Here are a few books (in no particular order) that I encountered this year of varying genres that I would say are worth recommending for one reason or another.
Luke: The Gospel of Amazement, Michael Card
This wasn’t a particularly exegetical or particularly thorough commentary, but it caught my attention for its style. Card looks at the biblical text with an artist’s eye, and reminds us that the coming of Christ into the world was nothing less than astonishing. It is too easy to get stuck in a rut spiritually, and Card’s “devotional commentary” drags you back to the sheer wonder of our Lord and His love for men. Read my full review HERE.
Don’t Call It a Comeback: The Old Faith for a New Day, Kevin DeYoung, ed.
Some books are great at covering vast expanses of material in succinct and engaging ways. This is one of those. A bunch of young-ish pastors and theologians from around the world team up to tell a new generation of Christians the basics of theology, and the result is a great reminder of what we believe and why it matters. In particular, Greg Gilbert’s chapter on the message of the Gospel is probably the most powerful expression of the central truth of Scripture I’ve read in a long time. Read my full review HERE.
Truman, David McCullough
I love history, and I love getting a glimpse at history through biographies. Learning abstract ideas is useful, but opening a window into someone’s life to watch how those ideas play out over decades. Perhaps nobody is writing better biographies presently than David McCullough, and his Truman is a monumental work (in scope and depth). Though I find I disagree with many (if not most) of his political viewpoints, I think I’d have loved to have dinner and a Poker game with Harry Truman. McCullough’s portrait of the 33rd president shows the authenticity and grit of the last true “man of the people” to inhabit the White House.
Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell
I’m a longtime follower of Sowell’s incisive and prescient newspaper columns, but somehow I’d managed never to read any of his books until now. In the pages of Basic Economics, he unlocks the mysteries of the marketplace in ways that anyone could understand, bringing the complexities of the “dismal science” into principles that every voter should bring to bear on their elected officials. If more people would read and take to heart these lessons, the populace might never again elect someone whose political platform includes any form of government tampering with domestic and international markets.
How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, Derek W. H. Thomas
Derek Thomas’ short and sweet meditation on “the greatest chapter in the Bible” was one of my favorite surprises this year. Thomas is quick to remind us that this Gospel spelled out so beautifully by Paul in Romans chapter 8 is the heartbeat of our faith, and that we can never devote too much time and energy to telling and retelling its mysteries to God’s great glory. Indeed the cross of Christ is the center point of all God’s creation and character, as Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). How could we spend our energies on anything less? Read my full review HERE.
What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert
Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e., that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), DeYoung and Gilbert issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation. What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous. Read my full review HERE.
The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek
Sowell whet my appetite for a more in-depth look at socio-economic studies, so I took a stab at Hayek’s magnum opus. It’s a bit dense at times, but that’s more a reflection on the reader than the author. This is a tremendous repository of wisdom for citizens of any nation. Hayek’s commentary on issues from unionism to taxation to social security to state coercion reads as though it was taken from present-day political discussions rather than a 5-decade-old treatise. This is a more openly ideological work than most books on economic theory, but Hayek’s razor-sharp intellect makes his arguments in favor of limited government and free markets sound like the height of accepted wisdom. A must-read for anyone in any kind of policymaking position.
Desiring God, John Piper
I’m rather embarrassed to have never read this classic before., but I’m glad I took the time to enjoy it this year. Enough has been said about this book elsewhere to fill a shelf (and Piper’s eponymous parachurch is a daily fleshing-out of its themes), and all I’ll add is that it is a unique and powerful work. Joy is the only valid motivation for the Christian, as it wasn’t for duty that Christ died.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Another one I’m embarrassed to have missed up to this point. Finn is so ingrained in the fabric of our American culture that it’s easy to think you know the story without ever having read it. It’s easy to see why it’s one of the classics–Twain’s narrative style is comically brilliant, his themes touch every aspect of life in 19th century America, and his insight into the soul of the nation still resonates. Truly the firstborn of American novels.
A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, Paul E. Miller
I had heard about this book from various quarters for quite a while, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get a copy. Frankly, I’m not a fan of books about prayer and other spiritual disciplines because they often share a common flaw–an author assumes that the way that God worked with him in his own life is somehow a measurable, normative prescription for how God works with everyone. Miller delightfully avoids this temptation, and the result is a book that is both bold and helpful. Read my full review HERE.
Posted by Justin Lonas
What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, 2011, Crossway, Wheaton, Ill., ISBN 9781433526909, 283 pages, $15.99, softcover.
Among evangelical Christians these days, there is a groundswell movement toward cultural transformation—not simply to reach the world with the Gospel of Christ but to do the work of renewing communities and creation as a whole to make ready for the new heavens and the new earth. This philosophy goes by several names with different shades of meaning: social justice, kingdom building, missional ministry, shalom, etc.
Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert have written What Is the Mission of the Church? to address this “mission drift” and call the Church to remember that its specific priority is the proclamation of salvation—the redemption of mankind from the righteous wrath of a holy God through the shed blood of His Son Jesus Christ.
Though their aim is to correct a popular level misconception, the authors rightly critique the theologians and pastors who have propagated exegetical and hermeneutical faults to drive the movement. They are careful and nuanced in their argument, but pull no punches when expositing the key passages used as source texts for the other side of the debate (Gen. 12, Lev. 19, Isa. 58, Amos 5, Matt.25, etc.). The level of scholarship employed and the winsome tone of the book make their case a strong one. The book is not meant to be a polemic against an opposing viewpoint, but rather a plea for all believers to let Scripture, not culture, determine the focus of our efforts in this world.
DeYoung and Gilbert are not attempting to undermine the good work done by believers in various venues, rather they criticize such alternative interpretations of the Church’s core mission as “putting hard ‘oughts’ where there should be inviting ‘cans’.” That is, they warn against confusing the good things that Christians may be individually called to do with the overarching goal that the Church gathered must pursue.
They carefully define “mission” as the central priority of the Church to which all other activities point and provide support. They point out repeatedly that the Church is given its mission specifically by Christ, and that its mission is distinct from (though part of) the overall mission of God in restoring a fallen creation—our mission is not exactly the same as God’s mission, and we shouldn’t take that unobtainable responsibility on ourselves.
Beyond simply articulating the pitfalls of a misdirected mission (i.e. that doing all manner of social good at the expense of Gospel proclamation fails to achieve eternal good), the authors issue a rallying cry for the Church to recapture the excitement and joy that comes from pursuing Christ’s commission to us. They remind readers that what ultimately leads to the transformation believers seek in the world is the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit, and they challenge believers to remember that God chooses to break into the lives of the lost through the faithful proclamation of His Gospel through the Church. They make the foundational point that the only thing the Church does that no one else in the world will do is to make disciples of Jesus, and that this should be our driving motivation.
What Is the Mission of the Church? is a well-written, well-researched, and much needed book—it might be the most important Christian book of 2011. The implications of our interpretation of our mission for the Body of Christ are tremendous.
Take: Must Read
Posted by Justin Lonas
In Christian circles, there are a lot of little phrases we use to encapsulate large swaths of theological truth for the benefit of concise conversation. Detractors call this “speaking in code” or “Christianese”, and they do have a point. We have a great tendency overuse our favorite idioms to the detriment of their meaning and the confusion of unbelievers. On balance, however, such expressions as “the kingdom of God”, “the Great Commission,” “God’s will”, “God’s plan”, or “new Covenant” are helpful aggregations of meaning and many are directly biblical. Sure, they need to be unpacked and explained to new believers, but their distillation of complex truths helps us grasp the basics and grow deeper in our understanding of God and His Word.
One of my favorites in this category is the phrase, “God’s economy”, as in, “Spending 20 hours a week to share the Gospel at the inner-city mission seems like a waste of time in earthly terms, but, in God’s economy, it makes perfect sense.” We use it to convey the idea that there is a separate (from the world) system of resource allocation that is directed by and focused on God. It’s a great, succinct phrase packed with significance.
There is a sense in which this idea is not just extrapolated from Scripture, but present in verbal form. “Economy” is essentially a Greek word, a transliteration of oikonomia (the law or order of a house), and many manuscripts contain a variant of this word in 1 Timothy 1:4. The NASB renders this verse: “nor pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration (oikonomia) of God which is by faith.” Older renderings, like the KJV, follow the sources of the Latin Vulgate, giving the last part of this verse as, “…godly edifying (oikodomia lit. “house-building”) which is in faith.” So God’s economy, biblically, is the notion of His oversight of his household. In this, we are stewards, as Jesus teaches in parable form in Luke 16, and we will give an account for our management of His resources. In the same manner, essayist Wendell Berry describes the kingdom of God as the overarching ”great economy” to which all lesser economies are subservient.
I’ve been contemplating this notion of late because I’ve been reading a lot in the secular discipline of economics. This study fascinates me because economics seems to be one of the truly “honest” social sciences. That is, properly practiced, it attempts to do no more than analyze human behavior, particularly in the allocation of resources and the responses to incentives, rather than prescriptively telling people what to think. Among the themes that jump out from the pages of Hayek, Sowell, and, yes, even Levitt & Dubner, the strongest is the conclusion that the laws of economics (essentially 1] that resources always flow to where they are most valuable and 2] that people, corporations, and institutions respond to cost-based incentives in their decisions) supersede almost all other motivations for the choices we make.
These principles are quite effective at describing why the esoteric goals of legislation are never met, but the often hidden incentives such laws create always come to fulfillment (e.g. welfare programs incentivizing non-work over employment, etc.). They help us understand why prices rise and fall, why businesses come and go, and why nations have gone to war over trade. They are so uniformly observed across history, geography, and culture that Hayek goes so far as to call the market system a “marvel” on par with gravity, inertia, or life itself. When we consider that even things like time, emotions, and energy can be thought of as resources whose cost must be considered, a whole array of human interactions come under the descriptive power of economics. It enables us to wrap our minds around myriad human choices in the same way that mathematics gives form to the mysteries of the physical universe; neither discipline creates the phenomena it describes, but each makes the unknown into something observable and measurable.
But is that all there is to this life, responding to incentives according to our self-interest? What does economics have to say about the soul and its relation to God? Does “God’s economy” fit into categories of supply and demand? Certainly God is above human wisdom; the best understanding common to us “under the sun” doesn’t have the capacity to contain God’s plans and desires (as Job 28, etc., tell us). Scripture is filled with examples of the faithful submitting to God’s wisdom and showing the world’s ways to be utterly subservient to Him (David defeating Goliath; Hannaniah, Mishael, & Azariah surviving the furnace; Daniel preserved in the lion’s den; Esther pleading her case before the king; the virgin birth of Christ; etc.). God is clearly glorified when we put our faith in Him and act on it, even when doing so flies in the face of earthly realities.
Even so, something about economic theory won’t let me leave it at that. If Hayek is right in calling the price system a marvel of creation, might it be that God allows the “invisible hand” of the marketplace (in Adam Smith’s terminology) to govern the free interactions among men just as the laws of nature govern the interactions of matter? If that were the case, then the self-interest of mankind (though, like everything else, perverted by the fall) would have to be an intentional, created part of the human soul. So much of what we think of as righteous living and following after Christ, however, seems to be based on altruism, seeking others’ best, which is the antithesis of self-interest. There is the rub, to be sure. It would be inconsistent for God to have created us to operate from self-interest only to demand altruism from us in order to stay in relationship with Him.
When we look at the appeals God makes to us for obedience, particularly in the Gospels, we notice a curious pattern: God calls us from an angle of self-interest! Take the following, for example: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30). “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Even a passage that would seem to contradict that message reaffirms it: “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 whosoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 24-25).
The self-interest in these passages is not of the same kind that motivates us to find the best price on items at the supermarket or to avoid actions that bring us harm. This is a self-interest in eternal terms that is revealed to us only through the Spirit of God, but it is still self-interest. God’s call is difficult but not ultimately altruistic because He appeals to our desires for rest, joy, reward, life, etc., to motivate us to seek Him. The incentives God provides only make sense in His economy, but under His authority they are powerful incentives, powerful enough to draw us from worldly wealth and wisdom to a temporal life that forsakes all other self-interest. God created us to seek our best interest, but He alone can satisfy that longing. When we heed His Spirit’s leading, we recognize that the only way to fulfill our deepest desires in God’s economy is to forsake every incentive of the lesser economies and pursue God alone. As John Piper puts it in Desiring God, “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.” Our redeemed self-interest in God’s grand plan makes possible every act of unconditional altruism that Christ calls us to in this life.
This is a marvel indeed.
Posted by Justin Lonas.
The Christian blogosphere (and larger publishing world) has been hopping for the past two weeks with the controversy surrounding emerging church pastor Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. This has been essentially a discussion about the doctrine of eternal punishment and the question of what happens to those who exit this life without Christ. In my view, at least, it’s been a very needed debate about something very important to orthodox theology that is so often ignored because of its very uncomfortable, unsettling nature.
Our humanity recoils when we read passages like Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.” Do we really want to serve that God? If what He says is at all true, we ought to be deathly afraid. God is not threatening us, but rather reminding us of our earned destiny without His interposition of grace through the shed blood of Christ. In context, that particular passage contains Christ’s words to the disciples when he sent them out to bear witness. It is an exhortation to boldness–don’t shrink back from those who threaten you because the fate of their eternal soul is in God’s hands. Be bold for your sake and theirs. Just from that snapshot, we see very clearly how central the truth of hell is to our joy in the sacrifice of Christ and our zeal for evangelism, in short, the Gospel.
That said, this post is not intended to be a review of systematic theology. Others have written better and in more depth about the subject. Rather it is to call our attention to the fractures in that theology that has historically tied Christians together. Kevin DeYoung encapsulates this angle of the current storm (and why it matters) in the midst of his extra-long review of Bell’s book:
“The primary intended audience [for Love Wins] appears to be not so much secularists with objections to Christianity (Ã¡ la Keller’s Reason for God), but disaffected evangelicals who can’t accept the doctrine they grew up with. Bell writes for the ‘growing number’ who have become aware that the Christian story has been ‘hijacked’ (vii). Love Wins is for those who have heard a version of the Gospel that now makes their stomachs churn and their pulses rise, and makes them cry out, ‘I would never be a part of that’ (viii). This is a book for people like Bell, people who grew up in an evangelical environment and don’t want to leave it completely, but want to change it, grow up out of it, and transcend it. The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.
“Over and over, Bell refers to the ’staggering number’ of people just like him, people who can’t believe the message they used to believe, people who want nothing to do with traditional Christianity, people who don’t want to leave the faith but can’t live in the faith they once embraced. I have no doubt there are many people like this inside and outside our churches. Some will leave the faith altogether. Others””and they are in the worse position””will opt for liberalism, which has always seen itself as a halfway house between conservative orthodoxy and secular disbelief.
“But before we let Bell and others write the present story, we must remember that there are also a ’staggering number’ of young people who want the straight up, unvarnished truth. They want doctrinal edges and traditional orthodoxy. They want no-holds-barred preaching. They don’t want to leave traditional Christianity. They are ready to go deeper into it.
“Love Wins has ignited such a firestorm of controversy because it’s the current fissure point for a larger fault-line. As younger generations come up against an increasingly hostile cultural environment, they are breaking in one of two directions””back to robust orthodoxy (often Reformed) or back to liberalism. The neo-evangelical consensus is cracking up. Love Wins is simply one of many tremors.”
When I was growing up, it was a lot easier to believe that everyone who called himself a Christian, went to church, read the top-selling Christian books, attended the big Christian conferenecs, etc. believed pretty much the same things. We all read the Bible, we all fought against abortion, we all thought the world of Billy Graham and Steven Curtis Chapman. Sure there were different denominations, but that had more to do with preferences in worship and the “secondary stuff” than theology, right? Looking back, I can see that it wasn’t that simple even then, but it felt like Christians were such a unified group.
What Bell seems to be proposing is that that unified group was too insular and exclusive, missing the bigger picture of what God was up to. What DeYoung points out is that the “unity” we thought we had didn’t really exist. We put aside some very significant differences (some bordering quite literally on “life and death” issues) to confront a larger secular culture, and in the process we diluted what it really meant to be a Christian to the point where it was nearly impossible to define. Today, more and more, the cracks are showing, as we begin to realize that many of the people we thought “got it” need to be re-taught some of the hard truths of Scripture (as we all do, often) or perhaps to be told the Good News in its totality for the first time in their lives.
We’re wired to dislike conflict, but if what comes of this kerfuffle is a renewed focus on the truths of Scripture and a renewed proclamation of the whole Gospel (including the hard parts) to Christians and non-Christians alike, then God will be glorified. If that’s what it takes for revival to come, I’ll take the conflict over that false sense of unity every time.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Tim Challies today shared a thoughtful post on the nature of human communication across three epochs of history (for his purposes, he referred to them as “cultures”, as the first two epochs survive in pockets around the world today): Oral, Written, and Digital. He made the point that at creation, there was no written word. The Words of God were passed along to other people verbally until Moses wrote many of them down in the Pentateuch. The memories of individuals were the key repositories of all useful information. After writing systems developed and became widely accepted, the page (stele, tablet, scoll, etc.) became the storehouse of knowledge, leading some philosophers, notably Socrates, to be suspicious of writing because of its threat to the supremacy of memory. The final era, in which we live, he called the digital world, where information is primarily trusted to computer systems. He asked readers to consider how life and communication today differs from that of our forbears in the previous eras. What follows is a slightly fleshed-out version of my comment in response to his post
Socrates may have warned that writing would be the death of memory, but I don’t think it was entirely. It was more a blow to forgetting. As the collected stories, laws, and traditions of a society were transcribed and gathered into libraries, they were preserved for posterity, even if at the expense of the readiness of access that internalized memories provided. After the proliferation of writing, nothing of import could completely slip from the realm of existence except through disasters (fire, flood, etc.). The role of memory was still important in the age of writing because of the difficulty of moving large quantities of written material. That is, a debater or speaker couldn’t drag an entire library to the lectern with him. He depended upon his memory from careful reading and rereading of relevant writings. Writing expanded the pool of available knowledge, but did not diminish the role in society of the man who could marshal that information at will.
In the digital era, however, even that stronghold of memory is being supplanted by the instantaneous recall of information from any number of the plethora of web-ready devices available today. Why bother to have committed a passage of a book to memory when you can pull it up on your iPhone in the middle of a conversation? Why study geography when you can affix a GPS device to your windshield to guide your every turn?
The digital revolution does not have to be interpreted as an inherently problematic development of culture–it allows a broader knowledge base to come into play in every discussion than was ever possible previously. However, I see three main frustrations/dangers associated with our computer-assisted communication of today.
1) Sorting: The volume of information available far outweighs our ability to properly and carefully utilize it. 2) Laziness: Essentially what I described in the paragraph above. When we don’t have to rely on memory and other personal skills, we lose those skills. 3) Fragility: Whereas in the previous two epochs there was some level of permanence to information (the odds of every tribal elder with a good memory dying at the same time or of every library in the world burning down on the same day were quite slim), the necessary interconnectedness of the digital world makes it susceptible to systemic failure. That, in light of the previous two problems stated would render a digital culture largely helpless to recover (or even recognize) what it had lost.
The bottom line is that we were created to be communicators. Humans speak, and that fact in and of itself sets us apart from the rest of the natural world. God spoke us into existence and has spoken to us from the beginning. Whatever form our words have taken through the millenia, the centrality of the message shines through. Poor speech, poor writing, and poor digital content come and go, but truth endures. It is that core which we dare not forget.
Posted by Justin Lonas
One of the most prevalent trends I’ve noticed in the written word these days is the proliferation of parenthetical remarks, clauses, qualifiers, and asides of all types. I see this a lot in my own work as well. It leads me to wonder what happened to our collective ability to speak straight and say what we mean in plain English. If everything we say has to be crafted in such a way as to require explanation, are we saying anything at all?
The use of parentheses, commas, dashes, colons, and the like to set off related yet distinct thoughts is nothing but proper grammar, but these markers can easily be used to shade the meaning of sentences just enough to make a writer’s thoughts impossible to pin down. When one says, “The Church in America has no interest in community outreach,” he is making a bold statement that is open to criticism and refutation. It is the opening salvo of an argument in the classical style. When he says, however, “The Church in America, by most counts, has little to no interest in community outreach,” he has maintained just enough give to take the edge off his statement and preemptively parry any attempt to take issue with it. His meaning is blunted, but he still gets in his punches without actually stepping into the ring.
Often, this style is employed not to attack, but to ward off the unjustified attacks of politcal correctness. We gut whatever we are trying to say in order to avoid the ever-present criticism of honesty that our society now accepts as normal. An example of this phenomenon might be a sentence such as this. A direct sentence might read, “The Bible clearly teaches that marriage between a man and a woman is designed by God and that homosexual relationships are both unnatural and sinful.” In effort to make this statement less of a bitter pill of truth to those who would disagree with it, it gets transmogrified into, “Most conservative scholars agree that Scripture holds up marriage between one man and one woman as the ideal (though many polygamists, such as David & Solomon, rank among the Bible’s praiseworthy characters), and that homosexuality was to be avoided.” The second statement, though factually correct, lacks the force and completeness of the first, but would assuredly not raise the red flag of controversy for most groups.
The danger in this habit is this: in our efforts to shift blame, avoid declarative statements that might offend some, or subtly attack and undercut opponents, I fear we may compromise our own ability to stand firm in the proclamation of the Gospel. If we qualify everything we say to make it unassailable and palatable to all comers, then we will necessarily remove or cover over the stumbling block of the cross (1 Cor. 1:23). The Gospel is unequivocal. We do not preach “grace, but” or “atonement, if” when we proclaim “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); to skirt His name or even tuck its power in behind the lessons of His earthly actions is to misrepresent the whole truth in a fundamental way.
As Christians, we are to be a people of truth and love. Our “yes” is to be “yes”, and our “no”, “no”. To shade the truth undercuts our love, for “the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor. 5:14) in proclaiming the truth. What kind of love is there in a Gospel without redemption or a faith without hope? Preach the Gospel, “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2); let the pure truth of Christ’s immeasurable love for lost sinners shine forth, no ifs, ands, or buts.
Posted by Justin Lonas
These days, it’s customary for writers of all stripes to take a moment in December to post their list of the best 5-10 books they’ve read over the year. Since I’m a sucker for tradition, and I love to read, I can’t help but follow suit.
Some of these are new, some are not, but all made some impact on my life and thought this year and are worth a read. Here they are, in no particular rank:
A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir
Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge, 2010, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Mich., ISBN 9780310327035, 187 pages, hardcover.
Hansen and Woodbridge shatter the notion that the Western Church is in decline by recounting our shared history of revival. This book encouraged me greatly both in its content–the power of the Spirit to pierce the hearts of men should never cease to amaze us–and in its approach–teaching a new generation of believers to marinate themselves in the history of the Lord’s work among His people. History of all sorts is a passion of mine, and we undercut so much of our faith and practice by assuming the present somehow supersedes the past and preempts the future.
Wendell Berry, 1987, NorthPoint Press, New York, ISBN 9780865472754, 192 pages, softcover.
I’ve long been a fan of Berry’s essays on life, culture, agriculture, marriage, etc. This is yet another collection that I recently discovered, and it has all the hallmarks of his style and substance. I never thought there was much of a spiritual significance to farming, topsoil conservation, and self-sufficient living until I read Berry. He is a master at showing that conservation (which is not, and never has been, a synonym for environmentalism) is as much about man as it is about the world he inhabits. Read any of his works (Sex, Economy, Freedom, & Community is a favorite), and you’ll gain an appreciation for the wondrous order of God’s great creation that eludes too many of us, particularly city-dwellers.
David McCullough, 2001, Simon and Schuster, New York, ISBN 9781416575887, 751 pages, hardcover.
As I said, history is a passion, so I’m sad to report that I left this fine volume on my shelf for years after my father gave it to me for Christmas. I was completely blown away by Adams resolute character and McCullough’s masterful storytelling. The story of America through Adams’ eyes rekindled my absolute appreciation for this land, whatever troubles befall us today. Also, biography is a mirror of the soul, and I feel like I know myself and my motivations better for having encountered Adams. This book set the standard for popular history. I liked it so much I started in on McCullough’s Truman, which I would also recommend.
Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best: The Blandings Short Stories
P. G. Wodehouse, 2001 (stories written between 1920-1950), Penguin Classics, London, ISBN9780141185743, 182 pages, softcover.
One of the great temptations of life is to take oneself too seriously. Spicing your reading list with some of Wodehouse’s works will do wonders for your inflated ego. Often unfairly accused of being too frivolous, Woodhouse is quite a serious writer–by cutting the legs out from under the pretension and self-aggrandizement of his curious characters, he allows us to laugh at ourselves through their larger-than-life foibles. As a writer, I can’t help but to revel in his masterful use of the English language–very few others have attained the level of precision in description that his works overflow with.
On Writing Well
William Zinsser, 2001 (first edition published in 1976), Harper, New York, ISBN 9780060891541, 336 pages, softcover.
Speaking of writing, I picked up Zinsser’s classic this summer and was surprised to find that it wasn’t a textbook (who knew?). What I discovered was a patient, clear statement about the craft of putting words together for the benefit of others. I was humbled by the number of his “unforgivable sins” that I commit in each article, and I feel that my own style has begun to improve under his proxy tutelage. This makes the list because it reminded me that you can always learn more about your chosen discipline, and the moment you think you’ve arrived, you condemn yourself to failure and irrelevance.
Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience
M. David Sills, 2010, Moody Publishers, Chicago, ISBN 9780802450296, 227 pages, softcover.
Sills makes the case that the greatest need in the global missions enterprise today is for faithful teaching of Scripture and doctrine to new believers, specifically in the area of training indigenous pastors. He argues that the “completion” strategy (reaching the most people in the shortest timeframe) tends to be short-sighted (despite its focus on hastening the second coming of Christ) and ignores the realities of syncretism and shallow faith that can only be addressed through long-term teaching. Though a bit heavy handed at times, it’s hard to disagree with his premise that we have, in too many cases, left off the crucial follow-up side of missions. There is a cruel irony in the fact that the teaching side of ministry is so prevalent (and rightly seen as crucial) at home but far less so on the field–are those we desperately want to reach with the Gospel somehow undeserving of the same quality of teaching and training that produced the missionaries we sent them? The Great Commission is a call to constant replication–you can’t make and multiply disciples without teaching.
The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift that Changes Everything
Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, 2009, Matthias Media, Kingsford, Australia, ISBN 9781921441639, 183 pages, hardcover.
This one was on just about everyone’s list for 2009, but I was late to the party. The raves from those reviews are indeed true. Marshall & Payne have seized on a terrific metaphor for the goals and frustrations of ministry–the vine (that is, the growth of the Gospel through the Spirit in the life of the Church) vs. the trellis (the support structure that enables the vine to grow best). Their premise is simple: the vine is the raison d’etre for the trellis, and so an undue focus on the trellis will neglect the vine and ultimately undermine the entire effort. This is indeed the rare leadership, “how-to” style book that actually has something profound to say. I foresee it being part of the required reading for pastors and church leaders for a long time.
Posted by Justin Lonas
I wrote this for my student newspaper during my senior year of college after a trip to Louisiana to assist with hurricane relief. I’m reposting it here in honor of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast on 8/29/05 and as a reminder that God is at work in even in the worst disasters we witness around the world.
“œEverybody keeps saying that God sent this thing as an act of judgment on our city. I think it was really an act of mercy ““ there are people who have been praying for something like this for years ““ just waiting for an opportunity to get out of a bad situation.”
These level-headed words from the wife of a New Orleans Baptist Theologial Seminary student didn’t blend with their context.
She spoke them while inspecting her salt-encrusted Chevy Cavalier to the background noise of six men from Bryan College stripping appliances and furniture from her neighbor’s apartment.
I never associated mercy with destruction. The mold-blackened walls, rancid refrigerators and pervasive stench of flooded homes more closely matched my conception of hell than of God’s love. Pausing from our grim task to hear her wisdom sharpened the meaning of our work there.
Before heading to Louisiana for a week of ministry, I wondered how I could show God’s love to people who thought He Himself had destroyed their lives. The words of the seminary wife caught me off guard with the simple truth that God was behind the whole story of Hurricane Katrina, in ways that I never conceived.
New Orleans needed judgment. The city of gamblers, drunkards, prostitutes and revelers, was ripe for sentence to be passed. Gulfport and Biloxi in neighboring Mississippi weren’t much better. Then again, neither is any place on this earth. What cities and towns don’t play host to people who are financially irresponsible, those who depend on alcohol and drugs, the sexually promiscuous and self-absorbed partygoers? “œNormal” places carefully pass over these woes as those who partake of them deftly cover their tracks to avoid condemnation.
New Orleans wore her sins on her sleeve. Did we rush to proclaim the wrath of God on the Big Easy because she deserved it or because we were glad that our own closet hadn’t been blown open by the storm?
Too often we mistake nudges from the Almighty as blows from His sword. We forget that He works in mysterious ways. If He wanted to destroy the city, He could have ““ beyond the shadow of a doubt. Looking at roofs crushed by trees, windows exploded by 130-mph winds and 10-foot-high piles of trash that were once the contents of a home, it’s very easy to think of judgment.
Looking deeper, mercy overtakes judgment as the theme of this saga. A city of 500,000 people losing only a little more than 1,000 to a direct hit by a monstrous hurricane for which it was almost completely unprepared is mercy. Letting people see the Church do the work of restoring lives wrecked by the storm when the government bungled its attempt at the same is mercy. Leading National Guard soldiers and Red Cross relief workers to salvation is mercy. Allowing the terrible beauty of a hurricane to thrash our lives so that we wake from the slumber of Christless apathy is mercy.
New Orleans needed mercy. We all need mercy. God loves to show us His gracious care. We’re just slow to pick up His frequency.
New Orleans was not destroyed. Today, just a few weeks later, it is bustling with the activity of reconstruction. The South isn’t about to let the bosom of its culture wash by the wayside. More importantly, Christ isn’t about to let hurting people go untouched through this upheaval. I’ve never seen as positive an outpouring of energy and resources from the Church in my lifetime.
Those of us who could go offer tangible help did, some more than once, and I’m sure many will continue to go for months to come. Those who could give to the cause gave generously; so much so that there has been an overabundance of supplies for the refugees. The hand of the Lord has been active the whole time. It touched refugees herded into shelters with hot meals and listening ears. It touched uninsured homeowners by preparing their homes for reconstruction free of charge. It touched people living in makeshift trailer parks with welcoming embraces and simple services. It touched relief workers from Bryan with the strength, patience and generosity we needed to be that hand to the people of southeast Louisiana.
Years from now, when we look back on this incredible story of God’s redeeming mercy, no one will think of it as a judgment from on high. We can’t waste the gift He has given us. If we allow our lives to return to “œnormal” after the dust of all this settles, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina will not be the destruction of the Gulf Coast but the destruction of spiritual fervor by comfortable circumstances.
The words of the prophets linger in the background. “œ“˜I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not turn to me,’ declares the Lord.” (Hag. 2:17).
God got our attention and allowed us to rebuild His Body with a righteous work ethic. To Him be the glory, even (or, should I say, especially) when we can’t immediately see His purposes.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Last night, I sat down briefly after dinner to watch a favorite cooking show of mine, and, while waiting for it to air, ran across TBN (whatever its goals were at its inception and whatever good it may have ever accomplished notwithstanding, in our house it’s known as The Blasphemy Network). The show of a certain religious television personality who trades heavily in end-times fearmongering and is known to be deeply involved in American politics was on, and the gigantic display of the U.S. and Israeli flags behind his pulpit caught my eye.
Curious, I watched as he began a talk on economic policy, the value of the U.S. dollar, and the ways our present government (and those of European nations) have colluded to destroy the world’s economy. This informational (and politically charged) lecture might easily have been held in a classroom or election rally and seemed more prescient. Whatever one’s personal feelings on the subject matter, I couldn’t help but wonder what place such discourse has as (presumably) the main sermon at a church service. I watched for ten minutes before any reference to Scripture or anything of a spiritual nature entered the lesson, and when it did, it was a passing remark about 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (”If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either“).
This spectacle got me thinking again about an idea I’ve kicked around before–should churches be tax-exempt, especially when they engage in rhetoric and activities so focused on directing public policy? The TBN program is just one (extreme) example of this abuse of tax-free status. Many mainline U.S. denominations actively promote liberal causes and candidates from the pulpit; many otherwise theologically sound evangelical churches do much the same from the conservative side of the spectrum, though they tend to be more careful not to mention specific parties or candidates because of greater media scrutiny. It seems to me that any organization (with or without a spiritual/religious) pretext that seeks actively to influence elections, laws, and policy should be willing to pay their fair share for a “seat at the table” just like the rest of the individuals and businesses in the country.
Tax-exempt status is, and has historically been, a great blessing to Christians. It enables them to afford the costs of ministry; it provides further incentive for faithful giving (through income tax deductions); it has helped boost the expansion of the Gospel message around the world by funnelling resources to tax-exempt missions agencies and parachurch ministries. As such, it should not be tossed aside lightly, but at the very least, there should probably be more severe penalties for those that violate the intent of tax-exemption by openly advocating (or denouncing) political positions and candidates. Churches should treat this status as the privilege that it is, and use its benefits to dedicate themselves wholly to the work of the Gospel, not to push the envelope of political involvement.
Biblically, you could make a decent case against any special treatment for Christianity from government. Jesus in Matthew 17:24-27, instructs Peter to pay the temple tax (and miraculously provides the means to do so), specifically seeking to avoid unecessary prejudice against His message by bucking a disliked law. In Matthew 22:15-22, Jesus thwarts the machinations of the Pharisees by distinguishing between spiritual realities (the work of God in his people, who bear His likeness) and political/financial realities (the Roman tax, paid with money which bore Caesar’s likeness). We are told in Scripture to submit to government (Rom. 13, 1 Pet. 2), to pray for those in authority (Rom 13, 1 Tim 2), and to live within the law (1 Pet. 2), but never to desire power, to publically promote the government, or seek to overthrow it (I’ve witten more extensively about this subject here and here). This doesn’t mean that we should not oppose injustice and evil (whether or not it is sanctioned by government), that we should be uncritical of social and cultural trends that lead people away from the Lord, or that Christians who are so gifted should not live out their faith in public service. It does mean that the gathered Body of Christ should focus its attention on the Lord and His work and trust His hand in the movement of governments.
What do you think? Should the Church be tax-exempt? Why or why not? Would you trade the right to tax-exemption in order to speak openly about politics from the pulpit?
Posted by Justin Lonas
As is often the case in times of economic stress, political life in America becomes much more vocal and more polar than usual. In such a climate, political viewpoints can make odd bedfellows. That certainly seems to be the case with last week’s news that Fox News Channel commentator Glenn Beck would be delivering the commencement address at Liberty University.
Beck is, by all counts, a devout Mormon who finds his conservative politics embedded in his religion’s teachings. Liberty University, of course, is the living legacy of Jerry Falwell, whose name is nearly synonymous with Christian involvement in conservative politics. While at a policy level, Mr. Beck and the leadership of Liberty share much in common, their underlying faiths are anything but similar.
Under ordinary circumstances, it would be unthinkable to have a vocal member of a non-Christian religion (though most Mormons I’ve met would disagree with that characterization, we know theirs to be a false gospel) to speak, with official blessing, to the students of a distinctively Christian university. Somehow, however, these believers came to the conclusion that the times dictate political association to be of equal or greater importance than orthodox faith.
It seems as though Liberty continues to struggle much in the same way most American Christians do with politics.
At the risk of oversimplification, we tend to take one of two approaches in this arena, both of which are damaging to the Gospel. 1) We cherish our religious freedom and we believe that it is the government’s job to enforce morality in the culture, or 2) We cherish the work of Christ and we believe it is the government’s job to do justice and love mercy.
When we succumb to the first approach, we show a watching world that Christianity is not as important in society as general conservatism and that we don’t trust God to redeem men from the inside out as He has always done””as Jared Wilson put it, the message of the Gospel is not “behave”. When we fall to the second, we show the world that Christianity is less about personal sacrifice and more about making sure someone else takes up their cross and gives involuntarily to the poor and needy through taxes. We show that we don’t trust God to move His Church to live out His kingdom. In either case, we show a willingness to compromise certain key teachings of Christ in order to advance a temporal agenda.
Both approaches belie a fundamental distrust of God’s view of things””if there is one theme that Jesus hit over and over again during His ministry, it was that His kingdom was not of this world. He had eternity in view in everything He did, and Christian involvement in politics is, at a grand level, idolatry of the present and visible over the permanent and invisible.
The reason why both camps struggle so much in modern America, I think, is because the Bible is eerily silent on democracy. Jesus said, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). Paul said, “Be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God…Render to all what is due them…” (Rom. 13:1; 7), and “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
Scripture’s stance on government assumes absolute despotism as the norm and that citizenry has but two choices””obedience and disobedience. The concept of representative government of, by, and for the people (cherished though it may be by most Americans) is not given a category in Scripture. We struggle, in short, because we are torn between the submission and prayer commanded of us and the very tangible ability to change things through political action.
This doesn’t answer the intractable problems we face, but it is something I have to keep in mind daily to keep me focused on the true reality of Christ and my true calling as a believer. Politics has never changed a person’s heart or brought eternal salvation to anyone.
Posted by Justin Lonas