Sunday, October 21, 2007

3:16 - The Numbers of Hope Review

I just finished Max Lucado's most recent book, 3:16 - The Numbers of Hope. The book was launched, auspiciously, on September 11 as a hopeful note to counter the five-year commemoration of the /11 attack, in what Zondervan deemed one of its boldest publishing moves. I agree, though perhaps not for the reasons they intended. The book is a short text followed by a forty-day devotional. Lucado created the book as an exposition on what is perhaps the single most-quoted and well-known text of the New Testament, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." The text is a remarkable one, to be sure, and Lucado spends each chapter discussing either some aspect of the passage or ideas suggested by it.

The text itself is short, around 160-175 pages of general text followed by about 60 pages of devotional material. Each chapter is quick reading in and of itself, almost devotional length at my quick reading speed, but probably about 35-45 minutes reading for the average reader. The book itself took me only about an hour and half to two hours to read start to finish. Lucado essentially steps through the text of the verse in question, inserting several chapters that diverge from the text itself but follow related concepts and ideas. He also brings in a considerable number of anecdotes from present-day life to contemplate his meditations on Nicodemus' questions and Christ's answers.

The text reads much like what I imagine Lucado's sermons sound like: conversational, low-key, and very down to earth. This isn't high-brow theology; it isn't even low-brow theology: it's basic exposition, which is often an area neglected by preachers who either run towards deep theology or, on the other end of the spectrum, simply jump off into helpful advice with little reference to Scripture. His style is more that of a speaker than a writer; his words are quick-flowing and conversational. He integrates exposition on Scripture with his own stories, typically using the former as introduction to and conclusion to the chapters and the latter as filler. The devotionals are quick and snappy, filled with short thoughts that, while not directly related to the text, are also expository on the text and intended to inspire reaction to the power of the words of John 3:16.

The merits of the book are its focus on the incomparable grace of God and His work in our lives. Lucado draws our attention to the power of the words of John 3:16, which have been heard so many times that they have perhaps become something of a cliche in Christian circles, to the point where we miss their meaning. His meditations on the passage are always Scriptural, which is a pleasant change from some other books I've read recently which bordered on (or outright crossed into) heresy. This was particularly valuable when he spoke about Hell, pulling no punches about Scripture's clear demarcation of the line between salvation and condemnation. Most of the stories he offers as helpful commentary are fairly fresh and engaging. There were few to no grammatical or spelling errors in this book (a pet peeve of mine).

Unfortunately, the demerits of the book outweigh its merits. While Lucado's intent was apparently to take a fresh look at John 3:16 and invoke a new sense of wonder at the text - something well worth doing - I don't believe he succeeded. Indeed, I wonder if this book won't simply reinforce the very stereotypical and trite views of many Christians. Why? Because Lucado offers no profound insights here: he simply hashes through the verse, and instead of taking the time to dive into Scripture's riches, he relies on his own anecdotes. Anecdotes are great, but they are not living and active and powerful, nor do the pierce even to divide between the thoughts and the intentions of the heart. He rarely if ever references Scripture outside of John 3:16 itself, and this is usually set-up for his thoughts on the matter, rather than for looking at God's grace displayed throughout history as recorded by Scripture. Moreover, the time he spends on expository teaching is minimal, as compared to the feel-good anecdotes that, while nice, unfortunately take up most of the space in the book with what is ultimately neither convicting nor inspiring by and large. They may not be hackneyed cliches, but they are also not soul-piercing metaphors for our existence. The book is too short, and the unrelated nature of the devotionals to the rest of the text makes their addition seem an attempt to fill out the short text length. Lucado's lack of skill as a writer also comes through, for better or for worse. While nothing he writes is terribly egregious, and he doesn't make any terrible mistakes, his writing was incredibly bland - to the point where I had to force myself to keep going at points.

The book, to be perfectly honest, disappointed me. While Lucado came highly recommended, the book was not at a level that I find even slightly useful. I cannot recommend it, even to young believers for whom the content would possibly be informative. Read something better written and with more depth - and especially with a stronger call to pursue the glory of God.


  1. Mike Duran at Decompose
    talks about this very thing in Christian literature and publishing ... that it is lacking excellence ... and that we, as Christians, should excel in excellence. If our gifts and talents are from Almighty, All-powerful, above Excellent God, then should we not train ourselves to be as excellent as we possibly can with what He has given us?!

  2. Hey Dude,

    Have you ever considered writing as a career?


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