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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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
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
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
In his 2005 bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Canadian journalist Malcom Gladwell wrote about the neurological phenomenon of “thin-slicing”–the ability of humans to make remarkably accurate snap judgments about people, objects, and situations based on very little information. Thin-slicing, Gladwell says, helps us navigate daily life by equipping us to recognize friends and acquaintances, avoid danger (like visiting run-down buildings or eating spoiled food), and generally speed up our cognitive process (in essence, bypassing deeper thought about simple matters). Of course, like the rest of human nature, it has its drawbacks too: stereotyping and subjectivity to subliminal advertising messages come to mind.
Our propensity to thin-slice can make a muddle of social discourse. It is difficult for us to see the individual merits of someone who is from a different social class, race, or political party than we are or to rightly judge the merits of a specific action or argument because it is espoused by someone with whom we have profound disagreements in completely unrelated areas. These are not conscious decisions we make, but we can choose whether or not we allow our automatic thin-slicing to drive our slower, more reflective thought processes. We have to be willing to question our snap judgments, to “test the spirits” before we reach conclusions or take action.
In the Church, likewise, thin-slicing can be a blessing (quickly recognizing the fruit of the spirit in a believer’s life, having a “nose” for phony charities, etc.) and a curse (assuming guilt based on circumstantial evidence, interpreting Scripture out of context, etc.). Unchecked thin-slicing leads us into a host of theological, ecclesiastical, and personal prejudices that can often impede spiritual growth and provide justification for sin. I mean “prejudice” here in its classical sense (to pre-judge, to make decisions before gathering sufficient evidence), not, despite its modern connotations, “racist”, “hateful” or simply, “bad”. Neither is it prejudice to have many things settled in advance of evaluating a person or an idea. To hold to the authority of Scripture, for instance, in judging thoughts or behaviors as sinful is not prejudice but prudence–you are simply obeying the “ground rules” for debate and discussion set by the Maker of the universe. By contrast, however, it is indeed prejudice to impute sinful motives to a fellow believer simply because they hold to a position you don’t.
Christians need to be mindful of this tendency and the ways it influences discourse, both between the world and the Church and between believers within the Body.
In a culture given to ever more truncated communication, the substitution of cliches and sound-bites for dialogue is the rule of the day. The truth of the Gospel interrupts the noise, forcing everyone to engage with the person of Christ. The world recoils from that intrusion, quickly recognizing both Christ’s difference from itself and authority over it. There have always only been two options–repentance and submission or rejection and assault.
It should never catch us off guard when the world and those in its thrall pigeonhole Christians. We should more or less expect them to do everything possible to shut us down, drown us out, and keep us from applying the truth to their lives. We can either walk back our faith, kowtowing to their side and turning our backs on the God who saves, or we can stand firm. When we do that, the world’s next move is always to attack, and it should not take us by surprise in the least (see Matthew 10).
Nonbelievers often fail to think beyond their knee-jerk association of Christians with “badness”, hurling quick quips and distortions at the Church from a safe distance. They seldom engage in actual reading of the Bible or relationships with actual Christians in effort to discredit us–exposure to those things for many, as we are well aware, can have the unwanted side affect of conversion. Among their favorite tactics is to extrapolate the motives of every Christian’s heart from any example they can find of a “Christian” behaving badly or sharing views that run counter to the fruits of the Spirit. Nevermind that many of their favorite whipping boys were not Christian in any biblically recognizable sense and that most of the worst opinions ever held by Christians are the result of insufficiently sanctified minds (that is, Christians taking their cues from the world rather than from Christ).
In the world’s construct of reality, a Christian who lives out the love of Christ with the greatest of devotion (reaching out to the lost with the only thing that can truly make a difference in their lives: the offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone by God’s grace alone) is at best “intolerant” and at worst a bigot. Christians are only tolerated by the world when they dance to the world’s tune, pushing aside the demands of Scripture whenever the two are in conflict. Christians are told that we are only being “Christ-like” when we perform duties that any humanitarian would approve of (providing food, water, shelter, education, etc. to the poor or those in crisis). If we try to combine mercy ministries with the proclamation of the Gospel, we are marginalized and called hypocrites for offering those in need a “bait and switch” of some sort. If we focus our ministry on the truth of the Gospel, we are openly derided and constantly reminded about how Jesus was more concerned with actions than “doctrine”.
How should we relate to those who prejudice Christians and seek to tear us down? First, we have to remember that the people who attack us are acting in sin and have been made into agents of the Enemy by their rebellion against God. Our quarrel is not ultimately with them, and when we respond in kind to their thin-sliced judgments and catty harassment, we’re ceding Christ’s hard-won ground and souring them on the hope of redemption. Second, we cannot overemphasize personal holiness–the things we affirm as we seek to honor God and follow Him are going to raise the ire of the world, and it is of crucial importance that we maintain a standard of righteousness in our walk with God so that those who assail us in tearing down the truth cannot find any extra ammunition lying around.
Far more dangerous is the often bitter infighting between Christians over theology, ecclesiology, politics, and the like. Too often, when we feel we have something important to say, we get on an ideological high horse and ride roughshod over anyone who disagrees on that particular point, brushing aside the 10,000 things we hold in common (most importantly the blood of Christ). When that happens, we show the outside world that their convictions are correct–Christians are just a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites on a succession of power trips who have nothing useful to contribute to “society”.
A distinction needs to be made between two types of Christian “infighting”. The first kind is often just a covert operation of the larger tension between the world and the message of Christ. That is, the fight is not between two branches of Christianity, but between Christians who want to honor Christ above all and people who want to submit Christ to the world’s system and are using the Church as a tool to that end (the conservative/liberal divide in theology is a good example of this). By wearing the mask of infighting, such conflicts are among Satan’s best tactic for tearing down the faith in the world’s eyes. The second strain, squabbling between Christians over issues that are in fact important when both sides are genuinely trying to apply God’s Word and give Him glory, is where I’m addressing these remarks.
When we let our discussion and decision-making begin and end with our thin-sliced assessments of each other, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the intellectual laziness we’re engaging in. When we set up certain trigger words as our shibboleths, beyond which no discussion can pass, we close our hearts to what the Lord may be trying to teach us through debate and disagreement. When we surround ourselves with an echo chamber of only like-minded voices, we deprive the Body of Christ of the challenge of learning and growing, and the joy that comes from submitting our differences to our shared worship of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Again, there are two primary points we forget at our peril.
First, no one is perfect. I know we’ve heard that before, but I don’t think we believe it–we expect our cohorts in the Church to attain a standard of personal and intellectual purity that is simply impossible this side of glory. When we remember this, however, we can move forward in a more honest dialogue that honors God who alone is holy. The fall means that every good gift of God is distorted, every solution has a dark underbelly, but also that many bad things can be redeemed. If we’re hoping for anything better in our churches than repentant, forgiven sinners, we’re bound to be disappointed. Paul’s words to the Corinthians (about church members suing one another) are instructive: “Actually, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren” (1 Cor. 6:7-8).
Second, remember how Scripture tells us to handle disagreements and sins. Jesus outlines a very specific process (private confrontation, confrontation by a few witnesses, public confrontation in the church, and excommunication if unrepentance persists) in Matthew 18:15-17. Paul, as fierce a contender for the truth as the Church ever produced, urges us in familial terms to rebuke one another in love (1 Tim. 5:1-2) and places very strict standards on how such charges are brought against church leaders (1 Tim. 5:19). What we see is that patience, thoroughness, and charitability are to be the defining features in our public responses to disagreements.
Both these lessons are crucial in today’s high-tech world. The walls between the world and the Church have been dissolved when it comes to online debates. Accountability is replaced by anonymity and darts are hurled from all sides. The pace with which controversies explode in the age of the internet pressures everyone with an opinion to weigh in within a day or two–why? Because they know that if they wait a week to pray, reflect, and research, no one will care anymore. If that is truly the case, we should always wait at least a week before we respond to anything–if we’re still confused, angry, and convinced someone was wrong, then we’ll have firm ground to deliver a well-formed response. If we’ve forgotten about it, it probably means that we should have–it wasn’t important enough to get our knickers in a wad over after all.
The reason this matters is wrapped up in the classic injunction to peace in the Church: “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). I fear that we may be so angry, even if righteously, that we turn from God and bow to a favorite idol of modern man–being right, understood, and acclaimed. I fear that this idol is worshipped more than the God we all desire to serve and worship, and that is on full display when we fight in public. May God have mercy on us all.
Posted by Justin Lonas
These days there is much discussion in the Church about the permissibility of behaviors for Christians. These issues range from cultural (what movies/music/entertainment choices are appropriate for Christians) to sexual (what are acceptable actions between a man and his wife; what are the parameters of marriage; etc.) to lifestyle (drinking, smoking, etc.) and everywhere in between.
At the risk of reductio ad absurdam, I see such debates typically coming at issues from one of two perspectives (each replete with proof-texts to hurl at their opponents): the restraining impulse to abolish any behaviors outside biblical prescriptions and a notion of “good Christian living” or the antinomian impulse to “follow your heart.” The extreme ends of this spectrum are easy enough to recognize (i.e. the Holiness denominations vs. old Mainline churches), but often opinions fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two. The arguments may look like a loosely restraining “some things that aren’t expressly biblical can be good if they fit our idea of ‘good clean fun’” or a loosely grounded antinomian “whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture is OK.”
To try to hold any kind of a biblically sound, logical, and socially realistic middle when these questions heat up is difficult at best. Nevertheless, I think that is exactly what we are called to do.
Christians of all stripes are quick (and right) to exult in the fact that salvation is a transformative experience: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17). For restrainers, the temptation is to interpret that from a purely external view. They tend to say that this idea means that we are to put away everything that our culture values and create a new, Christianized (or at least sanitized) subculture that is noticeably distinct. For antinomians the temptation runs the opposite direction. They might say that what they do with their time, money, bodies, etc. is not the point, so long as they feel that Christ has changed their hearts to be more loving, caring, or what have you. The restrainers can quickly fall into a ditch of being distinct to the point of becoming insular–they shut out the world and end up failing to reach the lost. The antinomians can quickly fall into a ditch of being at ease with the culture to the point of being completely unrecognizable as Christians–they welcome the world without critiquing it and end up failing to reach the lost.
This, I think, is where we find the middle: to be transformed by Christ is to be overtaken by, in the words of Thomas Chalmers, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” The change is total, encompassing internal and external. When Christ lives in us, He must change our character: “For those whom He foreknew, he also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son…” (Rom. 8:29). This necessarily changes our external behavior as well, not simply in good deeds toward others, but in our personal standards of conduct: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet. 1:14-15). What gets lost in these often well-intentioned disputes is the core question of why whatever issue is at hand distracts us from Christ.
If I obsess over making sure I am perceived as holy without growing deeper into Christ (who is the only source of righteousness in my life), I lose touch with the reason for holiness, trading it for pride. If I obsess over my behavioral “rights” without recognizing that my life serves as testimony to the One who lives within me, I have traded my Savior for the will of the flesh.
In whatever situation arises, the determining factor for a Christian response should be our answers to these two questions. 1) What has Christ provided me from His overflowing grace that I may be ignoring in order to stand in my own power rather than His? 2) What has Christ asked of me from His holy authority that I may be refusing in order to indulge my desires? If the old cliche that Christianity is “not a religion, it’s a relationship” is true (and I believe it is), then to take a stand on anything without asking those two questions is a lot like buying a sports car without asking your wife.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Tim Challies today shared a thoughtful post on the nature of human communication across three epochs of history (for his purposes, he referred to them as “cultures”, as the first two epochs survive in pockets around the world today): Oral, Written, and Digital. He made the point that at creation, there was no written word. The Words of God were passed along to other people verbally until Moses wrote many of them down in the Pentateuch. The memories of individuals were the key repositories of all useful information. After writing systems developed and became widely accepted, the page (stele, tablet, scoll, etc.) became the storehouse of knowledge, leading some philosophers, notably Socrates, to be suspicious of writing because of its threat to the supremacy of memory. The final era, in which we live, he called the digital world, where information is primarily trusted to computer systems. He asked readers to consider how life and communication today differs from that of our forbears in the previous eras. What follows is a slightly fleshed-out version of my comment in response to his post
Socrates may have warned that writing would be the death of memory, but I don’t think it was entirely. It was more a blow to forgetting. As the collected stories, laws, and traditions of a society were transcribed and gathered into libraries, they were preserved for posterity, even if at the expense of the readiness of access that internalized memories provided. After the proliferation of writing, nothing of import could completely slip from the realm of existence except through disasters (fire, flood, etc.). The role of memory was still important in the age of writing because of the difficulty of moving large quantities of written material. That is, a debater or speaker couldn’t drag an entire library to the lectern with him. He depended upon his memory from careful reading and rereading of relevant writings. Writing expanded the pool of available knowledge, but did not diminish the role in society of the man who could marshal that information at will.
In the digital era, however, even that stronghold of memory is being supplanted by the instantaneous recall of information from any number of the plethora of web-ready devices available today. Why bother to have committed a passage of a book to memory when you can pull it up on your iPhone in the middle of a conversation? Why study geography when you can affix a GPS device to your windshield to guide your every turn?
The digital revolution does not have to be interpreted as an inherently problematic development of culture–it allows a broader knowledge base to come into play in every discussion than was ever possible previously. However, I see three main frustrations/dangers associated with our computer-assisted communication of today.
1) Sorting: The volume of information available far outweighs our ability to properly and carefully utilize it. 2) Laziness: Essentially what I described in the paragraph above. When we don’t have to rely on memory and other personal skills, we lose those skills. 3) Fragility: Whereas in the previous two epochs there was some level of permanence to information (the odds of every tribal elder with a good memory dying at the same time or of every library in the world burning down on the same day were quite slim), the necessary interconnectedness of the digital world makes it susceptible to systemic failure. That, in light of the previous two problems stated would render a digital culture largely helpless to recover (or even recognize) what it had lost.
The bottom line is that we were created to be communicators. Humans speak, and that fact in and of itself sets us apart from the rest of the natural world. God spoke us into existence and has spoken to us from the beginning. Whatever form our words have taken through the millenia, the centrality of the message shines through. Poor speech, poor writing, and poor digital content come and go, but truth endures. It is that core which we dare not forget.
Posted by Justin Lonas