Killing Field Christian: a book review

Intended For Evil tells the story of Radha Manickam, an ethnically Indian, Cambodian Christian who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide (1975-1979)  and aftermath before emigrating to the US. Journalist and journalism professor, Les Sillars relays Radha’s story and provides historical and political context.

intendedforevil-sc.inddIn 1973, Nixon ordered carpet bombs on Cambodia, turning the small South Asian nation into the most bombed country in the world (bombed 2.7 million times. A civil war with the Khmer Rouge had been going on since 1970. The US bombings led to greater destabilization of the country. The Khmer Rouge took the reigns of government in 1975 and their paranoid, four-year Cultural Revolution re-mix of the Holocaust resulted in the deaths of 1.5 to 3 million people.

Also in 1973 Radha trusted Jesus savior and Lord through a conversation with a pastor Nou Thay at an English class at Maratha Church, a Phnom Penh church planted by American missionaries. Radha’s faith grew, and he participated in evangelistic efforts  and worshipped at the church, though his faith was not always reflected in his life.

When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they were governed by  both Communist ideology and Cambodian nationalism. Pol Pot was opposed to Western ideology, ideas and aid (except for what his government accepted from Russia). Westerners and those educated by the west were executed or re-educated. The Khmer also expected Cambodians to have a total commitment to the state, which they  vigorously enforced. The hope was to reshape Cambodians into a new Socialist people. Cambodians lived in fear because as the government became more and more paranoid about subversive elements, more and more people were killed.

Radha kept his faith and his relationship with Western missionaries quiet. More than once he tried to commit suicide but he felt God had a plan for his life. He didn’t invite martyrdom by living his faith openly. Outwardly he complied to whatever demands the Khmer put on him, making certain he never fell behind in his labor (and so give soldiers a chance to punish him). Several times his life was in peril. The Khmer control was total and they even arranged marriages for the Cambodian people. It is only after his marriage to Samen he discovered she was a third-generation Cambodian Christian.

Pol Pot’s government fell to Veitnam in 1979. He and the Khmer Rouge escaped to the jungles of Thailand. The terror was alleviated though danger and bad conditions persisted. Vietnam set up a client government which continued to engage in warfare with the Khmer Rouge through the next decade. Radha and Samen  emigrated to the US. They made their first trip back to Cambodia in 1989 after the fall of Communism in the Eastern Bloc (the dissolution of Soviet support, made Cambodia more stable and open). Today he and his wife work to bring the gospel to Cambodians in Cambodia and North America.

Radha has an amazing story and  Les Sillars tells it in an engaging way. I give this book four stars and recommend it for anyone who likes a good biography.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Redeeming the Pain: a book review

Ricky Texada was living the dream. Called by God to the ministry, he was informed that he and his wife would both soon be ordained as pastors. Unfortunately his wife Debra was stolen from him by a tragic car crash. He felt the pain and searing loss and wondered why God did not spare his wife despite the number of people praying for them. Later he felt God reveal to him, that Debra had a choice and she chose to be with Jesus rather than tarry any longer.

Less than a year after the loss of his wife’s life, Texada felt led to another woman, Cyd. He had first met her in college. When his friend Keith met her at a concert, he told Texada and that he told Cyd that Ricky would talk to her.  After a couple months’ delay, Texada calls and takes a few halting steps towards dating Cyd. It becomes increasingly clear, that God is leading Ricky and Cyd together.

My Breaking Point, God’s Turing Point tells the story of Texada’s courtship and marriage to Cyd, after his heartrending loss of Debra. He talks about the ways God led them together. His story is a testimony of how God gives us beauty for ashes, and restores us from our brokenness.  While I do not belong to the same theological camp as Texada, I do respect his journey and the ways that our God has cared for him and brought him through a season of pain.

This book is designed to help people through their own journey of pain and seasons of loss. Texada hopes to impart hope to his readers. This makes his story read a little more like a ‘life lesson’ than a biography. At times I found his writing too didactic and heavy handed. The story has power on its own without always needing to draw a ‘life lesson’ out. I wished for a less packaged telling. But the sorrow and joy is all here.

This would be a good book for someone facing similar losses. I give this book three stars.

Thank you to Bethany House for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Real Person or Patron Saint?: a book review

Dietrich Bonhoeffer seems sometimes a modern-day ‘patron saint for hire.’  Famously, the Death of God movement drew on Bonhoeffer’s description of ‘religionless Christianity’ to underpin their theological claims.  More recently Eric Metaxas’s biography paints Bonhoeffer in the image of a Neo-Con Crusadader.  One of my professors in seminary, John G. Stackhouse, draws heavily on Bonhoeffer in developing his realist ethic in Making the Best of It. Stanley Hauerwas draws on Bonhoeffer in his decidedly more Idealist ethic (see Performing the Faith). Stackhouse and Hauerwas are both astute readers of Bonhoeffer but his legacy allows for divergent interpretations. This is due in part to the occasional nature of his later writings, Bonhoeffer’s moral quagmire in ‘getting involved’ in Hitler’s assassination plot, and the supposed development in his theological thought in the face of National Socialism.

Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf, 2014) promises to remove the veil from Bonhoeffer’s face and show us the real person. Unlike other biographies, this is not hagiography. Marsh paints Bonhoeffer as the somewhat spoiled son of aristocracy. However Marsh isn’t trying to tarnish Bonhoeffer’s legacy either. He is simply trying to show that the ‘real’ Bonhoeffer was more complex than many earlier portraits which were each heavily dependent on Eberhard Bethge’s biography. Marsh’s Bonhoeffer is proud, preoccupied with fashion, dependent upon his parents for money (and laundry!) into his mid-thirties, enjoys leisure, and has an ambiguous relationship with Bethge. But he remains stalwart in his faith commitment and loyal and courageous to the end.

The events of Bonhoeffer’s life are a matter of public record. What makes Marsh’s biography an important and interesting contribution to the literature on Bonhoeffer is his ability to unearth and interpret Bonhoeffer’s life. So, for example, when Bonhoeffer writes home to complain about the quality of American theological education after his year at Union (1930), Marsh delves into Bonhoeffer’s relationship with fellow students and his hearing ‘the gospel preached in Negro churches,’ and his subsequent exploration of the African American experience. Marsh has written several books on the Civil Rights Movement so is great at filling in the details and showing their impact on Bonhoeffer. But he doesn’t always take young Dietrich at his word and shows how several professors at Union helped shape his later legacy (Harry Ward, Charles Webber and yes, Reinhold Neibuhr). Not only does the African American experience aid Bonhoeffer in resisting the dominant culture in Hitler’s Germany, but he gains the skills at organizing and resistance from Ward and Webber (and grows more realistic in his Ethical commitments).  This will later aid him in his work with the eccumencial movement, the confessing church and Finkenwalde.

Perhaps the most controversial claim that Marsh makes is Bonhoeffer’s unrequited love for Bethge. Marsh doesn’t ascribe an awareness of homosexuality to Bonhoeffer or imply that his relationship with Bethge was ever consummated,  but he does probe the fact that Bonhoeffer corresponds with Bethge in giddy, emotive language. The two lived together, had a joint bank account, signed their Christmas cards ‘Dietrich & Eberhard,’  took vacations together, and Bonhoeffer left most of his earthly belongings to Bethge. Bethge for his part, was more conservative in his expressions of mutual affection, often put off by Bonhoeffer’s over-the-top, affectionate words.  I think Marsh is right to raise questions about the ambiguities here but I think he overstates his case. Male friendships can be intimate without being sexual and I am wary in pressing Bonhoeffer into the role of ‘patron saint of the LGBT community.’ As someone with strong male friendships I wonder how ‘gay’ my correspondence with friends may sound to an outside observer. Same-sex friendships can me intense and intimate, without being sexual. Marsh is trying to get behind why Bonhoeffer and Bethge communicate the way they do. It raises interesting questions, but I don’t think we can speak conclusively here. In other places, Marsh talks matter-of-factly about Barth’s affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum (without footnote). Here again, all but the most devoted Barthian apologist would see the oddity of  Barth having a live-in assistant in the Barth family home, but the nature of their relationship is not as clear and known as Marsh makes it.

But the interpretive leaps makes for an interesting biography which should generate more discussion and inquiry. I really enjoyed reading this book. I was not at all put off by Marsh’s portrait of Bonhoeffer. When Marsh shares Bonhoeffer’s letters home (about money, about wanting new clothes, or laundry), it didn’t make me think Bonhoeffer shallow. Instead I saw a man in his twenties learning to navigate the world. If Marsh wants to paint a picture of Bonhoeffer as a patron saint, perhaps Bonhoeffer is the patron saint of late adolescence.  I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.


The Hobbit Forming Life: a book review

As the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day.”  Wars were fought and won, infrastructure was built and fortified, and the culture of the ancient West flourished as a result. Similarly, the Middle-Earth of Tolkien’s imagination did not spring up ex nihilo from his imagination but is the culmination of   John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life work. Various elements of  Middle Earth had their genesis in  his life experience and academic pursuits of Tolkien.  In Tolkien: The Making of a Legendnoted expert on Tolkien and the Inklings, Colin Duriez, tells the story of Tolkien’s life and the events which shaped him as an author.

J.R.R. Tolkein: The Making of a Legend by Colin Duriez

Tolkien’s life story found its way into his fiction.  A tarantula bite in  childhood may have  provided the background fpr Ungoliant or Shelob (13) .  Places that were special to Tolkien provided the basis for important locations (i.e.  the Shire, the two towers, the Ivy Bush all have their origin in actual locations). The love Tolkien had for his wife Edith provided the  inspiration for the story of  Luthien and Beren (one of the central legends of Middle Earth).  His experience of warfare in World War I made him critical of the way technology was destroying modern life(a major theme in the LotR trilogy). But Tolkien’s literary vision was also enriched by his friendships and academic pursuits.

In his schooldays he and a group of literary friends  formed a ‘Tea Club, later known as  the TCBS (Tea Club Barrovian Society).  They dreamed of later literary achievements (though several members did not  survive the First World War). As an academic at Oxford, Tolkien formed the ‘Coal Biters’ a group which gathered weekly to translate and read Norse Mythology. Later, the Inkling(with C.S. Lewis and others) would meet Tuesday mornings at the Eagle and Child. The members of that group listened to, discussed  and critiqued early drafts of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  The friendship with Lewis was mutually beneficial and while it cooled somewhat  in later years, Tolkein and Lewis continued to support one another throughout their life.  Tokien’s relationship with Lewis and other writers provided him the relational support he needed and helped him hone his craft as an author.

And of course Tolkien’s own genius  grew up with keen interest in and talent for language.  His skill at languages enabled him to create several Elvin languages.  His work on the OED (after his military service) would prove to give him the proper training to create the world of Middle Earth and in later years, his academic writings mostly served to enrich his fiction.

This is an interesting biography and paints a compelling vision of its subject.  Druiez shares the effect Tolkien’s reading of Beowulf  had for his students. This, coupled with Tolkien’s belief in the power of story, makes me appreciate Tolkien’s fiction all the more.  As one who has enjoyed Tolkien’s books (and Peter Jackson’s adaptations) I do not hesitate to recommend this book. It is a readable account of a much beloved author.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.



Go Then: a book review

Sent by Hilary Alan

“The two greatest moments of your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why you are born.”

Curt Alan heard those words at a conference and came back and shared them with his wife Hilary. The two of them felt that despite the fact that they lived the American dream–two kids, comfortable income, security, they were not doing what they were put on this earth for.

Curt  got involved in community ministry at their church and Hilary tried to support her husband as the pressed into God’s calling for their family. In 2004 after the Tsunami which decimated South East Asia, Curt took six weeks off work to help with the relief. This led to a course change for Hilary and Curt and their two kids Jordan and Molly.  The Alans moved to a Muslim province in South East Asia to continue to help with the relief. This is the story of their three year tenure there. Hilary Alan tells the story of how they risked everything to follow God, overcame obstacles and culture shock and sought ways to be good neighbors there.

From this book I know very little about the organization that they went with or what the Alans did while they were there.  Instead Hilary Alan shares about the significant relationships they built there and where she saw God at work in their lives. She tells the story of Lee an injured doctor friend, Natalie their housekeeper, Glen a shy friend who is drawn in by the community in their home, Adele a Muslim woman who believes in Jesus but has not become a Christian because of a promise she made to her dying mother. Hilary and her family are able to share the love of God with all these people and more through prayer, conversation and acts of compassion.

I liked this book a lot because it is honest about the struggles of following Jesus when it costs you something.  I would recommend this book to those who love a good story of God’s faithfulness when we step out on what He’s calling us to. I find stories like this encouraging and Alan is honest about where it has been difficult. She trusts God, but she also struggled with the effect the culture had on her kids and the ways God doesn’t always seem to answer prayer.

I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for this review.

Matthew Henry: His Life and Influence (a book review)

You likely have come across the works of Matthew Henry, especially his commentary on the Bible (in either its full or abridged form) which is often bundled with Bible software or found relatively cheaply on Amazon.  But why would a Bible commentator and author from the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century have such enduring popularity? Why does his commentary have such enduring popularity?

Allan Harman is the research professor of Old Testament at Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia and has written a book exploring the life and influence of Matthew Henry which is aptly titled Matthew Henry: His Life and Influence. Beyond stating the subject and scope of the book, the title also provides Harman’s basic outline. The first ten chapters of this book provide a biographical sketch of Matthew Henry. The final four chapters talk about his influence as a preacher, commentator, author and his influence on subsequent generations.

The biographical portion of this book give the basic details of Matthew Henry’s life including the the influence of his father, Patrick Henry, who had studied under the Puritans (like John Owen). Harman provides details about Henry’s education and youthful illness, his ordination and more than twenty-five years of ministry in Chester,  his final parish in Hackney, his death  and  various family details along the way(like the death of his first wife, his second marriage and the birth of his children).  In the portion of the book which assesses Henry’s influence, Harman examines Henry’s homiletic style and strengths as an expositor.

This book is well researched and provides a sympathetic picture of who Matthew Henry was. However  I was mildly disappointed that Harman did not provide more information on Henry’s wife and children.  Henry gives bare bones factual data on them but does not explore Henry’s relationship to them much. For example Harman tells us that his son, Philip Warburton was elected to parliment, did not share his father’s religious convictions and went by his mother’s maiden name (41). From these facts, we can surmise that their relationship was strained but this is not explored in any depth.  Perhaps there is little substantive which could be said about  this relationship or the Henry household. Harman avoids speculations so maybe he had nothing more to say. Other details of family life he is much more forthcoming on, such as the death of his first wife  and how that affected him.

Harman is much more interested in exploring Henry’s life as a minister and author. This he does rather well, providing an analysis of Henry’s homeltic style, his strengths as an expositor and his influence on the Wesleys, Whitefield, Spurgeon and Bavinck and others. Henry’s Exposition of the Bible is still valued for its insights, its accessible and memorable style (Henry used a lot of alliteration).  He was certainly engaged and cognizant with the best scholarship of his day and knew the Bible well.

Occasionally Harman’s prose is a little repetitive (repeating direct quotes, etc.) but the strength of this book is that it is well researched, relying on both primary and secondary sources.  This book will be valuable for students researching Henry’s life and for those interested in church history. Matthew Henry was a great synthesizer of some of the Puritan and non-conformist insights. He was and remains highly influential on a significant swath of evangelicalism. Harman is a faithful guide to Henry’s life (even if some details are not forthcoming).

Thank you to Christian Focus for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Let’s see who can be the Quietist: a book review

Fredrick Buechner once said, “All theology is biography.” By this he was referring to the ways in which a theologians life and experience impose upon their understanding of God and the world (and everything in between). Peter Gorday shows that the reverse may also be true: biography is theology.  By examining the life of François Fénelon, the seventeenth century Quietist, archbishop and theologian, he demonstrates how he synthesized various influences and negotiated political realities to arrive at his unique theological convictions. François Fénelon A Biography: The Apostle of True Love is well researched, drawing on broadly on the scholarly literature on Fénelon, commending his life and teaching to us for the real spiritual insight he offers.

Gorday unfolds the story of Françoi de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon chronologically. He begins by discussing his early classical education, the influence of Neo Platonism (as mediated through Augustine) and the influence of the ‘French School’–Francis de Sales,  Pierre de Berulle and Jacques Olier–on his mystical theology. From Francis de Sales he got the concept of ‘pure love’  and ‘holy indifference’ to all other things. From Berulle and Olier he got the idea of self annihilation and the need to fight against one’s own self-glorification at every turn.  Later, Fénelon’s synthesis of these three thinkers made him appreciative of Madame Guyon’s literary gifts and practical religious genius(though without doctrinal precision).

But before he met  Guyon he was already a rising intellectual star publishing works on the education of daughters, on the training of ministries and philosophical treatises and engaging in mission to the Huguenots (French Protestants). He established friendships with important people, including Jacques-Benigne Bossuet who later would become his chief theological opponent. Fénelon also became the tutor of Lois XIV’s son and spiritual director to Madame de Maintenon, the King’s mistress and second wife and through that relationship an archbishop.

Gorday illustrates how the complicated relationship between Fénelon, Maintenton, and Louis XIV, and his defense of Madame Guyon would eventually lead to the condemnation of his Maxims of the Saints.  Maintenon’s relationship with Fénelon soured in part because of the stringent self annihilation he called her to (too much for her to bear) and partly because of the insubordination of some Guyon devotees at Saint-Cyr (a religious boarding school which Maintenon had invited Guyon and Fénelon to help with). The latter led to  Madame Guyon’s works being condemned by the bishops at Issy, after which Bossuet wrote a book attacking Guyon and her teaching. Fénelon responded by writing a book (Maxim of the Saints) defending her mysticism as being in line with Catholic mystical theology( quoting orthodox, accepted mystical sources extensively). The battle between Bossuet ( with Louis XIV’s support) and Fénelon raged on leading to a  negative assessment on his theology by Pope Innocent XII (again with some pressure from the french crown). Much of the theological argument stemmed from Fénelon’s understanding of passivity in prayer (and Bossuet’s failure to understand what he was talking about) and his relationship with Quietist teaching.

In later years Fénelon was confined to his diocese of Cambrai and his relationship with Louis and Maintenon was severed. Despite this papal condemnation, Fénelon remained in his bishopric and in later years was active in parish ministry in his diocese, spiritual director to many and published anti-Jansenist works (in part because they were prevelant, and part because they had opposed his mysticism).

This is a dense, thoughtful book and Gorday delievers what you want to read from a religious biography. He is sympathetic to his subject but cognizant of critical scholarship and able to make judicious conclusions. He paints a portrait of Fénelon which is warmly appreciative of his theological contribution while acknowledging that in places, Fénelon appears prideful and  less than altruistic in his motives (i.e. his opposition to the Jansenists). Gorday also illuminates the contradictions between Fénelon’s alleged quietism and his submission to the church hierarchy and his active pastoral ministry at Cambrai (where his bishopric was).

Gorday argues that  Fénelon’s voice is needed now in our age because

his spirituality of pure love speaks to the disllusionment that so many people feel with regard to conventional religiousity. Religion often seems like a consumer product–something packaged and marketed for quick gratification at the cheapest price. . . .Self love corrupts everything, as idealistic people always come to realize. On the other hand, his call to pure love puts Fénelon on the heights. He sets a high standard by challenging us to make God seriously, and by making spirituality a matter not of blissful contentment or contrived ecstaty, but of patient, steady, grueling discipleship. (208)

I certainly agree that François Fénelon’s life and teaching call us to deeper commitment and faithfulness even if I remain skeptical of some of his mystical theology (I am no expert on it, and am willing to admit that I might not get it). I wonder about the reality of ‘disinterested love’ as a spiritual state and whether this is possible or desirable (totally), but I think that Fénelon has some keen insights on fighting our egocentricity and striving towards greater holiness.  So I recommend the book  with one qualification. This is a meaty book and requires an attentive reading. It is a book of academic history and historical theology which relates discussions about the nature of mysticism. I found I had to read this book slowly to get the nuances that Gorday was communicating and probably still need to go back over some of the descriptions of mystical theology.  If you are looking for a light summer read, this is probably not the book for you. But if you love history and are interested in knowing more about Fénelon, mysticism or 17th century France, then this is the right choice. Personally, I am utterly fascinated by the religious landscape in Europe in the 17th century so I really liked it.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this  honest review.