December 2008: Books Read

1. Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile, by Rob Bell and Don Golden. Reviewed earlier here.

2. The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of over 200,000 Churches by David T. Olson. My pastor lent me this book, and I found it to be very interesting. Olson, who is director of church planting for my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, divides this book into four parts: Observation, Evaluation, Introspection and Action. The first three parts (as the title of the book indicates) are pretty depressing for Christians. He starts out by observing that things are worse than they seem. Even though 40-44% of Americans say that they go to church regularly, the actual number is around 17.5%. The reason for this discrepancy is the “halo effect”: people want other people to think that they engage in socially acceptable behavior. Olson also points out that the number of orthodox Christian churches might be growing, but this growth is not at all keeping up with population growth. Out of the three categories of evangelical, Catholic and mainline, the only category that has kept up with population growth in the last 15 years has been evangelical, with just over 9% of the population.

In the second section, evaluation, he looks at why churches thrive or decline, concluding that a huge factor that makes churches and denominations thrive is dedication to planting new churches.

In the third section, introspection, Olson asks, “What do we do now?” He looks at the changing cultural landscape of the United States, concluding that the church will soon die if it doesn’t change. His prescription for change is my favorite part of the book. The solution isn’t trying to be more relevant or more strategic (although he does think that those things have their proper place); it is to “restore Jesus’ words and actions to their place of centrality” (185).

In the final section, action, he sets forth what restoring Jesus’ words and actions to their proper place looks like. He says that the gospel consists of five messages of Jesus, combined with five missions of Jesus. Those messages are:

1. To forgive our sins and reconcile us with God.
2. To destroy the power of Satan and deliver people from bondage.
3. To change hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.
4. To treat people with compassion and justice as God’s loved creation.
5. To invite and summon followers to become the new people of God.

Here are the missions:

1. To be the sacrifice for the sins of the whole world on the cross.
2. To fight the decisive battle with Satan, triumphing through the grave.
3. To be authenticated as the Son of God through the Resurrection.
4. To challenge earthly principalities and powers through his ascension.
5. To establish his church as the new people of God through Pentecost.

The church has its own message and mission which correlate to the above message and mission of Jesus:

1. Evangelism
2. Ministry
3. Spiritual Formation
4. Love
5. True Community

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is unflinching in its honesty about how bad things are for the church in America, but it is also ultimately hopeful because Olson knows that the gospel has power to change lives. As a final perk, it has lots of great graphs.

3. August 1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I started to read this book back in August, shortly after Solzhenitsyn died. I’d had it on my shelf for a couple of years, and thought that reading it would be a good way to reflect on his life and work. I put it aside several times in order to focus on other books, but now it is finally finished.

This is a very ambitious novel, with a length (714 pages in the original edition, published in the 1970s, which I read) to match its ambition. It is about the first month of World War I, and specifically the catastrophic Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg in East Prussia. Solzhenitsyn uses the events of this month to criticize both the incompetence and unreadiness of the senior officers in the Russian army, as well as the leftist ideology rampant in Russia at the time that would eventually lead to the Russian Revolution a few years later. He tells the story primarily through the eyes of a fictional colonel in the Russian army, who is simultaneously awed by the spirit of the Russian people and disgusted by the behavior of their highest officers.

There were some great passages in the book, but all in all I found it very difficult to slog through. Mostly this was because of the sheer scope of the novel, with so many characters, places and military maneuvers to keep track of. The list of characters at the beginning was helpful, but there were so many characters that it was hard to create an emotional attachment to all but a few. Also, Solzhenitsyn made it so clear throughout the narrative what his opinions were of the characters that his descriptions often came off as heavy-handed. I felt that the reader was not given the opportunity to come to his or her own conclusions. This would have been a better novel if Solzhenitsyn had just told the story and had been less manipulative of his readers.

4. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. The movie that was made of this book a few years ago is one of Mary’s favorite movies, and I have had a battered old copy of the Bantam Classics edition kicking around for years, so I decided to read it. I’m glad I did. This is an abridged edition of the book, but I liked it so much that I think it would be good to read the unabridged version someday.

The story is about an innocent sailor, Edmond Dantes, who lives in Marseilles and is just starting out in life. He is scheduled for a promotion and has a girl that he wants to marry, so he couldn’t be happier. He is accidentally mixed up in the politics of Napoleon’s return from Elba, however, and his enemies (a sailor who is jealous of his promotion, a fisherman who is jealous of his romance with the girl Mercedes, a public prosecutor who wants to put Dantes in prison to secure political advancement, and a neighbor who is just greedy) conspire to have him thrown into prison at the Chateau d’If. Dantes is in solitary confinement for several years, but eventually meets another prisoner (the Abbe Faria) who educates him, tells him of an immense fortune buried on the Isle of Monte Cristo in the Mediterranean, and gives him hope of escape. Dantes, who had become bitter in his first years as a prisoner, eventually comes to faith in God. When he escapes (I won’t say how), he asks God to allow him to be God’s instrument of justice against those who had betrayed him. The rest of the novel features Dantes, who has adopted the alias the Count of Monte Cristo, exacting justice against his four enemies.

No wonder this is such a popular book. It is a great adventure novel, and has beautiful themes woven throughout. Even though Dantes is attempting to ruin his enemies, I continued to root for him because he didn’t appear to be particularly dastardly about it. A lot of what he did to exact revenge was simply bring the devious actions of his enemies to light. He also gives his former neighbor two chances to change his wicked ways. When the neighbor continues in his life of crime and selfishness, Dantes takes his protecting hand away and allows him to be killed. Dantes also allows several of the public prosecutor’s family members to die, and has doubts about whether in doing this he has gone too far.

I could say other things that I liked about the book, but that would be giving away too much of the plot. This was a fun read, and as I mentioned above, I hope to make it to the unabridged version someday. The movie makes some significant changes from the book (especially leaving out details and some characters), but I like the movie as well.