Book Review: The Reason for God by Tim Keller

31 10 2009

In spite of the technology explosion which we have witnessed in recent years, the simple format of the book continues to wield considerable power in shaping our worldview and beliefs. Anyone in doubt of this needs only to think of some of the issues handled in recent works by Dawkins, Hitchens, or Humphries to realise how polemically and ideological important the printed word continues to be within our culture. As an evangelical Christian I find myself dismayed at the quantity of material pouring from the printing press which militates against the tenets of my faith and that of millions of other people. People browsing through the hoards of titles in Waterstones now have a veritable smorgasbord of titles to read which will assure them that there is no God, and that Christians are a bunch of outdated, unscientific, unthinking oafs who will eventually cease to populate the gene pool.

Given the militancy of this movement it is easy at times to feel overwhelmed, and uncertain of how to answer the claims levelled by those opposing the Christian faith. A substantial answer to that question is to be found in Tim Keller’s excellent book The Reason for God, published in 2008. This is a work which meets the claims of popular atheism head-on, but with grace, rigour and an intellectual force which are entirely endearing, and hugely convincing.

Keller’s tone throughout the book is free of shrill over-reaction, with a decision made on the part of the author to write about the issues of God and belief with sensitivity and clarity. The end result is a book which is easy to read without being intellectually light, and which manages to present the Christian faith in ‘reasonable’ terms without abandoning or watering down its doctrines.

The book is divided into two sections. The first deals with common objections to the Christian faith. Keller looks at seven individual issues ranging from the exclusive claims of Christianity in a multi-faith world, to suffering, injustice, hell and science. The mood of this section is at once devastatingly contrary to popular atheism, and respectful of those who may find themselves cynical or sceptical about Christian belief. No doubt Keller’s treatment of these issues will not convince all atheists who take the time (risk?) of reading it, nor will it necessarily reflect ALL that is true of historic Reformed belief in any one area, but speaking broadly these chapters offer an excellent critique of areas where writers such as Dawkins take a ‘leap of doubt’.

The second section of the book presents the case for God. It is here that Keller sets out his beliefs about how God has revealed Himself to us, whatis wrong with our world and our hearts, and how we might be made right with God. The chapters are clear and methodical and don’t shy away from presenting such historic doctrines as penal substitution etc. The epilogue shows those whom God has convicted through the argument of the book how they might come into relationship with him.

My overall impression of the book is that it is an excellent resource. For me a key section of the book is in the ‘Intermission’ where Keller deals with his approach to writing the book. In one paragraph he states:

It is important for readers to understand this. I am making a case in this book for the truth of Chrtistianity in general – not for one particular strand of it. Some sharp-eyed Presbyterian readers will notice that I am staying quiet about some of my particular theological beliefs in the interest of doing everything I can to represent all Christians. Yet when I come to describe the Christian gospel of sin and grace, I will necessarily be doing it as a Protestant Chriatian, and I won’t be sounding notes that a Catholic author would sound’ (p.117).
This must be borne in mind throughout the book. There are areas where I would diverge from Keller, particularly in his description of eternal punishment and his handling of some of the issues around Genesis 1-2. But in many ways these quibbles must be dismissed out of respect for the overall aim of the book which is a general apologetic for Christian belief.

Taken on the terms in which Keller sets his book it is a powerful resource for outreach, as well as the consolidation of one’s own faith. I don’t know how common an experience it is, but I have had sustained periods of niggling doubt at times in my Christian life – and a book like this is wonderful material for reminding one of the powerful spiritual and intellectual underpinnings of their faith.

As the Christmas season approaches this book would make a tremendous gift for unbelieving friends and family members, as well as to Christian brothers and sisters who will find their faith affirmed and their confidence for witnessing reinforced.

Tim Keller is to be thanked for this thoughtful, credible and God-honouring treatment of a very current and important theme. A tremendous book.

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.

The Reformation: T.M Lindsay

9 12 2008

Protestantism can be an embarassing concept at times… For the first twenty years of my life the term was identified with the Troubles which raged around my generation, and the ugly notion of taking aggravated and hostile sides against ‘the other sort’. As school life at a Protestant boys school gave way to university and diversity, my sense of malaise about being a ‘Protestant’ intensified, leading me eventually to energetically distance myself from the term and those who espoused it. ‘Evangelical’ or simply ‘Christian’ were label enough for me without the cultural entailment of heated and Scripturally infused invective which ‘Protestant’ seemed to embody. The most prominent spokesmen for ‘Protestant’ communities in our political life did little to temper my disgust at much of what was identified with my own cultural heritage. Looking back such shame at one’s heritage and background can scarcely be a healthy thing.

This is where the Banner of Truth and other Reformed publishers came into play as I read my way through my twenties. The books published by them and the articles within their magazine brought me face to face with a Protestant viewpoint emancipated from the hateful caricature which is painted on gable walls, and etched upon the never, never, neverland fantasies of politically contorted Christianity, or spirtually distorted politics. The Banner allowed me to approach Protestant thinking from an historical, theological and more sociologically nuanced perspective, in which the intellectual underpinnings of the great movement for spiritual change in the sixteenth century were shown to be glorious and grand in many respects.

The gradual changes which have taken place in my thinking were recently thrown into bold relief by my reading of T.M. Lindsay’s The Reformation. Written as a shorter version of Merle D’Aubigne’s magnum opus, Lindsay’s 267 page work is designed to demonstrate that the Reformation, and the Protestant heritage which emerged from it, were nothing short of a revival of religion – and one for which we ought to be enormously thankful.

Lindsay’s procedural basis is plain and simple, although his engagement with the issues is by no means facile or smugly uncritical. The book views history through the lens of geography, demonstrating how the liberating effect of the Reformation took hold across Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Scotland and England. Lindsay is keen to show that God’s providence lay behind the events of the sixteenth century, but not so keen as to lose his poise or critical facility as an historian. Where benefits were brought by the Reformers Lindsay is quick to highlight them, but is likewise careful to trace the shortcomings and ideological failures which were embodied by almost every expression of Reformation across the European countries he highlights. At times the detail in the book can be a little overhwhelming, but it does give the book a feel of being scholarly as well as popular, and this is refreshing when it comes to an issue which is too often handled emotionally rather than intellectually.

For me the strongest section of the book was Lindsay’s depiction of the Reformation in England, with a balance of empathy with those who shed their blood to see the evangelical faith established, and sympathy for the antagonists of the Reformation, with Mary Tudor in particular depicted with depth and pathos which could easily be lacking in such an account. Lindsay’s tracing of medieval trends which pressed for Reform prior to the events of the sixteenth century is also refreshing, and alleviates some of the ‘line in the sand’ thinking around this historical period which can be most unhelpful.

Lindsay’s work is an excellent example of good historical writing, with an evangelical bias. This book is not the Banner of Truth equivalent of ‘The Reformation for Dummies’ but is a serous study of the great movement of God in the sixteenth century, distilled into a brief and terse account which draws the reader in and maintains their attention throughout.

Under the terms outlined by Lindsay it is possible for previously disillusioned people like me to realise that there is much to be proud of in Protestant heritage. It does not need to imply hatred for those who differ, or a polarised ‘them and us’ mentality which demonises other communities, but can stand as a social, moral and spiritual identity which prizes liberty of conscience, earnest enquiry and intellectual probing of those things which are taken as absolutes within society. I’m a long way from identifying myself primarily, chiefly or even readily as a ‘Protestant’, but books such as ‘The Reformation’ give good reason to probe further into the rich heritage which belongs to those who come from such a background.

ESV Study Bible: Why not?

26 11 2008

Last month the ESV Study Bible was published amidst widespread acclaim and euphoria. The combination of a modern formal equivalence translation and the best that evangelical scholarship has to offer in terms of notes and introductions has proven a winning formula – with the first 100,000 copies selling like proverbial hot cakes. So great is the interest in the release of this Bible version that certain bloggers have even posted photographs of them opening their new arrival!

Given all of the popular rush and flurry around the ESV it might come as a surprise that I’ve opted not to make a purchase. I thought that I’d share some of my reasons here, both as a means of raising discussion about study Bibles generally, and the ESV Study Bible more specifically. I’ve grouped them into two categories:

1. Personal Reasons
A Surplus of Bibles
At the moment we’re packing our home and life into cardboard boxes in anticipation of leaving for Peru. This has served to focus the mind and to distil a number of priorities. One of the really challenging things is a box marked ‘Bibles’ which is currently hiding under our study desk. These are editions of God’s Word which we have been blessed through in the past, and that we can’t bear to part with for a variety of sentimental reasons. (This is not even to mention the bag of other Bibles now going to the charity shop as well!)
Then there are the study Bibles! My brother and sister-in-law bought me a copy of the MacArthur Study Bible when I commenced my ministry in Armagh in 2002, and in this past year my father-in-law bought me an NIV Study Bible. Both of these are wonderful resources, and provide insights from differing perspectives on God’s Word.
In the light of all of these, buying another Bible represents a major decision which at present I can’t justify.

An Excess in Size
Everything is viewed by us with an eye to weight at the moment. Will it fit in a box? Will it add to our payload of goods being transported in January? The ESV Study Bible is simply ENORMOUS. This is not a problem if you’re keeping it on your coffee table or study desk, but for our needs it’s just a bit too big.

A Lack of Self-Discipline
Recently I’ve moved away from using a study Bible as my main Bible for daily readings. The reason is that my eye is too often tempted to the notes while I’m working my way through a passage, making it all too easy to accept the author’s ideas about the meaning of a difficult section, rather than taking the time to meditate, dig in, and find out for myself what the passage is saying. Such a temptation is basically inherent in the concept of a study Bible, and it takes a disciplined mind indeed to resist it. I now keep my study Bibles near at hand so that I can read through them at my leisure, at a time separate from my devotions. For an excellent post on this issue please see here.

2. Doctrinal Reasons
All of the foregoing is merely personal preference, and can (and perhaps should) be written off as such, but the doctrinal issues I have with regard to the ESV Study Bible are arguably more serious. It is incumbent on me to preface what I say here with a balancing statement: much if not most of what is located in the notes of this Bible will be of tremendous benefit to the reader and will deepen their love for God and faith in Him. In other words, I’m not writing the ESV Study Bible off completely. That being said, however, I still harbour a few concerns.

As bloggers began to receive their copy of the Bible in the post I read their reviews and initial responses with great interest. No-one can possibly give an exhaustive account of the ESV Study Bible’s benefits and drawbacks, given the quantity of time required to work through the biblical text and notes, but a couple of unsettling observations have been made about its Genesis sections. A sample can be read here. Among difficulties being identified are the lack of affirmation of six literal days of Creation, and the favouring of the flood of Noah’s day being a local rather than a global event.

The problems inherent in these positions are obvious. I’m aware that there is a division of opinion among evangelicals about how best to reads Genesis 1-2, and what is meant by the six days. I’m a literal six day Creationist and can see no warrant for moving away from that position in favour of a supposedly scientific position, but I can live with the differences which arise in interpretation in this regard. The issue of local or global for the Flood casts a much longer shadow across how one reads the remainder of the Genesis account, and the entirety of Scripture. Having gone through the notes in the ESV Study Bible on this whilst browsing in a Christian bookshop I was surprised to find that the reason for positing a local Flood are explained by the more ‘limited’ view that ancient people had of what constituted the whole world.

At best this teaching is partisan, at worst it is thoroughly unbiblical. In denying the global nature of the Flood are we not in danger of discrediting the statements made in 2Peter 3:5-7, where a universal flood is shown as proof positive of God’s impending judgement on all ungodliness? How do we account for the specificity of the narrative of Genesis 7, in which we are told that ‘the water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered'(7:19)? Questioning this seems to place scientific concerns above those of plain biblical scholarship.

This is not to say that the ESV Study Bible is to be written off, or that it will not richly bless many who use it. But the problem with assertions like these in the notes is that many who read this Bible will not perhaps use a wealth of commentaries, or have the resources to balance the opinions given in it with that of other biblical scholars.

It seems a shame that what appears to be an excellent resource for Bible Study is somewhat sullied by such a controversial perspective in Genesis.

They Were Pilgrims: Marcus L. Loane

10 11 2008

Last November Carolyn gave me a copy of this book as a 30th birthday present. I had casually mentioned it to her weeks before (I wasn’t hinting, honestly!), and was astounded to open the wrapping and find that she had gone to Belfast to get me a copy in the intervening time – what a wife!!!

I had wanted to read They Were Pilgrims in light of the fact that the four individuals portrayed within it each died before, or around, their 30th year. These were men who accomplished much for God in a short span of time, and I felt that it might be a suitable challenge to my own indolence and mediocrity to read of them at this period of my own life. I spread my reading of the book out over a year, and have benefitted enormously through taking my time with these great men of God.

In They Were Pilgrims Loane writes extended biographical sketches of David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and Ion Keith Falconer. His aim is not to provide incisive and criticially nuanced analyses of their lives and ministries, but to celebrate the incredible worth of handing over all of our hopes, plans, ambitions and personalities to God for His glory.
For a little more detail about Loane’s other literary output please see Gary Brady’s brief summary here.

The accounts of Brainerd, M’Cheyne and Keith-Falconer were particularly rich. I had already enjoyed a brief encounter with Brainerd’s biography through one of John Piper’s audio biographies, had read Bonar’s Memoir and Remains of M’Cheyne last year, and knew nothing of Keith-Falconer at all. To follow the progress of the Gospel amongst native Americans through Brainerd’s ministry, with his pioneering concern to see them won for Christ regardless of personal or physical cost made a deep incision into my own inherent sense of self-protection in Christ’ service. There is much talk in Christian ministry circles at the moment of ‘self-care’ (which is vitally needed), but this can at times be at the expense of challenging men and women to sacrificial service. Brainerd’s life serves to bore holes in any sense ministerial self pity. M’Cheyne’s sweet piety, his diligent pursuit of holiness in ministry, and his tireless efforts in a settled local church ministry refreshed me once again. It is clear that Loane relies heavily on Bonar’s memoir, which made my reading of his sketch all the more enjoyable, given my recent readings in that text. One niggling concern which I harbour about our view of M’Cheyne is the lack of critical material regarding his life. The Memoir was written by a close friend of M’Cheyne and, as Loane acknowledges, follows a Victorian approach to the writing of his life. One feels that the great preacher of Dundee might prove to be even more of a challenging role model if we saw and sensed more clay mixed with the iron of his devotion to God. Keith-Falconer was a stranger to me, and it was a blessing to read of his labours in Aden to reach Muslims. Keith-Falconer was a linguist of the highest academic acumen, and his willingness to devote intellectual and financial resources to the cause of Christ was stirring. Some of the incidental details of his life – like his expedition on a Victorian large wheeled bicycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats provided light relief amidst the rigours of his labours to Christ. Keith-Falconer was a contemporary of C.T. Studd and John G. Paton, and his work among Muslim communities is highly informative, given our world mission context of the 10-40 window.

The only low point in the book for me was Loane’s treatment of Henry Martyn. While there was much to bless me, I did feel that too much detail and time were devoted to his doomed romance with Lydia Grenfell. Whilst this was a cause of much vexation and heartbreak to Martyn, Loane’s focus on it did at times draw one’s attention away from his life and labour in Persia. This is a trifling criticism, and Martyn’s life still proved to be a deep challenge as I read the treatment of it contained within these pages.

Loane’s writing style is quite simply beautiful. Biographical details are conveyed to the reader via language which is lyrical, succinct and deeply moving. The book is presented in typically good Banner hardback quality with a beautiful dust jacket, and large easily readable typeface. I would readily recommend this title to anyone who wishes to gain an introductory insight into the lives of these great men of God, and would definitely commend it as an excellent gift idea for anyone who is reaching the ripe old age of 30!

For a survey of Loane’s other writings see Gary Brady’s brief overview here.

The Fight of Faith by Iain H. Murray

11 10 2008

Of all the Christian authors whose works have blessed me, Iain H. Murray’s biographical writings come top of the list. Murray’s books are written in a beautifully unadorned prose, with a respectfulness of tone for their subject which is refreshing in a world of hero destroying literature. I also love the fact that Iain H. Murray has never attained Christian ‘celebrity’ status in spite of his considerable influence for the Kingdom of God – he is as humble in person as he is articulate in print.

The Fight of Faith is the second volume of Murray’s landmark biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I read the first volume (entitled The First Forty Years) in autumn 2002 when I had just commenced pastoral ministry in Armagh Baptist. To say that this volume was life changing would be something of an understatement. This volume introduced me to a theology and a manner of preaching which for me were hitherto largely untapped, and gave me a sense of perspective on how the minister ought to approach the teaching of the Word of God. All of Murray’s biographical works carry a didactic element which invites the reader to adjust their perspective and way of living in so far as his subject exemplifies godly living. The First Forty Years certainly achieved this for me, and I will be forever grateful.

The second volume has always daunted me a little in prospect. It stretches to in excess of 800 pages (by comparison with 412 pages in the first volume), and handles many of the more controversial issues which faced Lloyd-Jones during his ministry. I’ve dipped a toe in the book over the intervening years, but never felt able to commit to such a hefty biography. Such hesitation was not to my benefit, given the wonderful piece of Christian literature which Volume 2 represents.

The Fight of Faith opens with Lloyd-Jones ministering in London during the height of the Second World War as Assistant Minister to G. Campbell Morgan. It follows his work for the Lord through his installation to the full charge of Westminster Chapel, his widening influence through the student movement, the Westminster Fellowship, and transatlantic preaching ministry. Lloyd-Jones work in Westminster is presented as being singularly owned of God, with a sense of the power of His Holy Spirit in the warp and woof of the words spoken from the pulpit. Regardless of whether his ministry was exercised in his own pulpit, or across the country, the testimony of his hearers was universally of man used of God to communicate His truth.

In terms of Lloyd-Jones’ significance Murray does not merely emphasise his public ministry, but also the influence for good which he was to exercise over a generation. He was no pulpiteer, but a Pastor whose deep concern for the welfare of church members, fellow ministers, and those under conviction of sin were unquestionable. The work of the Westminster Fellowship and the extraordinary influence it had on the generation following Lloyd-Jones is portrayed in intimate detail, with his judicious work as chairman of many discussions fully illustrated with recorded exchanges. His work in helping to establish or encourage other agencies for God’s truth is also demonstrated, with his help to Geoffrey Williams and ‘The Evangelical Library’ as well as to Iain Murray and Jack Callum with the foundation of ‘The Banner of Truth’ showing his deep concern that historic Christianity be recovered worldwide.

A considerable section of The Fight of Faith is occupied with the controversies and difficulties that were faced by Lloyd-Jones, particularly in the 1960s. With the onset of ecumenism, Lloyd-Jones foresaw the problems which this movement would present to the evangelical world, and issued a clarion call for believers not to become involved in it. His radical stance with regard to those who were labouring in ‘mixed denominations’ led him in to some of his most lonely years. His advocacy of ministers removing themselves from those Churches which were involved in ecumenism was not welcomed, while his call for evangelicals to form a broader unity which transcended denominational lines was largely misunderstood. Murray traces the contour of this debate with candour and care, highlighting those times when Lloyd-Jones did not adequately explain his views, as well as those times when he spoke with an almost prophetic voice concerning the consequences of flirting with ecumenism or liberal theology.

Issues such as Lloyd-Jones’ views on pneumatology are well handled within the biography, with all of the references to the great preacher’s views on the topic carefully footnoted. While open to seeing a work of God by His Spirit, and not immediately dismissive of the fledgling Charismatic movement Lloyd-Jones was not a Pentecostalist. As the Charismatic gained momentum and found its expression through figures such as Du Plessis, Lloyd-Jones was quick to distance himself from it fully. This exposes many of the statements made within the Charismatic church that Lloyd-Jones was their advocate. Murray proves this to be far from the truth.

Lloyd-Jones’ work in the 1970s, following his retirement from Westminster Chapel in 1968, are particularly moving, with his encouragement of other ministers its most prominent feature. The closing section of the book, with its intimate portrayal of Lloyd-Jones preparing himself, his family, and the evangelical community for his death are moving in the extreme.

A regular charge laid at Murray’s door with regard to his writings about Lloyd-Jones is that they stray from biography into hagiography. Such statements can only be made by those who have not fully or carefully reads his works. Murray is routinely critical of certain stances, attitudes, and actions on the part of Lloyd-Jones, and is not slow to suggest ways in which he might have handled certain issues more capably. That Murray respects his subject, harbours great affection for Lloyd-Jones memory, and is grateful to God for His servant are incontestable – but these sentiments lend strength rather than weakness to his biographical writing.

I would not hesitate to call this two volume treatment of Lloyd-Jones my favourite book. It has taught me a lot, has humbled me before an unchanging God, and has challenged me afresh to uphold the sufficiency of God’s Word when taught in the power of God the Holy Spirit, to do the work of God in the world.

Book Review: Every Second Counts

8 08 2008

Every Second Counts is the second volume of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography, following on from It’s Not About the Bike, which chronicles his amazing recovery from cancer. Given my current resurgence of interest in cycling I borrowed this from the public library, and it has served as a safe haven from thinking about my thesis during the past week.

Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France over a record breaking seven years (1999-2005), and in Every Second Counts he writes candidly about life in the world of professional athletic competition, life as a father of three, and life as someone who has managed to survive seriously life-threatening cancer. The style of the book is gutsy, honest and masculine, chronicling everything from how it feels to taste victory on the Alpe d’Huez to the emotions involved in the breakdown of a marriage relationship.

I found the book really interesting for a number of reasons:

1. Its breadth of application to life: Armstrong’s reflections on professional competition frequently serve as a metaphor for other issues and relationships in the human experience. It is nothing short of inspiring to read of someone standing face to face with impossible odds (be it in the cancer ward or in the midst of an aggressive peloton)and finding victory from the deepest levels of self-motivation and belief. It is a challenge to the way that many of us face adversity in any sphere of life.

2. Its direct application to ministry: although Armstrong has no room for Christian belief (see below) there are a number of episodes in the book which speak loudly to those in ministry. Whether it be the challenge of continuing to work and strive whilst being misunderstood and misrepresented by others (as in Armstrong’s drug use allegations), the blessing of striving in a team for the greater good (as in US Postals team tactics in the Tour) or of the loneliness of pursuing an ideal and calling in the midst of difficulty and demotivation. A grave warning from the book is of the danger of pursuing a good and glorious goal to the cost and detriment of family life. Armstrong’s unyielding dedication to cycling and the noble cause of supporting those suffering from cancer is ulimately blamed for the breakdown of his family. This is a salutary warning to those in ministry about pursuing their calling to the exclusion, and at the expense, of investing in those whom we love and who matter to us.

3. Its picture of a man on the run from God: I truly believe that this is where Armstrong stands spiritually. In a chapter entitled ‘Faith and Doubt’ he shares of how many times he has been asked by people at airports and other public places about his relationship with God. Armstrong is agnostic, attributing his recovery from cancer to good mental attitude and excellent medical care, and not God. He writes about painful and abusive experiences at the hands of his church deacon stepfather, who regularly beat him in private whilst maintaining an air of spritual respectability in public, and of how Christian faith can be a crutch for the weak, or a convenient cover up for the wicked. Behind all of this, however, is a deep respect for his wife’s devout Catholicism, and a hint of a belief in God which barely reaches the surface. As a mine for illustrations in Gospel preaching alone this chapter is well worth reading.

I really enjoyed Every Second Counts, and would love to read It’s Not About the Bike at some point as well. Armstrong’s book is an excellent piece of sports writing, high on action and adventure, whilst at the same time giving a fascinating insight into the human condition with all of its capacity for surprise and disappointment.