It is hard to know how to categorise this book. Its general theme is clear enough: wisdom for right living. But is it a book to be read through, to be used as a reference, or perhaps as a traditional 'daily devotional'? Each of the 75 four-page chapters addresses one aspect of the 'wise living' idea and follows a fixed format. There is a chatty two-page introduction, including sound-bite quotations and some thoughts on priorities. The third page is a further list of quotations from great and small, while page four collects together some Bible verses and finishes with a section called "My Priorities for Life". There are typically three of these for each chapter, making a massive 225 'priorities' for the whole book. In style these vary from the quasi-creedal ("I believe that greatness in God's kingdom relates to service, not status", p.29), to something more reminiscent of New Year's resolutions ("I try to associate with people who, by their actions and their words, will encourage me to become a better person", p.33).
Despite the suggestion made by the book's introduction, I challenge anyone to have a meaningful, indigestion-free experience reading through it from cover to cover. Its use as a reference is also somewhat hampered by the format of 75 short chapters, since this clearly involves a good deal of overlap, if not repetition. However, given a little patience, scanning the table of contents should at least lead the reader to some apt quotations — useful for those preparing talks. Otherwise, the book's main potential would seem to be for one-chapter-a-day devotional reading.
The book's basic premise is that the type of life you lead depends ultimately on the ongoing choices you make, and these choices will depend on the priorities you set yourself. These priorities need to be consciously formed, since "if you fail to prioritize your day, life will automatically do the job for you." (p.14). In forming these priorities, you need to work out whether you rate society's values or God's values more highly. This all seems sound. At its best, the book's approach exemplifies the great (and biblical) tradition of a seamless blend of secular and religious wisdom. Much common and Christian sense is to be found in these pages, for example in areas like attitudes to money and generosity. Quotations are drawn from a wide range of thinkers and speakers — again including secular ones such as Winston Churchill, a great master of aphorism — and most readers will find food for thought (and perhaps for talks) here.
The book's format runs into difficulties in at least two areas, however. Firstly, there is no serious consideration given to the question of how far and in what way worldly concepts of 'success' can be transferred to the life of faith. Thus one 'recipe for success' starts naturally enough with "Put God First", and then continues like any secular self-help manual: do your best, keep learning, be patient, but give up when there is no point going on (p.22-23), and culminates in the suggested 'life priority' of "I believe God did not create me for a life of mediocrity; He has bigger things in mind" (p.25). No doubt trained counsellors would have something to say about that 'priority'. The book's authors evidently represent a particular kind of up-beat, can-do mentality more commonly found among those blessed with prosperity. Thus one suspects that "I believe that emotions are contagious, so I try to associate with people who are upbeat, optimistic and encouraging" (p.37) would have a particularly hollow ring to those who belong to, or minister among, the world's needy.
The second difficulty arises from the 'sound bite' nature of much of the material. Thus, while the priority "I understand that it's more important to be respected than to be liked" (p.33) was presumably intended to communicate something about the importance of character, it could easily be mistaken for the credo of an urban street gang.
A further significant difficulty arises from the book's working premise that, in order to set right priorities, it is necessary to discover "God's unfolding purpose for your life". The biblically dubious, and pastorally sometimes catastrophic, teaching that God has a specific plan for each individual's life which that believer has to discover if they are not to miss out on "God's best" still pervades popular Christianity despite having been very effectively debunked (See especially Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God, Multnomah, 2000). The book under review here has bought fully into that teaching, however: "I believe that success requires that I know God's plan for my life" (p.25), and even misquotes Psalm 16 in order to suggest that this teaching is biblical (p.19).
In summary, if someone gives you this book, you could find it a fruitful source of useful quotations, and you may find some good practical advice among its pages. You might even use it as a devotional for a while. But I am not sure I would go out and buy it.
Jeremy Kirby, September 2008
Jeremy Kirby teaches at Calvary Chapel Bible College in Siegen, Germany, and is a Distance Learning student on London School of Theology's MA course in Hermeneutics. He is married to Claudia and has two sons.Hendrickson | Comments? Feedback? | Order from www.christianbookshops.org