Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Review of "A Better December" by Steve Estes

“What hath Proverbs to do with Christmas?”

That was my initial question when I opened the pages of A BetterDecember: Proverbs to Brighten Christmas by Steven Estes. The answer was surprising, “Quite a helpful lot!”

In this little gift-sized book, Pastor Estes has taken the wisdom of Solomon in all of its brevity and sagacity and applied it directly to the blessings and perils of the holiday season. A Better December is easily my favorite book so far this year and the best book I’ve ever read about “doing Christmas” in faith.

More than a “Gift Book”

A Better December is one of those short and squat “inspirational” hardbacks that people give to others at the holidays. But it’s not like any other gift book that I’ve ever seen. It is inspirational without being sentimental, warm and winsome without being sappy or fluffy. A Better December is full of deep, practical, biblical content presented in an imaginative, often wryly humorous, and  engaging style.

Estes chooses a cornucopia of proverbs to address thirteen typical facets of the holidays including: gifts, contentment, perfectionism, disappointments, and more. For example, in the chapter “Surprises,” he tells the story of a family sneaking presents to a needier family as an application of Proverbs 11:25, “He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed,” and summarizes:

Such a deal! You’re strapped for cash this time of year. Frazzled. Or dreading the in-laws. But as you forget yourself and remember others with even emptier pockets and truly dismal lives–God will knock at YOUR life’s door with boxes of his own (pg. 37).

Many of the other life lessons are more surprising and counter-intuitive. The chapter “Longings” hauntingly yet sweetly distills the idea of Proverbs 14:10, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.”

The best thing about A Better December is how Estes brilliantly smiths his words. There aren’t that many, but each and every word is carefully chosen for maximum rhetorical effect, making it a delightful read. Estes doesn’t just teach from the Proverbs, he writes like the Proverbs–concise, precise, incisive. I wouldn’t quite call his genre “poetry,” but it is definitely lyrical and sonorous. It’s a pleasure to read out loud, and it’s impossible to not be moved.
Sarah Bland-Halulko has generously sprinkled her whimsical hand-drawn illustrations throughout the book, adding to the magical quality of the writing.


As you can tell, I’m definitely a fan of this book. I’ve enjoyed Estes’ unique style of writing ever since he co-wrote When God Weeps with his friend Joni Eareckson Tada. I’ve listened to his sermons online, and I’ve been waiting for years for a new book. I never expected it to be about Christmas, but I’m glad that it is.

Because I’m entranced by it, and because the book is so short, I don’t have many criticisms to offer of A Better December. I can say that I don’t care for the cover image. It doesn’t encourage me to open the cover and see what’s inside, and I don’t think it properly conveys the content, but that may be just a matter of taste.

Also a matter of taste, some readers may be turned off by Estes’ style. It is definitely not a book for someone who loves dense prose. A few times along the way, I took a wrong turn in my reading and didn’t understand where Estes was taking me, but a second, closer reading got me back on track. I often have that difficulty with more poetical type writing. In my opinion, it’s worth a few wrong turns to wisely weave in and out of the traffic of life like Estes does. A Better December may not be the book you thought you were going to read, but is probably the one that you need.

Biblical Counseling in a Little Package

Biblical counselors can learn a lot from this deceptively small book.  For example, truth can be persuasively communicated in creative ways. We don’t always have a preach a sermon to a counselee; sometimes a short story will do. Also, biblical truth is often surprising and counter-intuitive. Our counseling should include change-ups, turn-arounds, and surprise endings.

A Better December is biblical counseling. Steven Estes is a local church pastor and a board member at CCEF. In this book, he is modeling how to embody biblical truth and apply it to everyday life–including the stresses, strains, and satisfactions of the Christmas season. He shows how we can help counselees reset holiday expectations and address the heart.

Highly Recommended

I highly recommend A Better December for just about any reader–Christian leaders, church members, Christian counselees, and even folks who are not yet followers of Christ. As the book progresses, there is a narrative movement from Solomon to Jesus and the gospel is clearly and beautifully presented in an unique and disarming way.

I’m glad I read it. This coming December is already starting to look better.


To win your own copy of A Better December, read Monday's post and join the contest.

Read yesterday's interview with Steve Estes about this unique book.