2016 Books: 3Q

Books read from July through September. Annual running count: 24.

Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective – Peter Leithart (2012); Library // Interesting thesis of empires being either Babels (forced homogeneity) or Beasts (anti-church), how Babels transition to beasts, and how America fits into this (hint: Babel for now). A bit forced at times, but definitely interesting.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015); Library // Eye-opening, saddening, angering, intensely personal book on being a black man and not being in control of one’s black body (to vastly and unfairly over-generalize it). Recommended.

East of Eden – John Steinbeck (1952); Library // A masterpiece and my favorite Steinbeck work so far. A heart-wrenching and beautifully written story loosely based on the story of Cain and Abel. Highly recommended with reservations for occasional adult material.

Knowing Christ – Mark Jones (2015); Print // Excellent book and highly recommended. Written in the style of Puritans but much more readable; also similar in style to Ryle or Packer. Each short chapter is a reflection on an aspect of Christ and his person or work.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson (2008); Print // Really fun young adult fiction by a master songwriter. First book in a trilogy/series. Not quite on the same level as N.D. Wilson’s similar books, but still really good.

The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church – Timothy Witmer (2010); Print // Eminently practical and readable. Makes a biblical and historical case for church leaders as shepherds (especially pastors and elders), and provides an in-depth framework for implementing a shepherding ministry.

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love  – Edward T. Welch (2015); Print // Had high expectations for this, and it didn’t meet them. Practical and somewhat helpful but not particularly inspiring or deep.

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Theology as Wind-Surfing

The last four paragraphs have been about theology – an enterprise that, despite the oftentimes homicidal urgency Christians attach to is, has yet to save anybody. What saves us is Jesus, and the way we lay hold of that salvation is by faith. And faith is something that, throughout this book, I shall resolutely refuse to let mean anything other than trusting Jesus. It is simply saying yes to him rather than no. It is, at its root, a mere ‘uh-huh’ to him personally. It does not necessarily involve any particular theological structure or formulation; it does not entail any particular degree of emotional fervor; and above all, it does not depend on any specific repertoire of good works – physical, mental, or moral. It’s just ‘Yes, Jesus,’ till we die – just letting the power of his resurrection do, in our deaths, what it has already done in his.

My purpose in saying this so strongly, however, is not simply to alert you to some little band of intellectuals called theologians who may try to talk you into thinking otherwise. Such types exist, of course, but they are usually such bores that all they do is talk you out of wanting to even breathe. No, the reason for my vehemence is that all of us are theologians. Every one of us would rather choose the right-handed logicalities of theology over the left-handed mystery of faith. Any day of the week – and twice on Sundays, often enough – we will labor with might and main to take the only thing that can save anyone and reduce it to a set of theological club rules designed to exclude almost everyone.

Christian theology, however, never is and never can be anything more than the thoughts that Christians have (alone or with others) after they have said yes to Jesus. Sure, it can be a thrilling subject. Of course, it is something you can do well or badly – or even get right or wrong. And naturally, it is one of the great fun things to do on weekends when your kidney stones aren’t acting up. Actually, it is almost exactly like another important human subject that meets all the same criteria: wind-surfing. Everybody admires it, and plenty of people try it. But the number of people who can do it well is even smaller than the number who can do it without making fools of themselves.

Trust Jesus, then. After that, theologize all you want. Just don’t lose your sense of humor if your theological surfboard deposits you unceremoniously in the drink.

Robert Farrar Capon in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 24-25

2014 Books: 2Q

Seems as if the blogging well has run dry lately. But even if I move, start a new job, welcome a new baby, and embark on a house hunt, the quarterly book list still must be posted! I read the following books from April through June. My next quarterly reading list is available by clicking here. Running yearly count: 19.

All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture – Ken Myers (1989); Print // This was my third (fourth?) time reading this gem, as I read it with friends for a discussion group. Dated, but the general principles and applications are sound and challenging. Myers has said that he can’t simply revise this work because it require an entire new book. Well, Ken, we’re waiting.

Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us – Murray Carpenter (2014); Print // Well written journalistic look at the world’s most used and (one of the) most addictive drugs. Carpenter travels from China to Columbia and everywhere in between in his journey to discover more about this ancient, mysterious white powder present in chocolate, coffee, tea, and energy bars. Fun and interesting.

God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World – David F. Wells (2014); Print // Wells’ magnificent heavily-researched trilogy and subsequent mainstream overview were absolutely fantastic. I did not find this latest work nearly as engaging, helpful, or tightly argued. The final two chapters on the necessity of recovering God-centered worship and Christian service were very good, but the first seven chapters were a non-cohesive fluctuation between biblical theology, cultural criticism, and general introduction.

The Hidden Life of Prayer: The Life-blood of the Christian – David McIntyre (1913); Audio // A pleasure to listen to, due to the robust vocabulary and writing style employed by an early-20th century Scot. I just wish it was read by a Scot. Also a pleasure to listen to a practical, biblical, and encouraging challenge to develop a robust prayer life.

Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened – Craig Evans & N.T. Wright (2009); Print // Short, accessible, and convincing introduction to the history and reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus. If you don’t have time for Wright’s magisterial The Resurrection of the Son of God (I sure don’t), this is like a very short Cliff’s Notes version (though I’d recommend the larger Cliff’s Notes version Surprised By Hope more).

Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens (1838); Print // Before reading Great Expectations in 2012, I never thought I would ever admit to being a Dickens fan. Now that I’ve read and enjoyed two of his novels, I can safely say that I am on the road to fandom. An excellent work of fiction.

The Truth of the Cross – R.C. Sproul (2007); Kindle // Sproul at his best: explaining and illuminating theological truths concisely, accessibly, precisely, and passionately. This book focuses on the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the eternal covenant and plan of God, and the necessity of the atonement.

War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles – Paul David Tripp (2007); Print // Really helpful book about how the gospel can and should transform our talk and communication. After laying the theological foundation, Tripp turns to the practical side in the later chapters. He repeatedly hammers home the point that without gospel transformation and application, one’s communication problems (indeed, all relational problems) cannot be solved. One to revisit through the years.

4Q13 Book Briefs

These are the books I read from October through December, 2013. My next list of quarterly reading is available by clicking here.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies – Marilyn Chandler McEntyre (2009); Print // I picked this up on recommendation from a Sandra McCracken concert. McEntyre is a curator of words, and this was a joy to read. She argues for the utility, potency, and urgency of words and the preservation of language. An even more important warning cry given the current dominance of texting and social media.

Catch 22 – Joseph Heller (1961); Print // After merely skimming the Cliff’s Notes in high school, I’m glad I finally read this modern classic. Well-written with a strong sense of irony and wordplay while presenting gut-wrenching character studies of soldiers in World War II. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Fantasy Life: The Outrageous, Uplifting, and Heartbreaking World of Fantasy Sports from the Guy Who’s Lived It – Matthew Berry (2013); Print // I had such high hopes for this book as a fantasy sports fanatic, but it fell far short. Funny at times and irreverent more often, it is basically the author’s egotistical autobiography interspersed among fantasy sports anecdotes submitted by his fans from around the country.

In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life – Sinclair Ferguson (2007); Kindle // Okay. A collection of Tabletalk and other similar columns that seemed disjointed and only loosely related. If read as separate entities, each chapter is decent on its own merits.

The Mind of the Maker – Dorothy Sayers (1941); Print // Recommended by and borrowed from a friend much smarter than I. Dense and beautifully argued treatment of the artist/writer as analogical to the Trinity. Sayers presents the best earthly analogy of the Trinity I’ve ever come across, as it runs circles around the Bible camp analogies of an egg or the states of water.

Right Ho, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse (1922); Kindle // Romping good time, as Wodehouse always is. I’ve been making more of a concerted effort to incorporate “Right ho” into my regular vocabulary since reading this one.

Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert – Rosaria Champagne Butterfield (2012); Kindle // Read for discussion group. Intensely personal, Butterfield recounts her “train wreck” conversion not for accolade’s or publicity’s sake, but for God’s glory. Really good in that regard, though strongly worded chapters on exclusive psalmody and homeschooling (though not bad) seemed out of place.

Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation – Joel Beeke & William Boekestein (2013); Print // Well done short devotional on the meaning of Christ’s incarnation and its myriad implications. Soaked in Scripture, and it especially evidences the authors’ mastery of the Psalms and their ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

The Object of Faith

“It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ…It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. The saving power resides exclusively, not in the act of faith or the attitude of faith or in the nature of faith, but in the object of faith.”

-B.B. Warfield in Biblical and Theological Studies (P&R, 1952); quoted in Sinclair Ferguson in In Christ Alone (Reformation Trust, 2007)

The Psalms Cry Out To Be Sung

Since I have been wont to beat the proverbial drum about singing Psalms in corporate worship over the years (see inclusive hymnody, Psalms for Advent, predominant psalmody, and well-rounded worship), I think it appropriate to point you in the direction of another excellent resource on Psalm singing. William Boekestein is the very capable and humble pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA, a sister church of ours in the URCNA. That church is embarking on a four-year journey through the Psalms, and to kick it off he preached an excellent sermon called “Singing the Psalms.” Hop on over to Sermon Audio and give it a listen; it’s well worth your time.

In light of Calvin’s pithy saying that the Psalms are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul and Westermeyer writing that “the Psalms may be spoken, but they cry out to be sung,” Rev. Boekestein argues that “worship without Psalms is like preaching without Scripture, because it is missing divine inspiration.” He breaks his sermon into two main parts: why sing Psalms and how to sing Psalms. His basic outline is this:

Why Sing the Psalms?
1. Psalms were undoubtedly Israel’s inspired songbook.
2. Psalm singing is central to New Testament worship starting with Jesus and continuing today.
3. Psalms stretch our Christian consciousness.
4. Psalms help us to know Jesus better by revealing Him and presenting His experiences in prophetic form (Luke 24:44).
5. God commands it, and it is the Word of Christ (Colossians 3:16).

How to Sing the Psalms
1. Sing Psalms by way of personal appropriation: they must become ours.
2. Sing Psalms with an attitude that reflects the attitude of the psalm.
3. Sing Psalms with gratitude when the Psalms don’t express our current attitude (especially laments).
4. Sing Psalms with love for the work of God in Christ, as they remind us of our Suffering Savior and our Conquering King.

His discussion of the Psalms stretching our Christian consciousness was especially helpful, and what I would like to summarize here. He contrasts this aspect of the Psalms with much of the contemporary self-focused, self-reflective, comfortable worship music today by highlighting five examples of this consciousness stretching.

Psalms Stretch Our Christian Consciousness
1. Psalms help us to fight when we would rather coast (e.g. Psalm 144). The Christian life isn’t a nice euphemistic “journey,” but a war. The Psalms help gird us for spiritual battle.
2. Psalms help us lament when we would rather rejoice (e.g. Psalm 143). Laments are the most frequently appearing Psalms. We can sing them because they remind us of and identify us with suffering Christians worldwide; they remind us to prepare for trouble and trial, because it’s coming; and they remind us to bring all our troubles to the Lord. They also remind us of Christ and His suffering. See my post on singing Psalms of lament for more.
3. Psalms help us to repent when we would rather cover up (e.g. Psalm 32, 51)
4. Psalms call timid Christians to be bold with God (e.g. Psalm 44), especially since we can speak boldly through Christ.
5. Psalms help us worship when we would rather complain (e.g. Psalm 42).

There are many more helpful points of teaching and application in the sermon, so I commend it to you. Rev. Boekestein is also an accomplished author, with a co-authored book on Advent and children’s books on the Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dort.

Christianity is a Paradoxical Religion

Related to my previous post, here’s another excerpt from Bad Religion.

“Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword…

“The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them…

“The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.”

-Ross Douthat in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), pp. 152-153 [emphasis his]