The Bestsellers
Here is another entry in a series I am calling “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We have encountered books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris (I Kissed Dating Goodbye) and Randy Alcorn (The Treasure Principle) all the way to Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez) and Paul Young (The Shack). Today we look at the only bestselling book written by a alumnus of John MacArthur’s college and seminary.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan

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Francis Chan was born in San Francisco in 1967, the son of Chinese immigrants. After professing faith at a young age, he attended The Master’s College and The Master’s Seminary, graduating with Bachelor of Arts and Master of Divinity degrees. In 1994, he and his wife Lisa founded Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California. Though the church began with only thirty people, it grew quickly and within six years numbered over 1,500.

In 2005 Chan released a video titled Just Stop and Think that quickly went viral while also setting him up for the release of his first book: Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God. Published in 2008, the book is a call for Christians to live an authentic faith, and it was marketed behind language like this: “Does something deep inside your heart long to break free from the status quo? Are you hungry for an authentic faith that addresses the problems of our world with tangible, even radical, solutions? God is calling you to a passionate love relationship with Himself. Because the answer to religious complacency isn’t working harder at a list of do’s and don’ts — it’s falling in love with God. And once you encounter His love, as Francis describes it, you will never be the same.”

Chan develops two substantial themes. The first is a painstaking self-examination to determine if the reader is truly saved. “A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are ‘lukewarm’ are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.” The second theme is a radical obedience concerned more for future rewards than present comfort or prosperity. “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

What may sound cliché after nearly ten years and a host of imitators was fresh in its time. “This book is written for those who want more Jesus. It is for those who are bored with what American Christianity offers. It is for those who don’t want to plateau, who would rather die before their convictions do.” At the time Chan was writing, many Christian leaders seemed to be leading people away from the centrality of the local church. Chan, though, wished to express his love for the church and wanted to draw people back to it. In an interview after the book’s publication he said

As a pastor I hear a lot of emergent leaders talk about what is wrong with the church. It comes across as someone who doesn’t love the church. I’m a pastor first and foremost, and I’m trying to offer a solution or a model of what church should look like. I’m going back to scripture and seeing what the church was in its simplest form and trying to recreate that in my own church. I’m not coming up with anything new. I’m calling people to go back to the way it was. I’m not bashing the church. I’m loving it.

Crazy Love served as a call for young Christians to live obediently rather than safely. It was a message that resonated with an entire generation.

Sales & Lasting Impact

By 2009 Crazy Love had sold 500,000 copies and was awarded the Gold Book Award; the following year it crossed the 1 million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold more than 2 million copies. It is now clear that Crazy Love was responsible, at least in part, for kick-starting an entire theme in the Christian world—the theme of living radically, but doing so while being grounded in the gospel. Bestselling books like Radical and Jesus > Religion develop the same topics, though with different emphases.

Since the Award

In 2010 Chan announced to his congregation (which now numbered several thousand) that the Lord was leading him in a new direction, though he was not yet certain what it was. He explained that he was weary of being an Evangelical celebrity and that he was concerned that within his church he heard the words “Francis Chan” more often and with greater excitement than “Holy Spirit.” After his resignation he spent several months in Asia before relocating to San Francisco where he founded a church planting movement geared specifically to the city’s poor. He continues that work today.

Chan followed Crazy Love with Forgotten God, a book about the Holy Spirit, and then with Erasing Hell, a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. In 2012 he teamed up with David Platt to write Multiply and to launch a discipleship movement. He has also written several books for children and travels extensively to speak at conferences and other events. While his influence crosses many demographics, his greatest popularity is among teens and young adults.

A Personal Perspective

My first exposure to Chan, at least to my recollection, was his “Just Stop and Think” video. I reviewed Crazy Love in 2008, shortly after its release, and expressed gratitude for it. Though I still think we need to focus on being ordinary Christians as much as we focus on being radical Christians, I understand how and why his book had such massive appeal, and especially among young people. While I have been a little bit concerned by some of the things Chan has said and done over the past few years, I appreciate his generosity (To my knowledge he has given away all or most of his book royalties which would now number in the millions of dollars) and his desire to escape the Evangelical celebrity culture.

I don’t know for certain, but my guess is that the early church did not need a lot of books or sermon series with titles involving words like “dangerous” or “extreme” or “radical.” If we need these books today, it is only to battle the complacency that can come when Christianity is a majority religion or an accepted religion. When Christianity is in the minority or when it is the object of persecution, life is already plenty dangerous.

Yawning At Tigers
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But our temptation is toward complacency and sometimes we do need a good shaking up, a good talking to. Drew Dyck delivers this in Yawning at Tigers which carries the subtitle You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying. The title conjures up an image of a tiger in a zoo, taken from the wild, penned into a little cage, pathetically pacing back and forth. When he is caged up we can approach him confidently, safely, at our own time, without any hesitation. But this is not God as he reveals himself in the Bible.

Dyck shakes up our complacency in two broad ways. In the first half of the book he looks at the way we can inadvertently shrink God down to our size, to a manageable size. We tend to do this by neglecting or redefining his holiness, by ignoring or writing-off his wrath. To combat this, Dyck draws the reader to God’s majestic holiness, his (dare I say it?) dangerous holiness—the kind of holiness that caused Isaiah to fall on his face and Uzzah to fall dead on the ground. Through several chapters he examines God’s holiness from several different angles and reveals this holy God as being infinitely better than any safe and manageable God we may prefer.

In the second half of the book he shows that we can also attempt to tame God by diminishing his love. Just as God’s holiness is too terrifying, his love is too unbelievable, so we try to make it make sense in light of our fallibility. “We take the infinite, divine love described in Scripture and place limits on it. We make it reasonable. We project our own faltering brand of affections heavenward and assume God’s love is as flawed as ours. Even as we pay lip service to God’s boundless mercy, we tabulate our shortcomings and wonder whether we’ve exhausted his grace.”

The book packs a powerful one-two punch with the emphasis on holiness followed by meditations on love. Dyck is a good writer—a very good writer—and his prose is lively and always interesting. The whole “God is dangerous” theme could easily be overplayed, but he doesn’t allow that to happen. He turns constantly to the Bible and to a host of good sources to back and extend his claims.

With all that said, I have some concerns about the book’s sources, which raises a question I’ve often considered: How much must a book be taken on its own merits and how much do we need to be concerned with secondary sources? In this case Dyck quotes a few books, authors, or people that I would be hesitant to promote. While he quotes them in such a way that they advance good points, a reader following footnotes might find himself reading books that may prove as unhelpful as Dyck’s book is helpful.

I also find myself concerned with some of his discussions on the immanence of Jesus. I understand that Christians are constantly attempting to properly account for both the transcendence and immanence of God, the fact that God exists beyond time and space and the fact that he is fully within it as well. One way the emphasis on immanence can go too far, at least as I understand it, is to suggest that we see Jesus himself in the faces of the poor or the downtrodden. That manifests itself in quotes like this: “When I touch a poor child, I touch Jesus Christ. When I listen to a poor child, I’m listening to God’s heart beating for all humanity.” There are traces of this in Yawning at Tigers and I think it is unnecessary; the book would have held up very well without it.

Those concerns aside, Yawning at Tigers accomplishes what it means to. It convicts us of the ways we have diminished God and encourages us to see God as he really is. It’s a sweet and powerful book and one that both blessed and encouraged me.

 

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I am looking at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a bestseller that impacted me deeply.

The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn

The Treasure Principle: Unlocking the Secret of Joyful Giving (LifeChange Books)
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Randy Alcorn was born on June 23, 1954, in Portland, Oregon. His father owned a tavern and supplied amusement machines to other local taverns while his mother chose to stay home with the children. Randy grew up without any Christian background and first attended church as a teenager, primarily to pursue a young lady. It was at that church and at its youth group that he first heard the gospel. He became a Christian in 1969 and later married the girl he had followed to church. Very quickly he knew that he wanted to go to Bible college to study God’s Word and then to become a missionary. However, he soon found himself co-founding and pastoring Good Shepherd Community Church in Boring, Oregon, the church he continues to attend today. He pastored for thirteen years before an event that forever changed his life and ministry.

In 1989 Alcorn participated in some nonviolent rescues at abortion clinics. Like many others, he was arrested a number of times and spent a few days in jail. But one of those clinics won a judgment against him that required him to pay a hefty fine. Alcorn told the judge he would pay anything he owed, but he would not give a penny to people who would use that money to abort babies. In early 1990 he learned that his church would be forced to pay one forth of his wages each month to that abortion clinic. He immediately resigned his position. In fact, the only way he could avoid paying money to that clinic was to ensure that he did not earn more than minimum wage. It was at this point that he founded Eternal Perspectives Ministries. (Consider reading the full story.)

Since that day Alcorn has never earned more than minimum wage. All of his book royalties have gone to Eternal Perspectives Ministries and used to support missions, pro-life work, and other Christian causes.

Since 1985 Alcorn has written many books, but none have been more popular than The Treasure Principle which was published in 2001. Released with little fanfare and with only three brief endorsements (including John Piper’s who says, “Supercharged with stunning, divine truth! Lightning struck over and over as I read it.”) the book claims to “unlock the secret of joyful giving.” The “treasure principle” is this: You can’t take it with you—but you can send it on ahead. Alcorn says, “If we give instead of keep, if we invest in the eternal instead of in the temporal, we store up treasures in heaven that will never stop paying dividends. Whatever we store up on earth will be left behind when we leave. Whatever treasures we store up in heaven will be waiting for us when we arrive.”

Along with the principle he offers six keys:

  • Principle #1 – God owns everything. I’m His money manager.
  • Principle #2 – My heart always goes where I put God’s money.
  • Principle #3 – Heaven, not earth, is my home.
  • Principle #4- I should live for the dot but for the line [not for this short life on earth but for eternity]
  • Principle #5 – Giving is the only antidote to materialism.
  • Principle #6 – God prospers me not to raise my standard of living, but to raise my standard of giving.

A simple book, and a short one, spanning only 120 small pages, the book is the very opposite of The Prayer of Jabez and so many other books on giving and prosperity. He teaches the importance and the sheer joy of giving consistently and generously to the Lord’s work, all the while giving up treasures on earth in order to store up treasures in heaven.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Where many other books have seen explosive sales, The Treasure Principle has sold steadily over the past thirteen years. It took four years to sell its first 500,000 copies (it received the Gold Book Award in 2005) and another three years to reach one million copies, receiving the Platinum Book Award in 2008. Notably, 2008 was also the year another of Alcorn’s books, Heaven, attained Gold status. While these sales are not exactly slow compared to most other Christian books, they are slow when compared to other books that have attained Platinum status.

Alcorn’s book was well received by Evangelicals and has been used to help form many people’s theology and philosophy of money, possessions and giving. Many have remembered the simple phrase at the heart of the book: You can’t take it with you—but you can send it on ahead.

Since the Award

Since the award, Alcorn has written many books, the most noteworthy of which is Heaven which received the Gold Book Award in 2008 and the Platinum Book Award in 2014. He has written two other books on the subject of money: Money, Possessions, and Eternity and Managing God’s Money.

A Personal Perspective

Few authors have had a greater impact on my day-to-day living than Randy Alcorn. I have never met him, though we spoke on the phone once when I was wrestling with a particular issue. I have never deliberately thought about imitating him or trying to do it, but in some ways I do. Managing God’s Money (and The Treasure Principle) were foundational to my understanding of money. His emphasis on heaven and eternity have helped me be more heavenly-minded. His love for unborn life has shown me how important it is that we do not grow weary in that fight and I have since found myself speaking at pro-life events and serving on the board of a pregnancy care centre. His writing has been instrumental in teaching me how to put theology into practice. When I look at my life, I see his influence through his books, and for that I am grateful.

 

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. So far we have looked at three titles that were awarded Platinum status in 2005; today we advance to 2007 and a surprise bestseller.

90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper

90-minutes-in-heaven-9780800759490_1It is not often that a book races to the top of the bestseller charts and opens up the way for a whole new genre of Christian literature. But such is the case with Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven, a book that spurred an entire genre of what I refer to as “Heaven Tourism” books.

Don Piper was involved in radio and television ministry when he determined that he had been called to be a pastor. In 1985 he was ordained as a Baptist minister and was soon serving in Houston as a minister of education and single adults. It was shortly thereafter, in 1989, that he had an experience that would forever change his life and ministry. Fifteen years later, in 2004, he would team with Cecil Murphey and Baker Publishers to release 90 Minutes in Heaven, the book in which he described his experience.

On January 18, 1989, Piper was driving through rural Texas, returning from a Christian conference that had ended a little bit earlier than expected. As he was crossing a long bridge with water on either side, an 18-wheeler owned by the Texas Department of Corrections swerved over the center line and hit his Ford Escort head-on. Piper was killed instantly. The steering wheel impaled his chest and the roof collapsed on his head. Emergency medical technicians responded and pronounced him dead, laying him on the road and covering his body with a tarp.

Dick Onarecker and his wife Anita had been at that same conference and were driving the same route. They pulled up to the scene shortly after the EMTs had declared Piper dead. Onarecker later said, “The Lord just impressed on me very emphatically very urgently that I was to pray for him.” Ninety minutes after his accident, Piper awoke to hear that pastor praying and singing.

It was what happened in those ninety minutes that became the subject of his book. Piper claimed he was immediately transported to heaven. There he saw people he knew and loved—relatives, teachers who had gone on to glory years before, and friends who had died in high school. Each of these people was the age they had been when they died. They were joyful and welcoming and were there to help him through the gates of heaven. Ahead of him was a gate that looked as if it had been carved from a giant pearl. The streets were made of gold and beyond the gate was a light too bright to imagine and the sound of an angel choir. “In all honesty,” he said, “as awesome as the sight was, the sound was more amazing. I heard literally thousands of praise songs. They were all praise songs. I really couldn’t see anything. I was so preoccupied with the people around me, I couldn’t see anything. But you could sense this hum of wings hovering all about you, like you were being ministered to by angels, and they were observing this whole episode.”

And then he heard the sound of Onarecker singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and realized he was joining in. He was alive and was quickly transported to Herman Hospital in Houston where doctors found that his body had been completely shattered. He would have to live with chronic pain and endure an excruciating recovery that required some thirty-four medical procedures. The book documents his time in heaven in about fifteen pages and the context and recovery in about one hundred and eighty.

Sales & Lasting Impact

90 Minutes in Heaven was published in 2004. Later editions of the book contain “A Word From the Publisher” where Dwight Baker of Baker Publishing Group explains his company’s caution in accepting the book for publication. He acknowledges the unusual subject matter and expresses that since he and his team determined the book did not contain any explicitly unbiblical teaching, and since it did not contain any supposed words from Jesus meant to guide or direct others, they would accept and promote it. They began with a very small first printing of just eight thousand copies. However, the book proved a brisk seller and those copies were depleted within days. By 2006 it had surpassed one million copies sold and in 2007 it was awarded ECPA’s Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold over six million copies, has sat on the New York Times list of bestsellers for more than five years, and has been translated into forty-six languages.

The book met with criticism on a number of points. First, and most fundamentally, Piper describes an experience the Bible does not tell us we can or should expect. While the Bible certainly describes heaven and tells us that its glories await those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ, it gives no reason to believe we would ever experience those pleasures temporarily. Many were also concerned that Piper’s description of heaven seemed based more on popular conceptions of heaven than on the brief biblical descriptions. Not only that, but Piper took upon himself the task of giving others hope based on his experience. “Because I was able to experience heaven,” he says, “I was able to prepare [friends] for it. And now I am preparing you.” Some were concerned that in so doing he diminishes confidence in God’s Word and replaces it with human experience.

The popularity of his book ensured there would be many more like it and, indeed, very soon others were recounting their journeys to heaven. Each of the following also attained bestseller status: Heaven Is For Real, 23 Minutes in Hell, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, Proof of Heaven, and To Heaven and Back. Many more are sure to follow before the genre runs its course.

Since the Award

In 2007 Piper founded Don Piper Ministries and began traveling the world, referring to himself as “The Minister of Hope.” Millions have read his books and millions more have heard him speak live or through a host of television and radio interviews. He followed 90 Minutes in Heaven with Heaven Is Real and Getting to Heaven. Baker is about to release a 10th Anniversary Edition of 90 Minutes in Heaven which will contain a personal update from Piper and a handful of other new features.

A Personal Perspective

I wrote a review of 90 Minutes in Heaven just about 8 years ago—April 23, 2006—after receiving many requests from readers. At that time the book had sold 500,000 copies and was just beginning to make an impact. The heart of my concern was Piper’s Christ-less heaven, a heaven where he experienced joy and love and bliss but did not experience the presence of the Savior. I went on to review many of the other “Heaven Tourism” books and remain very concerned about their popularity. This genre can’t run its course too soon.

The Bestsellers

A short time ago I launched a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. Today we look at a book that introduced many of us to one of this generation’s most popular preachers. The book is titled Your Best Life Now.

Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen

0978044653275_500X500Joel Osteen was born on March 5, 1963, the son of John and Dolores (known as “Dodie”) Osteen. John founded Lakewood Church in Houston Texas on May 10, 1959, and pastored the church until his death in 1999. While he began his career in ministry as a Baptist, he later experienced something he believed was the baptism of the Holy Spirit and founded Lakewood as a haven for charismatic Baptists. By the 1980s John and Dodie had become well-known among their fellow charismatics. The church had over 5,000 in attendance and their services were broadcast across the world. From a young age Joel was involved in this work, laboring behind the scenes in support of the family ministry.

When John Osteen died suddenly of a heart attack on January 23, 1999, Joel, who had preached his first sermon the week before, succeeded him as pastor with his wife, Victoria, serving as co-pastor. Very quickly, the church exploded in growth and Joel’s broadcasts become more popular than his father’s had ever been; his sermons, full of homespun wisdom and messages of self-empowerment, were heard all over the world and it was only a matter of time before he penned his first book.

In October 2004 FaithWords released Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The book is framed around seven steps meant to instruct the reader in living out God’s big dream for his life.

  1. Enlarge Your Vision. Osteen begins the book by teaching that God wants to make our lives easier and provide his people with special advantages and preferential treatment. We need to learn to expect good things from God so, for example, if we are in a crowded parking lot, we can pray, “Father, I thank you for leading and guiding me. Your favor will cause me to get a good spot.” Throughout the day we ought to declare “The favor of God is causing this company to want to hire me. The favor of God is causing me to stand out in the crowd.”
  2. Develop a Healthy Self-Image. In this section Osteen teaches that we are what we believe, that we need to think positive thoughts. “God sees you as strong and courageous, as a man or woman of great honor and value.” He bases much of this on the story of Abraham and Sarah, saying “I’m convinced that the key to the promise coming to pass was that Sarah had to conceive it in her heart before she was able to conceive it in her physical body.”
  3. Discover the Power of Your Thoughts and Words. Osteen wants us to believe that our thoughts and words have creative power. “Our words become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you allow your thoughts to defeat you and then give birth to negative ideas through your words, your actions will follow suit. That’s why we need to be extremely careful about what we think and especially careful about what we say. … Your words have enormous creative power. The moment you speak something out, you give birth to it.”
  4. Let Go of the Past. We need to let go of past hurts and past failures, knowing that these will only keep us from the blessing and favor God wants to pour out upon us.
  5. Find Strength Through Adversity. Osteen wants his readers to know that we cannot allow adversity to stop or slow us. “God has promised that He will turn your challenges into stepping-stones for promotion.”
  6. Live to Give. In this section he calls for compassion and kindness, using the principle that in order to receive, we have to first give. “If you’re struggling financially, go out and help somebody who has less than you have. If you want to reap financial blessings, you must sow financial seeds in the lives of others. If you want to see healing and restoration come to your life, go out and help somebody else get well.”
  7. Choose to Be Happy. In this final section he calls the reader to a life of happiness and excellence. “If you will start taking care of what God has given you, He’ll be more likely to give you something better.”

The great promise at the end of it all, is that by following these seven simple principles, each of us can have our best life now.

Sales & Lasting Impact

Your Best Life Now quickly debuted on the New York Times list of best-sellers and remained there for more than two years. By December, just three months after its release, Your Best Life Now had tallied over 500,000 sales and was awarded the Gold Book Award. In May 2005 it achieved 1 million sales and received the Platinum Book Award. To date it has sold over 4 million copies.

Osteen’s book was widely criticized by Christian leaders for ignoring the gospel of salvation through Christ’s atoning sacrifice in favor of a gospel of financial and life-wide prosperity. While Osteen claimed to be teaching biblical principles, he was instead picking and choosing isolated verses of the Bible to teach self-empowerment much as Norman Vincent Peale and so many others had done before him. In a helpful review of the book, Greg Gilbert summarizes it well: “Yes, Osteen talks about God throughout, but it is not the God of the Bible he has in mind. Osteen’s God is little more than the mechanism that gives the power to positive thinking. There is no cross. There is no sin. There is no redemption or salvation or eternity.” He continues: “If Joel Osteen wants to be the Norman Vincent Peale of the twenty-first century, he has every right to give it a shot. But he should stop marketing his message as Christianity, because it is not. You cannot simply make reference to God, quote some Scripture, call what you’re saying ‘spiritual principles’ and pass it off as Christianity. That’s the kind of thing that will have people ‘enlarging their vision’ and ‘choosing to be happy’ all the way to hell.”

Despite such critiques, the book proved extremely popular among Christians and non-Christians alike and was followed by a series of similar works.

Since the Award

Your Best Life Now catapulted Osteen to new heights of exposure and influence. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “10 Most Fascinating People of 2006” and in that same year readers of Church Report Magazine named him “Most Influential Christian in 2006.” He was invited to make many appearances on television programs including 60 Minutes, and he made much-publicized visits to Oprah Winfrey and Larry King. He also began to travel extensively and internationally for sold-out events called “A Night of Hope.”

Today Lakewood Church meets in what used to be the Compaq Center, the 16,000-seat former home of the Houston Rockets. Nearly 40,000 people attend each week, making Lakewood Church America’s largest congregation. Since Your Best Life Now, Osteen has authored several other books, most of which have appeared on the lists of bestsellers. They include Become a Better You, It’s Your Time, Every Day a Friday, I Declare, and Break Out.

A Personal Perspective

The very first time I saw Joel Osteen on television, he was speaking about the importance of a healthy diet, including the rejection of pork, shellfish, and other unhealthy foods. My son, who was probably five or six at the time, listened for a minute and said, “That’s not the gospel!” I learned that day that even a child can unmask his teaching as nothing more than a feel-good brand of self-empowerment. Shortly thereafter someone gave me a tongue-in-cheek gift: a copy of Your Best Life Now, the board game. It may well be one of the worst games ever created and includes looking in a mirror to say empowering and encouraging phrases to yourself.

I have written about Osteen and his books a few times over the years. He was the inspiration for an article I titled “Smilingly Leading You to Hell” in which I said, “Both the history of the church and contemporary Evangelical church are replete with nice people who are in complete rebellion against God. Is there anyone nicer than Joel Osteen? Yet is there anyone whose message has less of the gospel and more anti-biblical nonsense? You can watch him in this video, sitting with Oprah, receiving accolades, nicely, smilingly leading an eager crowd farther and farther from the cross. He is nice, but he, too, will nice you straight to the gates of hell, flashing that brilliant smile all the while.” I stand by those words.

Series Introduction: I live in a small house. I work in a small office in a small church. For those reasons and others I will never have a huge library. When I add a book I almost always remove a book, a practice that allows me to focus on quality over quantity. Over the past couple of years I have focused on building a collection of commentaries that will include only the best volumes on each book of the Bible. I know when I’m in way over my head, so before I began I collected every good resource I could find that rated and reviewed commentaries. I studied them and then began my collection on the basis of what the experts told me. Since I did all of that work, and since I continue to keep up with the project, I thought it might be helpful to share the recommendations.

My focus is on newer commentaries (at least in part because most of the classics are now freely or cheaply available) and I am offering approximately 5 recommendations for each book of the Bible, alternating between the Old Testament and the New. Today I have turned to the experts to find what they say about Ezekiel.

Ezekiel

EzekielDaniel Block – The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24; The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 25-48 (New International Commentary on the Old Testament). Block’s commentary is thorough but not dense. He deals with the text so closely that nothing is overlooked, but he doesn’t dwell there, often zooming right out to look at the book’s big picture as well. While there are other excellent commentaries on Ezekiel, the commentators on the commentaries are unanimous in their praise and most rate this one as the most important work on the book, and a must-have for anyone who wishes to preach through it. (Amazon: Volume 1, Volume 2)

Iain Duguid – Ezekiel (NIV Application Commentary). The NIV Application Commentary has some volumes that are much stronger than others and Duguid’s volume on Ezekiel is considered one of the best. Keith Mathison says, “Duguid’s commentary runs a very close second to Block in my estimation. For those who do not need the detail of Block, Duguid is the place to go. His is a very careful reading of the book from a Reformed perspective. Very helpful and highly recommended.” Other experts commend him for his pastoral tone. (Amazon)

EzekielDerek Thomas – God Strengthens: Ezekiel Simply Explained (Welwyn Commentary Series). This is considered an introductory commentary and one that will be helpful for the pastor or for the general reader. Derek Thomas has written a number of highly-regarded commentaries and this one reflects his strengths—Reformed theology, sound scholarship, and a pastoral emphasis. (Amazon)

Douglas Stuart – Ezekiel (The Preacher’s Commentary). This volume comes highly recommended by Derek Thomas (himself the author of a commentary on Ezekiel) and by Keith Mathison. Thomas says simply, “exceptionally good” while Mathison goes into more detail: “Stuart always has helpful insight into whatever text he is discussing, and when dealing with a book as difficult as Ezekiel, such insight is invaluable.” It seems like this would make a good third or fourth choice. (Amazon)

 

 

EzekielLeslie Allen – Ezekiel 1-19; Ezekiel 20-48 (Word Biblical Commentary). Apparently W.H. Brownlee began this two-volume set on Ezekiel but died before he could complete them. The work was taken over by Allen who has written a good, though technical, commentary. Tremper Longman assigns it 4 stars and says, “Allen is concerned with both the final form of the book as well as its composition.” Others show some caution but still regard it as a valuable reference work when taken in light of the volumes recommended above. (Amazon: Volume 1, Volume 2)

And how about you? Have you ever preached Ezekiel? What commentaries do you prefer?

 

The Bestsellers

This morning I am beginning a new Sunday series called “The Bestsellers.” The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association tracks sales of Christian books, and awards the Platinum Book Award for books whose sales exceed one million, and the Diamond Book Award for sales exceeding ten million. In this series I will look at the history and impact of some of the Christian books that have sold more than a million copies—no small feat when the average Christian books sells only a few thousand. We will encounter books by a cast of characters ranging from Joshua Harris, Randy Alcorn and David Platt all the way to Joel Osteen, Bruce Wilkinson and William Young. We begin with a book that received the Platinum Book Award in 2005: I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris

I Kissed Dating Goodbye
Purchase I Kissed Dating Goodbye From Amazon.Com


Joshua Harris was born in 1974, the first child of Gregg and Sono Harris. His parents were pioneers in the Christian homeschooling movement which was only in its infancy while Josh and his siblings were growing up. Gregg’s book The Christian Home School was a foundational text for homeschoolers and a Christian Booksellers Association bestselling title in 1988.

Josh grew up outside Portland, Oregon, and professed faith in Christ as a teenager. By the time he was 17, he was establishing himself as a leader and teacher, speaking at youth events and conferences. Beginning in 1994, he began publishing New Attitude, a magazine targeted at fellow homeschoolers, and one that quickly gained a substantial readership. He was now the second generation of Harris’s to make a mark in homeschool circles. His influence was about to extend far beyond what was then still a small and close-knit community.

In 1997 Multnomah Publishers released I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a book Harris had written when he was just twenty-one years old. In this book he tells why he rejected dating in favor of courtship, and he calls on his readers to do the same. He believes courtship represents a better and more biblically-faithful model of beginning and building a romantic relationship.

Dating, as understood and practiced by many believers and unbelievers alike, too often proves an obstacle rather than an aide to living for God’s glory. Harris suggests that dating comes with at least seven serious pitfalls. Dating…

  1. …leads to intimacy, but not necessarily to commitment.
  2. … tends to pass over the “friendship” stage of a relationship.
  3. … often mistakes physical intimacy for love.
  4. … often isolates a couple from other important relationships.
  5. … distracts young adults from their primary responsibility for these years, which is preparing for the future.
  6. … can cause discontentment with God’s gift of singleness.
  7. … creates an artificial environment for evaluating another person’s character.

The cultural expectation for teenagers and young adults is that they will experience a succession of short-term romances before finally finding true love and settling down with one person. This system, though, is built to fail. When people finally do marry, they often do so with a long history of heartbreaks, baggage, and sexual failure.

Writing from the perspective of personal experience, Harris says that in place of this kind of “dumb love,” Christians ought to emphasize “smart love.” Where dumb love is primarily concerned with self, smart love begins with a love for God and matures into love and concern for others. Smart love manifests itself in courtship, which is simply dating with purpose. He does not describe dating as a model that is necessarily sinful, but as a lesser option than courtship. Courtship is superior because it is meant to protect against heartache and regret.

Sales & Lasting Impact

By 2001 I Kissed Dating Goodbye had sold 714,000 copies and received ECPA’s Gold Book Award (given to books exceeding 500,000 copies sold). Four years later it had reached the million threshold and was awarded the Platinum Book Award.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye suddenly and unexpectedly catapulted the word “courtship” into mainstream Evangelicalism and sparked a wide-ranging controversy over dating and romance. Christians were forced to examine what they believed about romantic relationships. For many Christians, this was the first time they had considered the issue. Harris was not interesting in re-introducing ancient models of courtship and romance as much as he wished to call couples to consider dating with purpose. In many cases his book succeeded in doing this. It was read and discussed in youth groups around the world and caused countless teens to consider an alternative to casual dating.

The discussion his book generated was integral in shaping his generation of young Christians. As that generation has grown up and matured, some now commend and some now condemn the book. Where many followed the book’s counsel and avoided the relational difficulties and baggage that so often come hand-in-hand with casual dating, others insist it led to confusion and anxiety when it came to forming relationships and finding a marriage partner. Some saw courtship become a divisive issue within local churches, with Christians rallying to one side or the other.

Since 1997, a multitude of books have critiqued or affirmed Harris’ approach, while others have nuanced it, often teaching similar principles but without the use of the controversial word “courtship.” Courtship has continued to be a hot-button issue, especially in very conservative Christian circles. It was Harris who established courtship as a legitimate alternative to dating, and it is feasible that the modern courtship movement would not exist had it not been for I Kissed Dating Goodbye.

Since the Award

Harris’ ideas on dating and courtship were more fully developed in Boy Meets Girl, a book he wrote after marrying his wife, Shannon. In 2009 he wrote an article titled “What I’ve Learned Since I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and here he said he stands by the basic message of the book: that short-term romantic attachments can be a big distraction from serving God—especially for teenagers. However, he also explained how his book had proven divisive in some contexts:

I’ve also seen that a legalistic application of these ideas can be unhelpful, too. One of my main concerns in my church or any other church is that there be no disunity among Christians over issues of dating and courtship. We need to learn to hold our own convictions on this matter with charity. Most importantly we need to make sure that our convictions are shaped by scripture—not culture, church culture or my books.

I Kissed Dating Goodbye propelled Harris to the public eye and gave him a wide platform. However, even as he was given every opportunity to become a “professional Christian,” he became convinced of the primacy of the local church in Christian life and, in 1997, moved across the country to Gaithersburg, Maryland. There he became a member of Covenant Life Church and received on-the-job pastoral training under the mentorship of C.J. Mahaney. New Attitude magazine was put aside in 1997 in favor of New Attitude conferences which began in 1999 and continued in various forms until 2012. In 2004 Harris succeeded Mahaney as pastor of Covenant Life Church, a position he holds to this day. He is married with three children and has written several more books: Boy Meets Girl (2000); Sex Is Not the Problem, Lust Is (first published as Not Even a Hint) (2003); Stop Dating the Church (2004); Dug Down Deep (2010); and Humble Orthodoxy (2013).

We All Feel Like Frauds

Sometimes we all feel like frauds. At times we feel like everyone else is experiencing something so wonderful while we are just putting on a show. Their relationships are so deep, their friendships are so real, their faith is so strong, their worship is so heartfelt, their marriage is so satisfying. But our relationships are so shallow, our friendships are so fake, our faith is so weak, our worship is so distracted, our marriage is so difficult.

That’s life under this sun. It’s a life of inadequacy, a life where we are never as fulfilled and satisfied as we want to be. For all the genuine joys this life brings, there is still and always the lingering sorrow of all that life is not and will never be.

Sometimes I like to sit and think about the books that push their way onto the lists of bestsellers. Almost by definition, each of the books that sells a half million or a million copies is addressing some kind of deep felt need. After all, why else would you buy it and why else would you recommend it to a friend except that it meets you where you’re at—it promises help in an area in which you feel incomplete or inadequate.

  • The Purpose Driven Life promised to answer the ultimate question of life by helping us find our purpose. And who hasn’t felt unmoored, adrift, and purposeless in this world?
  • Jesus Calling promised us more than hearing from God through the Bible. It held out the promise, or the possibility, that Jesus might speak to us in a new and fresh way and, perhaps even better, in a personal way.
  • The Five Love Languages promised that it would give us better and longer-lasting relationships as we figured out how to relate in healthier ways.
  • The Shack promised a new way to understand God and a much more personal way to relate to him than any we have known this side of Eden.
  • 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven Is For Real—and all the other entries in the “I Went to Heaven” genre—promised answers to what we can only take by faith: that there is hope and life beyond the grave.
  • Radical promised to help us shake off the unfulfilling dullness of the American Dream and to pursue something so much bigger and nobler than the accumulation of possessions and a savings account.
  • Your Best Life Now promised that our lives could be better and happier, more fulfilling and more positive.

And on it goes. Every time a book hits the list of bestsellers, it is worth asking why it is there and what need it promises to address. There is the occasional exception, the occasional book that sells a million copies based on the popularity of the author (see anything related to Duck Dynasty) or because of brilliant marketing, but most books make the list because we put them there as we try to find answers to our deepest needs. Some of the most popular authors are adept at writing to our needs, even if they don’t answer them in a compelling and satisfying way.

A year ago I wrote about this very topic and suggested that the solution is found in Ecclesiastes and the single word Vapor. This was the refuge of Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes. He begins his book and he ends it with the same cry of discontent: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” All of the pursuits of this life are vanity, all of them are vapor, all of them are chasing after the wind, an impossible pursuit that never ends and never brings deep and lasting satisfaction.

Has anyone in all of literary history written words that are more poignant, more unflinchingly realistic, than these?

All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Has anyone ever written words than ring truer? We are dissatisfied because we must be dissatisfied. God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) but we locked ourselves in a temporal world. God created us to find our highest joy and delight in him, but we chose to seek delight in the things he made. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. Even those of us who have been drawn back to the Creator still turn to this side and that, to this idol and that.

We can cry out that we were made for more, that we were meant for more, from now until eternity. We will cry out from now until eternity. We will simply be expressing what Solomon told us so much more pointedly so many years ago. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” This world cannot deliver all we want from it. This life cannot deliver all the satisfaction we long for.

This dissatisfaction is ugly when it paralyzes us with guilt or when it motivates us to act rashly out of guilt. It is unhelpful when it traps us in complacency and despair. Solomon did not advocate guilt, he did not cry out in complacency and hopelessness. Far from it.

I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

This dissatisfaction is a gift when it motivates us to pursue the best and purest source of delight. God’s gift to us is that we find all the pleasure we can, all the pleasure there is, in the good things of this life. God’s gift is that we can pause and enjoy the rich scent of a rose in full bloom. We can linger in lovemaking and enjoy the pleasure of every sensation. We can watch the sunset until darkness has taken the sun’s last ray from the sky. These are pleasures to enjoy to the full and with God’s richest blessing.

Even two thousand years ago Solomon could say, “Of making many books there is no end.” There is no end of books that expose our dissatisfaction and propose solutions. None of the solutions last. None of the solutions deliver all we want and all we long for. You could follow every application in every one of those books and you would still be discontent. We will all die dissatisfied, still longing for more. But. But those who die in Christ have the great promise that we will awake to all the pleasures, all the satisfaction we have ever longed for, and so much more besides.

When I was a child my family owned a cottage—a beautiful cottage where I spent every summer of my childhood. On those long, warm, summer evenings, we would sometimes have friends and neighbors from up and down the road converge on our property for giant games of capture the flag. Those were grand nights—the kind of nights that form indelible memories.

One of the things I loved to do when we played capture the flag was to set trip lines. I would string a rope between two trees and wait in the dusk for some unsuspecting person to stumble across it and go down. Looking at it through adult eyes it sounds like a recipe for a cracked skull or broken ankle, but it seemed like good, clean fun back then.

The memory of stringing trip lines flashed into my mind recently, because something I read in a book took me out at the knees, so to speak. And down I went.

Vaughan Robert’s little book True Friendship has a lot to commend it, but there is one thing that stood out more than any other. Before I get to it, though, allow me a brief aside. I’ve thought often about this old blog post from Bob Kauflin:

But even if I don’t read as many books as others, I read. If I’m not reading, I’m relying on my memory. Which seems to be decreasing daily. So I read. I once heard someone say that books don’t change people – sentences do. If I glean two or three sentences from a book that affect the way I think and the way I live, that’s time well invested. So I read. Books give me the opportunity to learn from and about godly, bright, insightful people I’ll never meet. So I read. What I know will always be dwarfed by what I don’t know. So I read. Books help me become more effective at what I do. So I read.

I read for the same reasons. Like Bob, I forget almost everything I read. But I don’t mind, because I don’t want or need to remember everything, so long as I find those two or three sentences that will be resounding in my heart and mind a week or month or year from now.

In Roberts’ book I came across one of those lines, one of those sentences, that has stuck with me and, I think, will continue to do so. It was a question, a simple question aimed at doing what every Christian wants to do: Destroy sin and pursue holiness. Roberts was talking about the kind of friendship men ought to have with one another and the kinds of questions they should be asking each another as they go through life together. Here is what he wants his friends to ask him: If you were the devil, where would you attack yourself?

Yes, that simple question was the trip line. And it leveled me. It’s an obvious question, I suppose. I feel like the guy who discovers that great television show when it’s in its final season and everyone else has been talking about it for years. Yet I don’t think I have ever asked the question of myself and I’m certain I have never asked it of a friend. I’m equally certain a friend has never asked it of me (and I’ve got some pretty good friends who ask me some pretty good questions).

Here’s the thing: We know that Satan and his demons have made a long and scrutinizing study of humanity. They have had millennia to study us, to get to know us, to learn how to tempt us. They have had thirty-seven years to study me, to get to know me, to learn how to tempt me. They have studied us as humanity since the Garden of Eden and I presume they have studied me as an individual since the day I was born. And they must always be asking themselves, “Where can we attack him? Where is he weak? Where is he prone to sin? Where is he lax? Where is he undisciplined? Where is he giving up?”

What I find so helpful about Roberts’ question is that it anticipates an attack in my areas of weakness and calls me not only to identify those vulnerabilities, but to involve a brother in strengthening me right there.

Why don’t you consider asking the question next time you’re with a friend. If you were the devil, where would you attack yourself? The answer will show you exactly where you can help, strengthen, and pray for your friend.

Series Introduction: I live in a small house. I work in a small office in a small church. For those reasons and others I will never have a huge library. When I add a book I almost always remove a book, a practice that allows me to focus on quality over quantity. Over the past couple of years I have focused on building a collection of commentaries that will include only the best volumes on each book of the Bible. I know when I’m in way over my head, so before I began I collected every good resource I could find that rated and reviewed commentaries. I studied them and then began my collection on the basis of what the experts told me. Since I did all of that work, and since I continue to keep up with the project, I thought it might be helpful to share the recommendations.

My focus is on newer commentaries (at least in part because most of the classics are now freely or cheaply available) and I am offering approximately 5 recommendations for each book of the Bible, alternating between the Old Testament and the New. Today I have turned to the experts to find what they say about Lamentations.

Lamentations

House LamentationsDuane Garrett and Paul House – Song of Songs / Lamentations (Word Biblical Commentary). The WBC always seems to come with a warning about its unfortunate and unhelpful format. Still, many of the volumes are excellent, and the volume on Lamentations is said to be one of them (Garrett prepared the commentary on Song of Songs and House prepared the commentary on Lamentations). Keith Mathison says, “He deals with every aspect of the text and digs into the theology of the book. Although somewhat technical, it is very useful.” This sounds like as good a place to begin as any. (Amazon)

J. Andrew Dearman – Jeremiah / Lamentations (NIV Application Commentary). While the NIVAC is an uneven series, the volume covering Jeremiah and Lamentations is regarded as a sound choice for any reader, but especially the more general reader. Tremper Longman says it reflects, “A very sensitive theological reading that also brings these two books into touch with the contemporary world. In keeping with the series, Dearman does not deal with technical issues.” (Amazon)

 

Ryken LamentationsPhilip Ryken – Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope (Preaching the Word). Ryken’s commentary is based on a sermon series he preached through the two books of Jeremiah while senior pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. His theological perspective is distinctly Evangelical and Reformed. Derek Thomas considers it “a superb expositional commentary” and points out that it includes a helpful index of sermon illustrations. Because it is based on sermons, it would make an ideal resource for someone interested in exploring the book devotionally. (Amazon)

Tremper Longman – Jeremiah, Lamentations (New International Biblical Commentary). Tremper Longman is both a commentator and a commentator on the commentaries. His volume on Jeremiah and Lamentations is regarded as one of the best. Mathison says, “This recent commentary by a well-known evangelical author fills a gap by providing for a general audience the fruits of the most up-to-date scholarship on the book of Jeremiah [and Lamentations]. Although easily accessible, Longman provides numerous literary and theological insights into the book.” (Amazon)

I had a difficult time finding a consensus fifth pick for Lamentations. Having said that, I would probably gravitate toward one of the conservative and/or Reformed series like Mentor. I trust John Mackay’s volume would be both accessible and firmly grounded in truth. (Amazon)

Let me close with a couple of questions: Have you ever preached through Lamentations? What are your preferred commentaries? Are there some you’ve found particularly helpful for preaching or devotional purposes?