Book Review: A Little Book on Joy: The Secret of Living a Goods News Life in a Bad News World. By Matthew C. Harrison. Fort Wayne: Lutheran Legacy Press, 2009. 212 pages. Paperback. $9.99; quantity discount. Review by Robert C. Baker.
Reverend Matt Harrison’s newest book, A Little Book on Joy: The Secret of Living a Good News Life in a Bad News World, could not have come at a better time. Ongoing political strife, regardless of one’s party or affiliation, an economy still severely weak in the knees, declining membership and shrinking bank accounts among mainline denominations, massive personal and governmental debt, distrust of politicians and the political process, and the crushing power of nature—think Port-au-Prince—might give us cause for having no joy at all. But in steps Harrison, brushy mustachoed and bespectacled, Rough-Rider ready to storm the hill of gloom and despair. Bully! Or rather in the words of St. Paul, “Rejoice. . . again I say, rejoice!” It’s that refrain from Philippians 4:4 that reverberates throughout A Little Book of Joy.
Here, I must admit the appearance of this joy-filled book caught me a bit off guard. First, I was surprised at its release so soon after Harrison’s previous erudite tome, At Home in the House of My Fathers (Lutheran Legacy, 2009). I confess that I still have not finished reading many of the delightful and edifying essays from our Lutheran forefathers in that work, many of which were translated by Harrison from the German. Second, the title of A Little Book on Joy is itself a surprise since Lutherans, especially those claiming to be orthodox in both doctrine and pilsner, are often a dour bunch. Surely it is self-evident that Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee was written by a Presbyterian, not a Lutheran, although in defense we do have Bach cantatas and lutefisk and plenty of coffee. Yet A Little Book on Joy proves that when it comes to joy, other traditions have not cornered the market.
After a generous and rich “Prelude to this Ode of Joy” by the Rev. John Nunes, Harrison divides his newest work into twenty manageable chapters, each covering an aspect of joy and each taking an average reader 6-8 minutes to read. Peppered throughout are humorous illustrations by the Rev. Kurt D. Onken (Onken boldly captures the author on p. 152). The chapters are chock-full with Scripture, historical references, personal stories, and occasional explanations of Greek terms. Clearly, Harrison has done his homework. While the style of writing is conversational and engaging, A Little Book of Joy is no puff piece one might find in the spirituality shelves in the local Christian bookstore. Rather, Harrison writes as a husband, father, and pastor, covering a breadth of topics related to joy without sacrificing theological depth. Here systematic and applied theology are successfully wedded for the edification of the reader. Harrison is transparent, one might even say vulnerable, as he candidly tells stories from his own past. To reinforce the spiritual insights, each Scripture-drenched chapter ends with thought-provoking study questions penned by Professor John Pless. Yet, the book has even more surprises. Although subtitled, The Secret of Living a Good News Life in a Bad News World, closer inspection reveals a “secret” in each chapter. Take worship, for example. With his customary humility (although he is a big man, he is not proud), in chapter eleven Harrison expresses “surprise and wonder of not being rejected by Christ” (p. 80). Which theologian alive today would utter such a confession, much less publish it? Obviously, this theologian does. Here Harrison connects us to the historic liturgy of the Church, in which the Old Adam is crucified in repentance and the new man emerges full of Spirit-given faith and vigor. It is such man who can rejoice, as Harrison does, in the surprise and wonder of it all: “It’s the delight of being invited into his presence—not to perform or recount my deeds, but to be forgiven and accepted. . . Greatest wonder of wonders, the Lord rejoices precisely over sinners” (p. 80).
Such a confession, both of sins and sins forgiven, can only be forged in the crucible of experience, in being crucified with Christ. For those called by the Lord to serve the Church, that also occurs within the Church. Readers will find that A Little Book on Joy is no flight of fancy to a mystically and perfectly emerging, organic, and missional Church (apart from the Gospel preached and administered) this side of heaven. Rather, the paradox of holy Church in an unholy world is laid bare. Expounding upon Ephesians 5:25-27, 1 Timothy 3:15, and 1 Corinthians 12:1ff, Harrison writes, “[The Church] only appears in this world hidden under the guise of poor sinners, flawed leaders, tensions, divisions, and even false teaching. This is at once both disturbing and comforting” (p. 166). Disturbing to be sure, but as I often say, “The Gospel liberates us from the bondage of denial.” We can look pain, suffering, and death in the face with confidence, fortified with the sure knowledge of sins forgiven because of Christ, and radiating with the power of His resurrection. Fixing our eyes upon Jesus, we can endure our crosses because of the awesome joy God sets before us: eternal life with Christ in a new heaven and a new earth (Hebrews 12:2).
A Little Book of Joy closes with two unique features not commonly associated with devotional books. First, there is an afterword by reconciler Bernie Seter. Concerning the book Seter writes, “Matt kept his promise and didn’t try to give us a ‘joy-o-meter’. . . or ‘Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Put Joy into Your life.’ What he gave us was. . . Jesus.” Seter’s assessment is accurate. A second and final feature is a section consisting of daily Scripture texts and prayers that individuals or groups could use from Ash Wednesday through Pentecost, or any 90-day period upon which to reflect upon joy. If I have only one critical comment about the book, it is this: it is little. Although at 212 pages, the trim size does not permit a more exhaustive treatment. Harrison should consider expanding the work so that it contains 52 chapters, one for each week of the year. Additionally, I could see how some of the chapters could be arranged according to topics, from which a sermon series could be developed. However, for now A Little Book of Joy packs a big punch against the devil’s schemes to rob us of the great, spiritual gift of joy, and this little book does so by giving us Christ.
Robert C. Baker is Senior Editor of Adult Bible Studies at Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri