There’s a reason Max Lucado is one of Christianity’s best loved storytellers, and nowhere is it so obvious than in CAST OF CHARACTERS: Common People in the Hands of an Uncommon God. In this collection of stories from his bestselling books, he breathes fresh life into familiar Biblical characters. Each of the 22 men and women are chosen by Lucado to illustrate how God works through weakness to show His strength; each, he believes, has something pertinent to say to Christians today.
Climb up Jesus’s family tree, Lucado says, and you’ll find wormy apples: sinners rather than saints; the weak rather than the strong. His cast of characters includes adulteresses, liars and prostitutes, stutterers and the handicapped, doubters and the greedy, the poor, the hired killer, the convicted felon. It’s important to understand their stories, Lucado believes, because we find our stories in theirs --- and our hope. “In the midst of them all…hovering over them all…is the hero of it all: God. Maker. Shaper. Rescuer of sinking hearts. God. Passing out high callings, second chances, and moral compasses to all comers and takers.” If God can find a place for these flawed men and women, says Lucado, He can also find a place for us.
If you’re a long-time reader of Lucado’s books, these stories will feel like visits from old friends. A few of the chapters come from his early works (NO WONDER THEY CALL HIM THE SAVIOR, SIX HOURS ONE FRIDAY) and some from recent writings (FACING YOUR GIANTS). Many of the stories are short (one is two pages); others are lengthier (Mephibosheth’s story is almost 10 pages). Sometimes Lucado combines more than one character into an essay. Each biblical character is fronted by a lengthy scripture, followed at the end of the chapter by questions for reflection and discussion, which small groups or those looking for material for personal devotions will appreciate.
I’ve kept up with most of Lucado’s books over the years, but I found these selections from his previous works felt reinvigorated when arranged in a collection together. Lucado has an engaging way of blending his own vulnerable anecdotes with unusual biblical narratives that keeps the reader’s attention. He also integrates interesting factoids (“Are you aware that the command from heaven not to be afraid appears in every book of the Bible?), some intriguing little-known historical snippets (John Wilkes Booth’s brother saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s son) and shares his own puzzlement at times (“For the longest time this story didn’t make sense to me…”). He never fails to drive home his point: this story is relevant to you. God loves you. There is nothing you can do that He cannot forgive.
Each character has the benefit of Lucado’s flair for fresh description. One of my favorite chapters is the retelling of the calling of the apostle Matthew, who began his career as a first-century tax collector. Lucado describes tax collectors: “Combine the greed of an embezzling executive with the presumption of a hokey television evangelist. Throw in the audacity of an ambulance-chasing lawyer and the cowardice of a drive-by sniper. Stir in a pinch of a pimp’s morality, and finish it off with the drug peddler’s code of ethics….” The description of a dinner Matthew throws for Jesus and his questionable friends will keep readers riveted.
What’s less obvious at first glance is that Lucado’s storytelling is good because he works at the craft of writing. Each word is carefully chosen for maximum effect. The rhythm of the sentences keeps the reader engaged; the stories themselves are succinct but well-developed. Lucado makes it look easy, but his is the storytelling that comes from hard work (and likely some polishing from the pulpit, where many of his stories get a first hearing).
Some of Lucado’s accounts will have you reaching for tissues (I’ve read most of them before, and I still swiped a few tears). But this is not empty sentimentalism; this is storytelling at its finest. Lucado’s passion for his Savior, careful wordsmithing and compassion for the lost, the frustrated, the disappointed and the despairing comes through loud and clear. Each chapter rings with Lucado’s repeated theme of grace, especially grace when we least deserve it. That’s a message that bears repeating.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on October 7, 2008