A Banquet of Books

J.I. Packer is one of the leading theologians of our time. His classic Knowing God was transformative for me during my college days more than 35 years ago when I first read it. Crossway’s blog has published a list of 50 books recommended by Packer. This is more than a year’s worth of reading, even if you are a fast reader, because I suspect, based on the ones on this list that I have read, that these books contain rich food for thought that will require digestion, not just consumption.

Enjoy the feast!

Reading Culture Rightly

How should we think about viewing, reading, and participating in the products of contemporary culture? This article by Alex Duke posted at The Gospel Coalition provides a very helpful guide to how we ought to think about and approach this issue. Though it is written with a focus on movies, using a recent documentary film on the life of British singer Amy Winehouse, the principles he outlines can be, and I think should be, applied to other forms as well.

I hope you will read the article and comment.

These Swan Songs Mark A Beginning, Not An End

[Obviously I am very delinquent in posting the reviews associated with this year’s reading list. My goal is to catch up by the end of September.]

In this first book in this year’s reading list John Piper introduces us to the lives of three of the most transformative figures in church history: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Piper’s interest in biography is long-standing. As a regular feature of the Pastors’ Conference hosted at Bethlehem Baptist Church during his years as pastor there, Piper presented the biography of a great figure from Christian history as a keynote. Many of these messages, and other similar ones are available here. They are worth listening to because they, like this small book, give us the opportunity to learn about how we ought to live as Christians from those who have lived great lives before us.

Each of the men profiled in this book are associated with major moments of Christian history as big doctrinal and ecclesiological issues were being debated. Each of these three men was a participant in the debate over how we are saved in Christ. All three agreed that it is by grace alone through faith in Christ. In fact, Augustine can be seen as a direct ancestor of Luther and Calvin in the origins of the Reformation. Piper says, “The experience of God’s grace in his own conversion set the trajectory for his theology of grace that brought him into conflict with Pelagius and made him the source of the Reformation a thousand years later. And this theology of sovereign grace was a very self-conscious theology of the triumph of joy in God.” (54)

In Augustine’s life, Piper points us to his understanding of the the essence of the work of saving grace. “Grace is God’s giving us sovereign joy in God that triumphs over joy in sin.” (57) This understanding of grace means that nothing gives us the joy that grace does, and we are thus motivated to seek more of that grace that rules our lives, gaining joyful living as one of the out-workings of our salvation by that grace.

In Luther’s life, the focus is on the transformative power of God’s word.it was study of that word, specifically the letter to the Romans, which brought Luther the the realization that salvation was by grace alone, in contrast to the Roman Church’s teaching. Piper says of the study of the word, “The Word of God that saves and sanctifies, from generation to generation, is preserved in a book. And therefore at the heart of every pastor’s work is book-work. Call it reading, meditation, reflection, cogitation, study, exegesis, or whatever you will—a large and central part of our work is to wrestle God’s meaning from a book, and then to proclaim it in the power of the Holy Spirit.” (79) Luther had engaged in this wrestling match and had been surprised with the meaning that emerged, which drove him deeper and deeper into the word, and then led him to proclaim what he learned from it. We can see the results of how this transformed both him and the whole church. The Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the word in our worship has its origins here. Piper gives us six characteristics of the way Luther studied that provide an excellent pattern for us: the text of the Bible comes first; wrestling with the biblical text means secondary works are secondary; original language matters; diligence is necessary; “trials make a theologian”; and study involves prayer and dependence on God’s sufficiency.

The lesson of Calvin is the centrality of the supremacy of God. Piper argues that the way God identifies himself in Exodus 3:14-15 is the key to this. Piper insightfully points out that the we ought to understand God’s “I am that I am” statement to Moses might be rephrased thus: “‘Tell them, the one who simply and absolutely is has sent you. Tell them that the essential thing about me is that I am.'” (116) Like Augustine and Luther before him, Calvin understood that salvation was by faith in Christ alone. The centrality of God’s supremacy made him understand that it is the glory of God, of Christ, that is at stake. When anything else is at the center, God’s glory is diminished.

Piper draws four lessons from these great lives, and these are summarized in the last chapter. First, don’t let your weaknesses and flaw paralyze you. Second, learn the secret of sovereign joy. Third, it is seeing Christ in the Word that bring supernatural change in us. And finally, we should exult in the exposition of the gospel’s truth and announce the glory of Christ so that all may come to know the joy it brings.

This is a well-written, engaging book that will give the reader an excellent introduction to those not familiar with the lives of these three men of faith. For those more familiar with them, this little book will provide an enriched perspective on their individual contributions to church history by a gifted writer and pastor. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Review of “Mr. Holmes”

Imagine what it would be like for a man whose whole life had depended on the acuity of his mental faculties, his sharp reason, and his ability to recall minute details from his past to begin to experience the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. In the film, Mr. Holmes, we are presented with this scenario. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes is nearing the end of his life.

Based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind written in 2005, this film is set just after the end of World War II. Holmes has returned from a trip to post-war Japan in search of a remedy for his failing memory. He has become obsessed with remembering the details of his last case, and is desperately trying to recall its specifics. His interactions with Roger, the young son of his housekeeper, are the keys that begin to unlock his memory, which returns in spurts throughout the film.

Holmes is wonderfully played by award-winning actor Ian McKellen, recently known for playing Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. His is a different Holmes than the manic version recently interpreted by Benedict Cumberbatch, or the Jeremy Brett version of thirty years ago. McKellen gives us a picture of the decay of the massive intellect and sharp mind of Conan Doyle’s character. McKellen, 76 years old himself, brings this character to life in a way that is honest and completely believable. The nuances of expression give us a sense of the frustration of a man who knows that he once knew something, but is unable to call it to mind on command.

Laura Linney, as the housekeeper Mrs. Munro, brings a realism to a character who has lost a husband to the recent war and is wrestling with her future and that of her young son. While she recognizes the limitations of her lack of education, there is an underlying sense that she is trying to work out how to provide the best opportunities for Roger’s future. She sees Holmes’ decline and is making plans for the next stage in her life.

Roger is a prodigy. The interactions between this brilliant child, wonderfully played by Milo Parker, and Holmes are the best part of the film. The contrast between the two characters at opposite ends of their lives is dramatic, and yet their similarities create a bond between them that strengthens over the course of the story. Roger is the light that helps Holmes break through the fog of his failing memory.

As a long-time fan of the Sherlock Holmes character, I was curious about this film. While there is a detective story at the core of the plot, this is a film about a man wrestling with the value and meaning of his life’s work, with seeing the end of his life just over the horizon, and with coming to terms with the failing faculties on which he has depended. It is a beautiful film, masterfully acted, and well-written.

Although McKellen has been nominated, he has never won an Oscar. This may be the role that finally brings him that recognition. Linney’s performance is also worthy of consideration. Milo Parker’s performance as Roger rivals that of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense or Mary Badham in To Kill A Mockingbird in maturity and impact. It would not be a surprise to see him among the nominees for Best Supporting Actor.

While it may not be out much longer, it is worth seeing on the big screen if you can.

2015 Reading List

Biographies can be some of the most fruitful reading we can do. By learning about the lives of those who have gone before us or who have been successful in their lives, we can glean valuable lessons that can be applied to our own lives. We can also learn from their flaws and mistakes and gain insight into areas where we need to grow ourselves. This year’s reading list is a selection of biographies of great figures of the faith. We have selected a range of figures from church history beginning with Augustine all the way up to a recent biography of Billy Graham. We hope you will both enjoy, benefit from, and be inspired by these great lives.

Here is the list and schedule:

  • Jan – Feb: The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin by John Piper Amazon Christianbook
  • Mar – Apr: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas Amazon Christianbook
  • May – Jun: Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby by Edith L. Blumhofer Amazon Christianbook
  • Jul – Aug: Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Colin Duriez Amazon Christianbook
  • Sep – Oct: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, Elizabeth Sherrill, and John Sherrill Amazon Christianbook
  • Nov – Dec: Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham by Billy Graham Amazon Christianbook

All these books are available as Kindle books. All except the Blumhofer are available in ebook format from Christianbook. All but the Blumhofer and Graham books are available from iBooks.

Putting Your Theology of Work to Work

Our final book in this year’s reading list brings all we have read together this year to its practical conclusion. Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling gives us a presentation of a theology of work similar to that presented in the previous book on our list by Timothy Keller along with a series of practical illustrations of what this looks like in real life application. Sherman acknowledges that much of her view of this theology is based on Keller’s writings and teaching. Beginning with the theological foundation in part one, she turns to a brief manual for training people in vocational stewardship, and concludes with a helpful description of four pathways to actually being vocational stewards.

The central idea in her presentation of this theology is the church as the tsaddiqim, the doers of justice, which is also drawn from Keller. She describes this work of doing justice as having three parallel aspects: the rescue of the helpless and innocent from their oppressors; promoting equity; and restoration. The objective is what Sherman calls the “rejoiced city,” drawing from Proverbs 11:10, which tells us that “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” Another way to describe this, she says, is that the work of the tsaddiqim is “offering our neighbors foretastes of kingdom realities.” (27) The goal of this is to give the world a picture of what biblical shalom will look like when God completes his redemptive work and creation is as it was meant to be again.

After giving us a picture of what we ought to be like as the tsaddiqim, Sherman explains why we so often aren’t that way. Her primary reason boils down to a misunderstanding of the scope of the gospel.

If we want to make progress in discipling Christ-followers who will live as the tsaddiqim, we need to understand the reasons why many do not live that way. The prevalence of an individualistic understanding of the gospel is the number-one reason. in many of our churches, our gospel is too small. While it is rightly centered on the vital atoning work of Jesus on the cross, it fails to grasp the comprehensive significance of his redemptive work. Consequently, it fails to direct Christ-followers into the righteous lifestyle of the tsaddiqim, who gladly join Jesus in his grand mission of restoration. (64-65)

What follows is an insightful critique of the evangelical church in America, including how we worship, how we fail to really disciple each other, and the results of both. Her solution? A proper understanding of the gospel is the only path to being who we ought to be as believers and, collectively, the church in the world. All this recalls Keller’s emphasis on Jeremiah 29 in both his Gospel in Life study and in Every Good Endeavor. It is because we truly understand why we are placed where we are placed that we are able to be the doers of justice and the signposts to what shalom is like.

If one of the problems with the church today is our failure to disciple, Sherman seeks to help correct the problem by giving some practical tools for discipling toward vocational stewardship, toward properly using the gifts and places God has given us in our work. Her call to the church to help members integrate the gospel with their daily lives echoes Keller again as well as the work of James Davison Hunter in To Change the World. Her suggested approach includes teaching a comprehensive gospel that points toward integrating faith and work as well as its lasting value, along with helping Christians discover their individual giftedness and how this informs bringing the comprehensive gospel to work.

Sherman closes her book with a description of four paths to putting all she has presented so far into practice. Her intention is to help Christians with “discerning where to invest their efforts.” (143) This is directed at church leaders, and intended to equip them first to respond to her challenge to disciple those under their teaching. Her four pathways include a place for every believer and their unique giftedness. They recognize that there are some who serve on the front lines, and some who provide support in the background in the role of doing justice. No one need feel that they can’t contribute to the work.

Sprinkled throughout with real-life examples, in Kingdom Calling Amy Sherman has provided both church leaders and individual Christians with a practical manual for teaching how to be good stewards of the gifts, callings, and vocations that God has given each of us. As we seek the prosperity of and to rejoice the cities in which we are placed, this book helps us understand more deeply our role in God’s redemption of creation so that we can perform that role with excellence where He has placed us.

Do You Have a Theology of Work? Should You?

If you have been keeping up with our reading list this year, you know that the theme is calling. You have read two views, from Christopher J. H. Wright and Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, of the general calling of God’s people. You have also read what Sinclair Ferguson says about who God’s people are, a key element in relating this general calling to your own life. Then we read about what calling means from Os Guinness. The fifth book in our list, by Timothy Keller, begins the process of pulling this all together for each of us.

In including this book in our list, we begin with the presumption that, for most of us, calling leads to work in some context. This extends upon the idea, from Guinness, that God places us, calls us, to be where we are for the purpose of his redemptive plan. Keller uses the same concept, pointing to Jeremiah’s letter to God’s people living as exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29 for the idea’s foundation. (242-243) He argues that, since we are placed, called to, our various jobs and professions by God, we need to understand what doing those jobs from the perspective of the gospel means. In short, Every Good Endeavor gives us a theology of work.

This book captures some foundational ways of thinking about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit; who we are in relation to that Trinity; and how all this affects the work we do. How we work-in the the context of our particular culture, time in history, vocation, and organization-is something we all need to be thinking through in our own communities. But the answers will all hang on this essential theology: the knowledge of who a God is, his relation to man, his plan for the world, and how the good news (or gospel) of Christ turns our lives and the way we work upside down.

This statement by Katherine Leary Altsdorf in her foreword to the book sets the stage for its content and the way it is presented. The book elaborates on these three points, first laying a foundation by challenging the reader to clarify his understanding of God, then arguing for viewing our work as part of God’s plan for his world, and finally how the gospel changes everything, including the way we view and do our work.

God’s own example for work provides the model for us. Genesis shows us that work is not a consequence of sin, as so many view it. Work preceded the Fall or Rebellion, the term I prefer, of man in the story. The word “work” is used of what God did in creation, and man is given work to do, tending the creation, before sin entered the picture. Understanding this is the first step in rethinking work and developing a theology for it. God is at the center of it. Work has a design, it has dignity, it is part of the cultivation of creation we were assigned in the beginning, and it should be seen as service to God and to creation, including other human beings.

Of course the reality of our situation is that we are on this side of the Rebellion, and that has some consequences. We both can’t and don’t do our work the way we should. The Rebellion affected our work and the environment in which we do it (Genesis 3:16-19). Fruitlessness, pointlessness, and selfishness all affect our thinking about work and must be combatted from the perspective of our understanding of God, our theology. One of Keller’s most helpful chapters in this section challenges us to understand how work shines a light on our idols. Someone has said that we serve what we worship. Work reveals what we are really serving and why. Are we serving the modern idols of success, or individualism, or work itself, or are we serving God first through our work?

If we are to serve God the way he intended through our work, Keller argues that we need to see the gospel as integral to it. The gospel provides us a story from which we are to understand our work, and the story we should be telling through it. Through the gospel we have a new idea about what work really is, and that common grace is an important part of how we should understand it. In other words, while Christians have a different perspective on work, non-Christians do good work and contribute to the cultivation of God’s creation because they are made in his image. This doesn’t change the state of their salvation, it only affirms what Paul talks about in Romans, that creation, though fallen, still reveals the glory of God.

The gospel also provides us a direction finder, a compass, to guide us as we work. It is the standard by which we can measure our decisions about what we do so that we perform the work of cultivation of creation based on God’s plan for the world. And all of this gives us a new power to do the work to which we are called. The gospel enables us to be the disciples in exile that Keller argues for as he concludes.

This is a very readable, thought-provoking book, with a helpful, though brief, description of how a church might train its members in the theology the book presents. No matter what your vocation, your calling, your work needs a theology behind it. In Every Good Endeavor, Keller does an excellent job of providing us with a guide to developing the theology we need for what we spend the majority of our lives doing—work.

Why Am I Here?

“Are you looking for purpose in life? For a purpose big enough to absorb every ounce of your attention, deep enough to plumb every mystery of your passions, and lasting enough to inspire you to your last breath? This book is about the reason why we are each here on earth. It explores the deepest, highest, grandest purpose that any human has ever experienced and history has ever known—a reason so profound that no one and nothing else even comes close.” (vii) This is how Os Guinness begins the fourth book on our reading list for the year, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.

If you have been reading from the list this year, you have already gotten two views of what God’s people as a whole are here to do in the books by Wright and DeYoung and Gilbert. We followed this with Ferguson’s book about who we are. This fourth book takes the next logical step in the process. It asks, from the perspective of the collective mission of God’s people and our identification as Christians as members of that group, the big why question at the individual level.

In his introduction to the book, Guinness identifies three approaches to answering the question posed in the opening paragraph. All three arise from the three basic worldview categories. The Eastern answer, typical of Hinduism and Buddhism for example, basically tells the questioner that his individual reason for being isn’t relevant because the ultimate goal is the “undifferentiated impersonal.” (viii) The secularist answer, typical of atheists, most agnostics, scientific naturalists, for example, is that we don’t discover our purpose; we decide what it is and pursue it. (viii-ix) Finally, the biblical answer tells us that our purpose “comes from two sources at once—who we are created to be and who we are called to be.” (ix) This book explores this last view in detail.

The subject of this book is important. It is a question that every human being asks, often more than once in his life. Guinness does an excellent job of helping the reader wrestle with the implications of the question. He uses the concept of calling as the central theme of the discussion. He defines calling as “the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” (4)

Within this discussion the idea of primary calling—as followers of Christ—and secondary calling—the specifics of the way we are to live out our primary calling—is introduced. Guinness helpfully unpacks the two fundamental distortions that have developed on understanding calling, the Catholic one, which elevates spiritual callings over secular callings, characterizing the first as “the perfect life” and the other as “permitted,” and the Protestant one, which reverses the hierarchy. As the answer to these two distortions, he rightly proposes a balanced view where the primary calling based on identity in Christ and the secondary calling of service through giftedness are taken together. The title of the book’s sixth chapter summarizes this approach well—“Do What You Are.”

The closing chapters of the book bring the reader to the end of life and the end of the age. Guinness asks us to consider, as we contemplate our lives at the end, what the assessment will be. Have we “answered the call, followed the way, and finished well?” (233)

With this book, Guinness has provided a helpful, thoughtful resource. The edition we have recommended includes a set of study questions that would be very appropriate for use in a small group setting. It is a book to which you will want to return to reevaluate your secondary calling as life brings its inevitable changes. What is not in doubt about calling is the primary calling. No matter how it may be expressed in our lives, all Christians are called to be Christ followers. It is this, Guinness teaches us, that is the key answer to the question, “Why am I here?”

It All Begins With Whose We Are

The third book in our 2014 reading list is Children of the Living God by Sinclair B. Ferguson. If you have read the first two books on the list, you have been thinking about what mission looks like for God’s people, the church. Ferguson, in this short book, helps us understand why we should consider ourselves to be God’s people as well as the sense in which we should see our membership in that category.

Ferguson wrote this book as a result of a question he was asked during an interview for a new position. The question is one that all of us as Christians should think about, “How would you describe your relationship with God?” While we might all say that the answer to such a question is easy, the truth is that most of us would likely find ourselves in the same situation as Ferguson, though he is a biblical scholar and pastor — struggling for words. Even if we, as he did on that occasion, manage to say biblically correct things like servant and son, this topic is too often in the category of the unexamined question for many of us.

The bulk of the New Testament is made up of Paul’s letters, and one of the main ways Paul speaks of the way we ought to live, what scholars refer to as the imperatives, is to relate them to who we as Christians are, what scholars refer to as the indicatives. For Paul, if we were to summarize his view of the indicative, we would say that it is the fact that we are in Christ that informs all we are and do. In this book, Ferguson focuses our attention on one of the most important aspects of our being in Christ — our adoption as children of God. This is the reason this book is important to our theme of calling, vocation, and the work we do daily — it points us to the major indicative enabling the imperatives that embody what we do each day as Christians.

Ferguson, referring to 1 John 3:1-2, says, “[The fact that we are children of God] is the way — not the only way but the fundamental way — for the Christian to think about himself or herself. Our self-image, if it is to be biblical, will begin just here. God is my Father (the Christian’s self-image always begins with the knowledge of God and who he is!); I am one of his children (I know my real identity); his people are my brothers and sisters (I recognize the family to which I belong, and have discovered my deepest ‘roots’).” (2)

If we are children of God (indicative), we must conduct ourselves in particular ways consistent with that family membership (imperative). This touches our relationships with each other. For example, we cannot be God’s children apart from his family, the church. No “Lone Ranger” Christianity is an option here. Ferguson says, “As children of God we cannot be solitary, isolationist, or individualistic. Just as we are to live in the light of our Father’s presence in our lives, and the new dispositions he has given to us, so we are also to live in the context of our family membership. Belonging to the household of faith (Gal. 6:10, Eph. 2:19) involves many new privileges and requires that we recognize certain new responsibilities.” (53)

I hope you enjoy reading this book. Ferguson’s style is very accessible, and though it is brief, this small volume is packed with spiritual food on which to chew. It can be read quickly, but resist the temptation. Savor it and marinate in it. It will change your thinking about who you, and we, are.

A New Resource

As a history buff, one of the things that helps bring reading alive for me is understanding the historical context. This is really helpful as we study the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. For example, understanding the timeline helps us fit books of the prophets together with the books of history. As a part of my seminary studies, I took two church history courses, and both of these required the preparation of a timeline as a semester project I have converted these to an easy-to-view tool and given them pages here at Let My People Read! Click on the menu link above to get to them.

When I finish my studies later this year, I plan to go back and provide some enhancements to these, adding information about events and documents that appear on the timeline, but don’t yet have background material. I also have plans to add a timeline relating the the book of Jeremiah since I am teaching that right now at church.

Hope these are valuable to you!