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Primal—Book Review

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Mark Batterson wants to change the world. He wants to see a new Reformation, one that will get Christians back to the basics of their faith and make them a powerful force once again. Using the framework of the Greatest Commandment, Batterson calls for renewal in four areas: compassion (heart), wonder (soul), curiosity (mind), and active involvement (strength).  He envisions a newly unified Church, laying aside its doctrinal differences and working together in ways that could lead to significant change.

It sounds great. In fact, it sound too good to be true, and Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity starts to feel like an infomercial on late night cable. Glib and breezy (though better than most), Batterson’s book belongs with a plethora of other spiritual self-help books. It is heavy on inspiration and light on practical suggestions for its readers.

Like many inspirational writers with big ideas, Batterson gets carried away by them. He likes science, so he uses science to bolster some of his claims, apparently unaware that he has not offered any evidence. Here’s a typical passage:

The human brain typically produces beta waves that oscillate between thirteen and twenty-five cycles per second, but when we are in a state of relaxed alertness, the brain produces alpha waves that oscillate between eight and twelve cycles. So what? Well, some truths are only comprehended via contemplation. You quite literally have to get the right wavelength. If surface knowledge is sufficient, beta waves will suffice. But the only way to get truth into your soul is via alpha waves. You can’t just think with your mind. You have to think with your soul.

Here are a number of deep questions airily dismissed! I won’t deny that some truths become clear only with meditative reflection. But I also won’t admit that adding the bit about the difference between alpha and beta waves does anything to clear up the mystery of why some truth is easily accessible and other truth less so. Primal is full of such odd bits and pieces, and Batterson seems not to notice that the facts he relates serve only as metaphors, not as evidence, for his central arguments.

I share Batterson’s hope for a new Reformation. Maybe Primal will get some believers thinking about what could happen. If it does, it will help, but I think it lacks sufficient weight. It is also too centered on American Christianity. Real change in the American church will require rethinking the church’s relationship to the American dream. Few Christians are willing to go there because it may require so much personal sacrifice. But the whole message of the gospel is about sacrifice for a cause so great that no price is too high.

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New Problem of Pain

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Mark Tabb offers a very accessible explanation for why God allows pain and suffering in the world. Using the book of Job as well as anecdotes from his own experience as a pastor and chaplain, Tabb takes on the problem of pain and provides a defense that is compassionate, reasonable, and lucid.

The book of Job is not an easy book to understand. Written as ancient Hebrew poetry, it has troubled both translators and interpreters. Everything Job’s comforters say to him, for example, seems to come right out of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. Yet the author of Job charges them with bad comfort and—worse—misrepresenting God. Tabb does an excellent job navigating the concepts presented in Job, explaining their relevance to his theme, and making the book come alive for his readers.

Interpreting Job, however, is not Tabb’s main purpose. He wants to answer the question that forms the title of his book: How Can a Good God Let Bad Things Happen? He tells us right off that he has another question in mind, too, one that Job himself asks: Shall we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10). Tabb squarely confronts the conundrum of a good God who nevertheless permits or even causes disaster (see Isaiah 45:7).

Throughout, Tabb’s style is conversational and personal. I never had the feeling that he was talking down to me or telling me just to buck up. His use of personal anecdotes as well as liberal quoting from the Bible and C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain appeals to both heart and head. This is a book for those who have experienced pain and loss. It is also a book for those who simply want to understand. The hardest part of sharing another’s grief is that you can’t. You want to empathize, to feel with them, but you find yourself able to offer nothing more than your presence.

Tabb leads us through the shock and horror of tragic loss, through anger at God and disbelief, to acceptance and perhaps something more, perhaps to genuine comfort. To some his answers will still seem trite. Certainly the last chapter, introducing heaven and eternity as balm for the wounded soul, is the weakest. He is at his best when dealing with the here and now. But his reasoning is theologically sound and thoroughly orthodox, an excellent antidote to recent works that explain pain by diminishing God.

This book is for anyone who has ever questioned how God can be both loving and all powerful. For some, this issue is a major stumbling block preventing them from coming to faith in Christ. It may also be for someone who has experienced suffering, but I would urge caution. Those who are grieving do not need more books to read. They need your presence.

Disclosure: The publisher, NavPress, provided me a copy of this book in exchange for a review.

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An Uncommon Book of Prayer

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I’ve read a lot of books about prayer. Years ago I read Rosalind Rinker’s Prayer: Conversing With God, one of many books to describe prayer as a conversation rather than a ritual observance. More recently, I read Steve Brown’s Approaching God: How to Pray. Despite the how-to subtitle, I didn’t find it to be a very practical guide. It didn’t address the fundamental issues that cause prayerlessness.

Paul Miller knows why we pray and why we don’t. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World is absolutely the best book on prayer I have ever come across. Miller, using compelling examples from his own life as well as scriptural teaching, shows us why we need to pray, why we don’t pray, and how to pray.

He begins with establishing child-like trust, moves on to how cynicism undermines that trust, and explains how to overcome cynicism by deconstructing its allure and false promises. A lot of prayer is petition, and petitioning—asking—is the very thing we find hardest to do. Complaining, “dialoguing,” soul-searching, and even praising are all easier to do because they don’t require trusting God. We can do them even if no one is listening. So Miller wisely focuses on asking and examines why we don’t ask and what we fail to ask for.

Finally, Miller integrates prayer into the story of God. Every life is a story, and prayer can make that story exciting and compelling if we let it. He concludes with some practical suggestions for helping us gain our Father’s perspective on our story through prayer cards and journaling.

This book has transformed the way I think about prayer, and I have already begun to put it’s suggestions into practice. It has also helped build my faith as I have seen real needs met and real prayers answered. A must-read for anyone interested in prayer. Even non-Christians would benefit from understanding the fundamental difference between prayer as the desperate cry of an overwhelmed child and prayer as ritual observance. Get this book, read it, and pray.

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