[nick duffel]

thoughts on leadership, books, design + more.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Reset: Jesus Changes Everything by Nick Hall

9781633898387You notice one thing very quickly when reading Reset: Jesus Changes Everything by Nick Hall: this guy is passionate about reaching the next generation for Jesus.  His passion is obvious in just about every sentence of Reset, and he has a reckless faith in Jesus that is contagious.

This book is his clarion call to a generation, declaring that all the challenges they face can be met in Jesus.  Self-image, relationships, purity, habits—all of them can be reset by Jesus.  Hall is calling his generation up to something higher and bigger.  I can imagine this book being very helpful to many young people as they consider how Jesus’ influence can permeate every area of their lives.  The true value of this book is to be found in its call to systematically surrender each area of our lives to Jesus.

Hall mentions the planning for Together 2016 multiple times in the book: an event with the goal of drawing one million people to the National Mall in Washington DC.  The book released before this event, and was intended in part to promote it.  Together 2016 place on July 16 and drew an estimated 500,000 people.  Unfortunately, the event had to be shut down early because of safety concerns due to the heat.  Now, it is difficult to quantify the impact of an event like Together 2016, but despite the early ending, reports are very positive.  There is now an effort to get people plugged into churches and serving in the wake of this event.  However, I would estimate far less energy being dedicated to this effort than to the hype leading up to the event.

Which brings us to my major criticism of this book: Hall tends to lean into the hype too much.  At times, I got the impression I was reading a collection sound bites from some his messages to thousands of gathered young people.   This is all well and good, but following Jesus is a process, not an event.  Just as I imagine thousands walking away from Together 2016 with a newfound sense of purpose, but no idea how and where to put it into action—this is how I felt after reading this book: excited, fired up, and completely aimless.

The systematic surrender of our lives to Jesus was meant to take place in the authentic community offered by the church, but Hall leaves this part out.  In fact, most of the times Hall mentions church it is in a negative context—pointing out the judgmental attitudes and irrelevancy of many churches.  This generation is not lacking for passion, what we are lacking for is authentic community in which to cultivate authentic faith.  Hall, with his event-centric approach seems to have no category for this, and as a result his book—and events—will do little to change the trend of passionate-yet-disconnected young people stumbling in and out of churches across America.

Of course, this trend isn’t Hall’s fault.  Churches themselves need a “reset” in how they engage young people.  In Reset, the passion is palpable, but there is an irresponsible over-focus on our individual relationship with Jesus.  In short, this is a book written for individuals in a crowd, not a community of believers determined to reach their world for Christ.  And as such, in many ways, it is a missed opportunity.

Nick Hall narrates the audiobook version himself, and he does a great job.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

BOOK REVIEW: “Love That Boy” by Ron Fournier

9780804140485Ron Fournier spoke right to my heart in his new book, Love That Boy.  He manages to capture the fears, expectations, joy, and confusion that come along with fatherhood.  As a father of four sons, this book was both a reassuring hand on my shoulder, and a punch to my gut.

Fournier is a political columnist who has brushed shoulders with three US Presidents, his career taking him to great heights, but also making him something of an absentee father and husband.  When his son, Tyler, is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the autism spectrum, Fournier launches on a series of road-trips to try and connect with him.  Fournier has to come to grips with the fact that Tyler won’t meet his expectations.  Fournier is an avid sports fan, Tyler is uncoordinated and uninterested.  Fournier is winsome and driven, Tyler is awkward, quirky, and unpopular.

The moments between father and son are touching, funny, and heartbreaking in equal parts.  Fournier is courageously confessional.  He manages to weave other stories into the story of his time with Tyler: stories of the extended Fournier family along with the stories of other families whose children face challenges similar to Tyler’s.  Hearing these other stories lends perspective to the central story of a father trying desperately to connect with his son, first on his own terms—with no success—and then gradually on his son’s terms.

But the real value of this book is in the social commentary that Fournier offers throughout.  He begins this commentary with a stinging statement. “A parent’s love is unconditional.  A parent’s satisfaction comes with caveats.  This is an important distinction: you love your kids no matter what, but you expect them to be something—smart or popular or successful, maybe a scholarship athlete who marries well and runs the family business.”  Ouch.  While Fournier goes on to unpack this thought in one convicting passage after another, it never comes off as heavy-handed.  This is because Fournier takes on a confessional tone, as if to say, “These are the hard lessons I had to learn and I want to share them so they become even more meaningful.”  That’s not to say these lessons are anecdotal; Fournier cites studies and stats in keeping with his journalistic bent.  This is solid, helpful stuff.

This is such an important book, working on so many levels to confront an issue that plagues the American family. As parents, we must confront the tendencies to compensate for our own shortcomings in the achievements of our children.  What’s at stake is being able to really connect with our children as they are, and not just our idea of what they could be.  Fournier finishes the book by laying out three attributes we need to instill in our children: grit, acceptance, and empathy.  We can’t instill these characteristics if we are unable to connect with our children on a heart-level.  Once again, the stakes are high.

In my opinion, this book is a must-read for parents, and for dads especially.

Please Note: This book was gifted as a part of the Blogging for Books Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: “Living in the Light: Money, Sex, and Power” by John Piper

9781633899896John Piper’s preaching and teaching have fallen out of favor recently as many have rejected a message they see as narrow and unloving.  I admit that Piper has become to me somewhat of a fuddy-duddy, offering a conservative, reformed commentary that stands in stark contrast to those “more engaged” in culture like Tim Challies and Timothy Keller.  Those who feel as I do should read his newest book Living in the Light: Money, Sex, and Power, and get a refreshed perspective.

The book’s subtitle says it all: “Making the most of three dangerous opportunities.”  This is a book about taking three gifts of God that are often abused, and using them for Kingdom good.  Many who are dismissive of Piper will assume there would be a primary focus on the negative aspects of the abuse of money, sex and power, but that is not the case.  He spends more time reflecting on the good that could be accomplished were Christians serious about redeeming these three gifts for the glory of God.

The path of redemption laid out by Piper is realizing the potential danger of these gifts, finding deliverance from destructive patterns by placing them under the Lordship of Christ, and deploying sex, money, and power to be used for God’s glory.  A central illustration of the book is that of a solar system.  The “planets” of sex, money, and power are only in their proper, most useful place when they are orbiting the “sun” (Jesus) and not having our lives orbit them.

This is a short book is valuable because it espouses the idea of total redemption—God doesn’t just redeem people, he is also redeeming creation and those good things which we have corrupted.  Piper’s writing is accessible, but he still struggles with the tendency to be dry.  All in all, a solid, focused piece of writing that I can imagine I will return to as a teaching reference.

Bob Souer does a good job on the narration of the audiobook version.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: “Finding God in the Ruins” by Matt Bays

9781633897038Many people have wondered, “Where is God?” in the midst of their suffering.  If answers are ever given by others in those moments, they are usually unsatisfactory.  Worship leader Matt Bays offers a different perspective in his book, Finding God in the Ruins.

It doesn’t get much rawer than this.  The book cuts between Bays’ dysfunctional childhood (which includes heartbreaking sexual abuse), his brother’s death at a young age, his sister’s battle with cancer as an adult, his struggles in counseling and ministry, and other stories of suffering.  Bays spends time ruminating on some of the darker questions most of us are afraid to ask, like “Where is God when a trafficked child is being raped?  Isn’t he complicit in this atrocity if he doesn’t stop it?”

What Bays never offers is pat answers.  In fact, answers are few and far between in this book, because that is not the picture of God that Bays is trying to paint.  He doesn’t believe the God of the Bible lives in the answers, but rather in the questions and the suffering of people.  That is where real, deep faith is born and where trust is learned.  Can we really believe God when he tells us he will redeem our pain?  Does redemption look the way we expect after all?

Bays manages to give us A Grief Observed for the 21st century, showing God to be sovereign, but not complicit in our suffering.  He avoids theological pitfalls—open theism is just another disturbing pat answer offering no comfort—and he avoids them through his sheer, brutal honesty.  It’s hard reading sometimes, messier than we Christians like things to get.

For all his writing prowess and admirable honesty, Bays is a difficult narrator to listen to.  He speaks softly and very slowly.  I listened to the audiobook version at 1.5x speed and that was comfortable.  That said, I’m glad Bays narrated his own book.  It just wouldn’t have seemed right for someone else to read a story this raw.

Anyone who works with those who are suffering and downtrodden should read this book.  Any who are suffering and downtrodden themselves should read this book.  Bays offers real peace and real hope, or more accurately, God offers those things through Bays’ story.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

Book Review: Democracy in Black by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

41xC1w14Q5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_We supposedly live in an era of racial enlightenment; an era of equal value and opportunity for all people, regardless of color.  Slavery and the Jim Crow South are the stuff of history books—cautionary tales—and the central figures of the Civil Rights Movement are generally held up as archetypal heroes of the people, devoid of squirm-inducing political extremism.  But is this the truth?

Speaking of extremism, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. believes that may be just what the doctor ordered for America and tells us as much in his new book, Democracy in Black.  Why does he advocate extreme measures?  Because business-as-usual black politics and our standard responses to occurrences like the shooting of Michael Brown are not addressing the deeper issue.  Even electing the first black president has not addressed the deeper issue.  And the issue is the “racial value gap:” the deeply-held belief—so deeply held that it’s part of the national sub-consciousness—that white people are more valuable than everyone else.

Glaude makes a compelling case for his belief that there is a racial crisis in America and white people remain largely unaware and even culpable because we sit on top, not really understanding the value gap.  As a result, true democracy suffers.  As a white reader, there were several times I wanted to put the book down, but I knew I couldn’t look away.  I needed a big bowl of this, and you probably do, too.

Glaude, as a Princeton professor, knows his history and writes with both skill and venom.  Paragraphs land like blows.  He connects the dots of American history, reminding us that there isn’t a direct line between the founding of the NAACP, the Harlem Renaissance, Brown v. Board of Education, King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” and Obama’s election.  It is the events that happened in the margins of the history books that tell the most important story, which is the story of the narrowing of the American mind to accept the value gap that still exists.  We narrow our minds because we want our idealized view of America as a land of equal opportunity and value to remain untarnished.  We want to believe in an America that “rights itself” when injustice rears its ugly head.

Here is a statement from the climatic chapter:

“Obviously we know we matter.  The phrase isn’t about asserting our humanity to folks who deny it…#BlackLivesMatter reminds white people that their lives do not matter more than others.  It is a direct challenge to white supremacy.”

Are Glaude’s statements inflammatory?  Yes.  Do I agree with him categorically?  Of course not.  That doesn’t change the fact that this book stands as a bold statement of the value of black people at a historical crossroads.  I pray his message is not ignored or dismissed.  Glaude calls for all Americans to cast a blank, “none of the above” ballot for the upcoming presidential election as a “hard reset” of American democracy.  That’s starting to look like a really good idea right now.

Please Note: This book was gifted as a part of the Blogging for Books Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: The Real Heaven by Chip Ingram

9781633895867In The Real Heaven: What the Bible Actually Says, Chip Ingram sets out to both re-frame the dominant “Hollywoodized” vision of heaven and restore the excitement of believers at the prospect of going there someday.  He mostly succeeds in these endeavors.

This book gives a good overview of what the Bible says about heaven, addressing the most frequently asked questions, and, indeed, building a great case for believers to be excited about going to heaven.  In one poignant anecdote, Ingram asks the reader, “If you asked for a show of hands in your church, ‘How many of you would like to go to heaven today or live ten more years and then go?’ how would people answer?”  What a convicting question!  How excited are we REALLY that we get to go to heaven?

However, this book is not without its problematic sections.  First of all, Ingram turns to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus for clues about the afterlife, but many prominent theologians, Martin Luther included, see this as a parable about rich and poor in this life and the afterlife details are not to be taken literally.  Indeed, turning literary details into literal doctrine is a dangerous practice.  Also, Ingram is a premillennialist—which is fine, he’s entitled to that interpretation of scripture—but his two chapters on the end times mix afterlife doctrine and the apocalyptic language of Revelation to an unsettling degree.  The fact is, many of the passages of the Bible that seem to speak of the life to come don’t lend themselves well to a brief “What the Bible Actually Says about…” book such as this one.

That said, I really appreciate Ingram’s focus on the new heaven and new earth being reflective of this earth, complete with experiences, vocation, relationships, landscapes, and more.  The idea of heaven being “elsewhere” ignores a core teaching of scripture.  What we look forward to as believers is not an evacuation from this world, but a restoration of all that this world was meant to be.  And that is worth looking forward to.

The narration by Lloyd James in the audiobook version is well done, but he reads very slowly.  I listened to this book at 1.5x speed in the Christianaudio app, and this the second book narrated by James that I have done that with.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW:Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch

9781633895904Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing by Andy Crouch is an outstanding book.  It’s one of those rare books that brings many dissimilar concepts together with one simple, yet powerful idea.

In Strong and Weak, Crouch uses a 2×2 diagram—a popular idea framework in business books these days—to represent the tension between authority and vulnerability.  The four options that emerge: Withdrawing, Exploiting, Suffering, and Flourishing (with the latter as the ultimate goal) are applied to a variety of subjects.  Crouch touches on leadership, team dynamics, parenting, poverty, mental illness, disabilities, the Incarnation of Christ, tyranny, missions, law enforcement, race, and more.  Despite applying his “strong verses weak” framework to so many subjects, the book lands a single powerful punch: authority verses vulnerability is a false choice, and the only way to true flourishing is to embrace both at the same time.

Couch is a straightforward, yet interesting writer.  He holds his Christianity with a kind of curious heft; appreciating its weightiness, but honest in his examination of its more mysterious qualities.  He reminds me of a Tim Keller or a CS Lewis in his cultural awareness and elegant command of logic.  A skeptic could read this book and benefit.  His position as executive editor of Christianity Today might lend itself to the editorial quality of his writing, but the reader will also detect strong notes of mercy pointing to his work with the Equitas Group and International Justice Mission.  The vision of Christianity that Crouch presents is beautiful and compelling.

I recommend this book for really anyone, but I recommend it especially for leaders, Christian or not.  Leaders, we need to live out the message of this book, which is really the example that Jesus himself gave us.  The world would be a better place as a result.

P.J. Ochlan does a great job on the narration of the audiobook version.  I have reviewed one other book that he narrated, and I hope to hear more from him in the future.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christian Audio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: Steadfast Love by Lauren Chandler

9781633896666I love reading books written by artists, whether that artist is a graphic designer, a comedian, or in the case of Lauren Chandler, a singer/songwriter.  I got a chance to read Chandler’s debut book, Steadfast Love: The Response of God to the Cries of Our Heart.  Usually the writing of an artist is more visual; more lyrical.  If the writing is theological, there is often a more concerted effort for the reader’s heart, and not just the head.  All artists want the heart, but not all authors seem as concerned with this.  Well, like a good artist, Chandler goes for the heart, and for the most part, she succeeds.

The basis of Steadfast Love is an extended meditation on Psalm 107, a song focusing on the steadfast love of God.  There is plenty of rich material for Chandler to mine in the 43 verses of this Psalm, and she weaves her own stories of heartbreak and triumph throughout.  She wears her heart on her sleeve and she writes with brutal honesty; I felt like I was getting to know Lauren Chandler well as I read.  Chandler has plenty to say to the burdened and lost among us, and she consistently steers all theological musings back to the person of Jesus.  Not satisfied with having us get to know her, there is palpable sense that she wants us to know Jesus Christ, the person.  He is her hope and she wants him to be ours, as well.

After an incredibly strong foreword by Ann Voskamp—truly, a tour-de-force of prose that perhaps sets the bar a little too high for the rest of the book—Chandler starts in with some engaging exposition of the opening of Psalm 107.  The middle of the book is moments of brilliance broken up with long stretches that I had trouble staying engaged with.  It’s hard to put my finger on why.  Chandler seems to be writing primarily to women, so maybe a connection is missing there.  However, near the end of the book when she begins to describe her husband Matt’s battle with brain cancer, I was completely engaged.  Her account is filled with raw, trembling beauty.

I am grateful that Lauren Chandler chose to narrate the audiobook version herself.  Her voice reading her own words gives them a power they wouldn’t otherwise have.  She does a great job on the narration.

I can imagine this book being a light in the darkness for one who is struggling with the idea of the goodness of God amidst the pain of life.  Like Chandler herself says, Psalm 107 reminds us that “sometimes God wrings the worship from our hearts.”  A beautiful phrase that nicely captures the message of this book.  Read and enjoy as you get to know both Lauren, and the steadfast love of God better.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW: “The Whole Christ” by Sinclair B. Ferguson

9781633895966It is known as the “Marrow Controversy,” a theological dispute in the church in Scotland that took place in the early 1700s surrounding a book, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, which was published in 1645. What lessons could possibly be drawn from the Marrow Controversy that would apply to us today? Plenty, apparently. In his book The Whole Christ, Sinclair B. Ferguson uses this lesser-known episode in church history as a framing device for discussing a larger issue: the tension between legalism and antinomianism in the life of a believer.

The Whole Christ contains many jewels ready to be mined. Ferguson is quick to point out that legalism and antinomianism are not opposites, but rather both stand together in opposition to the grace of God in the person of Christ. As a manifesto of grace this book is powerful, shifting my mindset just slightly from hope in the work of Christ to hope in the person of Christ. This makes a world of difference. Also, his discussion of the Old Testament law and its current relevance to the New Testament believer is very well done. Finally, the chapter on assurance was full of great insights.

All said and done, this relatively short book manages to touch on justification, legalism, atonement, antinomianism, assurance, grace, incarnation, and more, all while keeping the framing narrative of the Marrow Controversy in view. Most importantly, Ferguson attempts to tie it all together by presenting the practical ministry implications of all his theological plate spinning.

This book came highly recommended by many of the heavy-hitters in the Reformed theologian circle. Names like Timothy Keller, Kevin DeYoung, and Alistair Begg added their praise. I recommend this book also, though I don’t presume to count myself among the ranks of those theological powerhouses. Ferguson is a great writer, but I found myself wishing for a little more of the “everyman” approach to theological issues demonstrated by writers like DeYoung and Keller. Ferguson is difficult to follow sometimes as he references unfamiliar characters, unfolds complicated sentences, and ultimately shorts the reader on the “practical ministry implications” promise. Long story short, I found myself wanting to turn off the audiobook version and pick up a print version, or else be constantly rewinding. This is solid stuff, but it occasionally comes across dry and uninspired.

At the end of the day, this is an important book even if it is somewhat unapproachable at times. A reader’s persistence is rewarded. I feel that I have a better grasp of many of the tensions facing those of us who claim the grace of God as our only hope and our only path. For that I am grateful.

The narration by Derek Perkins is top-notch.

Please Note: This audiobook was gifted as a part of the Christianaudio Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.  More information can be found about this and other Christian audiobooks at christianaudio.com.

BOOK REVIEW: “The Productivity Project” by Chris Bailey

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Libraries of books have been written on the subject of productivity. They all promise to help you get more done in less time, and they all promise to help you keep up in the fast-paced modern world. The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey could have been just another one of these books of mostly-empty promises. It could have been, but it’s not—it’s something altogether better.

Bailey sets himself apart from the productivity pack in many ways. Most importantly, this book feels personal. It distills the principles Bailey gleaned from a year-long productivity experiment in which he himself was the test subject. He did crazy stuff to himself: cutting out caffeine, spending a whole week just watching Ted Talks, putting in 90-hour work weeks, using his smartphone for only an hour a day for three months, binge-watching Netflix for a month, living in seclusion for 10 days, and more. Basically he went to extremes and then documented it on his blog, “A Year of Productivity.” What makes the resulting book great is that it isn’t a re-hash of old blog posts, instead Bailey uses the experiments as illustrations of timeless productivity experiments. Timeless, timely, personal, and practical are all words I could use to describe The Productivity Project. The “project” of the title is not an objective venture, but a person: first Bailey as the pioneering “project,” and now the reader as the beneficiary “project.”

Also, the book presents a fresh perspective on productivity, even as it harkens back to classics like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Like Covey, Bailey is a believer in values-focused productivity, and he reminds the reader than efficiency is not the goal, but rather focusing time, energy, and attention on accomplishing things that matter. This isn’t new, but the way Bailey makes his case is fresh and inspiring.

Finally, the comprehensiveness of this book is staggering. Bailey covers all the bases: procrastination, task-management, diet, sleep, exercise, meditation, simplification, technology, workflow, focus, dealing with distractions, and more. At first, I found some of the content repetitive, but then I realized what Bailey’s endgame. He isn’t being repetitive as much as self-referential, showing how all these concepts are interlinked, and creating a reference work of sorts on productivity. In the end, there exists a satisfying whole, a big picture that inspires me to get to work on myself, not just on my tasks.

Bailey is an idiosyncratic guy, and it comes through in the writing style. He is funny, warm, and self-depreciating. Each chapter beings with an “estimated reading time” (i.e. “Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes, 52 seconds”), which is something he also does on his blog posts. By the end of the book, especially with all Bailey’s Buddhist musings about being more deliberate and mindful, the “estimated reading times” begin to take on an ironic ring. Was this intentional, or is Bailey really just trying to respect our busy schedules? I find this uncertainty charming.

If you are a student of productivity best-practices, you will find this book invaluable. You will also find it disturbing, in a good way. Instead of hacking work tasks, you end up hacking yourself—which makes all the difference.

Please Note: This book was gifted as a part of the Blogging for Books Reviewers Program in exchange for my unbiased review of this work. This has in no way influenced my opinion or review of this work.