Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Books of the Year, 2015 January 6, 2016

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

Theology/Christian Living

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

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

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

History/Biography

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

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

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

Fiction

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

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

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

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

Philosophy/Other

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

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

Posted by Justin Lonas

Books of the Year, 2014 January 5, 2015

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

Theology/Christian Living

The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott

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

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim & Kathy Keller

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

Taking God at His Word by Kevin DeYoung

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

History/Biography

The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote

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

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

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

Histories and Fallacies by Carl R. Trueman

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

Fiction

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

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

Home by Marilynne Robinson

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

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

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

Honorable Mention

Collected Poems by T. S. Eliot

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

The Children of Men by P. D. James

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

The Tyranny of Cliches by Jonah Goldberg

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

Posted by Justin Lonas

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

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

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

Theology/Christian Living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biography

Coolidge, by Amity Shlaes

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

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

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

Economics/Sociology

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

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

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

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

Essay/Philosophy

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

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

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

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

Fiction

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

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

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

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

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

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

Honorable Mention

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

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

Uncommon Carriers, by John McPhee

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

Posted by Justin Lonas.

Honor Codes and Celebrity Woes December 12, 2013

When is honor dishonorable?

A major subject of discussion in the American evangelical scene over the past several years has been the presence and influence of certain “celebrity pastors”. Much has been written on whether well-known personalities in Christian ministry qualify as “celebrities” or merely “public figures”–whether  they gain notoriety for faithfulness and accomplishments or whether they seek fame and power and use the Church as their platform. A helpful roundup of these thoughts is available here (ironically enough, a panel discussion of well-known pastors in front of a crowd of 7,000).

There are other issues underneath this general discussion, notably the increasing lack of oversight and accountability for famous pastors and speakers. Carl Trueman (who appears on the panel mentioned above) writes incisively about a few recent flare-ups of this phenomenon here and here.

Most of what I hear on the subject focuses on three areas in particular 1) the aforementioned accountability issues, 2) the seeping into the Church of the general celebrity culture of the contemporary West, or 3) the role of mass and social media in “feeding the beast”. What if, perhaps, there was something else operating in the shadows here? Something more primal, more dangerous, because it comes from within?

Honor Codes and Christ
One of our church elders (who also happens to be a professor of English literature) and I were talking about the prevalence of honor codes in world literature. He noted that, despite surface differences, shame/honor cultures typically function by elevating the social standing of men who conform to a given culture’s ideal of manhood and shielding those who rise from dishonor or any damage to their reputation. Christianity, he argued, subverts that model in the person of Christ–that He receives the highest honor (being seated at the right hand of the Father and receiving worship from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation forever) through being subjected to the highest dishonor this life could muster (emptying Himself, betrayal by friends, false accusation, public humiliation, execution as a criminal). That radical perspective shift upends the notions of manhood, leadership, and power in the Church, giving Christians a framework by which humility, tenderness, patience, etc. become markers of strength rather than weakness.

The Code Redeemed in the Church
In a sense, Paul expounds this redeemed code of honor in his description of the character of elders/overseers in the Church: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:2-7). To qualify as a leader in the Church, a man must be recognized as holding to the standards to which all believing men should aspire–pastors and elders are not called to be a breed of theological superman, but rather faithful men who lead others by teaching and example to greater Christ-likeness so that the witness of the Gospel may be upheld and spread. Paul says as much in introducing this list of qualities: ”It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1 Tim. 3:1).

Double Honor
Even so, this is not an easy calling, and Satan desires the distortion and downfall of God’s good plan for Church leadership. For this reason, Paul shares (later in the same letter), that “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). He suggests that those who labor in the Word for the benefit of the body should be compensated for their work (5:18), and that criticism and accusation against them should be weighed carefully (5:19).

It is right and good that we should honor and, in some measure, elevate those who serve the Church well. Like cream, they rise because of their obedience and perseverance over the long haul. Perhaps they even gain notoriety beyond their local church and community through media transmission of their teaching. Though it is easier to gain a wide audience through today’s technology, this goes all the way back to the beginning of the Church in that its leaders often wrote widely and impacted wide swaths of the population. The Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, were something of “celebrity pastors” in their own day, and their writings continue to wield influence. Again, to be a celebrated teacher of God’s Word is not inherently problematic, and the Church past and present has benefitted through the very public ministries of some men.

The Code Resurgent
Perhaps this is where we swerve. All it takes for the old pagan code of honor to overtake this righteous double honor is the most natural of human weaknesses–pride. As soon as the man who gains fame from ministry begins to believe that this condition arises from his work rather than the Lord’s, he will chafe against any attempt to counsel or correct him. Other godly leaders pointing out his errors or character flaws is seen not as loving reproof but an affront to his reputation. To save face, he may surround himself with yes-men and go to great lengths to remove himself from those who would correct him. From there, it is a short road to disaster, for the celebrated man, his church, and the witness of the Church of Jesus Christ around the world.

Our enemy is endlessly creative in the ways he can bring this to bear to the ruin of the Gospel. For some, he delights in allowing them to faceplant into sexual or financial sin that anyone who was listening to godly counsel would have fled long before it consumed him. For others, he seeks to have them continue in authority but tempts them through their pride to teach false doctrine and lead many thousands astray from Christ. Most dangerously (and most germane to the issue at hand within the evangelical and Reformed communities), he seeks to get believers to separate the life and doctrine of public teachers, so that we accept many failings so long as their words retain the truth of Scripture. In such cases, the ripple effects of unaccountable leadership trickle down to cripple churches with leaders who answer only to their own egos.

The Corrective: Biblical Authority
The shame/honor dynamic is deeply embedded in our sinful hearts, and it is always ready to creep back into the Church. This is why, almost in the same breath as he urges honor for Gospel ministers, Paul minces no words to ensure that honor is well checked: “[Elders] who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality” (2 Tim. 5:20-21). The Lord knows that men, even His chosen redeemed, are sinful and would abuse the honor given them to make much of themselves at the expense of Christ and His Church. Therefore, He establishes 1) a plurality of elders to keep the whole church in submission to God and prevent any one man from co-opting a local church, and 2) a firm standard to rein in those who go too far.

Public ministry is a privilege, but it can become a precipice without the oversight of faithful elders. Any man given a broad platform to teach and preach ought to be exceedingly careful to submit to the authority within his local church, to men who know him and his proclivities and who will not hesitate to strike loving blows upon his sinful heart when necessary. To step out from under that umbrella is to cross the threshold from public figure to “celebrity”–without authority over you, you are left unprotected from both the enemy’s snares and the destructive capacity of your own heart.

As to those of us in the pews who are in no danger of becoming publicly known pastors, what is our responsibility in this? First, we should be shrewd in accepting teaching from any “celebrity pastor” and “test the spirits,” checking their words and  by the Word and being wary of any who are not fully submissive to the elders of their local church. Second, we should submit ourselves to the Word and elect our  own pastors and elders with great discernment. As Paul warns, “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin” (1 Tim. 5:22). To exercise that level of care and concern for sake of the Gospel and its teachers is honor indeed.

Posted by Justin Lonas.

Moviegoing and Ministry April 9, 2013

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

Technopoly, Sourdough, and Worship January 31, 2013

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.

Top Ten Books–2012 Edition December 20, 2012

Like a lot of writers and editors, I spend a great deal of my time reading news and opinion articles, essays, books, blog posts, and more. Much of what I read is for the benefit of Disciple readers–it’s hard to know what to publish if you don’t keep up with what’s going on in the world and the Church. Additionally, a huge chunk of reading time is devoted to studying God’s Word and theology–knowledge is not the be-all-end-all of Christian life by any means, but it’s hard to live rightly if you don’t know truth. Finally, some of the material that passes my eyes is simply to gain perspective on the wider world, to find new examples of faith and courage through biography, to see truth and lies played out in fiction, etc. All good writing, should teach as well as delight, and as with nourishment, a balanced diet of reading keeps our minds healthy, active, and productive.

What follows are 10(ish) of the best books I encountered in 2012, in alphabetical order. These books are not all from Christian publishers (or authors), but they each blessed me in some way. Also, most of these books were not published this year, but simply made their way to the top of  my “to-read” list at some point in the year.

1. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had always lurked on the periphery of my understanding of Church life. I’ve read snippets of Discipleship and Life Together, and some of his ideas therein have given voice to some powerful convictions about what it means to love God and neighbor. Metaxas’ biography opened up Bonhoeffer’s life, giving weight to his words by showing the faithful, heroic, consistency of his commitment to God and His Word. Bonhoeffer’s understanding that belief in God and obedience to Him are inseparable is on full display in the story of his stand for truth and love–even unto death–against Hitler and the evil he unleashed on the world. Full review here. As an aside, Eric Metaxas came to speak for our parent organization’s 70th anniversary in November, and I got to have dinner with this thoughtful, kind, and humorous man.

2. Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson.

Ferguson examines the triumph of Western Civilization in the last half-millennium, identifying 6 “killer apps” that propelled development in the West above and beyond the other major world powers of the early modern era: 1) Competition, 2) Science, 3) Property Rights, 4) Medicine, 5) The Consumer Society, and 6) The Work Ethic. He analyzes modern history though this rubric, offering example after example of how these phenomena took root in the West, but were ignored or suppressed in the majority world. Today, he argues, the West has forgotten these institutions and begun to decline, whereas the “Rest” have beaten the West at its own game by downloading them. His thesis definitely seems to hold water, and his warning to Westerners to recapture the foundations of their prosperity and culture before it is too late is especially prescient.

3. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Really Matters, by Timothy Keller

I read this at the recommendation of an old and trusted friend, and I wasn’t disappointed. Like other works of Keller’s that I’ve read, this book is short, to the point, and bold in its approach to its subject. He pares away rhetorical flourishes, side-notes, allusions, and deeper discussions to cut to the chase–a bruising theological argument that all sin begins with idolatry. He shows how our sinful hearts can manufacture idols from anything, turning finite things (even, or especially, good things) into ultimate things, the loss of which sends us spiraling into despair. An excellent prompt to reflect, repent, and fix your hope on Christ alone. Full review here.

4. The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, by Kevin DeYoung

DeYoung’s latest book is an challenging and loving corrective of what he observes as a diminished concern for living according to God’s standards among today’s Christians, particularly those who claim the Gospel message–that we are not saved by works but solely through God’s grace–most deeply. He points out that the Law of God has a much larger purpose than simply to show us God’s standard (though it does), to convict us of sin (though it does), or to remind us of how unattainable perfect righteousness is apart from Christ (which it does very well indeed). He argues the rather obvious point that God’s Law should also give us a direction in which to strive to be like Christ, that believers can and should live in a way that pleases God. Full review here.

5. The Holiness of God, by R. C. Sproul

Somehow, I’d never read this book until this year, but I’m glad not to have attempted it before having some good life experience to properly appreciate God’s power and perfection beyond the “Sunday school” understanding. Sproul mines Scripture to portray God as He is–the infinite, perfect, uncreated God of the universe who created the heavens and the earth and sustains them by His Word, and cannot abide sin. He shows that the great mystery of theology and philosophy rests in the fact that this same God chooses to reveal Himself to sinful men in explicit terms and desires to be reconciled to them. Sproul is at his finest here, inviting readers to come and lose themselves in awe as they contemplate their maker, what He has done for them, and what He asks of them. Full review here.

6. Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry

I’ve long appreciated Wendell Berry’s essays on the nature of life, society, and agriculture. In today’s rapidly-urbanizing world, he offers a voice of opposition, encouraging us not to forget the land that produces our food and to think about what we stand to lose with each technological and political innovation. He has also written a large body of fiction, much of which is centered around the fictional town of Port William, Ky. (modeled on his own hometown). Jayber Crow, is one story in that group, meditating on life and the upheaval that “progress” brings to a community. As powerful a picture as any I’ve read of what we’ve lost as a culture in speeding up our lives and of what we stand to gain by slowing them back down.

7. Technopoly, by Neil Postman and The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion, by Tim Challies

Postman’s Technopoly was a “town crier” announcing the arrival of an age in which mankind began to trust machines rather than gods or even human reason. He makes a compelling case for the dangerous proliferation of information and technology to the point where all power and authority in our lives is ceded to human inventions and the “experts” who operate them. Where Postman’s critique comes up short is in his disbelief in the existence of an all-powerful creator who holds all things, even the man-made doomsday of technology, in His hands. The Next Story is Tim Challies’ effort to echo and amend Postman’s warning  for Christians who, even though we cling to God and His salvation, can be seduced and distracted by technology and information overload. Taken together, these two books give us a healthy skepticism toward technology (which is desperately needed in today’s world), but also a framework to become what Postman calls “loving resistance fighters” for the art of living well in the midst of a changed world.  Full review of Challies here.

8. Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ, by Russell D. Moore

Books on sin and temptation typically don’t “hit the spot” for us–we’d rather focus on the good things Christ brings than the dark depravity from which He saved us. Moore helpfully breaks that silence, delineating between temptation (which even Christ endured) and giving in to its call (sin), and challenging Christians to find strength for the resistance in Christ’s own battle with Satan in the desert. He writes with an uncannily clear vision of the human soul, piercing our false ideas and shining the light of the Gospel into the recesses of our hearts. This is not a  ”how-to” on the “victorious Christian life”, but an invitation to see ourselves daily as sinners in need of a Savior. Full review here.

9. The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s social psychology trilogy delves into the nature of how men and women make decisions, find success in their pursuits, and effectively change the world through communication. In each of these volumes, he cautions us not to take the world we see at face value, but to think critically about the ways we process information and act on it. These three books ought to be required reading for any professional, as the findings he discusses have tremendous implications for the way we do business, industry, politics, and even Christian ministry are profound. Gladwell eloquently challenges our assumptions about the world and hopefully urges us learn and grow for improvement of our lives.

10. Wordsmithy: Hot Tips for the Writing Life, by Douglas Wilson

Great stuff for writers here, but good thoughts on human communication in general. We all write at least something on a regular basis–as Wilson put it, without words we’d be left with just pointing and grunting–so it behooves us to do a good job in whatever medium we’re using to say what’s on our minds. If you write (or speak) for a living, this goes on the must-read list, and I’d give it a hearty recommendation for everyone else as well. This short little book is far more than just a manual for better writing; Wilson calls us as Christians to be truthful and winsome in how we tell God’s story (and the millions of little stories that point to it) to the world.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Book Review: A Great Missionary Biography August 23, 2012

The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle: A Journey of Love across Africa, Nell Robertson Chinchen, 2012, Christian Focus Publications, Faern, Scotland, ISBN 9781845509217, 175 pages, $12.99, softcover.

Serving as a part of a missions organization, my coworkers and I have the opportunity to hear so many firsthand stories of the incredible power of God to use individuals, families, churches, and institutions to proclaim His Gospel and redeem people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. This is a source of great joy, but also a danger—if you’re not careful, you can grow numb to the eternal significance of this. This can happen even in wonderfully missions-focused churches, and every Christian should be on guard to keep themselves uncalloused.

A good missionary biography can be an excellent tool to refresh the sheer wonder at the work of God that we as believers should enjoy. Nell Robertson Chinchen’s The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle serves admirably for this. The Chinchen family’s story of spiritual growth from complacent churchgoing to pastoral ministry to pioneering missionary work across Africa offers example after example of God’s radical faithfulness to His obedient servants.

In the book, Chinchen recounts her family’s journey into a lifetime of missionary work over the course of dozens of short stories. It would be impossible to miss the Lord’s guidance of every step of their move to the jungles of Liberia, the establishment of the African Bible College there and (later) in Malawi and Uganda, and the blossoming of their radio ministry, and Chinchen is careful to make sure readers know that He deserves all the glory.

Though the book’s anecdotal format seems to leave some gaps in the larger narrative of the Chinchens’ life and ministry (there is enough material there, to be sure, for a much longer book) and doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of their experience as one might hope, what shines through is the mighty hand of God in every facet of their work.

Chinchen shares how God opened doors for ministry by bringing “men of peace” to guide them through red tape and dangerous situations, how He miraculously provided land, equipment, and funding for every ministry need, and how He protected them through disease, fire, political unrest, and war. Her frank and funny style resonates well, and punctures the notion that missionaries must somehow be extraordinarily somber, hyper-spiritual people to be effective.

The reason I picked up this book is largely personal—I grew up in a church that supported the Chinchens. They were regulars at our congregational missions conferences, and I remember them coming over to my family’s house for meals when I was 9 or 10 years old. It seems like yesterday that we were praying for their safety during the Liberian Civil Wars and rejoicing with them at the Lord’s provision for a new African Bible College campus in Malawi. I can attest to their faith and infectious zeal for missions, and that comes through in the book.

The Yankee Officer and the Southern Belle should be a great encouragement to all believers to look up and see what God is doing, and perhaps even to respond to His call to “ go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). 

Type: Missions/Biography
Target: All
Take: Recommended

Posted by Justin Lonas

2011 Booklist December 27, 2011

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

The Cracks Are Showing March 15, 2011

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 (á 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

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