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JI Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken

I am reposting this 2015 review because the kindle edition is on sale for $2.99
Takeaway: JI Packer has focused on the church more than his own career and that is surprisingly rare for church leaders. Even when I disagree, there is much to commend about the way he has engaged the issues.

I have read several of JI Packer’s books but I really did not know anything about him. I knew he taught at Regent College University and was an Anglican. But beside those facts everything else that I had assumed about him was wrong.

JI Packer grew up in a working class home before showing his strong academic skills and winning a scholarship to Oxford. There he quickly became a Christian and soon was pursuing training to become a pastor. But after spending a year teaching between his undergrad and graduate degrees, teaching has always been a part of his focus.

As was traditional in earlier generations, Packer served as a pastor early in his career before becoming a full time seminary professor. Packer has always primarily focused on the training of pastors and that has meant that he has not taken teaching positions that were as high profile as he could have.

After several years teaching and writing, Packer became the director of Latimer House. Latimer House was designed to give Packer and others space to write and think and speak without giving them teaching responsibilities. It seems similar to a Christian version of the idea of Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton that was initially directed by J Robert Oppenheimer and included luminaries such as Albert Einstein.

At Latimer, Packer was a prominent figure in British Christianity. But the pace of speaking and writing about current events and the huge number of committees and study groups that Packer was asked to serve on left him exhausted. After nearly 10 years he left Latimer and went back to teaching (after a brief stint as a college president). Packer taught at Trinity College and then at Regent University in Canada.

In addition to his teaching, Packer has been known for his work around the bible. He was the general editor for the ESV bible, a huge undertaking. Packer has been known as a key figure in the inerrancy debates and a member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Packer has also been known for his ecumenical work. Packer worked hard early in his career to keep the Evangelical wing of the Anglican church inside the Anglican church and has been active in ecumenical work outside of the Anglican church world. Later Packer played an important part in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statements. More recently Packer was dismissed from the Canadian Anglican church and helped to form what is now the Anglican Church in North America.

Ryken knows Packer well, has worked with him often, and respects him greatly. That admiration shows through clearly in the book and helps to make Packer a likeable figure throughout. Ryken resists a lot of analysis, which I think is a disservice to the book. He explicitly says he has made the choice to simply tell the story and illustrate Packer’s ideas, but it seems to me that part of the role of a biographer is to do the analysis.

Ryken was unable to avoid analysis on Packer’s writing style and methods. This was an unusual section for a biography. But given Ryken’s own background as a writer and literature professor, and Packer’s wide ranging writing, a long look at the themes and style of Packer’s writing was probably helpful. Ryken also is willing to say that although Packer is against topical sermons and for a strict exegetical preaching style, Packer’s beloved Puritans and other preaching heroes, as well as Packer are often topical in reality. (As an aside, I think it is interesting that Packer and Ryken’s book on the ESV advocate for a strict word for word translation style, but as One Bible Many Translations illustrates, the goal and the reality are wildly different.)

As much as this biography has helped me understand more about JI Packer, the the actual writing seems to be more clunky than I would expect from Ryken. The same phrases were repeated over and over again. Maybe this was more noticeable because I listened to it as an audiobook, but it was distracting. He also kept saying, ‘a random sample from his writing’ and then listing examples to prove a particular point. It was clearly not a random sample. I know this is a small point, but Ryken knows better than this and I can’t understand why he said this (at least a dozen times). The same with ‘it is not my purpose in this book to discuss X, but,…’. The result sounds like Ryken just did not spend enough time editing the book.

Ryken also heavily borrowed from Alister McGrath’s previous biography of Packer during the first section of the biography. Certainly McGrath and Ryken had different goals in their books, and Ryken was right to be citing McGrath when he was borrowing from him, but it seemed to me that it was a sign of inadequate preparation more than anything else. And in many ways it made me wish I had picked up McGrath’s biography instead, although it is almost 20 years old (and out of print) at this point.

Ryken divided this biography into three sections. The first section was the traditional narrative of Packer’s life. The second section was an attempt to illustrate who Packer was as a thinker and man. I think this was the weakest section of the book. The third section looked the main themes Packer’s work, his work around the bible, his academic study of Puritans, his work in the Anglican church, his theology, his thoughts and teaching on Preaching and the role of the Pastor among other topics.

The third section was helpful but uneven. I respect Packer and his work even though I have many areas of disagreement. And it is in this third section that the areas of disagreement comes up frequently.

Ryken is helpful in cataloguing his research, but that lack of analysis, and too much reliance on lists of data points really keeps this biography from being great. This will probably be the last full biography of Packer while he is still alive. Ryken interviewed him for the biography and those interviews featured prominently and were very helpful. But I think it will probably be only after Packer passes away that a full biography that can look at his life and legacy. There is certainly a place for biographies like this one. Biographers that know the subject well have great insight into their subjects. But more distant biographers also have greater objectivity.

JI Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

A copy of the audiobook was provided by for purposes of review.

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Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashid book reviewReviewed by Contributor Vikki Huisman.

A young Egyptian woman recounts her personal and political coming of age in this debut novel by Yasmine El Rashidi.

The reader meets the unnamed main character across three decades in Egypt: as a very young school girl, a college film student and then as a writer in modern day Egypt following Mubarak’s overthrow. Her father’s physical absence and her mother’s emotional absence dominate the writer’s life. As friends as relatives disappear through death, imprisonment, fleeing to America or just vanishing without a trace, she contemplates how absence and silence have defined her life.

Chronicle of a Last Summer is a gentle but heavy book. El Rashidi doesn’t heavily detail the violence, oppression or suffering the main character experiences throughout her life but the reader can feel it. The character’s cousin frequently chastises the young lady and his fellow citizens for not getting angry. Her uncle begs her to use her resources at the university and make a film that will make some noise, to serve as a rally cry for the Egyptian people but instead, she embraces the silence she’s always known and buries herself in her writing instead.

Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much by Faith Salie

Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too MuchThis review is by regular contributor Vikki Huisman.

I enjoy Faith Salie’s segments on CBS Sunday Morning and I’ve wanted to catch her on NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. I found her to be humorous and original; in that vein I was looking forward to reading her book “Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much”.

Salie shares VERY intimate stories from her past and how her need for approval dominated every area of her life.  I found her to be a combination of insightful and…just too much. She’s funny, introspective and very harsh on herself, almost brutal. I hate to use the word “appropriate” or “inappropriate” when it comes to a memoir but for me personally, I wish Salie would have left some stories out. The pain over losing her mother to illness is heartbreaking while the story of…shall we say a skill her brother taught her…were too much for me. Her personal antidotes swing wildly back and forth between serving the book and just flat out vulgar. I can overlook or not be bothered by coarse language or situations if it serves the overall purpose of the book (or film) but in the case of Approval Junkie, these chapters served no purpose.

What It Means to Be a Man by Rhett Smith

What it Means to be a Man: God's Design for Us in a World Full of ExtremesSummary: Short, highly readable book that would make a great discussion in a teen or 20/30 something mens group.

The subject of what it means to be a man in the modern world fraught with difficulty.  We mix up ideas of gender, personality, aggression, control, authority, biblical understanding and more.

Rhett Smith, author of the highly recommended book, The Anxious Christian, and a family counselor tackles the concept of manhood in a very readable (and short) book that is perfect for discussion.

I (sort of) participated in an online discussion group about this book that Rhett hosted. (I am horrible with book clubs that reads a book slowly, I want to read it straight through and discuss it).

Rhett said that he intentionally kept the book short so that there would be little reason not to read it.  The shortness makes it great for discussion groups, but has less detail than I would like.

As a man that hates sports, has worked as a nanny, has a degree in social work (a decidedly female leaning profession) I bring some issues into the manliness discussion.  Manliness in a lot of the Evangelical world is more equated with Mixed Martial Arts fighting and uncontrollable lust.

Rhett focuses on what makes a man, fathering, introspection about real issues (depression, anxiety, loneliness, vulnerability, etc.) and the movement into becoming a better man.  I think the method and writing style lends itself to teen and young adult readers, but as someone in the decade of his 40s, I think most men will find value in it.

In many ways, I think older men will get more out of it, if they read it intentionally with one or more people of a younger generation.  Becoming a man is more about mentoring and development, then knowledge or skill.  So no one has achieved a perfect on their ‘man card’.  And part of becoming a man means helping others become a man.

A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis by Devin Brown


A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis by by Devin BrownTakeaway: Lewis really was a gift to the church as a whole.

This year is the 50th anniversary of CS Lewis’ death.  So there have been several new books on Lewis.  Alister McGrath’s new biography was excellent.  But there were two places where I wanted more from McGrath.  One was more about Lewis’ relationship with his two stepsons (Douglas Gresham introduces the book).  The other was more about Lewis’ spiritual development, the focus of this book.

The format of A Life Observed is to use a rough outline of Lewis’ two most biographical books, Surprised by Joy and A Grief Observed. Lewis wrote Surprised by joy as a spiritual autobiography.  But it only goes through Lewis conversion to Christianity.  He lived another 32 years after that.  And A Grief Observed is his raw journals after the death of his wife near the very end of his life.

The middle of his life, in between his conversion and his marriage to Joy is really what I wanted most.  There is the chapter on the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien’s literary club and circle of friends.  And Brown talks about Lewis’ commitment to his local church, not the university church.  In passing, it is mentioned that Lewis had a single spiritual director throughout his life, but only in passing.

Brown resists moving beyond what Lewis actually says about himself.  And mostly I appreciate that.  But it leaves large gaps in the story.  Because Lewis did not write a lot about his Christian life, Brown does not write a lot about his Christian life.

But what is here, is very good.  This is not simply a retelling of Lewis’ own story.  It is an explication of Lewis’ story.  There are quotes and referenced to one of Lewis’ books or one of his letters on virtually every page.  But it does not feel like quote after quote, it feels like Brown is weaving together the fiction and the non-fiction of Lewis into a whole that more completely reveals Lewis.

Country Cooking from a Redneck Kitchen by Francine Bryson

Country Cooking from a Redneck Kitchen by Francine BrysonFrancine Bryson is a national pie champion and a former finalist on The American Baking Competition. She’s written two cookbooks, “Blue Ribbon Baking from a Redneck Kitchen” and her recent publication, “Country Cooking from a Redneck Kitchen” which is my most recent review. As my family contemplates a move a little further South in a couple of years, I thought it would be fun to dip my toe into the Southern culinary cuisine.

I spent a sold two weeks deciding which recipe I would try for this review and landed on “The Best Fried Chicken You’ll Ever Eat”. My husband is eager for any excuse to use his deep fryer so this had to be the one.

Brazen: The Courage to Find the You That’s Been Hiding by Leeana Tankersley

Brazen: The Courage to Find the You That's Been Hiding by Leeana Tankersley

I read Leeana Tankersley’s first book, “Found Art” several years ago. I found it to be a fascinating read about life and faith as Tankersley lived in the Middle East with her husband as he served in the US military. Somehow she fell off my radar screen and I missed her second book “Breathing Room”. I’m glad I didn’t miss her third production, “Brazen: The Courage to Find the You That’s Been Hiding”.

Tankersley has grown as a writer since “Found Art”. She’s just as thoughtful and introspective as before but her writing has gotten even better over time. Throughout this latest work, Tankersley seeks to reclaim the word “brazen” and return to its original meaning of “without shame”. Women have so many moments in their lives when they silence themselves, attempt to make themselves metaphorically smaller or muffle their own voice.  Bit by bit, Tankersley encourages women to reclaim who they are as a child of God.

Paris Street Style: A Coloring Book by Zoe de las Cases

Paris Street Style: A Coloring BookThe biggest trend in the publishing world last year was adult coloring books.  According to the New York Post, more than 2,000 adult coloring books hit the market since 2013. A quick search on Amazon will yield over 12,000 results for coloring enthusiasts and there’s something for everyone:

  • Garden Designs
  • Animals
  • Geometric Prints
  • Flowers
  • Scripture
  • Muscle Cars
  • Harry Potter
  • Doctor Who (I may have to get that one)
  • Tattoos
  • Irreverent (for those who are a little sweary)
  • Jon Hamm (yes, the Mad Men actor)

Adult coloring books are hard to miss and I’m finding people use them for a variety of reasons: a creative outlet, training their brain to focus, bonding with their teenage children, and as a stress reliever are just a small sampling of reasons I’ve encountered among enthusiasts. Even my retired parents jumped on the bandwagon as a way to keep themselves entertained during the long Midwest winters. I dove into coloring this past winter as well just to see what the fuss was all about and found myself enjoying the process.

Anxiety has been an issue for me and coloring has been a fantastic way to get my anxious thoughts off of the hamster-wheel-of-worry. Losing myself in the swirls and abstract images with a colored pencil in hand has gone in a long way in calming my spirit and as an added bonus, I’ve chosen to pick up a pencil instead of stuffing my worries under a layer of Doritos or M & M’s.

One doesn’t need to spend much money to experience this hobby. A small box of colored pencils from the grocery store and a free coloring page download from many websites is an easy and very inexpensive way to experience the benefits of the coloring trend. But if you’d like to splurge, some very nice options are available such as today’s review: Paris Street Style by Zoe de las Cases.

Paris Street Style is a charming coloring book that is designed like a journal. The pages are high quality; thick, glossy and smooth. The pencil glides across the page. The images vary from geometric patterns, fashion images and street scenes from Paris. The book also contains an elastic closure and a ribbon marker. I find it to be a very enjoyable and small indulgence.

This trend shows no signs of slowing down. In this crazy age of busyness and stress, give it a shot! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Paris Street Style by Zoe de las Cases Purchase Links: Paperback


I received Paris Street Style for free in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a favorable review.

New Release – The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Narrated by Emma Thompson

Audible has continued producing new content with A List actors as narrators. The newest release this month is the short (96 pages in print) creepy novel by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw narrated by Emma Thompson.

This is part of the same series that has reviewed previously, with Colin Firth narrating The End of the Affair, Anne Hathaway narrating The Wizard of Oz, Tim Curry narrating A Christmas Carol and Claire Danes narrating the Handmaid’s Tale. (Links are to my earlier reviews.)

The Turn of the Screw is a story that I have not read. A governess has care of two orphaned children at a country estate. She becomes convinced that an evil presence is lurking in the house stalking the children.

Surrender to Love: Discovering the Heart of Christian Spirituality by David G Benner

Takeaway: God is love is not the only important thing in theology, but it may be one of the harder parts of the Christian life to truly accept.

I have a theological bias. I believe that any description of God and the Christian life that does not include God’s love as central to his essence, not just one of his characteristics, is missing the heart of the Christian life.

Yes, the ‘God is Love’ can be and has been misused. But I would much rather move toward the potential over-adoption of God is love than the under-adoption. Going too far is balanced by prevalent themes in scripture. But under adoption of the ‘God is love’ principle fundamentally changes the nature of Christianity. It becomes performance based, rule following, and eventually a self-saving religion that rejects the concept of grace and ceases to be the orthodox Christianity of scripture.

I like to be (and need to be) continually reminded of God’s love of us as fallen, broken humans. David Benner (who I have read previously talking about spiritual direction) has expanded and re-issued a trilogy of books which starts with Surrender to Love.