Having personally taught the Gospels at the Christian college level, I obviously have had to look over a number of appropriate texts before choosing only one to assign my students. Well, starting with the next time I teach the Gospels, I now have a new book to assign. Mark Strauss does an excellent job in Four Portraits, covering the important issues related to the Gospels. His writing style is smooth, lacking an "Ivory Tower" feel that could easily alienate potential learners, yet it is obvious throughout that Dr. Strauss is no academic slouch. Definitions are readily provided to new terms that are bold-faced, as he assumes nothing when it comes to the language of the New Testament. Even lay-learners outside the classroom setting would benefit greatly from this book--of course, an educational institution is not a requirement for reading and learning!
One thing that will be enjoyable for the reader is that this is a user-friendly book; it has plenty of fascinating pictures, charts, and short blurbs that will help keep the interest of even the most disinterested person. His charts (labeled "figures" in the book) are outstanding; he and the publisher worked very well together to produce some visual-learner tools that will be meaningful, even when the text hasn't been fully read or comprehended.
While Strauss obviously comes from an Evangelical position and shares his opinions throughout, there is not a feel that he is being overly dogmatic. He presents all sides of the issues in a very objective way. Several times I would have liked him to have been more opinionated. (For instance, he declines to give his final opinion for the dating of the individual gospels.) But perhaps this aspect should be considered a strength. Too often writers of overview books share too much of their opinions and end up creating straw men fallacies and biased information when they explain the viewpoints contrary to their own.
In addition, it is apparent that Dr. Strauss is a good educator, as he uses educational tools to make sure the reader understands each chapter. There are overviews and objectives at the beginning of each chapter, and he concludes with summary bullet points, key terms (maybe definitions for these terms could be included in future editions?--though I can see value in assigning students to write out the definitions themselves), and discussion and study questions. (The questions would make for an easy-to-assign task, especially if the professor is assigning two chapters a week for a quarter, as there are 20 total chapters--very convenient!) Each chapter also includes a bibliography of layperson's sources as well as more scholarly sources.
Whether a reader is liberal or conservative, there would be great benefit in using this book to overview the gospels. I encourage college and seminary professors to consider using this text for their classrooms, as I believe the students will learn to love this text. And, finally, I conclude by saying that Dr. Strauss should continue his good work and produce a similar book on the rest of the New Testament, because what he has done here will be useful for many years to come!