Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Notes: American Ulysses

Reading Ronald White’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant in the midst of our current political climate makes one long for men and women in American leadership with strong moral character and a humble disposition.  Over the years, I have read my share of Civil War histories and presidential biographies. Without question, White’s book ranks near the top of my list of favorite works.  Why did I enjoy it so much?

First, White’s writing style is powerful, active, and compact.  He covers the amazing sweep of Grant’s life with enough detail to place you in the story, yet keeps the narrative moving.  I could easily imagine how an author could get lost in the weeds after years of research and writing on such an amazing life.  White resists this temptation by using short sentences, active verbs, and concise analysis.  I haven’t read White’s material before.  After this book, I confess: I’m a fan.

Second, the arc of Grant’s life is simply amazing.  I knew the larger elements – Civil War general and US President.  But I didn’t know the rest of the story: Grant’s service in the Mexican War and time stationed out west, his loving relationship with his wife Julia, leaving the army to put his hand to business, his amazing climb in the army after re-entering the service during the war, his world tour after his presidency, and his herculean effort to publish his memoirs while fighting cancer.  Every part of this man’s life is fascinating and interesting.

Third, the character of Grant is personally challenging.  White comments throughout the biography on Grant’s plain style, his unassuming nature and gentle humility.  Grant was an introvert, uncomfortable with self-promotion, and always considerate of others.  He was an advocate for those facing injustice: American Indians and recently freed slaves.  He used his power to help those who had no voice.  How can a man with this kind of servant, humble leadership rise to the highest positions of power in 19th century America?  It’s a fascinating question and stands in polar opposition to today’s political culture.

I give this book my highest recommendation.  Read it to learn about one of America’s most significant figures, and read it because it is so much fun.

The Importance of Self-Control

baberuth

Robert Creamer shares the good, the bad, and the fascinating in his wonderful biography of Babe Ruth.  As part of my reading in light of the new baseball season, I wanted to learn more about the life of baseball’s most famous player.  It is hard to overstate what a larger-than-life figure he was during his baseball career, not just in the game but also in the country.  Before Ruth, the common belief about baseball hitters was that they could either hit for power or for average, but not both.  Ruth disproved this misconception by swinging for the stands and hitting for average at the same time.  The results were monumental to the form of the sport and produced some of the best baseball records of his generation – homes runs in a season, home runs in a career, total RBIs and bases, and more.

While describing Ruth’s baseball accomplishments in great detail, Creamer also shows us the man behind the sports hero.  We learn about his upbringing in a Catholic boys home, his first marriage, his personal generosity to others, and his total lack of self-control.  This last point is the one that stayed with me after I finished the book.  Ruth’s life was one that was full of too many women, too much food, and unending excess.  What should we make of that?

What I took away was the danger that comes with unbridled desire is combined with financial resources.  At the height of his baseball career, Ruth was making more than twice as much money as the next highest paid player.  His money opened doors for excess at every turn. He could sleep with as many women as he wanted, gamble as much as he desired, and eat as much as his stomach could hold (which he did).  But of course, self-control is a virtue for a reason.  When we allow ourselves to go after whatever desire we have without any limits or boundaries, we are destined to destroy ourselves and others along the way.

And that must be the final lesson of Ruth’s life.  More important than our physical talent or financial gain is the kind of people we become.

Beware Spiritual Pride

accidentalpharisees

Pastor Larry Osborne recently spoke at the Austin Church Leader’s Conference, and the sponsors of the conference gave a free copy of his book to everyone who attended.  I have personally benefited from other books that Osborne has written over the years (specifically Sticky Church and Sticky Teams), but none of them has had as much as impact as his latest.  Accidental Pharisees is a short read about a serious spiritual problem, one that can easily creep into the heart of any committed Christian – that of spiritual pride.  Spiritual pride is the dark shadow of zealous faith, and anyone who feels passionately about their relationship with Jesus and their calling in life is in danger.  How so?

The reality is that all of us must be careful not to turn our gifting, passion, and calling into the new norm for what it means to follow Jesus.  In today’s Christian culture, sacrifice and suffering, doctrinal articulation, care for those in need, and a specific philosophy of ministry can all move from being a personal passion to a litmus test of who is really a follower of Christ.  Osborne shows how dangerous this really is, both as a failure to value the differences in the body of Christ and as a source of pride, one of the sins that God repeated rebukes in the Scriptures.

The point that I found most compelling is that anyone can take an area of personal conviction (one where the Holy Spirit is working in their own heart) and quickly apply to those around them, forgetting that God is doing different things in different people at different times. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t share what God is doing in our lives or that we shouldn’t share the Scripture that God is using to shape us.  It just means that we should be careful in our emphasis.  We can all tend to emphasize that which God is doing in our own lives.  But that doesn’t mean that God is working on the same area in the people around us.

At the end of the day, we must recognize the value of being in community with Christ-followers who have different gifts, passions, and callings.  There are obviously areas where all believers are called to obey.  But there are also many areas of the Christian life where we have freedom to follow the Spirit as He guides us.  And in those areas, we must remember that our love for God and devotion to Christ are simply the work of God’s grace in our lives and not a reason for personal boasting.

In sum, beware spiritual pride, which has taken down many giants before us.

Book Notes: The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken

insanityofgod

Nik Ripken’s book is intended to change the way you think about God, persecution, and Christian maturity.  To that end, Ripken shares his powerful personal biography.  From the incredibly dark years in Somalia (during the height of famine and genocide) to the soul-refreshing interviews with persecuted Christians around the world, Ripken tells a harrowing story that is hard to put down.  After experiencing deep loss in Africa (losing his ministry and his son), Ripken returned with his wife to the States.  He had one question that was eating away at his soul: is God still good and sovereign and involved in the world in the midst of such overwhelming grief and suffering?  

The rest of the book tells the story of Ripken’s travels to the ends of the earth to interview Christians who had experienced extreme persecution and suffering for the cause of Christ.  He desired to learn from his brothers around the world how to process suffering from a biblical perspective because he felt like his experience growing up in the American church had not prepared him for the real world.  He tells story after story of meeting with persecuted Christians around the world and learning to trust God and read the Bible again for the first time.

Ripken’s book reminds us that God is present even in the darkest places in the world, and that He is working even when we can’t see Him.  His book also reminds us that the world is full of evil and suffering, and that while we wait for the Risen Christ to return, we will face that evil and suffering face to face.  I was personally thankful for Ripken’s charge that persecution is normative in the Bible and is a sign that we are doing exactly what God wants us to do, not a sign that we are somehow outside of God’s will.  I was thankful to read this challenging book and thankful that Ripken took the time to share his experiences with believers around the world.

Marriage Books

For the Hope for Marriage series, I read several new books and reread several old books on marriage.  Here are short, few sentence reviews on each book to help you as you look for additional resources:

sacredmarriage Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas.  Sacred Marriage is a book about how marriage helps us grow spiritually – closer to God and more into the image of Jesus Christ.  Thomas’ main point is that God designed marriage not so much to make us happy as He did to make us holy.  Along those lines, the book discusses different elements in marriage from the perspective of spiritual formation.  The book is very pastoral and insightful.  I appreciated Thomas’ unique point of view.  He is not trying to coach us on how to have a better marriage, but on how to become a better person in our marriage.  I highly recommend this book if you are seeking to learn what God plans to do in your heart and character and life through marriage.

realmarriage

Real Marriage by Mark & Grace Driscoll.  Driscoll’s book on marriage is edgier and more explicit that the other books I read on marriage (at least from a Christian perspective).  Part of this is the fruit of Driscoll’s context, part the fruit of his personality.  The unique contributions of the Driscolls’ book on marriage are the focuses on friendship, sexual abuse and activity, and their personal testimony.  As he has in his other books, Mark is not afraid to put his struggles and opinions front and center in his writing.  This is both a blessing and a curse in his writing.  It makes for an interesting narrative, but can also create confusion when wondering if he thinks his experiences should be normative for others.  Overall, I really appreciated his teaching on friendship in marriage, and his honest look at how sexual abuse impacts the marriage relationship.  The section in the book that gets him in the most trouble, called “Can we _____?” is about what is appropriate and inappropriate in marriage.  I didn’t find this section offensive.  I agree with Mark – that we need to address openly and honestly what people are asking for help with.  When it comes to sexual questions, however, I wouldn’t send people to this book.  I would encourage them to pick up a copy of Sheet Music by Kevin Leman.

meaningofmarriageThe Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller.  Keller’s book on marriage is my favorite on this whole list.  But many may not find Keller’s work as accessible as some of the others.  Because Keller so often wants to go for the heart issues (and not just the practical issues in life), his writing can take a little more work to get through.  However, if you will read what he says and meditate on the truths he presents, you will find it worth the reward.  Timothy and his wife, Kathy, have written a book that shows how the gospel of Jesus Christ impacts every part of marriage, from communication to commitment to sex.  In doing so, they interact with contemporary culture at every turn.  I always benefit from Keller’s writings (as a pastor) because of his extensive footnotes.  I can’t tell you how many articles and books I’ve read because of first hearing about them in Keller’s works.  This is true of The Meaning of Marriage as well.  If I was going to encourage couples to read one book on marriage, it would be this one.

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One of the most helpful scholarly books that I read in preparation for teaching on marriage was The Marriage Go-Round by Andrew Cherlin.  Cherlin’s book is an analysis of marriage in America over the last fifty years.  This book is sobering to read.  Cherlin documents the amazingly high rates of both marriage and divorce in America, making the strong case that this shows a high view of marriage in our country (people want to get married) and a low view of commitment (people want a way out if their marriage doesn’t go well).  According to Cherlin, more Americans marry (and marry earlier) than in any other Western nation, and yet, more Americans divorce than in any other Western nation.  This cycle of marriage and divorce has devastating consequences on adults and children, and must be confronted.  But Cherlin helps us to understand that the solution is not just to teach on the value of marriage, but to confront the limits of individualism.  His insights (and data) are worth the price of this book.  I would encourage anyone who is preaching or teaching on marriage to read this book.

loveandrespect

Love and Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs.  I have given out many copies of this wonderful book over the years.  Dr. Eggerichs’ model of marriage is built on Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5:33 that a “husband should love his wife and a wife should respect her husband.”  From this passage and his personal pastoral and counseling ministry, Eggerichs has built a model of marriage that is intended to help spouses understand and appreciate the differences of the opposite sex.  His book is immensely practical and helpful.  He discuss the downward spiral that most couples are on (with an unloving husband and disrespectful wife) and how those couples can get on an energizing cycle.  His teaching is not just theory, however.  He has six chapters for wives (on how they can practically respect their husbands) and six chapters for husbands (on how they can practically love their wives).  I have benefited personally from this book, and have seen the impact on numerous marriages when the couples decided to live according to these principles.  I highly recommend this one!

godmarriageandfamily

God, Marriage, and Family by Andreas Kostenberger.  If you are looking for something a little more comprehensive on what the whole Bible teaches in the area of marriage and family, this is the book for you.  This book reads like a seminary text-book, giving the student an overview of what the different sections of the Bible teach.  You have chapters like “the OT on marriage” and “Jesus on children” or “the NT on gender roles.”  Kostenberger does his best to move through the whole teaching of the Bible.  At times, this approach is helpful (in reminding you how many different passages you need to look up).  At other times, this approach is unhelpful.  It keeps him from really explaining significant chunks of Scripture (like Song of Songs).  When you try to cover everything, you end up cover some things in depth and other things in passing.  This is understandable, but also frustrating, as the editorial choices of the author reveal his bias and perspective.  Overall, however, this book reminds us to read the whole Bible on marriage and family issues, and not just the ones that we like.

gettingawaytogetittogether

Getting Away to Get It Together by Bill & Carolyn Wellons.  If you have been around my family very long, you have most likely heard me talk about a yearly tradition that Barie and I keep: we drop the kids off with the grandparents for two nights and spend time talking about our priorities for the coming year.  This idea – a fun, working retreat – comes from this book by Bill and Carolyn Wellons.  The main idea is simple: so many people have planning retreats for their jobs, but hardly anyone has one for their family.  Bill and Carolyn set out to change that culture in American families.  Their encouragement is for couples to spend time working ON their family, not just working IN their family.  So much of what we do as spouses and parents is reactive, but we can be much more productive if we plan ahead.  And remember, one retreat every ten years is not enough.  You need time every year to plan, dream, pray, and think.  Why?  Because you change, your kids change, and you need to regroup.  This resource is a wonderful blessing to couples who will take time to actually get away with their spouse and plan for the future.

These seven books have helped my marriage, and equipped me to better preach on marriage.  I hope they are a blessing to you!

Book Notes: Quiet by Susan Cain

quietOne of my friends recently gave me a copy of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  Her book is a real gift in helping us understand our own personality traits and the wiring of those around us.  I believe that I will be a better husband, father, and pastor after reading this book.  I have learned to not just understand the differences between introverts and extroverts, but to also appreciate those differences.  Cain’s main idea is that we live and grow up in a western culture that exalts the extrovert ideal, teaching people verbally and non-verbally that they have to be loud and outgoing if they are going to get anywhere in life.  In QuietCain effectively dismantles this cultural conviction and shows us that we desperately need the input and insights of introverts.  From leadership to decision-making to inventing to financial management, Cain effectively demonstrates the weaknesses of extroversion and benefits of introversion.

Through it all, her analysis is not lopsided.  She carefully articulates the ways in which extroverts make our world a better place.  But again, she assumes that you already believe that extroversion is better than introversion.  From her detailed research, Cain works meticulously (as an introvert would!) to show the distortions produced with extroverts are praised and introverts are belittled.  But the book is not just a catalog of research projects.  It is also a compilation of fascinating stories.  Cain’s book is not just helpful – it is enjoyable.  She ropes you in with her critique of modern convention, and then adds illustration upon illustration that you simply can’t pass over.  From household names to famous projects and recent news, Cain demonstrates the impact that introverts have on the world around us.

On a personal level, I really appreciated her insights into high-sensitivity children.  As a father of five, I have seen firsthand the differences she describes.  But I haven’t always known how to react to these differences.  For some of my children who are more introverted, I am afraid that I have expected them to act more extroverted (in order to get along better in this world).  I now see the importance of not just recognizing introversion in my children, but also training them how to use their strengths throughout their lives.  In addition, I picked up additional understanding of my own introversion.  Cain talks about how introverts handle jobs in which they must live as extroverts (which perfectly describes my work!).  They can live outside their sweet spot for a time, but they need some quiet alone-time to rejuvenate their batteries.

I would recommend Cain’s book to anyone who wants to better understand and appreciate the differences between extroverts and introverts.

BookNotes: Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of HereticsRoss Douthat’s new book Bad Religion is one-part religious history and one-part cultural analysis.  Douthat is a conservative op-ed columnist for the New York Times and a committed Roman Catholic.  From his vantage point (as a young American educated at Harvard and working among cultural elites at The Atlantic and now the NYT), Douthat sees a contemporary America that has moved from a foundation of Christian orthodoxy to the quicksand of Christian heresy.  As a pastor committed to Christian orthodoxy, I found many paragraphs to celebrate and many insights to cherish in this book.  As a student of history, however, I found many places to be concerned.

First, what did I find helpful?  The second-half of Douthat’s book, where he explores the most common heresies in modern American religious life, is full of penetrating cultural analysis.  I agree with Douthat that we cannot separate how we live from what we believe, and that the number one problem in Christian churches today is not behavior but worldview.  In other words, the deficiencies in our moral life as a nation are really symptoms of the deficiencies in our worldview.

Douthat explore four common heresies in the American church today (church being broadly defined as Catholic and Protestant (including evangelicals)).  The first he calls The Lost Gospels and shows how it is popular to reduce Jesus into a caricature of his portrait in the New Testament by attacking the NT documents themselves.  When Jesus is reduced into only one part of what orthodoxy teaches, wrong practice is not far behind.  This heresy has been spread in academia and popularized by Dan Brown.  The second he calls Pray and Grow Rich and shows how prosperity theology has come of age in the ministry of Joel Osteen and megachurch ministries and influenced so much religious life in America.  This chapter was especially challenging to me.  The third heresy he calls The God Within and explains how the pop-psychology of Oprah has influenced the practice of so many American Christians.  I found myself saying “Amen” aloud throughout this chapter as I have heard so many of these phrases from people in my church – “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy” or “I just sense that this is the right thing to do.”  The view here is that my instincts and emotions are always in line with God’s will for my life – very dangerous!  The fourth heresy Douthat explores is nationalism (what he calls The City on the Hill) where devotion to country supersedes devotion to God.  This is a Douthat’s sloppiest chapter – his points seem somewhat unrelated – but also one of the most subtle heresies (making an idol of our own nation).  Discerning where love of country end and idolatry of country begins is extremely difficult.

While Douthat’s analysis of contemporary heresies is astute and challenging, his coverage of history is selective and one-sided.  The first half of the book is entertaining but not ultimately convincing.  His main point (over the course of 150 long pages) is to argue that American Christianity has declined in the last 75 years from a place of orthodoxy being central to being peripheral.  I had two struggles with this part of the book.  First, anyone can make an argument from history if they only select the figures and events that support their case.  In this way, Douthat doesn’t read as a careful historian but more as a polemicist, making argument after argument rather than reporting events.  I’m not against someone trying to convince me of something from history as long as they are guarded and careful in their conclusions.  Douthat is not careful, and from my reading in church history and American history, he is not correct.  Heresies exist today for sure, but they have always existed and orthodoxy has prevailed.  My second struggle is related to the first.  Not only is Douthat’s view of history incomplete, his understanding of the church on the ground also falls short.  The most influential leaders in American Christianity are not heretics – they are Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, Christ-exalting orthodox ministers.  The orthodox church is not dead or marginalized.

It is, however, losing influence and market-share (to use a business-term).  The answer that Douthat’s book submits to the question “why” is that the big-c church in America has lost its theological center and drifted into heresy.  I would partially agree – many heretical churches are losing members and failing to reach new congregants.  But his answer is too simplistic.  There are also many orthodox churches that are losing members and failing to reach new congregants.  They have failed to realize that they must live as missionaries in a culture that has quickly shifted values in their midst.  I agree with Douthat’s call to orthodoxy, but I would want to add that adhering to orthodox belief is not enough – we have to both demonstrate and declare contextually the faith we hold dear.

Vacation Reading

While I was gone on vacation with my family for a week in May, I was able to enjoy some fun reading while hanging out at the pool and at night after the kids went to bed.  Here’s a quick summary of my reading:

The Boys of Summer As a big baseball fan, I have wanted to read Roger Kahn’s book The Boys of Summer for several years.  Kahn’s book shows up on most lists of “best baseball books ever” and for good reason.  Kahn was a young report for the New York Herald Tribune in the early 1950s, and eventually was promoted to covering the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team of his childhood.  The book is part-memoir – Kahn imaginatively describes growing up in a Jewish family in the 1940s – and part-baseball history – especially the two years that Kahn traveled with the team and witnessed them get close to a World Series title without actually winning (sounds familiar to this Texas Rangers fan).  What sets the book apart is the second half – when Kahn travels twenty years later (early ’70s) to visit the players he covered in his youth and see what has happened to them.  Of course, players in the ’50s didn’t make anything like the kind of money that professional athletes make today.  Kahn finds the stars of his childhood doing menial jobs all across the country – some having established families, others struggling to just get by.  But in the end, he is able to connect with them over the stories from their time together with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Cold Mountain The second book I read over vacation was Cold Mountain, a novel set during the Civil War.  Like Kahn’s book, this novel has been around for more than a decade, won numerous awards, and was turned into a movie.  Charles Frazier, the author of the novel, writes beautifully, giving vivid detail to the landscapes, the animals, and the people in his story.  The context of the Civil War fascinated me (since I have read so much on this period historically), and the novel brought the struggles of that time home in a way that historical writing simply can’t.  I was reminded of the power of story, the power of great fiction writing to tug at heart, move the soul, and teach.  And oh, how this novel teaches.  I would highly recommend it.

Marriage Under Seige

http://www.pendoreilleco.org/photos/Auditor/gods_design_for_marriage_umjr.jpgCharles Murray has written a new book called Coming Apart where he examines the changes in American culture over the last 50 years.  One can argue with his suggestions of how we fix some of our cultural problems, but one cannot argue with the data he has collected.  He wrote a summary article in the Wall Street Journal providing some of his most startling findings.  Among them, he wrote, was one that strikes at the foundation of the American soul – the rapid decline of marriage.

The 2010 US Census confirms Murray’s conclusion.  The NY Times reported in December that one of the most startling findings in the 2010 census is that married households are not a minority in the United States.  This is a dramatic shift.  In 1950, 78% of American households were led by married couples.  In 2010, that number had slipped to 48%.

I have seen this trend first-hand in my own neighborhood in suburban Austin.  One of our next door neighbors is a single adult woman who has never been married.  The other next door neighbor is a single dad who has been divorced and is raising his daughter.  Our new neighbor across the street is a newly divorced father.  I am not throwing stones as these neighbors in any way.  I love them all and we are glad to call them friends.  I am simply making an observation of those living around us on our small cul-de-sac in middle America.

So, why is this decline happening and how do we stop it?  There is no doubt that our cultural values have changed – away from the importance and sacredness of marriage and toward the inevitability and reasonableness of divorce.  Because of the shift away from seeing marriage as a lifelong covenant and toward a legal contract that exists for the pleasure of those involved, less people see the value of getting married and more married people don’t see the problem with leaving marriage.  What are some good resources available to help us in our marriages and in our churches?

http://img2.imagesbn.com/images/120320000/120325748.JPGFirst, if you are married or single or thinking about marriage, I would highly encourage you to pick up Dr. Tim Keller’s new book on marriage called The Meaning of Marriage.  This is my new favorite book on the biblical view of marriage, especially as it is set in contrast to the current cultural view of marriage.  Dr. Keller and his wife Kathy give us great insights into the Scriptures and great insights into our culture.  This book will help you understand the ways in which your view of marriage has been shaped by our self-centeredness and our idolization of romantic love while giving you a contrasting beautiful picture of biblical commitment.  In addition, as Dr. Keller always goes, he shows us how the gospel of Jesus Christ is both the best tool for understanding the meaning of marriage and for actually living faithfully in marriage.  While books like Love and Respect by Dr. Eggrichs are immensely helpful and practical in working on your marriage relationship, Dr. Keller’s book is one of the best in pushing back against the message we are hearing about the institution of marriage itself.  I highly recommend this book to you to read with your spouse to get a greater grasp on what marriage is, why it is important, and how we can should live in it.

http://www.shopfamilylife.com/images/Product/medium/RPK15055.jpgSecond, if you are a pastor or church-leader, I would recommend a new resource developed by Family Life.  Family Life has hosted weekend marriage conferences for years called Weekend to Remember.  Barie and I have been to two of these conferences and really enjoyed them.  However, we always wished that more of our church families could attend.  Well, Family Life has taken their best material from their Weekend to Remember speakers and put together a DVD-based resource for churches called The Art of Marriage.  Barie and I were blessed to attend a weekend retreat last week hosted by another church where these videos were shown.  I can testify to the quality of this resource.  I was really encouraged by the professionalism and helpful biblical teaching in these videos.  I am going to propose to our elders that we host a marriage weekend for our church in 2013 and use these videos.  I would encourage you to think about doing something similar.

It is important for all of us to know the forces that are at work against our own marriages and the marriages around us, both so that we can stay faithful to our own commitments and encourage others to do the same.

 

BookNotes: Johann Sebastian Bach

“The aim and final reason of all music should be none else but the glory of God and refreshing the soul.  Where this is not observed there will be no music, but only a devilish hubbub.”  -J.S. Bach

Rick Marshall has written a brief introduction to the life of Johann Sebastian Bach for the Christian Encounters series by publisher Thomas Nelson.  At 145 pages, this book gives the reader an accessible, quick overview of the life of Bach.  Marshall covers the most significant events in Bach’s life, attempts to give some perspective on his musical accomplishments, and writes about the pre-modern world of Bach’s Christian faith.  Each is interesting and challenging.

On the personal front, Marshall gives us the facts and a sense of life in the early 1700s.  Bach was married twice – his first wife dying young.  He and his first wife had seven children.  He and his second wife had 13 children.  Of course, in that age many children did not live into adulthood because of illness and inadequate medical knowledge.  Bach worked his entire life for the church.  He was born in a small German town and never lived beyond a few hundred miles from the place of his birth.  He was a committed Lutheran and served to advance the cause of Christ through his musical work.  Bach died at the age of 65 after suffering terrible pain related to a botched eye-surgery to help with cataracts.

Musically, Marshall does his best to explain the musical greatness of JS Bach without getting too terribly technical.  He includes an appendix in the back of the book to explain some of the terms.  Even then, the musical discussion can be hard to follow.  I have a musical background (which is one reason I wanted to read about Bach’s life), and I still hard difficulty staying interested for the musical discussion.  By any measure, Bach wrote music at an astonishing rate.  During his lifetime as a composer, teacher, musician for the church, he composed approximately 2000 different pieces of music.  Around 1200 are in existence today.  Not only did Bach write prolifically, he wrote with excellence.  Interestingly, Bach’s contemporaries knew his as a skilled organist, but his reputation as one of the best composers in the history of music has only really come to be the popular consensus in the last 150 years.

I was most edified by the third area of Marshall’s biography of Bach: his exploration of Bach’s Christian worldview and passion for the glory of God.  Bach did all of his work for the glory of God because he believed that God was at the center of all things and had gifted him to serve the church through music.  Bach ended every composition with the letters SDG, which stand for Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory).  Bach worked tirelessly to produce excellent music and through that music to glorify the God of heaven.  All modern scholars agree (and Marshall quotes from many of them in this book): Bach was one of the most naturally gifted musicians ever – able to compose entire arrangements without hearing one note.  But Bach didn’t boast in his skills.  He truly saw his musical ability as a gift from God to be used for His glory alone.

Marshall’s book is a good introduction to the life of Bach.  Bach’s life is a good introduction to the life of a Christian who commits all that he has and all that he does to the glory of God.