Book Reviews

Reading List for May through July, 2023: Missions, Magnates, Marquis, more…

It’s not a surprise that I was only able to complete five books in the last three months. What is amazing is that I was able to complete ANY books in the absolute avalanche of activities that was last three months. So please join me in considering these a major accomplishment.

Missions by the Book by Chad Vegas and Alex Kocman

It’s remarkably easy for missionaries to get so caught up in details, strategies, and projects that they forget the basics of preaching, teaching, and discipling. The reality of this in my own life and ministry is why I try to pepper my own, wildly eclectic reading with books that bring me back and make me think about foundational principles of missions.

“Missions by the Book”, by Chad Vegas and Alex Kocman is just such a book. Moved by a desire return the work of missions to it’s doctrinal moorings, the authors effectively cut through the pragmatism and fluff that characterizes much of modern missions.

Those readers who have always prioritized what Scripture prioritizes in missions will probably not find much that is new among these pages. Unfortunately, for much of the missions world, the book will be absolutely revolutionary, an axe that strikes at the very roots of the popular conceptions of missions today.
Vegas and Kocman call for faithfulness to biblical models instead of pragmatism, preaching and teaching instead of attracting followers, trained, sanctified, suffering missionaries instead of “anybody can be a missionary”, prayerful servants instead of CEOs.

Not that I can count myself to have arrived. Indeed, I often found myself nodding along at one paragraph, only to be cut to the quick by the next. \

I would make this required reading for pastors, missionaries, mission agency workers, Bible college students, and basically any Christian in a local church who is interested at all in missions.

Everyman by Anonymous

A recent reading assignment given to my son took me back to the Late Middle Ages, and a morality play called “Everyman”. It was a fun little coincidence, as we are covering that period in our Church History class at the Bible Institute.

“Everyman” is an allegory where humanity is represented by the main character, a man named…you guessed it…”Everyman”. The play starts out with our hero getting a visit from Death, who informs him that he is now on his final journey to the grave. Reasonably perplexed, Everyman seeks out companions to go with him, only to discover that companions he had counted on, “Fellowship”, “Kindred”, “Goods”, etc. It turns out the only companion he can take to the grave with him is “Good Deeds”, and this particular companion is at first unable to make the trip with him due to the fact that he has been neglected for a long time. “Confession” and “Penance” come through to take up the slack, and by the end our hero is able to face death with a certain degree of confidence.
The author of “Everyman” is unknown, but it traces its origin to a few short years before the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Thus the work provides a fascinating snapshot of popular theology at time of Luther, Calvin, et al.

Also interesting to note were certain similarities in style and theme to Pilgrim’s Progress…although the theological conclusions of the two works are vastly different.

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper

Upon the recommendation of my brother Daniel Comings I picked up “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty” by CNN personality Anderson Cooper. It was a good recommendation.

For those not in the know, Cooper brings a unique perspective to the history of one of the most influential families in American history. He is the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, who was arguable the last in the line of Vanderbilt millionaires.

Cooper is very tender towards his late mother’s memory, while casting a jaundiced eye over the legacy of the Vanderbilt clan. He starts at the beginning, with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and gives short biographical sketches of all the most prominent members of the family since then.
These biographies also go into detail about historical events and societal norms that both shaped, and were shaped by, the Vanderbilts. Some peripheral characters – most notably Truman Capote – are also covered in Cooper’s telling.

As one reads from a Christian perspective, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is “what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul.” Sadly, it seems that nobody in the family, from the earliest patriarch to the current scion, ever took that to heart.

The Anglo Saxons by Marc Morris

Shortly before things got really busy for the summer, I delved back into one of my favorite eras of history – the pre-1066 Anglo Saxon kingdoms. This time it was through the delightful and informative book by Marc Morris – “The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England”.

Morris does a great job sorting out the tangled kingdoms of the early Anglo-Saxon invasion, and then engagingly recounts the centuries of warfare with the Vikings.

If you, like me, are fascinated with tales of Alfred the Great, with shield walls and longboats and battle axes, this book is for you. Also, if your knowledge of Saxon England is limited to whatever episodes of “The Last Kingdom” you have watched, “The Anglo Saxons” will serve as a healthy corrective to the dramatic license taken by the series.

Hero of Two Worlds by Mike Duncan

Like many Americans, I suppose, my knowledge of the Marquis de Lafayette was limited to his participation in the American Revolution. Thanks to author and historian Mike Duncan and his book “Hero of Two Worlds”, I now have a much greater appreciation for the French nobleman, patriot, revolutionary, and abolitionist politician.

It is through “Hero of Two Worlds” that I have come to appreciate the fact that Lafayette’s outsized role in the French Revolution and its aftermath easily overshadows his American activities. Not only does the book provide a detailed look at Lafayette’s life, it also gives a valuable narrative of the events of the French Revolution, from Lafayette’s point of view.

Though by no means a hagiography, Duncan’s work leaves the reader with a profound admiration for the man who managed to live several lifetimes and influence world events on two continents. It is highly recommended for those looking to understand more about Lafayette and his times.


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