Christmas reading reviews: A Better Story; The Unquenchable Flame; Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor

I always have some good reading time on my Christmas break. Over the week and a bit away, I read A Better Story by Glynn Harrison, The Unquenchable Flame by Mike Reeves and Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by Don Carson. Below are my brief reviews.

A Better Story – Glynn Harrison

Harrison sets out his stall early on in the book. He argues that although Evangelicalism is right on the issue of sexuality and human flourishing, there is no doubt that we are currently losing the battle for hearts and minds. This, he avers, is because LGBT+ advocates have offered a compelling narrative for their position. The problem, he notes, is that we cannot counteract a compelling story with a set of facts and figures or doctrinal statements. If we are to convince anyone that the Biblical narrative is, indeed, the one that leads to human flourishing, we will need to offer a better story with a more convincing narrative.

The book is one of three sections. The first outlines how the sexual revolution laid much of the groundwork for the current culture focus on human sexuality. The second gives a rounded critique of the sexual revolution, acknowledging the issues it tried to address in the old order and giving thank for some of the good that it has brought (and it did bring some good). Nonetheless, he also points out the major shortcomings in the sexual revolution and notes why it has failed to really live up to its hype. Finally, in the third section, Harrison offers his own attempt at a better narrative underpining the biblical view of sexuality and human flourishing.

The book is engagingly written throughout. Despite its aim in address the shortcomings of the sexual revolution and attempt to offer a better narrative for the Biblical worldview, it struck me repeatedly how Harrison’s argument had much broader application. Ultimately, though we need to provide a better story on the pressing issue of the day (sexuality and human flourishing), his approach had clear application to any question of apologetics, much preaching and theological work. In the modern world, Harrison lands upon the undeniable truth that people may acknowledge intellectual arguments but are ultimately won by compelling narrative and stories.

In my view, Harrison’s first two sections were eminently better than the final third. His analysis of the sexual revolution was excellent and his critique of both the revolution itself and Christian responses to it was well rounded and excellent. Sadly, despite all the brilliant work up to the final point, I felt the ‘better story’ was not wildly compelling in the end. But, Harrison noted before giving it you may not think much of his story and was clear he was giving an example of what a story might look like. With all the prior spadework, creating your own narrative would be quite straightforward.

If Harrison’s book was intended to create a better story for us to parrot back (which he suggests it isn’t), then it probably failed. If, however, he was making the case that we need a better story and it is up to us to work out how to contextualise it to our own context (I took this to be his purpose), then he has provided all the tools we need to properly critique the promises of the sexual revolution and offer the narrative that might compel people to accept the Biblical approach to human flourishing.

The first review on Amazon – written by my Twitter friend, Gareth Russell – sums up both my view on the book and how I felt picking it up. He aptly states: ‘I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book (who enjoys books about sexual ethics, morality, and culture?!!) but I found myself thrilled by it.’

The Unquenchable Flame – Mike Reeves

Having read both The Good God – possibly the best book on the Trinity I have ever read – and Christ our Life – a brilliant and eminently readable book on the person and work of Jesus – I picked up The Unquenchable Flame with great expectations. Great as those expectations were, I’m not exactly sure what I was actually expecting in practice.

The book is written in Reeve’s typically engaging style. Mike is an exceptionally able communicator and the book handles many of the key people and events of the Reformation in his inimitable way. The books begins by outlining the issues within Roman Catholicism and the Holy Roman Empire that made the Reformation possible, briefly taking a look at Wycliffe and Hus on the way. Reeves then looks at Luther and Germany, Zwingli and Switzerland, Calvin and France, The Reformation in Britain, the post-Reformation Puritan era and a final chapter on why this 500-year-old history is still relevant today.

As an entry-level book on the Reformation, it is a gem. If you have little knowledge of Medieval Roman Catholicism or any of the major players in the Reformation, this book will introduce them to you. Reeve’s engaging style will draw you into this significant moment in history. If, however, you have some basic knowledge of the Reformation already, this book is unlikely to offer you anything new. As I was reading, though encouraging to reacquaint oneself with the basic outline of the Reformation, there was a constant sense that it was all pretty familiar. It would have been great if there was something for those who had some knowledge of the basic history of the Reformation.

In sum, as a book to give to someone with no knowledge of Reformation history, The Unquenchable Flame is a winner. It is compelling and searingly clear. For those with some knowledge of Reformation history, I wouldn’t expect much more than an interesting restatement of the facts with which you will probably already be familiar. I am convinced the value of the book is as that could be given to church members – particular those who attend churches of a Reformed bent – to help them engage more fully with the tradition in which they stand.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor – Don Carson

My wife first read this book and, afterwards, insisted that I read it. Having finished my Christmas books, I picked it up and wasn’t disappointed.

The book intends to offer an insight into the life of an ordinary pastor, Tom Carson (Don Carson’s father). Carson’s aim is a simple one: to encourage ordinary pastors in their largley unseen, unheralded ministries. He does so through the lens of his father’s ministry, based on journals and papers compiled during his years of pastoral work. The idea is to show the value and impact of being faithful, not necessarily well-known or high profile.

Large chunks of the book are dedicated to explaining the cultural background to French-speaking Canada, the context in which Tom Carson ministered. With no prior interest in Canada, let alone French-speaking Canada, I embarked on such sections presuming they would be tedious in the extreme. They were, however, supremely interesting. I was surprised to hear just how Catholic the area was, how the cultural Catholicism militated (literally) against gospel workers in the region, and yet how in a short space of time the area became one of the most secular Canadian provinces. The background was essential to understanding Tom Carson’s ministry but was, of itself, fascinating.

The book gives an honest look at the daily work of an ordinary, faithful minister. Most the book is drawn from papers and minutes but there are sections interspersed with a son’s view of events as he remembers them (or, at least, his father’s interaction with him regarding certain events). It documents the ordinary goings on in an unseen, largely unnoticed ministry in a tough part of Canada. It has much to say to small pastors working in similarly difficult contexts. It was easy to understand almost every event in the book – the good, the bad and the ugly – because they have, in one form or another, been exactly the same struggles I have faced in my own ministry.

The book was, in equal parts, encouraging and challenging. It was encouraging to see such a faithful man working in difficult circumstances and how the Lord can uphold and provide in the most difficult of settings. It was challenging in the sense that Tom Carson’s faithfulness, prayerfulness and service in the gospel is a stinging rebuke to those of us who feel considerably less faithful than him. Don Carson spends some time documenting Tom Carson’s crippling self-flagellation and tendency to comparison (without bitterness or covetousness, but a clear sense of personal failure) and offers some helpful reflections on this. I suspect few pastors working in difficult circumstances have not had such thoughts at times.

Overall, the book was a wonderfully encouraging insight to those working in small, difficult ministries. In my view, every unknown pastor seeking to work faithfully for the Lord in works largely unseen should read this book. They will find themselves encouraged and, probably, will be able to read themselves into many of the scenarios documented. As Carson’s clarion call for faithfulness, his dad provides a worthy case study.