Book Review: “Martin Luther: A Biography for the People” by Dyron B. Daughrity

October 31, 2017 is the five-hundredth anniversary of the day the Reverend Father Martin Luther posted to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, “The Ninety-Five Theses”. It was an act, history tells us, that lit the blue touchpaper and sparked the Protestant Reformation, changing Europe, and the world, forever.

If you’re anything like me, those two sentences will pretty much cover your complete knowledge of those events. And if so, Dyron Daughrity’s book will fill in a lot of blanks, and help you understand the extraordinary years, at the closing end of the medieval period, and approaching the peak of the Renaissance, in which Luther played a pivotal role.

The first thing I learned is that the Ninety-Five Theses were neither a declaration of war, nor a declaration of independence. The official title attests to this: “Disputation for Clarifying the Power of Indulgences”. Martin Luther was concerned about the abuse of indulgences – the practice of the Catholic Church offering “remission of sins” in exchange for a Christian’s financial offering – effectively giving believers the opportunity to purchase a fast track ticket to Heaven for themselves or their deceased loved ones. He saw corruption in the church and wanted open debate on the matter. Perhaps he believed he could effect change from within and restore the purity of Christ’s bride. As we know, that wasn’t to be.

Daughrity describes well the context of Luther’s life – the changes in academic and theological thinking that were taking place, as well as the political and religious turmoil in Europe as the Holy Roman Empire struggled to push back against the advances of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. Into this cultural melting pot Luther was born, and Daughrity tells as much as we know about his early years, education and religious training – a pursuit that was not encouraged by his father.

We see the formation and continuing development of Luther’s key theological insights throughout his life. We see how this theology is built largely on his understanding of the Pauline epistles, and influenced by the works of his other Christian “hero” St. Augustine. We see how his commitment to the Roman Catholic church weakened until it eventually became his enemy, and the Pope became in Luther’s eyes the “antichrist.”

We see a major turning point in Luther’s life at the Diet of Worms and in its aftermath. This was where he faced the real danger of suffering a heretic’s punishment, but survived unscathed thanks to the intervention of his friend Frederick the Wise. This undoubtedly strengthened his standing, while the pamphlets he published from hiding powerfully articulated his theology and his anti-papal arguments. His famous German translation of the New Testament was also completed at this time. After this we see the rapid spread of Protestantism, in its various flavours, and the losing battle Luther waged to keep control of the reforms.

We read of Luther’s key relationships, including his close friendship with Philip Melanchthon, and his marriage to Katherine von Bora. We read of his physical and mental ailments, with depression casting a dark shadow over periods of his life. We read of his outstanding ability to communicate to the common man in his own language, and to win almost any debate – if not at the time then in writing afterwards! And we read of his weaknesses of character, his obstinacy, his infamous anti-semitic writings.

All of Luther’s intricate and interweaving influences are presented in a sympathetic and well formed narrative. Daughrity includes copious notes and quotes from various academic sources, while doing his best to keep this a “biography for the people.” While it is ultimately a biographical work, Daughrity also explains the theological differences – and similarities – between Luther and the Catholic church, as well as the way Protestantism almost inevitably fragmented as soon as Luther’s ideas took root. So it is at the same time a fascinating history book for anyone interested in these crucial years in the life of the church.

It is well worth spending some time with this book.

Thanks to NetGalley and Abilene Christian University Press for providing this book for review.

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Book Review – “Wise Guys” by Kent Evans (with Rob Suggs)

I’ll get straight to the point. This is a great book. I read it from start to finish in less than a day (unheard of for me), and then I immediately started reading it again.

Why couldn’t I drag myself away? Well, first of all it’s eminently readable. An easy, conversational tone draws you in. There are a few Americanisms along the way but I can forgive that – coming from an American author. Second, it starts rewarding you with titbits of wisdom right from the first chapter. No – earlier than that. Even during Kyle Idleman’s foreword I found myself thinking, “Yes, this is something I need to do!” And then that realization was reinforced throughout the following chapters, while I was also eagerly picking up life lessons – and being entertained to boot.

So, who are the “wise guys” of the title? They are ordinary people in the main, who happen to demonstrate a great way of thinking or behaving. And this book’s primary purpose is to encourage us to seek those people or, even better, recognise them in our daily lives; and then to learn from them, by observation and/or conversation.

It’s common sense – as is most of the finest wisdom. And most of what you learn as you read is really just reminding you of what you already know: be kind, ask questions, think before committing to a task, and so on. But these are truths that we all need to be reminded of on a regular basis if we are to develop positive habits rather than destructive ones.

The book is autobiographical, but only vaguely chronological. In each chapter Kent Evans recounts an incident in his life, which may have lasted anything from a few minutes to several weeks. He recalls a man from whom he learned something about himself or about life. And he ends each chapter describing those lessons learned, and then offering some “questions to consider.” These questions really help you change the direction of your thoughts away from Kent’s life and towards your own, giving you an opportunity to reflect on where your growth potential lies. It’s a straightforward format, and it works brilliantly.

I want to make three final observations that I hope will encourage you to purchase this book even if looking at the cover and reading the précis doesn’t convince you that it will speak to you.

One: although written from a male perspective, it is equally relevant to women. The book is unashamedly man-oriented. The full title is “Wise Guys: Unlocking Hidden Wisdom from the Men Around You.” Women barely get a mention, except in the acknowledgements. But this is for the very good reason that there is some truth in the cliché that men are generally not good at asking for help. The book is targeting those men and speaking directly to them. But the wisdom contained within is completely applicable to women, and you are just as likely to find a female mentor as a male one, depending on the circles you move in. So ladies – buy this book!

Two: although written from a business perspective, it is equally relevant to life in general. Now I’m not sure that the author intended to write a “business manual,” but many of the situations he describes arise from his business experiences, and so many of the men he learns from are businessmen, and many of his lessons learned are learned in the business arena. But at the same time, at the very heart they are lessons about relating to other human beings – and relationship lessons are invaluable in any area of life. Perhaps another way to say it is: this book will help you learn how to succeed in life – but it will also help you learn how to succeed in business.

Three: although written from a Christian perspective, it is equally relevant to people of other faiths or none. There are a few Biblical references sprinkled throughout the book, and some of the wise guys have connections through Kent’s church family, but there is not even a hint of evangelism or proselytizing; only the recognition that some of the wisdom gleaned from successful mentors also reflects Christian values. Having said that, I do feel that many of the chapters could be used as the basis for very interesting small group discussions. But ultimately, whatever your worldview, you will enjoy and get value from this book.

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This book was provided to me courtesy of City on a Hill Studio and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Book Review: “And It Was Beautiful” by Kara Tippett

In normal circumstances if I knew the ending of a book before I began reading it, I might never begin. What would be the point? Nobody likes spoilers do they?

If I’d followed my usual line of reasoning in the case of And It Was Beautiful then I would have missed out on a precious, thought-provoking and life-affirming read. And I would have missed the point entirely. Kara Tippett died of cancer in March 2015, and that is where this book ends, but this book isn’t about that ending.

Because first, the book radiates Kara’s faith that death is not the end. Her faith and hope lift her out of, and far above, her inevitable moments of despondency. It also prevents her story from becoming overly sentimental.

Second, the book is a story about life, not death. It is the ordinary life of a pastor’s wife, a mother of four who finds herself in a battle with a deadly foe. But in the midst of that battle she finds joy in her relationships – with her husband, children, friends and relatives. She finds kindness everywhere, and strength in God through her trust in Jesus. She has difficult conversations with her children, and she faces brutal physical pain and emotional turmoil as her cancer refuses to be stopped. But she faces it all with a courage she doesn’t even seem to see in herself, with occasional humour, and with an overriding sense of peace.

And It Was Beautiful is composed of various writings, mostly from Kara’s blog posts at http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com/ and in it she takes us with her on a journey through the last two or three years of her life. The tone is conversational. It is an easy read in that respect, although it had me struggling to hold back tears at some points. Perhaps I can sum up the book in Kara’s own words:

Some have called me heroic, for the fight, for the journey. I’m no hero. I’m just one broken woman looking for grace. I’m one needy heart in need of forgiveness. I’m just like everyone else, fighting to see grace, to live gently, to walk in integrity. It’s a daily battle, and some days it’s a war. And many days I blow it, bad. But there is always forgiveness.

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This book was provided to me courtesy of David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.