift in preaching ministry is his ability to think and think and think into an issue with microscopic diligence so that the implications of biblical logic are fully extrapolated. For me this works in sermonic form, but when it comes to writing it leaves the reader muddled at times, and at others bogged down in labyrinth-like machinations which seem a little adrift from the initial thesis of the chapter or section.

I don’t write this to be critical, but merely as an observation. I enjoy reading, am a big fan of literature of many kinds, and have read across genres and generations (particularly when studying English at Uni) but I find Piper’s writing style just too complicated at times. There are flashes of genius, and chapters in this text which are absolutely brilliant, garnished as they are with breathtaking biblical logic, but at other times I just found that I was suffering from information overload.

The basic premise of Future Grace is marvellous. The notion of looking to God in absolute trust for what He will do for in the future – right through death and eternity – is hugely heartening. It has been a tremendous help for me to read this book at the stage of life we are at as a family, with transition and change all around us, and to rest in the all prevailing and loving work of God at our core. For me sections VII (The Sanctifying Power of Faith in Future Grace) and VIII (Battling Unbelief in Future Grace) were electrifying and inspiring.

But there are other sections which leave Piper open to misunderstanding. His point that justifying grace is sanctifying grace is powerful and profoundly argued, but at times verges into areas where the author could be misread as linking works and salvation too closely. Given his stirling work on ‘The Future of Justification’ no one can doubt Piper’s commitment to justification by faith alone, and I don’t think that the problem with this book is Piper’s theology, but his methodology and vocabulary. Many of the areas in which he could be misrepresented are clarified in the application chapters but that is cold comfort when working through his concept of ‘Unmerited, Conditional, Future Grace’.

Perhaps the density of argument in the book is best explained by the author’s final chapter – ‘The Debt I Owe to Jonathan Edwards’. Piper’s love of Edwards’ writing does perhaps account for the philosophical depth of what he has to say. Again this may be akin to blasphemy in some circles, but I have never been able to relate to Edwards’ written corpus, finding him too philosophically speculative at times (by comparison, for instance, with John Calvin’s no-nonsense approach to thinking and theology).

It would be possible for this review to sound too negative. There are wonderful elements to this book, and Piper is at his pastoral best in the application chapters. It is unrealistic, however, to expect that ‘ordinary’ Christians could read this book a chapter at a time over 31 days. It is just too complicated and in-depth. In recent years the application chapters have been published on their own as Battling Unbelief and I think that this would be much more beneficial to most believers. Piper’s handling of the issues of anxiety, pride, shame, impatience, covetousness, bitterness, despondency and lust is majestic and masterful.

Future Grace is a good, but deeply flawed book, whose theological/philosophical rigour cannot be doubted, but whose readability is hampered by that very strength. The main lesson I take away from Future Grace is that our God is utterly dependable, that we can stake our life, our family, our future, our etenity, our all on Him without fear or reserve. To have that lesson reinforced in my heart makes some of the sweat entailed in making it to page 399 worthwhile by itself.

Pod Life Pt.2

16 08 2009

First of all a confession: I have a love-hate relationship with Contemporary Christian Music. That might sound like a strange way to begin a post in appreciation of the ministry which such music has excerised in my life: but it’s the truth. My problem is that I have an intolerance of (bordering on an allergy to?) many of the accepted norms of modern worship. Whether it be what John MacArthur describes as the 7-11 rule (seven lines sung eleven times), the thoroughly soul wrenching experience of watching a group of people having private epiphanies at the front of a church service only to leave before the sermon begins, the incessant proclamation of the first line of every verse of a song even though it is displayed clearly on the Powerpoint screen…I could go on, but it wouldn’t be edifying! Suffice to say at times I feel a little bit of malaise with regard to modern Christian music.

Having said that though, it is malaise not dislike, uneasiness not dismissal, reservations and not rejection. I believe that modern Christian music has been a thoroughly positive feature in my spiritual life, and a means by which God has directed, challenged, inspired, rebuked and encouraged me. I don’t have much time for brow beating modern praise into submission while embracing an anaemic, lifeless, formal clinging to the past and to posterity. I just feel that care and discernment are needed.

For me Fernando Ortega, whose song ‘Lord of Eternity’ begins our playlist, is one of the finest ambassadors for modern Christian music. Others have eloquently posted their feelings about this elsewhere, and I count myself among the number of those who treasure this man’s musical output. Ortega’s songs are profoundly simple, melodically rich, and sung with a vocal clarity that is hard to find in any musical genre – sacred or secular. We have over 60 of his songs on our iPod and I can’t think of one that hasn’t touched and blessed me. His albums provide a tremendous mixture of traditional hymns and modern pieces.

“Lord of Eternity” is a great example of classic Ortega. Here are the lyrics:

Blessed is the man
Who walks in Your favor
Who loves all Your words
And hides them like treasure
In the darkest place Of his desperate heart,
They are a light A strong, sure light.

Sometimes I call out Your name
But I cannot find You.
I look for Your face,
But You are not there.
By my sorrows, Lord, Lift me to You, Lift me to Your side.

Lord of Eternity,
Father of mercy,
Look on my fainting soul.
Keeper of all the stars,
Friend of the poorest heart
Touch me and make me whole.

If You are my defender,
Who is against me?
No one can trouble or harm me
If You are my strength.
All I ask, all I desire
Is to live in Your house all my days.

On our dark days in Peru (and we’ve had a few!) these words have refreshed my soul so much. They are steeped in pathos, reflective of reality, and single-hearted in their adherence to God amidst His more confusing providences in our lives. The thought of God ‘keeping all the stars’ and yet coming to our troubled souls encapsulates His sweeping grandeur and sweet grace. Expressions of difficulty are honest ‘I can’t find you’, but bordered by a heartfelt plea for healing and peace. On many mornings on my way to language school these words run through my mind, driving me to seek God afresh for the new challenges of a new day.

Weekend Web and Book Watch 2

1 08 2009

Here are some highlights from the world of reading and the web this week:

Dan Phillips posts some excellent thoughts on murder, justice and death penalty (in the UK and US) here.

I read Iain H. Murray’s “Undercover Revolution” some time ago and hoped to add a review pretty soon, but Guy Davies says it all here.

This sermon goes back to 1981, but I really appreciated John Piper’s thinking and wisdom on the issue of alcohol consumption and the Christian here.

Meghan Dillon, who is at the language school along with us here in Arequipa posts some interesting reflections on life as a mother in Peru here.

Atheistic Summer Camps sounds like a joke, but it is far from a laughing matter as The Christian Institute demonstrate here.

And finally some quotes from the week:

[Of faith]: ‘It is so contrary to proud, self-exalting, unspiritual, world-loving hearts that there is no way it could be self-generated. If we are to come to Jesus the way Jesus teaches us to come, we will have to be drawn by God. Our hate for the light will have to be overcome by God. Our distaste for the bread of heaven and the water of life will have to be transformed by God. Our love affair with the praises of men will have to be shattered by God. Our only hope is free and sovereign grace’ – John Piper, Future Grace, p.215

‘The Apostle John was boiled in oil and sent to the Isle of Patmos’
– answer in an essay marked by a friend who teaches in a seminary in Peru.