Books ...

... we read, reviewed, and 4+ starred

Renovation of the Heart | Dallas Willard

Christians are to be like Christ. Christ was holy. Christians ought to be holy. It is what the Apostle Peter exhorted in 1 Peter 1. Paul writes to the Ephesian Church that believers have been chosen by God to be holy and blameless in Ephesians 1. Are not Christians supposed to have the Holy Spirit living in them producing the fruit of the Spirit, just as is read in the letter to the Galatians? There is certainly a chasm between the ideal and the reality in believers' lives. Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart is a practical look into the biblical and spiritual disciplines that are needed to experience the change that transforms the believer into the likeness of Christ in every area of life. He addresses the body, soul, thoughts, emotions, and character. The heart needs renovating and here is a handbook offering some direction!

Willard opens his book with an exploration of spiritual formation. The way we understand and act or react to the world around us depends largely on the spiritual formation that we have undergone. The means by which our heart, will, and spirit have been shaped affects the world on the outside, which has been in turn shaped by a long series of actions and reactions of other humans. Spiritual formation will occur by those forces that come to bear upon us unless the process is arrested by a shaping and reshaping of the inner self. Yet then Willard walks the reader down the path of realization of the true nature of the heart, found in the biblical understanding-it is deceitful above all things! The human heart is self-centered, even resisting God Who can bring true healing and change. He points out:

"The reason they [humans] do not find God is that they do not want him, or, at least, do not want him to be God. And of course the wanting God to be God is very different from wanting God to help me."

The first step to a renovation of the heart is a brokenness that realizes the utter helplessness of the human condition without God's work. It is not the little work of God here and there by a small god in our lives. What is needed is the complete renovation by a God Who is BIG and transforms every part of our being.

After laying a solid foundation, Dallas Willard then moves into an immensely practical second section of the book which moves through the multiple dimensions of a person. He covers the thought life, sensation, emotion, will, character, body, social dimension, and soul. In each chapter he builds upon the previous, beautifully laying not only the case for change, but also a path forward with practical steps forward in allowing God to enact transformation in your life.

Chapter 8 is an example of his method and one that I felt was personally edifying. In the previous chapters he had already laid the footings dealing with purpose and addiction in an individual's heart and this leading to a transformation of the will and character. Yet it is with the body that there is outward expression of doing what Jesus said. The body must become our ally in serving Jesus. Willard's address brings the body into a cherished and properly cared for instrument, not as a master itself, but as servant of God. The natural process of growing up involves us taking control over our body. In maturity the body increasingly takes on the quality of the inner life. Willard walks the reader through a process of surrendering the body not as our own, but as a gift received and to use for others. He states it bluntly, "We are stewards of our bodies." Our bodies become a showplace for Christ and a blessing to others. Dallas Willard then takes the reader through a process that includes ideas drawn from Frances Ridley Havergal's book Kept for the Master's Use and Margaret Magdalen's A Spiritual Check-up: Avoiding Mediocrity in the Christian Life to surrender the body unto God and allow His renovating work to take place.

Renovation of the Heart is a tremendous resource for the believer interested in living a victorious life. In it Dallas Willard not only sounds the call for holiness, but also presents it in a way that gives hope. Holiness is something too big for humans, but not too big for God!

The Great Divorce | C.S. Lewis

I just finished reading three other books on hell as a part of an exploration and study (see my other reviews for the other 3 books). Each of the authors made reference to C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce. It seems that a look into the discussion of hell would not have been complete without a reading of this classic piece of fiction.

C. S. Lewis opens his book with a preface that makes immediately clear that the work is a piece of fiction. Yet this piece of fiction manages to stir the imagination and challenge the theologians. Lewis' hell becomes a purgatory of sorts that allows the inhabitants of hell to take an escorted bus trip to the lower reaches of heaven. When arriving the citizens of hell find how truly unfit for even the outskirts of heaven they are. One by one the people of hell transported in a single bus load expose supposed deficiencies of heaven that are in fact their own sinful nature's tendencies exposed in the penetrating light of heaven.

Here, like other of his works, Lewis is a master of the imagination bringing light to the deep concepts of human free will and the human predisposition to seek to exalt themselves above God. Characters in the novel again and again are granted their real desire to make due without God, which is a classic definition of death, separation from God. They make the conscious decision to forgo the overwhelming beauty, strength, and wonder of heaven in full fellowship with God for a dim, vapor of existence without purpose or direction and filled with constant strife instead for the foolish notion that they remain in control.

I benefit greatly from the reading of The Great Divorce. This book will be at the top of my list of recommended reading. Each of the narrator's encounters in the book seem to expose an area of personal weakness and opportunity to place, with a repentant heart, myself into the hands of a loving God for refining.

I found great appreciation for the concept Lewis presents of heaven and hell as a movement in a direction, either toward God or away from God. This process is one which starts on earth, in the author's imagination, and is one that will carry on into eternity. Those in pursuit for God continue until their greatest desire is fulfilled by the belief in Christ and acceptance into eternal joyous fellowship with Him. Those who wish and turn from God, fleeing to escape Him, also have their wish granted. These are the ones to which hell is the reality of moving ever farther from the only One who can and has given life its existence and substance. The end for each is the difference of heaven and hell!

The conversations of the intellectual and his former, but now glorified colleague, is most enlightening to the seminary student, professor, or professional minister. At a certain point in the dialogue comes a challenge to shake awake the student of God to remember his first love again: "Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage."

The Great Divorce, while not written to be a theological treatise on heaven and hell, adds profound insight to the conversation about both. This book is a spark to the imagination, a challenge to the heart, and bus ride that has the potential to change lives.

Working the Angles | Eugene Peterson

Eugene H. Peterson opens his book with an overwhelming introduction that both captured me and also struck fear into my heart. I had read the introduction before, yet had not pressed farther into the book. Yet recently was challenged to revisit this book to face the challenges of Peterson's book and seek the Holy Spirit's work in my life. After completing Working the Angles, I found there were three specific areas where I received the greatest challenges; prayer, contemplative exegesis, and Sabbath.

Having spent the last three years in fulltime work in the Church, Working the Angles, was a good challenge to return to the perspective, practice, and discipline I began those years doing. His words and emotional force cut into my heart with the realization of how little energy and importance I now (and perhaps always) have put on prayer. Most striking, however, was the call to the realization of what prayer really is:

"Prayer is a daring venture into speech that juxtaposes our words with the sharply alive words that pierce and divide souls and spirit, joints and marrow, pitilessly exposing every thought and intention of the heart (Heb. 4:12-13; Rev. 1:16) (Peterson 1998, 43)."

I had definitely fallen back into a bland routine of praying. I neither was considering Who I was actually communing with or the gravity of my prayers. The sections dealing with prayer in this book have been quite restorative in even helping me to slow down in my prayer and seek God. His words to Pastors on "little prayers" offered at the start of an event or function have also pressed my heart to not take lightly the moments we pray prior to the start of class, chapel, a meal, or bedtime with the children.

The second of area of challenge that I found of great benefit was that of contemplative exegesis. He uses a striking illustration from Herman Melville's novel White Jacket to tell how we might get carried away with the technical skills of our life's calling to the actual defeat of what we are striving to accomplish. Already this term I have found this true as we bury deep in research, reading, study, and writing. It is easy for me to strive to read all the texts, gather data, or compose papers and sermons, but to do so devoid of the life found in God's word. Again Working the Angles has been a siren call away from the shoals of academic and scholarly success that could easily end in break up spiritual well being. Prayer and re-realization of a God Who is alive and speaking through His word has been a breath of fresh air.

Finally, Peterson's discussion of Sabbath presses upon my heart. I have been struggling to find both rest and Sabbath. Each day I feel the pressure of deadlines and responsibilities, while the tension of family and Church ministry expectations hound my thoughts. Peterson reflections on the Hebrew morning and evening concepts, I pray, will continue to shape my perspective of Who is really at work in my life. He also helped me to re-think what a real Sabbath means and I am seeking to implement a weekly time that restores my perspective on the reality of God, His sovereignty in my life, and healthy disciplines moving forward.

Manalive | G.K. Chesterton

This was my first read of Chesterton. After seeing him quoted and referred to in so many other books I had been reading, I decided it was time to check out his actual work. I was not disappointed, and feel like I have discovered some hidden treasure!

Beautifully written, mixing the ridiculous with the profound, I found myself underlining many times in this book. G.K. Chesterton's main character Innocent Smith managed to restore so much joy to even my life. Such is the goal of this character, to restore the joy of being alive. He manages to achieve this in a manner that many consider childlike or quite certainly insane! Innocent Smith aids other members of the tale in discovering the meaning of death; "It isn't only meant to remind us of a future life, but to remind us of a present life, too." A reader walks away from this work, realizing the beauty of the birds, the sweet smell of the flowers and the delight of one's own romantic love. I find myself indebted to this work for helping to restore my joy of living.

I did discover one difficulty in starting this read. I am so accustom to reading such easily digested material, it took me several attempts to actually get past the first three pages. I thought to myself, 'how many adjectives does he need!' After crossing this hurdle, I was so delighted by the rich descriptions as one viewing a fine piece of art.

“Stick to the man who looks out of the window and tries to understand the world. Keep clear of the man who looks in at the window and tries to understand you.”
-Manalive, G.K. Chesterton