Archive for December, 2013

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.

God Breathed out December 28, 2013

After studying, writing on, and teaching through 1 and 2 Timothy this year, the powerful themes of these letters made me want to try my hand at condensing some truths into poetry. Here’s a meditation on God’s Word set as a sonnet.

Theopneustos
But one tale, by a single Author writ
Speaks all, breathes form, life, to the world entire.
Not of man, yet man must comprehend it
To meet Him; saving, purifying fire.
From this fly our peregrine hearts, chasing
Tickles, myths, ashes; vain salve for sin’s throes.
The Tempter’s counterfeits our ears catching,
The self-unbuilding Gospel to depose.
Forged yarns weave ruin, despair. Lust negates love,
Avarice throttles hope, debts crushing joy.
But darkness must retreat. Light, as a dove
Descends, cuts straight, truth itself to deploy.
God’s own Word, own Son, come with us to dwell.
His blood opens Heaven, dooms lies to Hell.

Posted by Justin Lonas

Pleased as Man with Men to Dwell December 18, 2013

As you observe Advent and Christmas in your homes and churches this year, don’t fail to preach the Word. The incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, is an almost unfathomable mystery, yet it is the foundation of our redemption and the capstone of God’s revelation. May we be captured by this and may it be our focus now and through the year.

However you celebrate this season, do not let that point be lost on your family or your congregation. Whatever traditions you hold and enjoy, do not let them overshadow the wonder of this truth. Whatever the mood or intellectual bent of your hearers, do not attempt to reduce this truth by illustration or explain it an any way beyond what Scripture teaches–some mysteries of the Word must be extolled and accepted at face value. Therein lies faith.

Merry Christmas.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:1-18).

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (Heb. 1:1-4).

While you’re at it, take care that the hymns and carols you attach to your celebration keep and embellish the wonder rather than setting it adrift in a sea of sentimentality. My personal favorite has always been Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”:

“Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled.
Joyful all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim
‘Christ is born in Bethlehem’
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King.

Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail, the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel!
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn King.

Hail, the heaven-born Prince of peace!
Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the suns of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
Glory to the newborn king”

Posted by Justin Lonas.

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.

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