This is a collection of essays by Teddy Roosevelt, America’s 26th president. Roosevelt is a fascinating character, and I have read several of his biographies, most notably the trilogy by Edmund Morris. I was first turned on to Teddy when I read his famous “Man in the Arena” quote at the beginning of John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart. Since then I’ve seen it in a number of other places, and no doubt you have seen it, too.
It was a busy year for me, and I wasn’t able to read as much as I would have liked. Still, I was able to get into some good books, especially the new biography of C.S. Lewis, and Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson. Looking back over the previous 12 months, I can see that this was a year of learning, sometimes through books.
The Resurrection of the Son of God – N.T. Wright
N.T. Wright’s new book on Paul came out this year, a 1700 page masterpiece that I was very excited about getting into. It was the fourth volume in his series Christian Origins and the Question of God. Unfortunately, I had stopped reading The Resurrection of the Son of God, the third volume in the series, several years ago, and I wanted to finish that book before moving on to the new one. Resurrection is a 750 page monster that defies being summarized in a single paragraph. By the time I finished it, I was too mentally exhausted to pick up the book on Paul, though I am looking forward to digging into it next year.
Resurrection is a scholarly book intended to converse with, and profoundly shape, the current state of scholarship on the resurrection of Jesus. It has more than succeeded on both fronts. Wright has examined both the liberal and conservative perspectives on the resurrection and found them wanting.
Practice Resurrection – Eugene Peterson
Eugene Peterson gets me every time. Reading his books are like having an intensive discipleship session with a pastor you’ve never personally met but who gets you completely. Peterson has been as responsible for shaping my pastoral ministry as Wright has been for shaping my theological perspective. I am always in good, pastoral hands with Eugene Peterson.
Practice Resurrection is Peterson’s exegesis of the book of Ephesians. Extremely quotable, of all the books I read this year this is the first one that I would recommend. Peterson is one of the best writers of prose you’ll find in evangelical Christianity. Add to that his conviction and one-crying-in-the-desert prophetic voice, and you have a memorable and formative work on your hands.
Death by Living – N.D. Wilson
I had not heard of N.D. Wilson before I got his book via booksneeze.com, but he is an excellent writer with a very unique style. Known more for his works of fiction, Wilson writes like a film director, using story and image to draw you into this book. You can find my review of Death by Living here.
Apparently there is a film version of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce in the works, and N.D. Wilson is attached as the writer. After reading Death by Living, I’m excited to see how this will turn out. Wilson has a lot of talent, and The Great Divorce is one of my favorites by Lewis. If you’re a big fan of Lewis, you may want to get acquainted with Wilson’s style to prepare yourself for what Divorce might look like.
Fight – Craig Groeschel
I’ve always enjoyed Groeschel’s casual, funny writing style. His appeal is very broad, and his book, Fight, certainly fits into that mold. It’s a book about the fights that Christian men must engage with in order to be the men that God has called them to be. You can find my review of Fight here.
The biggest takeaway from Fight, for me, was that he named entitlement as one of the things men must fight against. I find that this is especially true in my own life. I live with a deeply-ingrained sense that I deserve good things, and ought only to have good things happen to me. I don’t know where I picked up this sense of entitlement, but I have certainly paid a price for holding onto it.
Fight is a good book, and I would recommend it to guys who aren’t quite ready to jump into deeper books.
Hopeful Imagination – Walter Brueggemann
A lot of the people I respect the most really love Walter Brueggemann. I’ve tried several times to get into his work, but for one reason or another, was just never able to get too excited about him. Hopeful Imagination, his book on the prophets of exile, finally got me over the hump. This is an insightful book on pastoral ministry in the place of exile. Much like N.T. Wright, Brueggemann works hard to find a middle ground between liberal and conservative Christianity, though conservatives would certainly be put off by his insistence that Isaiah 40-55 was written by someone other than 8th century Isaiah of Jerusalem, and written sometime after the exile in Babylon. Admittedly, this was something that was difficult for me to get over, as I have always held the book of Isaiah to be written by a single author. Brueggemann’s pastoral insights, however, overcame any distancing I felt from his critical perspectives.
C.S. Lewis: A Life – Alister McGrath
Few authors have shaped me as thoroughly and deeply as C.S. Lewis. I began reading his books in high school, when I prided myself on being able to finish Mere Christianity. (How much I really grasped of his argument is open to debate.) From there I read The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and The Abolition of Man. Oddly enough, I still have never read the entire Narnia series.
McGrath’s biography of Lewis is both thorough and engaging. I have a great deal of respect for McGrath, and so I knew that I would appreciate his work on Lewis. Since this is the only biography of Lewis I have read, I don’t have anything else with which to compare it. Some, I have heard, have objected to McGrath’s interpretation of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore. Whatever the true nature of that relationship, this was a very insightful look into one of Christianity’s most important thinkers.
Evil and the Justice of God – N.T. Wright
This was a book that I had been hoping to pick up for quite a while, and finally got around to it after I had boxed up all my books and couldn’t find anything to read. It is one of Wright’s shorter books, and in that sense is fairly accessible to most readers. For too long, he argues, we have believed in the inevitable progress of mankind toward a utopian society where evil has been expunged from the world. Invariably, we are shocked when evil rears its ugly head, whether in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or in the tsunami of 2004.
This book is more pastoral than philosophical. Evil, he says, is not a problem that can be solved in this life. Instead of arguing apologetics or waxing philosophical, the task of the Christian is to be and build signposts of God’s wise rule in this present evil age. Overcoming evil is not a matter of argumentation or explanation, but of incarnation. While this book might not help you win any arguments against the new atheists (see Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil for that task), it will help you become the kind of person through whom evil is pushed back just a little bit.
The Passionate Intellect – Alister McGrath
This was another one of those books that I had been looking to purchase for quite a while, but never really got around to it until all my books were in boxes. The title of McGrath’s book intrigues me, and as a preacher with a theological bent, seemed to be right up my alley. In simple terms, McGrath’s aim with this book was to provide an avenue for the combination of head and heart. Too much of modern Christianity, evangelicalism in particular, has gotten the reputation of being anti-intellectual. Deserved or not, this is a troubling indictment, particularly considering the church’s long history of intellectual rigor and discovery. It is possible, he argues, to be both passionate and intellectual, and the Christian must feel no need to sacrifice one for the other.
In the ongoing debate between Christians and the New Atheists, Alister McGrath remains one of the go-to guys for Christianity. He devotes a significant part of this book to refuting the ideas of Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, and the other New Atheists. If you’re interested in apologetics and the life of the mind, this book would be an excellent addition to your library.
Follow Me – David Platt
I picked this book up for free at a conference I attended in March. Though I didn’t like Radical, I appreciated a lot about this book, and agree with Platt in his basic assumption that the Church isn’t doing a great job of making disciples out of converts. Much is needed to improve our discipleship efforts, and the longterm health of the Church depends on pastors and leaders transitioning from their vain attempts at empire-building and into humble efforts of kingdom-building.
My fundamental disagreement with Platt is along theological lines. He makes a fairly accessible case for his Reformed position on salvation, and I have addressed that with a response here. A long discussion with a friend ensued in which I elucidated my position further. You can read that exchange in this post and comments section. Because of our theological differences, I’ll never recommend a book by David Platt, John Piper, or Mark Driscoll, but I will admit that I resonated with Platt’s basic premise.
A Long Faithfulness – Scot McKnight
On the other end of the theological spectrum, the side that I call home, lies Scot McKnight. One of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars, McKnight put out an ebook on the difficult “perseverance” passages of Hebrews. The underlying question is this: Can a committed Christian lose their salvation? McKnight views this as the fundamental question – the very backbone – of Reformed theology. If, contrary to the Reformed position, a genuine Christian can lose their salvation, then the whole Reformed house of cards falls apart. McKnight asserts that everything in Reformed theology is built upon the perseverance of the saints.
The book of Hebrews, however, indicates that it is possible for a Christian to lose their salvation. While it isn’t easy, and never happens by accident, apostasy is real. God has given us the freedom to choose, and to un-choose, himself. You can read more about this fascinating study in my book review here.
The Good and Beautiful God – James Bryan Smith
This book was part of our life group curriculum while we were at LifePoint Church in Columbus. It is the first part of a trilogy of books, though I haven’t gotten to the other ones yet. This worked well in the group, allowing us to converse together about the “false narratives” we have come to believe about God, ourselves, and the world. The thesis of the book is “transformation happens through training my soul,” which corresponds to one of the five lessons I learned this past year.
I intended to blog my thoughts on the book, chapter-by-chapter. As usual, however, life got in the way and I wasn’t able to meet my goal. However, you can find my thoughts on chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapter 6 on the blog.
Against Calvinism – Roger Olson
Roger Olson is among the foremost Arminian biblical scholars in America. This small book is meant to be a companion to For Calvinism by Michael Horton. My wife pointed out that the tulips on For Calvinism were in bloom, but in Against they are dried and dead. Nice touch, book designer!
This wasn’t necessarily a book I needed to read. To be honest, I probably should have read Horton’s book so that I can have a better understanding of the Calvinist perspective. This was more of a pleasure read, which just underscores how much of a nerd I really am. Overall, I thought Olson did a great job of debunking some of Calvinism’s more extreme views. The next step, I suppose, is to create a For and Against Arminianism collection.
I didn’t read as much as I would have liked this year. My time and energy were spent on other things, especially my family’s needs in the midst of Zeke’s illness. My hope for 2014 is to use more of my free time to read, and I already have a healthy stack of books lined up for the new year. The really ambitious goal is to get through a book a week, though if I read two a month I think I could live with that. I hope that you’re able to take some time next year to devote to reading, learning, and growing.
I’ve begun reading Walter Brueggemann again. This time I’ve picked up a little book called Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile.
The spirit of the age, he argues, is one of autonomy. Everybody is an authority unto themselves. We all do as we please.
There was a similar spirit making the rounds in Jeremiah’s Jerusalem. Just listen to the people’s attitude reflected in Jeremiah 18:12. But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; we will all follow the stubbornness of our evil hearts.’” We’re all going to do what we want to do.
Jeremiah, on the other hand, had a deep and unshakeable sense that God had called him to the prophetic ministry, and as a result, God had certain claims upon his life. “Such a call is not an event, but an ongoing dynamic of a growing and powerful claim.” (18)
Such a sense of call in our time is profoundly countercultural, because the primary ideological voices of our time are the voices of autonomy; to do one’s own thing, self-actualization, self-assertion, self-fulfillment. The ideology of our time is to propose that one can live “an uncalled life,” one not referred to any purpose beyond one’s self.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Let’s assume that this is true. Historically, Christians have understood this “wonderful plan” in terms of God’s call on your life. The specifics are different for everyone, but the implications are universal.
If God has called you, then he has called you to life in the context of his kingdom and within the purpose of his mission.
Because God has called you to life in his kingdom and for the purpose of his mission, you are subject to his rule and his purposes. You cannot simply do what you want.
Life in God’s kingdom and for his mission happens in the Church. Specifically, for you, it happens in the context of the local congregation to which you belong.
God has ordained certain men and women to exercise leadership and authority within your congregation. This authority is exercised in the name of, and in the manner of, Jesus Christ.
For the sake of the vitality of his kingdom and the accomplishing of his mission, God has proclaimed that there must be order within the churches. Just as in your family, one important component of church order is submission to the leadership of the church. You cannot simply do what you want. (Of course, neither can your leaders. But that side of the equation has been beaten like a dead horse. It’s the other side that needs to be addressed today.)
Submission to your leaders is an act of discernment of the motives of your heart.
Therefore, for the sake of God’s kingdom and mission, you are subject to the leaders of your church.
No one, at least no Christian, can lead an uncalled life. Neither can any Christian lead an unsubmitted life.
This means that, if you are to live into your calling, then you must listen to, even submit to, your leaders. This is an activity that can only be accomplished in the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. It is an act of discernment of the faithfulness of your leaders, and perhaps more importantly, of the motives of your own heart.
We crave autonomy, but autonomy is incompatible with the God-called life. You are subject to God. And you are subject to the authorities he has placed in your life.
Consider that, as you faithfully pursue this calling, God will some day place you in a position of authority in your church. Having practiced submission already, you will be more equipped to lead those in your care. You might even say that submission, over time, will give you a certain moral authority that is otherwise impossible to attain.
I haven’t read a book like this before. N.D. Wilson’s Death by Living is prose you experience rather than read. The cover image of breaking waves is an apt metaphor, not only for the content of the book, but also of the style. It breaks over the reader, engulfing him in words and narrative and life.
The story is the story of Wilson’s life. Or, more accurately, the lives that led to his life and how those lives continue to impact his life. It’s a family memoir and reflection on the mortality of human existence. It’s the story of people you’ve never heard of, but who have lived fully enough to deserve their own biopic on PBS. It’s the story of how stories get passed from generation to generation to generation, and how those stories guide the paths of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
One of the most beautiful contributions of the book is Wilson’s insight about how people he will never know and can never thank gave up their lives so that others–including his grandparents–could live. He exists because someone seventy years ago died for a stranger, a brother-in-arms, who went on to get married and have kids who had kids who went on to write books and teach English and have kids of their own.
This book is the antidote to cynicism. It is profound and beautiful, and will give you a sense of awe for the little things, the forgotten things, the things overlooked and passed over in the busyness of life. It won’t solve your problems or even give you a plan of action, but it will change your perspective on the world.
BookSneeze® provided me with a complimentary copy of this book.
In his forthcoming book, Fight, Craig Groeschel turns his insight and humor toward the issues that American men deal with every day. Using the famous biblical strongman Samson as a counterexample, Craig calls out the three primary sins that plague men today: pride, lust, and entitlement. Each of these, he argues, cuts men off both from fulfilling their intended purpose and from their most important relationship, which is with God, their true Father.
The book is arranged in an easy-to-read format, with each section divided up into subsections (or subchapters) that typically run just 3 or 4 pages. A guy could easily read a subchapter between meetings, in a waiting room, or before work each day. The accessibility of the format, as well as the content, makes this book a prime candidate for small group studies. While the material of the book doesn’t go as deep as, say, John Eldridge’s classic Wild at Heart or LeAnn Payne’s Crisis in Masculinity, it may be more likely to reach men on the fringes of our churches–those who come because their wives demand it, and who are too distracted by the allures of this world to invest any of their time or energy into a relationship with Jesus.
The book is at its best when Craig combines his self-depracting humor with broadly-appealing biblical insight. He is casting a wide net, one that will capture the attention of most middle-class American men. In that lies the book’s value: to get men thinking about the deeper issues of life who may not otherwise stop and think about such things, much less develop a plan for fighting the various temptations in their lives.
If I were overseeing a men’s ministry and looking for a way to start discipling those men who are on the fringe of my church, I would definitely use this book. It’s funny. It’s challenging. It’s helpful. And it goes deep enough to get men invested in developing a plan to fight the most important battles in their life, but not too deep to overwhelm them. After taking men through Fight, I would probably turn to a book like Wild at Heart to help men confront the inner realities of sin and temptation, as well as deepen their relationship with Jesus.
All in all, this was a really good book with a lot of ministry potential. I recommend it, especially for use in men’s groups.
BookSneeze® provided me with a complimentary, advanced reading copy of this book.