Judging a book by its Introduction (Half the Sky, Can God Be Trusted? The Purpose Driven Life, and more)

Sometimes the introduction of a book says more than the book itself. Here we usually find the author’s thesis and an outline of their arguments. As of right now I have 174 books on my Amazon Wish List. I’m never going to read all of them but the good news is that Amazon has a “Look Inside” feature that provides, most of the time anyway, the introduction of the book. So instead of trying to read all of them I’m going to try to read 1 Introduction a day (ish) and provide a few observations from each intro.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn

Why I put it on my wishlist:

I added it after hearing a seminary chapel talk about the subjugation of women around the world.

The Book:

The introduction is a punch in the gut, in a good way. It tells the story of a girl who got caught in the sex industry of Cambodia, but who eventually found a way to escape and make a life of her own.

By their own account the authors stumbled upon the topic of the global subjugation of women quite unexpectedly. While working as journalists they discovered that “when a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were routinely kidnapped and sold into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news.”

Since this realization they have come to the conclusion that while previous generations faced the challenge of slavery and totalitarianism the “paramount moral challenge” for this generation “will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world.” Specifically the authors are concerned with three specific abuses: sex trafficking/forced prostitution, gender-based violence, and maternal mortality.

Despite a list of rather sad statistics and personal stories the authors are hopeful. They ask the reader not only look at the problem, but to see these women as the source of their own solution. “The plight of girls is no more tragedy than an opportunity.” They are convinced that the empowerment of women, such as through education and micro-financing, offers a hopeful way forward.

They then site what they call the “girl effect:”

 “The basic formula was to ease repression, educate girls as well as boys, give girls the freedom to move to the cities and take factory jobs, and then benefit from a demographic dividend as they delayed marriage and reduced childbearing. The women meanwhile financed the education of younger relatives, and saved enough of their pay to boost national savings rates.”

A global movement is afoot, say the authors, which is akin to the abolishment of slavery, “a global movement to emancipate women and girls.” This book is an invitation to join that global movement.

Verdict: Keep it.

Can God Be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil By John G. Stackhouse

Why I put this book on my wishlist:

Ever since I heard Stackhouse at an InterVarsity conference, I’ve been fascinated by everything he has written.

The book:

It occurred to me that after reading in such stark terms the evil described in Half the Sky you may be faced with the question that might lead you to Can God be Trusted? The question Stackhouse aims to answer is the theological and philosophical “problem of evil.”

Stackhouse is neither the first nor the last to address this question but he does have a unique voice. He distinguishes between two types of books on the topic, those that are primarily pastoral (light but encouraging) and those that are philosophical (dense but not accessible). Stackhouse’s aim is to write a book that gathers up the fruits of front-rank philosophy and theology and offers them to nonspecialists.”

As if on cue Stackhouse jumps right into a foundational philosophical question – how do we know things? He argues that “blind faith” is not really the answer that comes from religious tradition. Instead, “the various religions themselves encourage us to ask what many reasonable people as anyway: whether we have adequate reasons to put our trust in God. This book poses just this question in terms of one of the most powerful challenges to faith, the reality of evil. Can we believe in God in spite of evil?”

The book is split into two parts. Part one defines the problem more precisely and brings up other related questions – “If there is evil, there must be good, so where does it come from”. “Part two responds to those questions … by considering ways of reframing the issues.” “The book then steers toward considering the ultimate meaning of life, especially as it pertains to the question of God and evil.”

Stackhouse then gives a glimpse of his thesis – that we can not only believe in him, but that we can also trust him:

“What I offer, then, is this: a description of what we’re up against in our struggle against evil, and good reasons to believe in God even in the throes of that struggle. In short, I want to offer hope that, despite appearances and agonies, we really can trust God in spite of evil.”

Verdict: Keep it.

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (partial reading of chapter 1, there is no Introduction) by Scot McKnight

Why I put this book on my wishlist:

I’m not sure, but I think I was studying Bible interpretation at the time, which is related to the topic of this book.

The book:

McKnight starts with his story of spiritual awakening. In High School, prompted by a camp counselor, McKnight asked the Holy Spirit to guide him. The immediate and enduring response of the Spirit was to give him a love and appetite for Scripture.

As McKnight interacted with Scripture he became disturbed by the question: We say we believe the Bible but don’t follow everything it says. Why? He rejects the simplistic response: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it for me!” as too simplistic.

McKnight offers the example of James 1:26-27. It’s not that these verses are hard to understand but there were still several problems for Christians that he knew when it came to applying them. First, Christians didn’t like the word “religious.” Second, they didn’t apply the same rules to what a “good Christian” should say/do. They had a list of particular vices to refrain from, but few actually took care of widows or had complete control of their tongue. James is clear, but not everyone (in fact relatively few) do it.

McKnight concludes that, for better or worse, “every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture. In less-appreciated terms, I’ll put it this way: Everyone picks and chooses.”

The question that McKnight wants to answer is why we pick and choose. Even more importantly, many of us want to know how to do this in a way that honors God and embraces the Bible as God’s Word for all times.”

What does McKnight mean that we “pick and choose?” Early in chapter 1 he offers a few examples. In the case of keeping the Sabbath, we simply don’t do what the Bible says. In the case of tithing we morph what the Bible says. Instead of giving to the temple servants we give to the local church. In the case of foot washing, we try to obey the principle behind the command (humble servanthood) instead of the command itself (washing feet).

The list goes on for McKnight but I couldn’t view any more in preview mode.

Verdict: Keep it, for now. It still likely has something important to say to those new to Bible interpretation and application. And from what I know of McKnight, it offers an orthodox alternative to Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So.

By Rick Warren – The Purpose Driven Life (1st) (9.8.2002) by Rick Warren

Why I put it on my wishlist:

This was a culturally relevant book at the time.

The book:

The concept behind this book is pretty well known so I’m not going to go in depth. Instead I’ll just offer a few observations from introduction and first chapter.

First, Warren starts with a big promise:

“This is more than a book; it is a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey that will enable you to discover the answer to life’s most important question: What on earth am I here for? By the end of this journey you will know God’s purpose for your life… Having this perspective will reduce your stress, simplify your decisions, increase your satisfaction, and, most important, prepare you for eternity.”

I’m generally put off by such broad promises but hey, maybe he’s right.

Second, I do like how Warren starts out his book. He directly tackles a self-oriented way of look at purpose.

“It’s not about you. The purpose of life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness… If you want to know why you were placed on this plant, you must begin with God.”

Looking within ourselves for our purpose is pure folly. “You won’t discover you life’s meaning by looking within yourself…. You didn’t create yourself, so there is no way toy can tell yourself what you were created for … Many people try to use God for their own self-actualization, but that is a reversal of nature and is doomed to failure. You were made for God, not vice versa.”

Sometimes Rick Warren gets a bad rap for being too focused on self-improvement but based on the start to this book I’m not sure that’s a justified criticism.

The verdict:

It’s coming off the list. I’m sure it’s a great book but it’s not as culturally relevant as it once was and I don’t think it will teach me anything I don’t already know.

Bonds of Imperfection by Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan

Why I put it on my wishlist?

I have no idea.

The book:

Man, this was one dense introduction. This is clearly a work of scholarly depth. I had to re-read parts of it a few times just to figure out what in the world the book was supposed to be about.

The book is a collection of essays on political thought, action, and institutions, “from a perspective formed by the Bible and the Latin theological tradition.”

The introduction compares two political traditions. The first is the pre-modern tradition. This tradition identifies…

“the political with the sphere of judgment, divine and human, that gives order to human community in history. The political remains a morally ambiguous realm, an instrument of God’s merciful dealings with humankind and an object of his wrath… The justice and peace achieved by earthly politics… is transient and tragically deficient…. Until [the arrival of the heavenly kingdom], it is not political action but the communion of the church that looks forward to the city of God.”

In contrast, the modern view sets the highest political good as the enhancement of human freedom.

“But this is not the freedom which the older tradition knew as ‘evangelical freedom’: it is no longer law-governed… Projected as autonomous self-possession, freedom assaults the intrinsic forms of sharing and solidarity that comprise moral community: it assaults not only our communication in the created goods and structures by which we live well but also our solidarity as the object of God’s condemnation, forgiveness, and renewal.”

The authors clearly believe that the purely modern tradition is in need of some revision. This tradition has “intellectual and practical pitfalls.” Their goal is to show how the pre-modern tradition has “perennial relevance” to the modern political task. And the essays aim to offer criticism that “illuminates a way forward.”

The names of some of the essays are illuminating and daunting. They include the obscure – “The Political Thought of City of God 19”, “Christian Platonism and Non-proprietary Community”, “The Christian Pedagogy and Ethics of Erasmus” and broad “Nation, State, and Civil Society in the Western Biblical Tradition.”

The verdict:

Despite the fact that this book is clearly over my head, it’s still interesting enough to keep on the list.