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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
We don’t watch a ton of television at our house, so please take any sweeping cultural observations I may make with ample salt. Of the few programs I do watch, some of my favorites tend to be of the hour-long crime/investigation genre—I enjoy their taut and entrapping screenplays and the fact that most (due to their themes of good, bad, and justice) still have some moral ballast keeping them upright amid the sewage of pop culture.
One recurring theme of these series is the heroes’ use of a concealed earpiece that keeps them directly connected to headquarters as they go about their derring-do. I suppose Jack Bauer started it, but now such technology is S.O.P.—presumably in real law enforcement and military agencies as well as the fictional. Hackneyed though it is through repetition, it really is fascinating. Of course, in the context of the show, this simple innovation gives them a sort of superhuman knowledge of their location, the enemy’s strength, and available escape routes, not to mention instant access to backup forces.
I don’t think anybody pulls this shtick off better than Jim Caviezel’s Mr. Reese on Person of Interest (shameless plug: this is my favorite show currently being broadcast in the U. S.). With this constant link to his partner and consummate hacker Harold Finch and his surveillance supercomputer (the Orwellian “Machine”), Reese enters the most inhospitable places with preternatural calm. Though often comically outnumbered and outgunned, he almost always manages to turn the tables, rescuing yet another helpless victim while leaving the bad guys crippled. You’d think it would get old, as this scene replays itself with minimal variation at least once an episode, but there is something winsome about watching one man overcome such hurdles simply because he has access to insight hidden from his foes.
The spiritual overtones of this hit me the other day while listening to Josh Garrels’ song, “White Owl” (another shameless plug: his Love & War & the Sea in between is one of the best albums of God-honoring music I’ve heard in years). In a sense, this sort of action goes on each day in the lives of believers through the miracle of prayer. To a somewhat eerie tune, Garrels sings:
When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road
Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to, take the greatest flight
Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight
Like a messenger of peace, the beauty waits be released
Upon the sacred path you keep, leading deeper into the unveiling
As your sailing, across the great divide
Like a wolf at midnight howls, you use your voice in darkest hours
To break the silence and the power, holding back the others from their glory
Every story will be written soon
The blood is on the moon
Morning will come soon
Child the time has come for you to go
You will never be alone
Every dream that you have been shown
Will be like living stone
Building you into a home
A shelter from the storm
© 2011, Josh Garrels. All rights reserved.
His imagery pinpoints the nature of walking with Christ in a sin-darkened world. The way is treacherous, the light is dim, but the Christian is not walking blind like the worldlings all around, he is an owl—perfectly prepared to thrive in just such circumstances. Because he is in Christ and filled with the Spirit, there is nothing this world can throw at a believer that can compromise his mission.
Unlike the TV “earpiece heroes”, Christians have access not just to a friend or central office, but to the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe. Our connection to Him is not restricted by signal strength or distance from the source; it cannot be disabled by power failure or confiscated during a strip-search; it reaches across oceans and through prison walls. This is not some sort of invention or adaptation we can conjure by our own strength, but it was bought at the price of Christ’s own blood and is freely given to us.
It is the power in which Stephen held forth from the Scriptures at his own execution (Acts 7), in which Peter was led out of prison right past the guards (Acts 12), and in which Paul and Silas prayed and sang until an earthquake uprooted the very foundation to which they were chained (Acts 16). It is in this discreet strength that missionaries boldly take the Gospel into hostile cultures, pastors bring the fire of God’s Word to languid congregations, and persecuted families rejoice in the face of torture and incarceration.
These examples and our own experience should convince us that we should never undertake anything without first tuning in to “headquarters” for direction. Why, then, do we so often neglect to pray, doing our best to turn off or ignore the Spirit’s prodding for us to open the line? Why do we insist on plunging headlong into the challenges of life without our most critical and hard-won asset? What is the point of being a spiritual “Secret Agent Man” if you refuse to participate in mission briefings or to bring along the necessary equipment for the task?
If I do what I do in the power of God, fully submitted to His will, there is nothing for me to boast on those rare occasions when things turn out well. The counterpoint, of course, is that there is no one to blame but myself for all the other failures. The Gospel unburdens us of that crushing defeat, but only at the cost of our pride. Lord, grant us the wisdom to pray, trust, and obey as we navigate this world.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Distill all the characteristics of American culture into one word, and you’ll likely find grandiosity. “Bigger is better,” “Go big or go home,” “Too big to fail,” and the like are our taglines of choice. Anything we do is bound to be better if you toss a “mega”, “super”, or “hyper” out front.
Neither is the Church immune to this phenomenon (witness “megachurches” and “celebrity pastors” in case you have any doubts). It cuts across theological and denominational lines, to the point that we are not even aware of it or how it colors our ministry. An implicit code demands every event or project we undertake to be thoroughly planned, promoted, hyped, executed, well-attended, and measurable. If any step of that procedure is given short shrift, we question whether anything “really” happened.
Over 50 years ago, novelist Walker Percy fingered the wrist of post-WWII America to find this idea pulsing within.
In The Moviegoer, Percy paints his protagonist, Binx Bolling, as a dislocated individual—lost in suburbia and the art of moneymaking, yet oddly ill at ease with nearly every aspect of existence. Binx seeks significance and transcendence in watching and re-watching popular movies; the shared world of mass culture is more real to him than anything else. Through Binx (and one scene in particular where William Holden’s presence brightens an otherwise dull afternoon in the French Quarter), Percy describes how people and places are authenticated, not by their actual nature, but only when they are acknowledged by the transcendent reality of Hollywood.
This desire for worldly significance, to be on the radar of the kingmakers of politics and mass media, afflicts almost all Americans, and it has only metastasized since Percy first diagnosed it. Only rarely do we see it outright; more often it seeps into our thoughts and actions with hidden designs for otherwise innocent and noble work.
The situation is no better in the Church, and, if I’m honest, in my own heart.
Do we gobble up books, videos, blogs, and conferences featuring the best and brightest pastors because we earnestly desire to grow in appreciation and understanding of the Gospel or because we hope being close to these men & women and their ideas rubs off some “real” ministry on us? Do we rush to donate time and resources to relief after a natural disaster out of genuine concern for the suffering of the victims or because we want great stories about how “we were there” to tell our family and friends? Do we promote our writing and church services through social media in order to benefit others or to pad our own egos?
These are fine lines, and, though we should check our motives often, we should never stop doing good things. Still, these temptations tug at us, urging us to be double-minded. We want so desperately to be noticed, to be certified by our peers and a watching world as “real”.
The problem is that “real” ministry does exist, and it often looks a lot like hard work and patient suffering with few observable results. “Real” ministry often takes place far from the cameras and microphones, away from the chattering hordes of Twitter and Facebook.
Our cultural blinders are so strong that we often miss the work God has put directly in front of us while we crane our necks to see if our true calling might be just around the bend. Even when we recognize the ministry at hand, we might give less than our full effort, treating the people we serve as stepping stones. The local church becomes a training ground where we wait to be called up to the big leagues with a book deal or a spot on the staff of a well-known church. Even if ambition lies closer to home, the chimera of a vibrant and growing church entices many to water down or sideline the Gospel for the sake of “success”.
As the story of The Moviegoer progresses, Binx’s discomfort with life and detachment from everyday responsibilities are upended by a series of events and choices that force him to reengage with the world around him. His catharsis comes as he turns from projecting himself into the illusory world of movies to become a director of sorts. In the unfolding metaphor, Binx begins producing the project of his life, framing shots and executing takes for the benefit of those closest to him, leaving his former idols on the cutting room floor, and God alone in the theater audience.
In the same way, “real” ministry requires us first to recognize that God alone determines reality. When He calls us, it is according to His plan for His glory—not our plan for ours. There is an artistry to living faithfully and sacrificially among the people God places in our care that, though it is seldom celebrated on earth, “is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
There is nothing wrong with growing or well-known ministries—God uses faithful people, big and small. The problem is when we see one as more valuable than the other, forgetting that neither is anything but for the cross of Christ. Obey God where you’re at, and if you get noticed, don’t change a thing.
Note: For a piercing look at “real” ministry, I cannot recommend this book enough.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Neil Postman didn’t set out to write theology when he published Technopoly back in 1992, but I’ve seldom read theology that more accurately describes man and his flight from God. His classic critique of the unexamined acceptance and celebration of technology has helped me see just why it is that I find it so difficult to worship, pray, and otherwise give God His proper due in my daily life.
Though I confess to more than a few Luddite sympathies, neither Postman nor I are strictly “anti-technology”—broadly defined, technology (from the shepherd’s staff and the farmer’s plow on up) can be a tremendously useful piece of our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it. Still, he urges caution, reminding us that the things we create to make our lives (ostensibly) easier and better always have unintended consequences, ranging in severity from the annoying to the catastrophic. Even the purported goods of a technology often reshape our world in ways that cause us to sacrifice skills and wisdom to its given mode of operation.
In particular, reading Postman has illuminated three things for me.
First, his idea of “invisible” innovations (i.e. things which once did not exist but now slide below our radar as part of “the way things are”), like the numeral zero, chemical contraception, or antibiotics, alter our concepts of space, time, reality, and control. It’s easy for us to be wary and skeptical of big, visible technologies (say, atomic weapons), but it’s often the little things that have the biggest impact on our thinking over time. His ideas here have found eerie vindication in recent years as neurological studies have shown how our brains are actually “rewired” by the technologies we employ (see here, here, and here for just a few examples). We have to be careful to consider the implications and consequences of every new technology we allow into our lives, and this takes time, research, thought, and prayer.
Technopoly provides a good reminder that Marshall McLuhan’s warning that “the medium is the message” is as true as ever–in the technological realm, this is expressed in the idea that everything looks like a nail to a man wielding a hammer. We are always tempted to accomplish every task presented to us by means our favored gadgets (or schools of thought–even our categories for ideas are a technology of sorts). This gives Christians wishing to “engage the culture” a warning to avoid doing so through any technological means that demeans the message of the Gospel or reduces it to the same level as trivial things. There is a level at which the Word of God and Christianity as a whole will never be welcome within a fully technological world because the establishment can have no other gods before it.
Second, Postman shows how, the more and more technological (vs. physical/organic) our societies become, the more we are governed by the tyranny of statistics. If something is not trackable, quantifiable, and sortable, we are duped into believing that it must be somehow less than real. The dangers of this idea for the ministry of the Gospel are profound. In a world ordered this way, which makes more sense (and brings in more donations)? A ministry strategy that can point to x conversions, y recommitments, and z baptisms or a ministry that patiently wades through the morass of sin in the human heart to bring a handful of men and women to a saving and lasting faith in Christ over the course of decades? Leaving the 99 to reach the 1 doesn’t add up in the statistical realm.
Third, though Postman was not, to my knowledge, a Christian, he understood that people are designed to uncritically trust in something, giving it their full confidence and shaping their lives around its constancy. For much of human history, this trust was placed in the supernatural–whether in the One True God or in various false “gods”–men understood that there were things beyond themselves that they could not subdue, so they worshipped. Once that trust gets dislodged by doubt, desire, or dominion, however, Postman observed that it drifts from place to place. In our present era, it has landed on science and technology–there is no suffering under the sun that a new innovation will not ameliorate, no problem the experts cannot answer.
The trouble is that this new foundation is unstable, being wholly unsuited to the weight of the world placed on its shoulders. Once our technopoly (that is, the reign of technology) collapses, as it someday must, Postman fears mankind’s confidence may collapse with it, leading to despair and desolation.
As with most cultural critics, Postman is far better at diagnosing the problem than prescribing an effective solution, and Technopoly (like many of his other works) bequeaths that task to his readers.
The one thing that gives me hope after reading Postman (and a quick glance out the window to be reminded that his social observations were spot on and the phenomena he described decades ago are now in full flower) is that he doesn’t factor the actual existence and influence of God into his equations. God is not merely a pillar of support imagined by ancient man, but the Creator and sustainer of all there is. That’s why all such secular “doomsday” scenarios seem somewhat hokey to me–if tomorrow the worldwide power grid crumbled, God would still be on His throne, and my responsibilities before Him are still the same.
The challenge of worship in a still-functioning technopoly, however, is to remember that God is on His throne even when the whizbangery of the day wants me to believe that the apparent authority it has over me is absolute. This means shutting down, logging off, etc. is as important a spiritual discipline as anything else because it is a prerequisite of any of the others–I’ve never truly prayed, worshipped, or meditated on the Word while in the thrall of the digital.
A little lesson in this came to me over this past month. For Christmas, my wife contacted an old friend of mine–a baker–and arranged for me to spend the afternoon with him learning the art of sourdough bread-making. Since then, I’ve spent part of every weekend corralling “wild” microbes, kneading them into dough, and waiting for the mythos of fermentation and a 450-degree oven to turn this pungent goo into a loaf of bread worthy of the king’s table. Once you’ve tasted this stuff, going back to the mass-produced air bubbles we call “bread” in this culture is not an option.
It’s been a visual reminder that the old ways can still be good ways (people have been making bread this way since time immemorial–it is a way to work with, rather than around, the created order of things) and that efficiency is not always synonymous with speed and volume. Just because something is billed as “the best thing since sliced bread” doesn’t make it a net good for your life. Next time somebody tries to sell you that lot, stop and ponder whether you’d rather choke down store-bought simplicity or something better and more valuable than convenience can comprehend.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep” (Ps. 127:1-2).
Posted by Justin Lonas
N. B. – For a good reflection on technological issues from a Christian perspective (that also takes into account the current digital revolution), I highly recommend Tim Challies’ The Next Story.
Originally published in Pulpit Helps, November 2008, and updated for Disciple Magazine, October 2010.
It seems as though many who’ve encountered Christ, from the very beginning, have confused His mission with political solutions to the world’s problems. From Herod’s violent reaction to the perceived threat of the King’s birth (Matt. 2) to the crowd Jesus fed who then sought to make Him king (John 6:15) to the general perception that He had come to establish an earthly kingdom (exemplified by the disciples misunderstanding of His death in John 20:9-10), men have misinterpreted the Kingdom of God according to their own vision.
Through the centuries, we see this pattern repeated—in Constantine, the aggregation of power in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, the Crusades, the alliance between Church and state through most of modern European history, etc. While in America the relationship between religion and politics was designed to be more distant than in the nations of our forebears, there is still significant overlap. In this heated election season, both sides are quick to invoke God and reach out to the Christian community. The tendency to assign God to a political party and vote accordingly is pervasive—but that’s not what He calls us to.
While there are certain issues never to be compromised on (i.e.—protecting the sanctity of life), almost all political positions involve man’s ideas and plans and therefore are likely to be fundamentally flawed. When we passionately identify ourselves as a Church with any party, we can cheapen our witness by allying ourselves with unbiblical policies and programs. Such a commitment detracts from our ability to reach the lost by creating additional stumbling blocks for unbelievers. Those uncomfortable with being confronted about their need for a Savior will be that much more resistant to that message delivered by someone who is perceived as a political opponent. “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” (1 Cor. 1:18a)—why would we want to make it more difficult for someone to come to the Truth?
At the risk of oversimplification, Americans 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. 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 can easily devolve into idolatry of the present and visible over the permanent and invisible.
Politics is, fundamentally, about gaining and leveraging power. It revolves around the ability to make others do what you want them to, the desire to protect your interests, and a belief that we must solve our own problems rather than allowing God to work in His time. Christ calls us rather to settle offenses personally and quickly (Matt. 5: 21-26), to graciously accept persecution and go the extra mile (Matt. 5:38-42), to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), to trust God to reward righteousness practiced in secret (Matt. 6:1-6), and to treat others as we would like to be treated (Matt. 7:12).
Most of all, He has called us to be fishers of men and to make disciples. Men’s hearts are not changed through political action, but by the work of the Spirit. Accordingly, that should be the focus of our lives and work. If we focus on political solutions to the problems facing the world, we forfeit opportunities to show Christ through service. Governments can provide many services, but without the ability to address the base-level need of humanity, they can never make men whole.
As dangerous an animal as politics can be, it is important to distinguish it from governing authority. Though it is difficult to separate the two in our country, there is an important distinction—governments are instituted by God to preserve order, punish evildoers, and protect the weak. As such, we are told to submit to them (Titus 3:1, Rom. 13:1) to pay our taxes (Rom. 13:6-7) and to pray for our leaders (1 Tim. 2:2). These passages assume the absolute despotism of the day 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 with this, 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.
As in all professions, God has placed many of His servants in the realm of government. Working with authorities to achieve godly goals is noble and right (as we see in Daniel and Esther) when it is a part of our primary goal of following Him and spreading His Truth. Through such action, William Wilberforce was able to lead the movement to eradicate slavery in the British Empire and stir a revival of true Christianity in that nation. Christians working within governments have helped save untold thousands of lives around the world through disease prevention, aid programs, and peace negotiations, giving men the opportunity to live to hear the Truth. In our own day, believers fight valiantly for the right of unborn children to live, both politically and practically (through adoption and crisis pregnancy centers).
These two temptations—to believe that politics can solve all our problems or to believe that God never uses political action to advance His plans—are always knocking at our door. Even as we seek to focus on our primary mission as His Church, we must be careful to recognize that God’s will and the authorities He set over us are not always in conflict. As we head into the voting booth soon, let us strive to vote according to scriptural principles, but remember that no party or candidate has a platform that wholly conforms to God’s commands. No matter the outcome, our responsibility is to trust the Lord’s sovereignty, submit to and intercede for those He places over us, and be about His business in all aspects of life—not just in the ballot box.
Posted by Justin Lonas