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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

Of Owls and Earpieces: The Praying Christian as Special Agent July 31, 2013

We don’t watch a ton of television at our house, so please take any sweeping cultural observations I may make with ample salt. Of the few programs I do watch, some of my favorites tend to be of the hour-long crime/investigation genre—I enjoy their taut and entrapping screenplays and the fact that most (due to their themes of good, bad, and justice) still have some moral ballast keeping them upright amid the sewage of pop culture.

One recurring theme of these series is the heroes’ use of a concealed earpiece that keeps them directly connected to headquarters as they go about their derring-do. I suppose Jack Bauer started it, but now such technology is S.O.P.—presumably in real law enforcement and military agencies as well as the fictional. Hackneyed though it is through repetition, it really is fascinating. Of course, in the context of the show, this simple innovation gives them a sort of superhuman knowledge of their location, the enemy’s strength, and available escape routes, not to mention instant access to backup forces.

I don’t think anybody pulls this shtick off better than Jim Caviezel’s Mr. Reese on Person of Interest (shameless plug: this is my favorite show currently being broadcast in the U. S.). With this constant link to his partner and consummate hacker Harold Finch and his surveillance supercomputer (the Orwellian “Machine”), Reese enters the most inhospitable places with preternatural calm. Though often comically outnumbered and outgunned, he almost always manages to turn the tables, rescuing yet another helpless victim while leaving the bad guys crippled. You’d think it would get old, as this scene replays itself with minimal variation at least once an episode, but there is something winsome about watching one man overcome such hurdles simply because he has access to insight hidden from his foes.

The spiritual overtones of this hit me the other day while listening to Josh Garrels’ song, “White Owl” (another shameless plug: his Love & War & the Sea in between is one of the best albums of God-honoring music I’ve heard in years). In a sense, this sort of action goes on each day in the lives of believers through the miracle of prayer. To a somewhat eerie tune, Garrels sings:

When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road

Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to, take the greatest flight

Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight

Like a messenger of peace, the beauty waits be released
Upon the sacred path you keep, leading deeper into the unveiling
As your sailing, across the great divide

Like a wolf at midnight howls, you use your voice in darkest hours
To break the silence and the power, holding back the others from their glory
Every story will be written soon
The blood is on the moon
Morning will come soon

Child the time has come for you to go
You will never be alone
Every dream that you have been shown
Will be like living stone
Building you into a home
A shelter from the storm

© 2011, Josh Garrels. All rights reserved.

His imagery pinpoints the nature of walking with Christ in a sin-darkened world. The way is treacherous, the light is dim, but the Christian is not walking blind like the worldlings all around, he is an owl—perfectly prepared to thrive in just such circumstances. Because he is in Christ and filled with the Spirit, there is nothing this world can throw at a believer that can compromise his mission.

Unlike the TV “earpiece heroes”, Christians have access not just to a friend or central office, but to the Creator, Sustainer, and Ruler of the universe. Our connection to Him is not restricted by signal strength or distance from the source; it cannot be disabled by power failure or confiscated during a strip-search; it reaches across oceans and through prison walls. This is not some sort of invention or adaptation we can conjure by our own strength, but it was bought at the price of Christ’s own blood and is freely given to us.

It is the power in which Stephen held forth from the Scriptures at his own execution (Acts 7), in which Peter was led out of prison right past the guards (Acts 12), and in which Paul and Silas prayed and sang until an earthquake uprooted the very foundation to which they were chained (Acts 16). It is in this discreet strength that missionaries boldly take the Gospel into hostile cultures, pastors bring the fire of God’s Word to languid congregations, and persecuted families rejoice in the face of torture and incarceration.

These examples and our own experience should convince us that we should never undertake anything without first tuning in to “headquarters” for direction. Why, then, do we so often neglect to pray, doing our best to turn off or ignore the Spirit’s prodding for us to open the line? Why do we insist on plunging headlong into the challenges of life without our most critical and hard-won asset? What is the point of being a spiritual “Secret Agent Man” if you refuse to participate in mission briefings or to bring along the necessary equipment for the task?

If I do what I do in the power of God, fully submitted to His will, there is nothing for me to boast on those rare occasions when things turn out well. The counterpoint, of course, is that there is no one to blame but myself for all the other failures. The Gospel unburdens us of that crushing defeat, but only at the cost of our pride. Lord, grant us the wisdom to pray, trust, and obey as we navigate this world.

Posted by Justin Lonas

When Silence Isn’t an Option October 31, 2012

I don’t usually use this space to comment on local issues, but something has come up here in Chattanooga that is a microcosm of the larger cultural fault-line of abortion.

This cartoon appeared in Sunday’s edition of our local newspaper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Warning, this is (in my view) a very offensive image.

To be fair to the newspaper’s editorial staff, the local backdrop of this issue is the very unfortunate case of Dr. Scott DesJarlais, a Republican U. S. Congressman representing a neighboring district. DesJarlais was supported by the Tea Party in 2010, winning his seat by campaigning on the pro-life, low tax, limited government platform that most voters in East Tennessee identify with. In this year’s re-election campaign, however, a recording surfaced of a conversation between DesJarlais and a female patient of his with whom he had committed adultery. In the recording, the woman claimed to be pregnant with his child, and DesJarlais pressured her to have an abortion. The hypocrisy that this exposed has cost him all credibility with the people of his district, turned his locked-in reelection into a fight for survival, and given more ammunition to opponents of the Church and Christian values.

This cartoon exemplified for me the harsh, anti-conservative and anti-Christian turn the pro-abortion forces have taken this election year. The local situation notwithstanding, I thought the cartoon was totally uncalled for. I haven’t written much about this issue as it has played out at the national level this year, but as a firm believer in Tip O’Neill’s observation that “all politics is local”, I undertook to write to the Times Free Press editorial board and register dissent with their choice to display such a hateful image. Please note that being a Christian should never be equated with being a Republican, but the Republican platform on abortion has been consistently shaped by Christians seeking to restore a respect for and protection of God’s image-bearers in our culture.

Below is my letter to the editor, which may or may not show up in the paper, but which I want to share here to encourage Christians around the country not to take such attacks from the media lying down.

To the TFP editorial staff,

Sunday’s editorial cartoon by Clay Bennett was predictably left-wing, more tasteless than usual, and untruthful to the point of libel.

As a longtime reader of the Times Free Press, I’m well familiar with Bennett’s style and politics, and very little that he produces surprises me. He is a talented artist, but I’m sure I’m not the only Chattanoogan who finds his relentless ax-grinding for Democratic Party politics and liberal social issues a poor fit for this community. Still, he is entitled to his opinions and I fully support his right to express them.

When a cartoon so deliberately crafted to goad many (if not most) people in your readership area to anger is run on the front of the Perspectives section with no comment from the editorial staff or space given to an opposing viewpoint, my beef is with the TFP editorial board, not with Mr. Bennett. Cartoons are by nature stand-alone pieces not requiring further commentary, but this absolutely humorless depiction of Republicans as supporters of gruesome back-alley woman mangling and child murder crossed a line that should exempt it from the usual “free pass” afforded to a cartoon. I have trouble believing that the TFP or any other major news outlet would run a written editorial expressing those ideas with the same level of vitriol at all, and certainly not without running a corresponding piece from a pro-life source.

More than the tactlessness, Bennett’s complete misrepresentation of a conservative position on life prompted me to write. The insinuation that political action toward the end of protecting children from abortion must mean 1) that proponents of life wish unspeakable harm to women who become pregnant against their wishes or when they feel helpless to care for a child, and 2) that pro-life conservatives have no compassion whatsoever is hateful and uninformed. Conservatives, particularly Christian conservatives, do so much to protect life (both of mothers and babies).

If the staff of the TFP cared to look, Chattanooga is filled with examples of people giving of their time and resources to help women break the cycle of unintended pregnancy and abortion. The wonderful people at Choices Pregnancy Resource Center (who provide counseling and assistance with prenatal care) and Bethany Christian Services (who work tirelessly to place children with loving foster families and adoptive parents) spring immediately to mind, and I’m sure there are many other smaller organizations and church ministries striving for the same goals. In my own circle of friends at church and at work, I know many families who have sacrificed tremendously to adopt and care for the “unwanted children” that might have been killed in the womb but for the intervention of the same conservatives Bennett skewered in his cartoon. The liberal establishment and the Times Free Press may believe that opposing legal abortion is simply an ivory-tower moralistic position that doesn’t stand up to reality. The truth is that the pro-life movement is filled with people who live out their beliefs at great personal cost to give every member of our society a chance to live their life and have their voice heard. This is apparently a privilege that Bennett takes for granted.

The TFP’s promotion of Bennett’s unanswered attack amounts to nothing more than a gleeful sucker punch of your host city by an editorial staff increasingly out of touch with the needs and values of the Chattanooga region. I offer this as a word of caution. A city of Chattanooga’s caliber deserves a thoughtful, thoroughgoing, and well-managed media presence. If the Times Free Press chooses to become a mouthpiece of only the liberals in the city, another media outlet will grow to fill the middle ground, taking more and more readers out of your circulation and making it more and more difficult to provide the services you promise. It would be a very sad end for a publication with such an august history.

Sincerely,

Justin Lonas
East Ridge

Posted by Justin Lonas

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