Books of the Year, 2015 January 6, 2016

Since 2010, I’ve joined the custom of sharing a “booklist” of a few top reads of the past year. Looking back on these posts, I note that I have also made it a tradition to miss the 12/31 deadline for this also. Oh well. Here goes another. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Not all are from Christian publishers (or authors), but they each blessed or challenged me in some way. Also, many of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2015. Such lists posted by others often help me discover noteworthy new books and build a reading list for the coming year, and I hope this serves the same purpose for you.

Theology/Christian Living

Luther on the Christian Life by Carl R. Trueman
From my review: “This short volume is richly packed with scriptural and practical insight. Trueman begins by briefly summarizing Luther’s biography, illuminating the personal and cultural contexts that influenced his study, teaching, and actions. In this, he reminds us that theology never happens in a vacuum, and that there are very real consequences to our belief and our choices. Notably, Trueman urges readers to consider all of Luther’s life and work, not just his exuberant, bold pre-1525 writings (before which he had not had to wrestle extensively with the need for liturgical and ecclesiological precision in order to protect church order, among other things).”

What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? By Kevin DeYoung
From my review: “For such a short book, there is much to digest here. DeYoung ties together the big picture of God’s sovereignty, holiness, and love with the details of sexual morality and its practical effects in our lives and churches. His deft shoring up of the biblical view on marriage should embolden Christians to remain faithful to God and His Word as the cultural pressure continues to mount. His restatement of these truths is also a winsome appeal, for the sake of the Gospel, to those who disagree. Moreover, the book offers blunt but loving rebukes to those who attempt to remain within the Church while affirming revision of Christian morality, and challenges the “live and let live” crowd to consider the cost of their withdrawal from the discussion. DeYoung, who is not yet 40, writes with the pastoral and personal urgency of someone who must engage the issue, someone who will still be preaching, teaching, and counseling, long after this cultural shift and all it entails is complete.”

Why We Pray by William Philip
From my review: “[Philip] shows how God’s work in us enables, motivates, and sustains our prayer. Because it is God’s work, not ours, prayer becomes not an obligation but a blessing. In seeking a straightforward reason for prayer and finding it in the manifold grace of God, Philip has produced a work which should be helpful and encouraging to believers everywhere. We are often burdened and downcast in our striving to follow Christ, and the absence of prayer is often the cause. This humble little book seeks to restore prayer into our lives by taking it off the “to-do” list and bringing it back to the center of our relationship with our Maker and Savior.”

History/Biography

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
Still the definitive story of 1933-1945 in Europe, based on original sources (private and official documents from German citizens and Nazi and Italian leaders) and the author’s own eyewitness account as a journalist and war correspondent. Thorough and well-written, Shirer keeps a readable pace with enough nuance to allow complicated events and gruesome details to sink in. If there is a weakness, it is Shirer’s propagation of the caricature of the German people as a proud, militaristic, nationalistic group who were low-hanging fruit for a megalomaniacal Hitler. This is a persistent feature in much interpretation of the time period, but it glosses over the global tendency to place our hope in human leadership to give us power and secure our wealth and peace. Weimar Germany provided a perfect incubator for this, it is true, but at least one enduring lesson of the Third Reich is the danger of placing such unalloyed trust in a man or his government. The führerprinzip is a temptation such as is common to man, and we would be fools to think it died with Hitler in 1945.

Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep
A well-ordered and even-handed overview of the history of the steady defeat and exile of the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Southeastern U.S. (Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole). Specifically, Inskeep zeroes in on the Cherokees, which made the book of particular interest to me as a Chattanoogan. I live on land that used to belong to that tribe, and Chief John Ross’ former house is just five minutes from mine. Ross’ 20-year chess game with federal and state governments receives a play-by-play here. The history of removal is complex and less popularly studied than it needs to be, and Jacksonland is an excellent foray into correcting this imbalance. Inskeep’s storytelling skill keeps the narrative moving, and through the ups and downs of the political process, he manages to keep the reader hoping that the outcome could be something other than the tragedy and national shame it became.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
Typical McCullough…top-notch and well-paced. A bit shorter than most of his bios, but I suppose private citizens have less material to document their lives than presidents. Wilbur & Orville set an example of the power of observation, patience, and diligence that resonates in our over-stimulated modern world (which, ironically, their invention helped create). As Wilbur put it “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

Fiction

A Canticle for Liebowitz by William M. Miller
Miller’s enduring tale of the recovery of civilization centuries after a nuclear holocaust. As Ray Bradbury said, science fiction/post-apocalyptic stories at their best attempt to explore the possible to shock men into thinking more critically about the probable. Miller did that well, to be sure. His is a very Christian (Catholic) vision with the dark shadow of original sin occluding any wishful thinking about the future, but the hope of God’s ongoing work breaks through.

My Ántonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
The only author from whom I read two books this year. My Ántonia is bittersweet and beautiful. I never thought of Nebraska with such tenderness. The themes of place, home, family, unrequited love, coming of age, and immigrant experience are deftly handled and give the story weight, but it is the American-ness of it all that gives it a worthy place in our national canon. Archbishop likewise has descriptions of land and sky make you stop and re-read paragraphs for the sheer wonder of it. This story of spiritual fortitude and the persistence of paganism ought to be required reading for missionaries.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
From my review: “I have seldom read such a Christian novel. Robinson goes to sea against the loving advice of his father, instantly regrets it, and just as quickly forgets his regret. He is tossed about by storms, enslaved by pirates, nearly killed by wild animals, and forced to settle in a foreign land. Still, he refuses to turn from his wandering (and increasingly wicked) ways, and eventually becomes involved in a business scheme to buy African slaves for his farm. This is the endeavor that results in his most famous shipwreck and marooning on this uninhabited island. There, though, the isolation, mysterious provision of all his needs by God, and the Bible he procured from the ship work to soften his heart so that he cries out in repentance. The theological clarity of Crusoe’s prayer and understanding of salvation is astonishing. Even his later interaction with the cannibals and his “man Friday” are filled with an inner dialogue which mingles fear, trust in God’s sovereignty, and missionary zeal.”

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
As a book lover, I’ve always been somewhat embarrassed by my unfamiliarity with Russian Literature. It can be long, dense, and confusing. Plus, literature and language are so intertwined that even the best of translations have difficulty capturing the true measure of a story. Even so, I put my best “self-improvement” motivations into gear last year and picked up Crime and Punishment. To my pleasant surprise, it was beautiful, comprehensible, engaging, moving, and instructive. Dostoevsky proved less to be an impediment to my literary coming of age than a gateway drug to this world.

Philosophy/Other

How Dante Can Save Your Life by Rod Dreher
From my review: “Dreher has cooked up a very interesting blend of confessional memoir, literary commentary, and spiritual help, and it works astonishingly well. Each of these styles independently can be difficult to render engaging to readers, but the whole is strengthened by the inclusion of all three. Crucially, he takes us on an instructive journey through his own struggles and spiritual healing without bluntly prescribing any canned self-help quick fixes. Few things are more unhelpful than books in which authors demand that readers follow the same steps that led to their particular personal breakthrough. Dreher steers clear of those rocks, offering instead a very personal story (though one which, certainly, has application for many) and some key “takeaway points” while respecting readers’ differing needs and personalities.”

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
A truly monumental summary of a life’s work in psychology. Read slowly, or you’ll miss much. Kahneman’s research shows with terrifying detail how little your conscious mind controls your perceptions. The scientific evidence of the dangers of trusting oneself abounds here, and he is only speaking of observable, physical outcomes, not spiritual matters. I lost the ball in the weeds a few times, but he endeavors to keep this on a popular level for readability. Much to chew on.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Wrong Side of History? June 30, 2015

The Supreme Court has so ordered that, at least for those of us under the jurisdiction of the United States of America, history has shifted from its underpinnings: marriage now no longer has any meaning derived from God’s created order, but is simply a mutually fulfilling contract for happiness between any two (for now) individuals. This ought not be terribly surprising to cultural observers, as the pivot away from covenant marriage happened a long time ago. The ongoing unraveling of social conventions accompanying that order is simply proceeding apace.

As Christians, we are being told that it’s time to take some sexual immorality “off the sin list” and that we ought to get with the times or be left on “the wrong side of history.” With the celebrations still ongoing, ideas are being floated to roll back tax exemptions for churches and religious nonprofits, and other discussions about stamping out dissent are floating up as well.

Whatever comes, whatever is said, whatever is taken away,  don’t lose heart. The fight is not with flesh and blood (and not with men and women who choose to live in sexual sin), but with the power that has been since the Fall thumbing his nose at God and His creation. His doom is sure, and when the final draft is written, those who resist him and turn to Christ for mercy and life will emphatically be on the right side.

Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.‘ And the twenty-four elders, who sit on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give You thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were because You have taken Your great power and have begun to reign. And the nations were enraged and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name. the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:15-18).

In the long haul, we ought not fear those who would marginalize and oppress Christians. We ought to weep for them and bear witness to them, even in faithful suffering. We can be on the wrong side of their idea of history and suffer for a season. Those who are on the wrong side of the Author of History will not be so blessed: “Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.’ For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:3-9). Let us not revile, but pray. Let us not rage against the coming hardships, but joyfully endure as the Lord did. Our strength is in weakness, our life in death.

Remember, as Peter wrote previously, that we shouldn’t be surprised when we are on the outs with the surrounding culture “as though some strange thing were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). There have always been and always will be aspects of the Gospel message that will get you ousted from cultural example. When the disciples first began spreading the message that Jesus had been raised, to claim that He was Messiah brought swift judgment from those who claimed to follow His Father. As the Church grew into the centers of power of the Roman state, to say that Jesus (not Caesar) was Lord was to invite punishment or death. In parts of the world today where nearly 1/4 of her people live, saying that Jesus is God’s Son and that Mohammed is not a prophet will get you into serious trouble with your family, your neighbors, and the authorities. It goes on and on. If, now, we are told that we can proclaim Christ as Lord and the one who saves us from our sins, but not call every sin what it is, we cannot shrink from the whole counsel of God any more than our brothers and sisters across time and space have in their particular contexts.

Take courage. “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (Ecc. 9:11-12). The victory is ours, let us treat those who are perishing with love, mercy, and the grace of Christ as taught in Scripture.

It has been so ordered. Ours is but to obey.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

Books of the Year, 2014 January 5, 2015

Since 2010, I’ve posted a list each year of a smattering of the best books that made it to the top of my to-read list. With 2014 freshly “in the books” (ha!), here goes another. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Not all are from Christian publishers (or authors), but they each blessed or challenged me in some way. Most of these are not books published this year, but simply those I encountered for the first time in 2014. Such lists posted by others often help me discover noteworthy new books and build a reading list for the coming year, and I hope this serves the same purpose for you.

Theology/Christian Living

The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott

From my review: “Stott’s magnum opus is among the finest expositions of the central truth of the Gospel the Church has produced. His focus on every page is on Christ, captivating the reader with a portrait of the cross as the culmination of the weight of sin, the absoluteness of God’s holiness, and the depth of His love. As a theological treatise, The Cross of Christ ranks with the classics of Church history. Like the best of those classics, it is not merely excellent theology, but a good book—Stott’s prose is engaging and his argument flows well from beginning to end. He comes across not as a calculating academic, but as a man on fire with the joy of his salvation and a pastor eager to lead others to see the beauty of the Gospel in its manifold glory.”

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim & Kathy Keller

I went through this with my discipleship group this summer: really a first rate look at the significance and purpose of marriage from a biblical perspective. The Kellers offer a condensed and persuasive counternarrative to the dominant cultural view of marriage as either an outmoded and repressive institution or an idol for self-gratification. Clarity of thought abounds here, whether you’re newlywed, long-married, or still single. If you know, me, you’ll recall that I shy away from (”actively revolt against” may be more accurate) spiritual/relational “how-to” books, so my recommendation is a declaration that this is not among those.

Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung writes with humble authority on many of the key theological, ecclesiological, and cultural issues facing the church today. His short, witty books are disarmingly challenging, and he somehow manages to write a new one almost every year (a feat which he credits to his congregation’s generous offer of 4-6 weeks of “book writing” leave from pulpit ministry each year). Using Psalm 119 as his starting point, DeYoung here embarks on a wonderfully pastoral exposition of the doctrine of Scripture in all its facets (inerrancy, perspicuity, sufficiency, etc.) that should shore up any believer’s faith in God and His revealed Word and give seekers and skeptics much to chew on.

History/Biography

The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote

It’s hard to imagine that anyone other than Shelby Foote could have written this. His family ties and sentimental roots in the South give the book somber, almost mournful overtones that honor the fallen and cry out “never again” with no hint of triumphalism. His urbane libertinism and self-important literary mind keep it balanced enough that both sides are given a fair shake–Union heroes and villains abound as much as their Confederate counterparts. Is this book long? Obsessively (3,000+ pages in print, 131 hours in audio). Is it tedious? To a fault. Yet both qualities render it readable and enduring in ways that less exhaustive accounts lack.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

From my review: “It would do you a disservice to explain the full details of this story rather than letting you discover it through your own reading, but here’s a taste. Zamperini survived multiple experiences that could have (you get the sense from the flow of Hillenbrand’s narrative that they perhaps should have) killed him. In spite of these often unfathomable hardships, Louis made it home safely at war’s end, reunited with his loving family. Many writers would have left it at that, a harrowing yet somehow hollow survival account. Hillenbrand doesn’t stop there, telling the sour details of rest of his story—how Louis could not make peace with life back in the U.S., how his spirit was consumed by hatred and a desire for revenge, and how his anger and alcoholism threatened to destroy his young family. Moreover, she doesn’t shy away from showing the only thing that made him whole: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Histories and Fallacies by Carl R. Trueman

Delightful, witty, insightful. A quick read and a good reminder to those of us who read history (or philosophy, theology, etc.), that the writers thereof are human and fallible. In other words, this was a great overview of common pitfalls to avoid when writing history and to be wary of when reading it (anachronism, category confusion, reification, oversimplification, etc.). Of course, the biggest recommending factor for this helpful little book is its author, Carl R. Trueman, a professor of Church history at Westminster Seminary Philadelphia. He is, as someone once put it, “one of those Brits who writes in such a way as to remind you that they invented the language.”

Fiction

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

This selection from one of our book club members was a welcome surprise –  particularly the affirmation that there are many good authors still working in contemporary times. Enger’s characters are real and knowable, the narrative moves along with all the force of the classic westerns on which it was modeled (complete with an outlaw on horseback, even in the 1960s setting), and his vision of God’s hand in all our dealings gives the book a not-unpleasant mystical flavor. I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying, but it works as a mirror of life, which unfolds in myriad interesting and shocking ways, with billions of individual sorrows and dissatisfactions. Read it and then take the advice of Enger’s narrator, Reuben, and “make of it what you will.”

Home by Marilynne Robinson

The vagaries of parenting, personality, and the difficulties of fleshing out an intellectually understood faith underscore this quietly beautiful novel. Its piercing phrases of recognition moved me to reflect on my own life choices and family in new ways. Not quite as theologically probing or historically profound as Gilead (covering, as it does, a different angle of the same story), but in no way a bad book. Robinson’s extended rumination on how the routine dysfunctions of family beautifully and painfully intertwine with time and place may not change your life, but it adds a sweet savor to life as it is.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Another book club selection. Graham’s most Catholic of stories draws with chiaroscuro beauty the story of the last surviving priest (and an immoral, alcoholic priest at that) in a Mexican state that has outlawed the church. The palpable darkness gives way to hope through death. I think it can well be read more broadly  as a tale of how none of us is worthy of God’s call, but that He nevertheless calls and sustains those whom He will. This line sums it up well: “How often the priest had heard the same confession–Man was so limited: he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization–it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”

Honorable Mention

Collected Poems by T. S. Eliot

I took a stab at learning to read and to like poetry this year (and even to write a bit), and T. S. Eliot helped immeasurably. His bleak, bemused thoughts  on the decline of the West in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, and The Hollow Men were avant-garde in the 1910s, 20s and 30s, but today ring eerily prophetic. His musing on the Christ and Christianity in later works (Ash Wednesday, The Four Quartets, etc.) offer hope in the midst of doubt. Poetry is to prose as whisky is to beer–the same substance  distilled to a strength that must be handled with care. A little goes a long way, but it is often strikingly beautiful and can boost your overall use of language tremendously. Among the “finds” of linguistic beauty from Eliot: “Here were decent, godless people: their only monument the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls” (Choruses from The Rock). “These are only hints and guesses, Hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation” (The Four Quartets). I also enjoyed reading much of W. H. Auden’s work, and have been savoring this gem: “O stand, stand at the window as the tears scald and start; you shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart” (As I Walked out One Evening).

The Children of Men by P. D. James

A taut, provocative thriller, this is sci-fi/dystopia for grown ups (envisaging a world in which no children have been born for over a quarter century), full of enduring themes and a banal plausibility that makes it the more chilling. James wrote this in 1992, near the height of the 20th century crime wave and the peak years of the abortion industry, so some of the story’s sociological punch has faded (her “future” setting for the action is now just 6 years away). Still, it touches on the some of the core fears of humanity and does so with deep religious sensibility, often explicitly Christian–James, a lifelong Anglican, peppers the novel with quotes from Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. The story moves along briskly, almost too quickly for robust character development, but the themes carry the day

The Tyranny of Cliches by Jonah Goldberg

Goldberg’s work always strikes an balance of irreverence, wit, and insight that makes him a most enjoyable read, though I suppose that enjoyment may be tempered if you find yourself on the receiving end of his irreverence. Though the primary target here is the political left, Goldberg is delightfully uncharitable to the mushy mainstream as well. It is a political book, but perhaps more a book of language and culture. As a writer, I appreciated the focus on deconstructing those pernicious things we all say without knowing what we mean–a helpful discipline regardless of your occupation or beliefs. I recommend the audiobook version read by the author.

Posted by Justin Lonas

To the Ends of the Earth, or Bust November 6, 2014

There are billions of people around the world in thousands of unreached people groups with little or no hope of hearing the Gospel in their lifetime. What are you prepared to do?

This sort of appeal to the immensity of the Church’s task in fulfilling the great commission has become the stock-in-trade of the global missions movement in the past few years. The  true, of course, and we shouldn’t lose sight of Christ’s promise that “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations” (Matt. 24:14) or the faithful and courageous efforts of missionaries and organizations working in every corner of the world. Often, however, this appeal has the opposite effect–the call is so great, so all-encompassing, that it is abstracted to such a level in the minds of most Christians that they end up doing nothing (or very little) because they cannot do everything. Even in the secular realm, there is a growing body of research from the psychological realm that points to the simple fact that we have trouble feeling responsible to do thinks we feel we are to accomplish.

How does this square with clear commands of Scripture? Surely God would not call us to do that which He knows we are incapable of…or would He? Actually, He does that all the time, calling dead men to live. The trick is that God gives the life He asks for. Our making disciples is entirely contingent on His Spirit bringing to life both us and those we reach. The power for the action of our obedience and the results of that obedience come from Him. He is the one who makes possible the impossible (Mark 10:27).

If you think about it, how much more unattainable must the Great Commission have seemed as Christ ascended into the Judean sky? For us, it starts with millions of faithful believers in multiple countries and cultures, billions of dollars in resources, and incredible advantages. The apostles had obstacles to the goal we could never imagine–there were 11 of them (12 when Paul was “recruited”) and an entire world of unregenerate souls. And yet they obeyed, the truth prevailed, and caused the dry bones of sinful men to become as flesh.

The temptation to give in to the apathy of the overwhelmed, I would submit, comes because we have forgotten the truth of God’s power embedded in the Scriptures–not just when taken as a whole, but in the very passages that call us to the task.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’(Matt. 28:19-20).

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

This Gospel is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and He who made the world and all that is in it will accomplish His task. Our participation at whatever place He leads us to is part of His plan. We obey, but the work is His, the results are His, and the glory is His. Ours is not to change the hearts of men, but only to tell them of the One who will. Reaching the nations begins with reaching your neighbor. In any good-sized Western city, reaching your neighbors often is reaching the nations–with people from many tribes, tongues, and nations moving in to seek a better life for their families.

We may want to throw in the towel (or, on the other hand attempt own the task and own some of the glory), but our desire for success and significance beyond obedience is in vain. As T. S. Eliot wrote in his Four Quartets:

These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

Martyrdom, Large and Small October 8, 2014

And He was saying to them all, If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, he is the one who will save it…. For whoever is ashamed of Me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory…” (Luke 9:23-24, 26).

Born from the shed blood of our Lord, Christians are not a squeamish people. The Church across the ages has not shied from ridicule, torture, or death. Perhaps the grisly spectacle of public execution itself strengthened and expanded the faith.

In his Apology for Christianity, an “open letter” to the Roman authorities written less than 200 years after Christ, Tertullian plead for tolerance, pointing out that their persecution was having the opposite of its desired effect. “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust; your injustice is the proof that we are innocent. Therefore God suffers [allows] that we thus suffer…. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). This last phrase is often repeated as “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Armed with the honorable defiance conferred by unjust suffering, we imagine ourselves able to go to the lions like our forbears, heads held high as we slip into Christ’s presence. What happens, though, when there is no host of error to hear our confession, no one in the audience to believe Christ and recount our last act of witness to future generations? What of martyrdom when the injustice is softer, subtler, and the arena a workplace, classroom, or courtroom of precipitating thumbs and upturned noses each thoroughly satisfied at your demise? What if, rather than an immediate crown of glory, your last stand is followed by professional disgrace, financial hardship, social excommunication.

Much has been made of the increasing persecution of Christians around the world, whether the brazen death-dealing of a Caliphate reborn or the general sneer of the West at the faith that birthed it. The specter of real suffering is rising for many Christians (and I include myself in this number) for whom the idea of persecution has hitherto resided only in the untroubled past or romantic ideal. We know that we should be willing to suffer and die for our faith, maybe we’ve committed the relevant verses to memory. Now, for the first time, we are asking ourselves what comes before the blaze of glory; groping to “count it all joy” when the “various trials” we encounter are both excruciating and mundane.

We are coming to terms with the fact that we have not practiced dying. Outcasts are ready to be martyrs; children of privilege require preparation. We who are accustomed to open doors, wealth, and influence have so much to lose, we don’t know how to be thankful for the gift of life. A thousand small deaths stand between us and the moment of truth before the mob. Maybe we have asked ourselves if we are willing to die for the Lord, but not what we are willing to let Him kill. Take my life? Fine–I’m courageous as can be. Take my comfort, my power, my stuff? I wobble.

It is precisely to these miniature martyrdoms God calls us. The cost of following Christ is turning our worship from the trifles that surround us to His infinite worth. He knows what stands in the way, and when He tells us what must be cast off, may we not be like the rich young ruler who “was saddened, and went away grieving,” for our beloved possessions (Mark 10:22). The eye of the needle stares us down, and paradoxically the strength to forsake all for Him must be given to us by Him as well–”with people it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:26).

The Apostle Paul tells us to “put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5) in order to “put on the new self.” This our forefathers seized as the discipline of mortification, recognizing that there is no sanctification without such daily murder. Every new birth of holiness in our hearts corresponds to a mangled sin excised from within. In the Colosseum of our hearts, we are both gladiator and bloodthirsty crowd. Death by death, we practice. Our faith, invigorated by battle with our nature, is trained thus for assaults from without. Until we recognize this, we will not be ready to give honor and glory to God for whatever persecutions may come.

So it has been, and so it will be. Ours is a liturgy of blood. Death is life unto us.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

Novelty and Idolatry June 13, 2014

When Paul and Luke first came to Athens, Paul was moved to preach the Gospel there “as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Luke, almost as an aside, succinctly captures the root problem: “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (17:21). These two reflections go hand-in-glove; the Athenian obsession with novelty fed their idolatry. I fear this same lesson (though often missed) applies today in our popular practices of theology.

What hath Athens to do with today’s Church?

The city Paul and Luke described seems positively stable compared to the pace of change (in fashion, technology, politics, economics, entertainment, morality, etc.) we experience in the West. There are few pleasures we savor more than “something new” to “shake things up” and give us a “fresh perspective”. “What have you done for me lately” may as well be our credo, as the accumulated wisdom of the ages is uncritically cast off as outmoded and old-fashioned.

As with so many other aspects of our culture, this proclivity seeps into the Church. To be sure, some “new blood” is helpful and necessary—refreshing our passion to reach the nations, shedding inefficiencies in how we manage our resources, etc.—but the temptation to go too far is always at hand. When we are fully caught up in the new-for-the-sake-of-new, it is easy to seek “original insights” into our faith, to discover “new readings” of Scripture, or to find “fresh applications” for God’s standards to life that may or may not reflect His design.

The pressure to continually improve and distinguish one’s methods and message is greatly intensified for all of us in the harried habitat of the information age. Pastors and teachers are not exempted from these “adapt or die” anxieties. Faithfulness to the Gospel, however, demands consistency rather than novelty. The most damning epithet that can be applied to any theology is “innovative”.

Paul greeted the morass of belief in Athens not by giving them yet another new idol, but by boldly proclaiming the ancient and unchanging truth of “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). He pointed the men of Athens back to “the God who made the world and all things in it,” who “does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts. 17:24), and in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In other words, Paul did not share something new, and certainly not of his own invention, but something old in a new place.

In the same way, the Gospel has spread across the globe and is still being carried into myriad hard-to-access corners still in darkness—faithful servants who heard the truth went to new places to speak the blessed old words. For nearly two thousand years this has gone on, the same message taking root in the nooks and crannies of the nations. For most of this time, if preachers heard of the work of others at all, it was by writing or listening to oral reports. There have been “innovators” across the ages, to be sure, but the pressure ran in the direction of orthodoxy and conformity rather than toward self-expression and differentiation.

Now, any given pastor can be influenced by any other (or host of others) through the Internet and mass media*. His congregation likewise no longer is limited to his teaching alone, but has access to thousands upon thousands of sermons from thousands of pastors (orthodox or not) from all over the world. Insofar as this ever-expanding web of influences steers believers to deeper understanding of Scripture and greater commitment to their local body, this is a development to thank God for.

Too often, however, what actually happens is that pastors see this network as competition for their own influence and (in the case of other local pastors with a large media footprint or satellite campuses of megachurches in nearby cities) for keeping their own church’s members. Many of these same members use the high-exposure preachers to critique their own local pastor’s style and substance, and some check out from the local church altogether, relying on screen time to effect a disembodied pseudofellowship that meets their felt needs at the expense of the self-sacrifice and sanctification that church membership demands.

In the face of this, some despair, some hold the line with a watchful eye for the health of their congregations, and many seek to regain footing for their ministry by building their own media “brand” that can establish their sway beyond the walls of their church (and perhaps recall members that previously left or even pick off a few from the “competition”). Following that route requires breaking through the “noise”—either by being recognized for skill in preaching and teaching or by “innovating” their message.

Therein lies the problem. The solution is plain, but painful to our pride: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Posted by Justin Lonas

*Recognizing the irony that a) this musing is posted on (gasp) the internet, b) that I indeed hope thereby to minister to those beyond my own local church, and c) that things posted out here in the ether tend to live forever and acquire a life of their own…I feel the need to point out that a) there are many, many fine pastors who are a blessing to many through media ministries undertaken in humility and a spirit of service, b) that I personally benefit tremendously from these men, and c) that name-recognition and broadcast reach do not inherently equal “celebrity” or “influence-peddling”. That is all.

Who Is This Jesus? April 14, 2014

He was baptized as Man—but He remitted sins as God—not because He needed purificatory rites Himself, but that He might sanctify the element of water.

He was tempted as Man, but He conquered as God; yea, He bids us be of good cheer, for He has overcome the world.

He hungered—but He fed thousands; yea, He is the Bread that gives life, and That is of heaven.

He thirsted—but He cried, “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink.” Yea, He promised that fountains should flow from them that believe.

He was wearied, but He is the rest of them that are weary and heavy laden.

He was heavy with sleep, but He walked lightly over the sea. He rebuked the winds; He made Peter light as he began to sink.

He pays tribute, but it is out of a fish; yea, He is the King of those who demanded it.

He is called a Samaritan and a demoniac—but He saves him that came down from Jerusalem and fell among thieves; the demons acknowledge Him, and He drives out demons and sinks in the sea legions of foul spirits, and sees the Prince of the demons falling like lightning.

He prays, but He hears prayer.

He weeps, but He causes tears to cease.

He asks where Lazarus was laid, for He was Man; but He raises Lazarus, for He was God.

He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but He redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was His own blood.

As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also.

As a Lamb He is silent, yet He is the Word, and is proclaimed by the Voice of one crying in the wilderness.

He is bruised and wounded, but He heals every disease and every infirmity.

He is lifted up and nailed to the Tree, but by the Tree of Life He restores us; yea, He saves even the robber crucified with Him.

He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned the water into wine, who is the destroyer of the bitter taste, who is Sweetness and altogether desire.

He lays down His life, but He has power to take it again.

The veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise.

He dies, but He gives life, and by His death destroys death.

He is buried, but He rises again.

He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.

Gregory of Nazianzus (329-290), Third Theological Oration, “On the Son”. Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7, Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.)

Posted by Justin Lonas

Best Books of the Year, 2013 Edition December 30, 2013

As has become customary for many writers, editors, and bloggers, I started posting an annual booklist back in 2010. Such posts by others often help me discover noteworthy new books and build a reading list for the coming year, and I hope this serves the same purpose for you.

What follows is a list of some of the best books I encountered in 2013, sorted by genre. Not all are from Christian publishers (or authors), but they each blessed or challenged me in some way. As usual, these are not necessarily books published this year, but simply those which made their way to the top of my “to-read” list at some point in the year.

Theology/Christian Living

Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem, by Kevin DeYoung

This was one of those “facepalm” books—bluntly stating the obvious—but in a helpful and pastoral tone. A needed reminder to every American in our hurly-burly world. From my wife’s review: “This is specifically a “how come” book rather than a “how to” book. You probably won’t come away from reading with an action plan, but rather with some convictions about pruning family schedules and checking your motivations for activities and commitments.”

Delighting in the Law of the Lord: God’s Alternative to Legalism and Moralism, by Jerram Barrs

From my review: “Delighting in the Law of the Lord is a breath of fresh air, bringing conviction and clarity to the Church’s ongoing discussion about Law and grace. Barrs argues winsomely that a hard distinction between God’s Law and God’s grace is a misreading of Scripture and leads us to reject any restraint on our behavior, to generate our own “law” to provide order, or to flounder in our trust in all of God’s Word. He shows over and over that the Law is not negative, but beautiful and perfect, that even in its harsh role of convicting us of our sin, it overflows with God’s love by pointing us to the Savior.”

Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission, by Tim Chester & Steve Timmis

I actually wrote a review on a partial reading late last year, but finished this one up later. From my review: “The authors’ compelling call and their practical discussion of what church life, pastoral care, mission, and evangelism look like when the Church has moved from the center of culture to the margins make Everyday Church required reading for Western Christians. It is time for us to recognize that Christianity has been pushed aside from its favored place in society and to begin discovering how to be faithful witnesses for the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ in this new reality.”

Growing Up: How to Be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples, by Robby Gallaty with Randall Collins

A good book from someone I’m privileged to call a friend and fellow laborer in the Gospel right here in Chattanooga. From my review: “There is a lot of meat here, and the fast-paced style effectively communicates Robby’s desire to see men and women of the Church move toward greater Christ-likeness and to pass that fervor on to others ‘who will be able to teach others also’ (2 Tim. 2:2). As such, it is more exhortation than exposition, and a bit farther down the ‘how-to’ spectrum than I personally prefer. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This material in this format is precisely what will draw a lot of people to this book and help them grow in Christian maturity.”

Biography

Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes

Calvin Coolidge was a fascinating yet unassuming fellow who was loath to promote himself, preferring to work hard and be “in the stream” so that his excellence would be noticed by others at the right time. In this in-depth but tightly paced biography, Shlaes speaks up where Coolidge himself may never have, poring through papers and letters to allow his choices and perseverance shine forth as the example for others he always hoped they would be. He comes across not as the cranky, taciturn caricature most Americans hold, but as a shrewd and calculating political operator with steely-eyed convictions and a keen eye for public perception. Coolidge stands out as a man apart from our present political experience.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This is not so much a biography of Lincoln as it is an in-depth study of personalities and the art of leadership. I enjoyed it as a lover of history, but the lessons of this work have broad implications in life and Church. Lincoln in his time was not the enmarbled statesman hovering at one end of the national mall, but a lawyer who argued his way into the national discourse and only stumbled into the White House because everyone else running had made as many enemies as friends over the course of their careers. His way with words brought him fame, but it was his ability to shrug off offenses and turn enemies into friends that earned him the respect and cooperation needed to be politically effective. He is today remembered as a great man largely because he was willing to be reviled and unpopular rather than waste his energy defending himself.

Economics/Sociology

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray

Coming from a secular, sociological perspective, Murray mines the available data to confirm what more vocal so-called “culture warriors” have long argued—that “traditional moral values” a) have steeply declined in American culture in recent decades and b) that their decline has wrought havoc on our social and economic fabric. In particular, the statistics correlating marriage to economic activity are mind-blowing. It is beyond me how we as a culture can continue to deny that the traditional family is the core unit of society that provides, far and away, the best outcomes for kids in every metric.

The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell

In essence, this is a book about how man is not and cannot be sovereign over the world, despite his fervent efforts to the contrary. The implications of Sowell’s reasoning are clear at a political and economic level, but there is a warning for personal and spiritual issues as well. The tendency to believe that we can “change the world” and bring about “social justice” is just as pervasive in the Church as it is in the world. We have to work within the responsibilities and possibilites given to us and guard against the temptation to usurp God’s place as the only righteous judge.

Essay/Philosophy

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs

From my review: “If you, like me, are always surrounded by books that you are expected to read (whether as a part of your work, because of obligations to others, or even because of goals you set for yourself), Jacobs book may be the breath of fresh air you are looking for, giving you a better framework for organizing and making the most of the time you have to read. In the process, it just may inspire you to slow down a bit and read more deeply, turning off the computer or smartphone long enough to get fully absorbed in a text. Those we teach and serve depend on us to impart wisdom, and reading well is among the best tools God has given us to fulfill that calling.”

When I Was a Child, I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson

A collection of essays on various topics all relating to the intersection of the life of the mind (including imagination) and love for our fellow man. Robinson’s work defies easy categorization. She writes from a perspective of genuine belief in the miraculous birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and of a long and loving association with the Church, yet she eschews much of the doctrine (and cultural constructs) usually considered indispensable to Christian orthodoxy. She passionately argues for the liberal ideal of providing for the needy out of the public purse, but is profoundly uncomfortable with the popular progressive convictions of utopia and scientistic atheism. Her essays and characters espouse a tenacious devotion to home and family, but she has nothing but disdain for the modern political “conservatism” that claims to uphold such values. In short, Robinson herself is a slice of the enigmatic mystery and magnitude of humanity about which she thinks and writes so well.

Fiction

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

This may be one of the best novels published in the last 10 years, and was justly recommended to me by several trusted friends. Robinson’s excellent story brings together historical and theological threads through the lens of family. It’s also much more than that, but I’d say the driving question of Robinson’s narrative is “At what cost family?” I enjoyed this book immensely, and I think it bears re-reading at some point to reap more of her turns of phrase and little insights. Also, it drove me to seek out some of her other work (see above).

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

This is one of the “classics” from the American high school pantheon that I missed, but am glad to have discovered this year. Writing in 1953, Bradbury seems to channel the fears of both Orwell and Huxley, painting a future America in which most people are perfectly content to medicate their way through life with drugs, fast cars, and entertainment, but with a fiercely authoritarian state waiting in the shadows to stamp out any flicker of dissent or independent thought. It holds up as a work of science fiction (which Bradbury describes as imagining the possible, as opposed to pure fantasy), and his predictions of flat-screen TVs, iPods with earbuds, and LARs (Lethal Autonomous Robots) give it an eerily present-day feel not often found in genre books from that era.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

After enjoying last year’s film/musical adaptation of Hugo’s magnum opus, I decided to dive in and read it for myself, a project which took roughly 11 months. This is easily the longest book I’ve ever read, but it was quite good—readable, relatable, with many charming turns of phrase, incredible character development, and that deep pathos that resonates throughout the best literature from every language. As is usually the case, the story is much rounder and better developed in the novel than in any film adaptation.

Honorable Mention

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, by Rod Dreher

A probing look at the ways that families can build one another up while simultaneously tearing souls to shreds, but also the ways that the Lord works to bring forgiveness and healing through suffering together. Dreher opens a helpful space in the cultural conversation for the value of small towns and small accomplishments, and for that, I really appreciated his soul-searching memoir about his sister’s life and death. I can’t, however, give it a blanket recommendation for two main reasons: 1) Dreher’s spiritual journey (from nominal Methodist to atheist to Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox) is on full display—as my wife put it, “it’s like a theological roller coaster, sometimes exhilarating but sometimes nauseating.” 2) The experiences he writes about were so fresh, that the book could’ve benefitted from a bit of critical distance and tighter editing.

Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee

This was pure and simple summer reading—no earth-shattering insights, just excellent turns of phrase on a field trip through the transportation industry. This is like a great PBS documentary without the pompous commentary on how marvelous man’s devices can be. McPhee clearly had fun exploring and writing this book, and that whimsical fascination shows in his excursion through the manifold ways mankind has developed to move himself and the goods he requires to live around the surface of the earth.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

God Breathed out December 28, 2013

After studying, writing on, and teaching through 1 and 2 Timothy this year, the powerful themes of these letters made me want to try my hand at condensing some truths into poetry. Here’s a meditation on God’s Word set as a sonnet.

Theopneustos
But one tale, by a single Author writ
Speaks all, breathes form, life, to the world entire.
Not of man, yet man must comprehend it
To meet Him; saving, purifying fire.
From this fly our peregrine hearts, chasing
Tickles, myths, ashes; vain salve for sin’s throes.
The Tempter’s counterfeits our ears catching,
The self-unbuilding Gospel to depose.
Forged yarns weave ruin, despair. Lust negates love,
Avarice throttles hope, debts crushing joy.
But darkness must retreat. Light, as a dove
Descends, cuts straight, truth itself to deploy.
God’s own Word, own Son, come with us to dwell.
His blood opens Heaven, dooms lies to Hell.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Pleased as Man with Men to Dwell December 18, 2013

As you observe Advent and Christmas in your homes and churches this year, don’t fail to preach the Word. The incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, is an almost unfathomable mystery, yet it is the foundation of our redemption and the capstone of God’s revelation. May we be captured by this and may it be our focus now and through the year.

However you celebrate this season, do not let that point be lost on your family or your congregation. Whatever traditions you hold and enjoy, do not let them overshadow the wonder of this truth. Whatever the mood or intellectual bent of your hearers, do not attempt to reduce this truth by illustration or explain it an any way beyond what Scripture teaches–some mysteries of the Word must be extolled and accepted at face value. Therein lies faith.

Merry Christmas.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:1-18).

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:1-4).

While you’re at it, take care that the hymns and carols you attach to your celebration keep and embellish the wonder rather than setting it adrift in a sea of sentimentality. My personal favorite has always been Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:

“Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.

Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.

Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the suns of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king”

Posted by Justin Lonas.

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