Refining Your Style: Learning from Respected Communicators

Author: Pastor Bob  //  Category: Christian Life & Ministry, Older Reviews, Theology & Faith

by Dave Stone
Group Publishing, (2004).  Paperback, 230 pages.
ISBN: 0764426826

Great and simple introduction to different approaches to the task and art of preaching and communicating the Gospel. The selection of communicators offers genuine variety (13 styles, to be exact), however, Stone’s categorization in that regard is not entirely academic. I suspect that academically trained communicators will receive this book as a lower brow / popular ‘top 13’ type collection.

In a sense, that evaluation is true. The categories used are indeed shaped by the personalities discussed, and not out of thoughtful reflection on the task of preaching itself. And yet that fact does not preclude thoughtful (and helpful) reflection on what is actually happening in preaching today.

To the point, Refining Your Style is aimed, rather, at the normal pastor who is attempting to self identify and so define what is actually happening in their preaching. The anecdotal and practical edge of this work, which includes an audio cd of examples, therefore cuts quickly past academic questions about communication and goes right for the ways of the pulpit. That makes it a very useful and enjoyable read, (and listen!), especially for a preacher who’s trying to grow in their art.

I’d recommend this without hesitation to preachers asking questions either of self-definition and the means and focus of effective expression, or questions of our current culture and functional and creative connections to it.

Flight to Heaven: A Plane Crash…A Lone Survivor…A Journey to Heaven–and Back…

Author: Pastor Bob  //  Category: Older Reviews, Theology & Faith

by Dale Black
Bethany House (2010). Paperback, 192 pages.
ISBN: 0764207946

I wasn’t sure where a book like this might go. I’ve read a few personal accounts of people’s spiritual experiences, and at times been concerned that the person had allowed their personal experience to redefine their theology – and their suggestions for other people’s theology. Subjective experiences are limited in what they can mean for everyone or anyone else.

Dale Black is aware of this risk. His first words express his long term concerns that he not misappropriate his experience as have some others who’ve used their experiences or stories as a means to attention or an attempt at fame. Black’s decision, instead, to try and live out his experience privately for forty years means that this book is interested more in the question of what to do now. While the book does describe his experience, it does so in the context of what was happening in his life and recovery outside of the spiritual experience itself. I think the book perhaps plays down Black’s long term commitment to missions and Christian service – though I would have liked to hear more about where God has taken him. The story which frames the book is wonderful, but I do wish there was a bit more depth of reflection around the questions of God’s sovereign hand.

Saying that, I mean to suggest that the book is simply written, and so has the flavour of many of the simple Christian biographies and autobiographies that I’ve read. This book does not really contain the reflections of a theologian or philosopher; rather this is a factual account of a person’s experiences and thoughts. The Christian thinking in the book is direct that way, and often the accounts of Black’s interactions about Jesus and the Christian faith have that air of radical simplicity about them.

This is the kind of book that a skeptical non-Christian may find a bit frustrating should they try to engage with it. You can hear them demanding: “All this wonderful spiritual experience and transformation and it turns into asking people if they know Jesus?!! That’s it?!!” In response some conservative Christians might just reiterate the evangelistic question, some reflective Christians may engage in conversations of depth from that point, and some mature Christians will just nod with a slight smile.

I would have liked a little more in terms of depth and reflectiveness, but knowing myself the experience of God’s hand day to day, I could feel the way that Black has experienced God’s hand guiding and providing as matter of practical daily reality. Sometimes I’m not sure I could actually say much more about it myself. I know what was, and what now is . . . and really that’s all we can say.

Dale Black says it faithfully. His vision was not about a bunch of secret spiritual insights, but was instead a powerful redirection to the God who gives insight. Dale is clearly a man more interested in walking with God than talking aimlessly about him, and that keeps this kind of account from wandering into the sort of speculations that can lead people astray, chasing experiences instead of the one who gives them.

I do think something that would have made the work significantly more compelling would have been numerous photos from over the years. Pictures of his physical state after the crash and through recovery, of newspaper headlines or articles from the time, or even of the monument or aircraft would nail down any questions of credibility and for the skeptic who does engage . . . perhaps that would be good?

Thanks Dale, for hearing God, for seeking his kingdom work first, and for being open to sharing your story. I was through it in two eager sittings, and was touched by it’s sincerity and simplicity. May you fly for him again and again.

Nine Ways God Always Speaks

Author: Pastor Bob  //  Category: Christian Life & Ministry, Older Reviews, Theology & Faith

by Mark Herringshaw & Jennifer Schuchman.
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (2009)
ISBN: 1414322267

This book is an ambitious attempt at retelling stories of God speaking in such a way that people will be moved beyond the expectation or lost hope of hearing a voice in the sky, and so begin to listen for God in the variety of other ways that he may choose to communicate.

The word ‘always’ in the title is relatively spurious. It put me off when I first skimmed through the book and I was relieved to see that the book was not some kind of how-to guide for getting a slot machine God to drop out messages on demand. The general message that God wants to speak to us is useful, and for some lay-people this book may offer some neat or inspirational stories.

Better to get the Bible stories from the Bible, though. The story-telling is a bit flat – more like narrative information listed quickly to get you to the point – and so the Bible stories do suffer from a kind of compression and perhaps even a bit of misinterpretation. The result is that I was suspicious of other the included stories. Between the lines one discovers a book with stories gathered only to make a point, rather than a book reflecting on stories or anecdotes to see what point they stories might actually be making.

The power of the stories is further lost because of the volume that seem to come back again and again to the same point – “see that, they heard God too!” A large volume of stories is no substitute for the quality of one that forces larger questions. A focused book of 1/3 the size might have more power for people who really doubt whether God’s speaks. Lacking an investigative tone, and a deeper exegesis of the stories included, the redundancy makes the book a bag of candy rather than a substantive meal. Like candy, as I read the book, I kept wondering if 344 pages of the diet would prove spiritually healthy.

This concern was exacerbated whenever the movement of the argument came from speculative illustrations. On pg 174, for example, the book wonders whether people’s attachment to their pets actually reflects “a misplaced desire to talk to God”. It then wonders if this is really God’s purpose for pets: that our response to animals would teach us something about ourselves so that we would become aware of our desire to relate to God.

I’m sure these are neat ideas for speculative and inconsequential conversations over a beer, but they are no grounds for theological argument or apologetics. If a book refers to the fanciful or quirky ideas of the author once or twice it can be charming. More than that and the whole book feels indulgent, and perhaps even just opinionated.

For a skeptic concerned about whether God does speak, or a person desperate for an answer from on high, the ground for the argument must be solid, and the stories must be potent, direct, and verifiable. As soon as you read authours defending their own stories and their means of collecting and verifying them – right in the book itself – veracity flags go off. If the story is neat and inspirational, but needs extra defense because sincere doubters won’t buy it otherwise, then you can only hope to be heard by the converted. Only when stories are compelling to the point that they cry out for the reader’s engagement can you expect to interact well with open-minded skeptics or people who are wracked with doubt or even have lost their faith.

A couple of further comments.

– An occasional rhetorical question is fine, but two or three on a page gets tired quick, especially when there is page after page of them. Worse still, it’s just pretentious if the author is clearly acting open minded to the possibilities of the universe. If you think something might be so, just say it. Don’t feign wonder, it makes you untrustworthy.

– Lastly, I might note too, that the format of breaking up sentences or listing occasional short sentences as though they were poetry just made the book plain hard to read. This isn’t Jean Vanier writing, it’s not poetry, and neither the profundity nor power was near significant enough to ask me to meditate on sentence fragments.