Monday, December 16, 2019


Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series

I have been drawn in again by Iggulden’s writing. Having previously enjoyed his Wars of the Roses and Julius Caesar Emperor series, I have now delved into the 12th and 13th century of Mongolia and the empire of Genghis Khan. I have read a bit of historical fiction about the women around Genghis Kahn before, so had a rough idea of some events, but this was excellent.

As I worked my way through the five books, I was regularly astonished at the discoveries within. The empire that Genghis Khan and his sons established is truly astonishing. I don’t think there has ever been anything like it.

Wolf of the Plains starts with Genghis (named Temujin) as a small boy, son of a local Khan (tribal leader). When he dies, his wife and 6 children are turned out by the clan, as other men claim the leadership. Through pure dedication and wits, their mother Hoelin keeps the children alive and they slowly re-establish themselves. But anger drives Genghis, and a desire for revenge. He has realised just how many tribes of the Mongol lands fight one another in a desire for power, as well as how many people exist without a clan. He decides to unite them all. He seems to have had a truly impressive force of personality, as well as a cutthroat willingness to destroy all things in his path. By the end of Book 1, he has gathered most of the local tribes together to make a great nation.

In Lords of the Bow, he has come to realise that the Chin empires to the East have subtly controlled and corralled the powers of his people for centuries. He sets out to change it and forces his way into Chin lands, past their great walls and mountain passes, making numerous cities his vassals and forcing the emperor to his knees.

In Bones of the Hills while on the brink of complete control of the Chin lands, Genghis withdraws and sends the bulk of his armies west to fight against the Arabic nations who have dared to oppose him.

Throughout there are detailed and extended accounts of the way battles worked and how the fighting forces moved and operated. It was fascinating. At the same time, there are many personal details about Genghis’ own family life and the struggles within. His eldest son Jochi was never certainly his, as his wife was captured by invaders at the time she fell pregnant, so he never warmed to him and his second son Chagatai was the one he favoured.

In time though the rivalry between the two older boys leads him to name his third son, Ogedai as heir. In the fourth, Empire of Silver, we see what happens when the khanate has passed from father to son. As extensive as the exploits of Genghis were, I was continually surprised to see just how far the Mongolian raiders went over this time. They headed north and routed Moscow, and then crossed the Carpathian mountains and invaded Poland and Hungary. It seems they were on the brink of completing overtaking Europe. Book 5 (Conqueror) tells the tale of the next few khans, which was equally fascinating.

In his book Human Race, Ian Mortimer acknowledges that if the scope of his research has extended beyond the west, Genghis Khan would have been included as one of the key agents of change of the whole period. His complete scope of influence on the Asian continent was almost unmeasurable. Mortimer also noted that the introduction of projectile weapons (arrows, guns and cannons) completely changed warfare. It seems that the Mongolians were unparalleled in their bowmanship. All were trained from a young age and could shoot arrows on horseback with unparalleled precision. They literally mowed down an enemy before every reaching them in hand-to-hand combat.

I appreciate Iggulden’s acknowledgement of facts vs fiction at the end of each book. It is clear from the copyright pages that the events and people referred to are real, but this is indeed historical fiction. Iggulden clearly has filled in many gaps with his own creativity, yet you are still left with a sense of awe at what this dynasty achieved.

Monday, December 9, 2019


CrossTalk, Michael R. Emlet

I read this book as part of one of my CCEF courses and I am very glad I did. Emlet has brought together in a skilled and nuanced way several key factors in biblical interpretation and application:

  1. The ability to read a text in its redemptive-historical framework, understanding it’s literary genre, initial purpose and initial readers.
  2. The way to interpret that passage in light of Jesus work of saving grace.
  3. How to then apply that passage today in ways that both do justice to the original purpose of the text, and also make it ‘living and active’ for today reader.

Up front he is clear about his purpose:
“Consider this book a hybrid of sorts, a resource to help you understand both people and the bible thoroughly. This book gives attention to interpreting the biblical text and interpreting the person.”
His goal is to deal with what he terms “microethics”: “how we use Scripture to meaningfully intersect with a particular person’s life as we minister to him or her.”

This book is aimed at anyone who wants to make these two aspects work well together. I felt that he summed up my own experience from a strong bible learning tradition in a nutshell: “If you’re like me, you have probably received more instruction on how to study the Bible than you have on how to practically use it in your life and ministry.”
“This book should help you interpret people as well as Scripture and suggest relevant biblical applications that will benefit those around you. This should be true whether you are involved in a formal teaching or discipling ministry, in professional counseling, or in impromptu discussions at the local cafĂ©.”
The early chapters address how to read the bible and spend the time ensuring that you understand the passage as it was written. What is also crucial is to read it in a historical-salvation framework:
“Knowing how the story ends, we ask, “What difference does the death and resurrection of Jesus make for how I understand this passage?” The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climax of redemption initiated in the Old Testament and the sure foundation for the life of the newly formed church.”
Later chapters look more at understanding people, for as Emlet says:
“To apply Scripture to our contemporary lives, we also need to understand people.… I want to give some overarching categories for understanding and approaching people.”
Using the ideas of Walsh and Middleton he says there are four basic worldview questions we can ask of people:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Who are we?
  3. What’s wrong? 
  4. What’s the remedy?

Another way forward is to approach people as saints, sufferers and sinners. Each person has aspects of all three, and being balanced in our understanding of their faithfulness, struggles and temptations enables us to be more nuanced in our counsel:
“God’s redemptive words confirm our identity as the chosen people of God, console and comfort his afflicted people, and confront the ways we turn away from his character and redemptive work.”
Emlet then turns to combining our understanding of the bible with our understanding of people.
“Reading the Bible without reading the person is a recipe for irrelevance in ministry. Reading the person without reading the Bible is a recipe for ministry lacking the life-changing power of the Spirit working through his Word…Rather, the goal of reading Scripture and reading people together is so that we can help others increasingly reflect the character and kingdom priorities of Jesus Christ.”
He starts with some overarching principles, and then uses extended examples of two different people to assist with his explanations, showing how he would counsel them from a passage in the Old Testament and the New, neither of which would have been passages most people would first turn to.

If you want to get the most of this book, you will have to do some work alongside it. Emlet has put a lot of thought into how to guide the reader along the process of learning, and so the explanations, exercises and questions at the end of every chapter will assist greatly for those that invest the time.

Many people I know already take this approach seriously, that is, reading the bible in the context it is in, the finding the larger context in the frame of biblical history and how it relates to Christ, and then bringing it to appropriate application for today. I am part of a church tradition that highly values this method in preaching, bible study and personal counselling. I do this myself in these areas. But I was reminded and challenged again of how important it is to do this well. By well, I mean accurately: actually getting to the heart of what the bible passage meant for those readers, how it is fulfilled in Christ and what that means now. But, I also mean, how we talk to people about the bible in ways that are natural, encouraging and challenging. How we really bring God’s word to bear appropriately in people’s lives today.

So, this is a very helpful book that takes seriously the claim that the bible contains everything we need for life and salvation. By encouraging the reader to take the bible very seriously and properly use it in a redemptive-historical way, Emlet paves the way for those who minister the word to do so in ways that are accurate, sensitive, and truly founded on Christ and his gospel.

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Small Book for the Anxious Heart

A Small Book for the Anxious Heart, Edward T. Welch

Edward Welch has followed up his small meditative book on anger with this one on anxiety, A Small Book for the Anxious Heart: Meditations on Fear, Worry and Trust.

Many of my comments about that book also apply to this one, so feel free to go back to that review.

Each short chapter is 2-3 pages, and as such it’s a primer for hearts that worry. It will start to address the issues you face, and where your heart is in it, but it won’t be extensive. Some chapters are to prompt further thought, some are explicit biblical teaching, and some are challenges to your own behaviour. There was no clear order that I could determine, it meanders through topics and seems to double back to things. Yet this works for many. I strongly prefer a clear structure, but not everyone does. And with the format used, it needs to and does have continual grace, teaching and challenge scattered throughout.

He notes:
“The aim of this book is to help us become more skillful in how we identify our fears and anxieties, hear God’s good words, and grow. You could say that our goal is wisdom. Wisdom is another name for skill in living.”
He wisely observes at several points that this wisdom takes time, anxiety works now. Change is slow and gradual, but worries are now and immediate.

Some comments that I found helpful:
“The dilemma is that worries tell you to take matters into your own hands, but that message needs to be altered to say, “What a perfect opportunity to trust the God who is strong, loving, and faithful.” 
“Faith in Jesus will not replace your fears. Instead your faith will coexist with your fears and begin to quiet them. You will learn, by faith, to see your life from Jesus’s perspective and to trust that he is your ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).”
Regarding the power of prayer:
“Left to myself I spin out doomsday scenarios, hoping that my frenetic mind will stumble into some answers. But when I go to my heavenly Father and tell him my worries, when I remember his words to me (an ever-present help in trouble), and when I thank him for his care, the peace of Christ does begin to rule my heart and mind. It’s a miracle that still takes me by surprise.”
Comments about worrying about death and the future:
“In response, we remember that today has enough troubles of its own, and we live in the grace that the Lord liberally gives us today. Don’t try to imagine a diagnosis of cancer. You do not yet have tomorrow’s grace, so your imagination will tell an incomplete story of the future. If you are going to venture out into the future, continue far enough out so that the story ends with you welcomed into heaven for an eternity of no more sorrow, tears, and fears (Revelation 21:4)”
Overall, it’s a helpful way for someone facing worries and challenges to come before God regularly for a period of time to consider the promises of God and what it means to work through anxieties and cast our worries on the Lord. As habits are formed by daily repetition, this could help someone with worries and fears to daily stop, and consider God’s place in their worries. However, this is probably not a book for someone with chronic anxiety, at least not on their own.

Because it's really only a simple treatment, some readers will be left wanting. For example, Day 6 notes that your past can shape your present worries. This is a pretty light approach to dealing with potentially major issues, with the only answer seeming to be ‘go to Jesus more’. Many people need much more help with their past than this.

As with his book on anger, there were reflection questions at the end of each chapter to prompt further thought, which is a helpful place to leave people - if they make the effort to use it. I would have loved to see more suggestions for prayer for many chapters would have naturally led to thanksgiving or confession, and actively encouraging that response would have been beneficial.

A book of little reflections that those struggling with worries and anxieties may well find helpful.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.