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With Reformation Day upon us, I thought I’d do a reading roundup on several relevant books. As promised, I’m keeping to 7 at a time. For more explanation, see last week’s post. Unlike last week, 2 of these books (the bottom two pictured) are my purchases. The rest, I have to thank Zondervan, IVP Academic, Crossway, and Baker Academic for the hookup!

God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Zondervan)

First off, I was able to read the next volume in The 5 Solas Series (I also enjoyed this one). Matthew Barrett is not only the author of this volume, but the editor of the series as a whole. So far, this is the largest entry by far, and that’s because Barrett covers quite a bit of ground. The first part offers a historical survey of the attacks on the doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to now. Then, in the second part of the book he presents a biblical theology of Scripture, from a mostly covenantal point of view. This might be the most distinctive part of the book. In the final section he takes up the typical topics related to the doctrine of Scripture (authority, inerrancy, clarity, and sufficiency) and clarifies what they mean and don’t mean, and then also deals with a modern objection (or two). Having just covered this section a few weeks back in our systematic class, I found this a useful read and look forward to the final two entries in this particular series.

Saving The Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well (IVP Academic)

Glenn Paauw’s book turns from doctrine to practice. Here, he is specifically interested in how we go about reading the Bible, and takes a publisher’s eye to it as well. The chapters are paired up to present, first a problem, and second, his vision for a solution. The chapters as a whole are arranged chiastically, which let me tell you, makes it attractive before you even start reading. To give one example of an issue Paauw sees, his opening chapters deal with how our published Bible tend to make the actual process of reading more difficult. There is quite a bit of clutter on a typical page of Scripture, especially in a study Bible. He proposes we give more attention to how this influences reading, something I’ll have more to say about later this week or next. To give an idea how the chiasm works, his final two chapters get even more focused on how the print within the Bible is laid out, so that it’s beauty is more evident.

This was a thought provoking and engaging read. My only complaint is that his underlying doctrine of Scripture seemed a little too friendly with Christian Smith, N. T. Wright, and Pete Enns. Might not be a problem for you, and overall doesn’t take too much away from his proposals. But if you’ve seen Smith’s Bible Made Impossible devastated in a review, you don’t necessarily like seeing anyone rely on it too heavily.

Theologians You Should Know: An Introduction: From The Apostolic Fathers to the 21st Century (Crossway)

This was a great beach read over the summer from Michael Reeves. It is also an excellent introduction to key theologians in a readable and semi-concise format. The first half of the book begins a brief overview of the Apostolic Fathers, and then chapters on Justin Martyr/Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. One almost suspects a theme towards the end there. The second half starts with Luther, then moves to Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Schleiermacher, Barth, and J. I. Packer. In each chapter, Reeves offers a mini biography and background for each theologian. He then touches on their theology, which he says will “amount to a fast job through each theologian’s major work(s)” (16). So, not only to get a idea of the context of each of these theologians, you are better prepared to read at least some of their most important writings, which is something you should certainly do.

The Voice of God in The Text of Scripture: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Zondervan)

Once again, you can have the privilege of reading the papers presented at the annual Los Angeles Theology Conference. This time, it’s from the Fourth Annual installment and the topic is the doctrine of Scripture. Previously, topics were Christology, the Trinity, and Atonement. Once again, a solid lineup of speakers with papers in hand. Daniel Treier kicks it off with an essay on an evangelical dogmatics of Scripture before Stephen Fowl does some theological interpretation of Scripture about Scripture in Hebrews. Elsewhere, Hebrews plays a key part in Myk Habets essay about reading retroactively. A pair of essays deal with historical biblical criticism, asking whether the voice of God can be found there in one, and a response to Plantinga’s critique of Troeltsch in another. All in all, I worked through this one pretty quickly the last two weekends and enjoyed myself immensely.

Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of The Gospel through Church and Scripture (Baker Academic)

This volume by Matthew Levering is something I’ll need to come back to in due time. While this is a Reformation themed post, notice that in Levering’s subtitle, he speaks of revelation mediated through the church as well as Scripture. And well he should since he’s Catholic (of the capital C variety). As such, he and I would disagree here and there, but he seems to be reading all my favorite authors (including the two mentioned below) and writing copious footnotes interacting with their works so as to not clutter up the main text too much. I include it hear with the hearty recommendation that it is the work to engage (no pun intended) if you want to see a Catholic writer working with the fruits of evangelical scholarship, agreeing for the most part, but then putting their work in dialogue with Dei Verbum. I wasn’t able to critically interact with it at the depth I think the book deserves, but should a dissertation topic go this way, I know this will come in handy.

The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church (Brazos Press)

This most recent book by Peter Leithart, as well as the following by Kevin Vanhoozer and two books I’m currently reading and enjoy. I have tried to read pretty much everything I can by both authors. With Leithart, I’m sure I’ll be provoked to deeper though, but if I’m reading well, will also not quite agree with everything. As I’m starting to gather more intersted in ecclesiology (for reasons I’ll explain later), this will hopefully prove to be a key conversation partner.

Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Brazos Press)

This latest by Kevin Vanhoozer is based on a set of lectures given at Moore Theological College last year. It’s Vanhoozer offering a chapter on each sola, giving historical context and contemporary expression. He sprinkles in theses on what a mere protestant Christianity should look like. What more could you ask for?

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Tim Challies used to introduce his New Books of Note posts with a brief disclaimer about receiving many books from publishers and not having time to review them all. Consider this a similar intro, and will probably appear at the beginning of each post in this series. I decided I’m going to do these in batches of 7, since that seems biblical and all. By “these” I mean those previously mentioned “books I won’t/can/t review.” As was noted, this still somewhat counts as a “review” but only in the loosest sense of “publicly writing my thoughts about books received for free from publishers.” It should also be noted that just because a book appears here, it doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. I just don’t want to write more than a few sentences about it, and from those you can actually glean quite a bit. Sound good? Ok, so here’s what we have this time:

The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants after 500 Years (Zondervan)

The subtitle tells you exactly what this little (under 150pp) book by Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo is about. If you want a more in-depth treatment, grab Allison’s larger one. Topics covered here include: basic divisions between Catholics and Protestants, 10 commonalities that unite us, and the 9 key areas where we differ. The book is charitable and clear, and for me at least, was an easy weekend read. If you want a concise treatment of how Catholics and Protestants relate to one another theologically, I think this is a good place to start.

Trapped: Getting Free from People, Patterns, and Problems (New Growth Press)

Andy Farmer’s book focuses on key traps that enslave people into patterns of living that inhibit Christian growth. He identifies four key traps: approval, laziness, secret escape, and addiction. He also discusses feeling trapped in a troubled marriage (chapter 9) and how we can experience true freedom and redemption from these traps. If you read many CCEF books, you won’t be surprised by much of the material here. However, it is a fairly fresh look at these key problems and is a concise treatment of them (roughly 170pp).

Hostile Environment: Understanding and Responding to Anti-Christian Bias (IVP Books)

This book by George Yancey (prof of sociology at UNT) is likely to prove more and more timely. Yancey is not only a Christian teaching in a public university, he is also an African American, and recounts how he has not only experienced anti Christian bias, but racism as well. Here, he deals with the roots of what he calls Christianophobia (in a delightful chapter titled Haters Gonna Hate). He then notes that you can’t please everyone, and in some instances, Christian behavior leads to anti-Christian bias (though this isn’t always the case). He then helpfully unpacks how to best respond and deal with Christianophobia (hence his book’s subtitle). It won’t take you long to work through this book, but I expect it to repay your time in the coming months and years.

The Temple and The Tabernacle: A Study of God’s Dwelling Places from Genesis to Revelation (Baker Books)

A potential upside of this book by J. Daniel Hays is that is a more accessible version of G. K. Beale’s The Temple and The Church’s Mission. While Beale has his own more accessible version, this book includes pictures and such. However, that leads to a potential downside in that it is printed on glossy paper and so not conducive to note taking or marking within. But, if you’re a more visually oriented person, and perhaps never interacted with Beale’s biblical theology of God’s dwelling place, maybe start here for an introduction and then move into Beale’s more in-depth and technical treatment.

Pursuing Moral Faithfulness: Ethics and Christian Discipleship (IVP Academic)

I started off strong with this one by Gary Tyra, but then ran out of steam. Not entirely sure why, because this should be a very useful book to anyone teaching practical theology or ethics. Since that’s part of what I do, it seemed like it should be a good fit. Tyra’s first section gives a lay of the moral land and explains the key approaches to ethics out there. The second part of his book is more “how-to” and explains the importance of responsibility for making good ethical decision, but also leaves space for the Spirit to guide and direct our steps. He comes from what I think is a Charismatic background, and so the interesting angle of this book is seeing how that plays into practical theology. In the coming weeks and months, I am actually hoping to revisit this one for a little more analysis.

Impossible People: Christian Courage and The Struggle for The Soul of Civilization (IVP Books)

I didn’t like this book by Os Guinness, which was a bit surprising as well as obviously disappointing. I just couldn’t get into it. Unlike Fool’s Talk, this one seemed less helpful, at least to me. These books are loosely related, and I think this is meant to be the more theoretical underpinning to that one. Maybe because of that, it ended up being less interesting, but it may have also just been the season of life in which I was reading it (which was a hard one to focus on much of anything in my reading, so do with that what you will)

Modern Art and The Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (IVP Academic)

Lastly, this book by Jonathan Anderson and William Dyrness is the first in a new series called Studies in Theology and the Arts. It looks like it is off to a promising start with this retelling of the recent history of modern art that is more sentence to positive religious impulses than evangelicals have typically been. The title of the book is a play on the classic by Hans Rookmaaker, Modern Art and The Death of a Culture, which as you can imagine, is not very effusive in its assessment of modern art. In this book though, Anderson and Dyrness take five chapters, each devoted to a different geographical locale, to re-examine some icons and artists associated with modern art (I may have used “icon” wrong just there). This of course is after two opening chapters establishing the critical context, both in general, and related to Rookmaaker’s work. I’m not particularly qualified to comment in-depth on art history (although I did once date an art history major), but the authors seem to give a good overview and demonstrate charitable re-readings of some important artists’ work. Overall, it is good example of astute cultural analysis that seeks to put the accent on potential commendations instead of criticisms and be in a better position to dialogue further with those outside the evangelical camp.

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April 13th was a big night for sports. Just ask Anna, she’ll tell you. It was also the night before our last full day in California. The following night would mark a week, as well as the end of the trip.

I had been before. Twice actually, both times when I was in high school myself. Now, I’m married and all grown up and chaperoning a senior class trip. My wife and I, along with 4 of the other 7 chaperones, have a van full of kids to keep track of. You might think this was no easy task, but surprisingly, you’d be wrong.

By April 13th, we were neither worn out, nor entirely ready to fly back across the country and resume normalcy. Instead, we were watching Kobe Bryant play his last game against the Washington Generals (deftly played by the Utah Jazz) and rack up 60 points in the process (which you can easily do if you take 50 shots in a game). On an iPad, thanks to Watch ESPN, we were also watching the Golden State Warriors beat the Chicago Bulls’ single season win total.

Like I said, big night for sports.

We’re in Monterrey, in a Hampton Inn just off Pacific Coast 1. We’re within walking distance of Monterrey State Beach, a Starbucks, and more importantly, an In-n-Out Burger. I would take advantage of this shortly after the games ended. I am, how you say, a fan of burgers. They put an In-n-Out in Dallas right before we moved. It was my last lunch in Texas. It was my first lunch on this trip to California. And it was glorious.

It seemed like we were always eating. Lunches happened later in the day. Dinners had fixed reservations. Continental breakfasts were at almost every stop. And yet, no weight was gained, though far too many sodas were consumed. It was probably due to walking 5-9 miles every day. Love will find a way.

Earlier that day I had logged just under 9 miles. This was conveniently split up between a walk to Starbucks, up and down Cannery Row, inside the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, and then all over Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Don’t be deceived by the name, there are no actual “Lobos.” Rather, there are seals (lobos marinos in Spanish) and in our case, a very active couple of otters in a cove. For the better part of an hour, and realistically their entire life, they were busy doing otter stuff. You know, diving for a clam or something similar, and then using a rock to crush it on your belly before eating it. Enjoy. Repeat.

There weren’t as many seals as we had seen earlier in the trip. Our first encounter was on Pier 39 in San Fransisco. Then at Moonstone Beach. Then again just up the road at San Simeon. And now here. Although, it was baby seal season, or something like that and so you couldn’t get too close (according to Federal Law at least).

This had not stopped me back at Moonstone Beach when I noticed a mom and baby seal out on a rock and realized I could get within 20 feet. I successfully made my way out there and took several pictures and videos before promptly falling in the water on my trek back.

I imagine the Pacific Ocean is pretty cold when it’s only about 65 degrees outside. I don’t know for sure though because I didn’t feel much of anything during the 15 seconds I was in the water before clamoring out to begin resuscitating my phone. All the bottom ports had been sucked dry before I made it back to the beach to retrieve my flip flops where I was told I was bleeding profusely from the knee by some observant high school girls. I said “oh,” followed quickly by a “can you dry my phone off?”

The upside was that we didn’t really have cell service at that point of the trip anyway (AT&T users at least). The downside was that the sunset that evening was amazing and my phone was stuck in a bag of rice. It is the one gap in my fastidious chronicling of the trip from start to finish. Guess I’ll have to go back next year.

Let’s Just Be Honest

October 10, 2016 — Leave a comment

We all knew this day would come. As I’ve gotten more realistic about the amount of time I should spend reading and reviewing books, there were bound to be some casualties. And by casualties, I mean books that fall by the wayside. Reasons they fall away vary, but it happens nonetheless. Since I’m trying to be more disciplined and organized in life in general, and my use of time in particular, I’ve decided to do something about these overlooked books.

You’ve probably noticed my rate of reviews has slowed for the past couple of years, although my reading remains fairly constant. Some of that is because reading is a more stable habit than the review writing. But another part that has loomed a bit larger is that I will often finish a book and have no real desire to say anything about it at length.

This creates a bit of a quandary if it is a book that I requested from the publisher for the purposes of review. In some cases, books that I’ve specifically requested do not even feel worth finishing after a chapter or two. After some thought, I’ve decided that in the interest of both time and transparency, I ought just be honest when this is the case.

Over the course of the next few weeks (and maybe months), I’d like to supplement catching up on actual reviews by writing some non-reviews. These “non-reviews” are going to be about books that I either didn’t finish or did but don’t want to review. In some sense, this actually is helpful for you as the reader to know that I requested these books from the publishers and after reading them, had no desire to write more than a few sentences about them. It may tell you more about me than the book, but that’s ok.

This will also acknowledge that publishers have been very generous and sent me these books. Even when I’m underwhelmed or bored by them, it’s still free books and I want to post about it. In some cases, I may recant and come back to read and finish a book that gets non-reviewed. But for now, I need to go through what I’ve got on hand, and instead of putting out a bunch of mediocre reviews, focus on a few solid ones and several mentions that are far short of full treatment. Think of it as kind of like the new books of note posts that I’ve done, but even sparser since in some cases, it’s books that haven’t even been finished. As I continue to re-think what I’m doing on the blog and writing in general, it will be interesting to see how the review process continues to evolve.

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This is what our local radar looked like at 5am yesterday morning. Although school had been cancelled for a second day in a row, I forgot to turn my alarm off, so once awake, checked for the latest update on Hurricane Matthew.

This is what I saw.

And to be honest, it was a welcome relief.

Going back to earlier in the week, we had become aware that a major hurricane was lurking just north of South America. The forecast showed it heading north, and then tracking west. As these things go, you never really know that far out. Since we’ve lived in Florida (circa May 2011), there hasn’t been anything close to a major hurricane. Those that have appeared either veered off elsewhere, or provided a rainy day (or two or three) and the occasional hurricane party.

This, however, was the first Category 5 in a while. The last recorded one was Felix in 2007. The last one to make landfall in the US was Rita in 2005, and shortly before it, Katrina. The last one to really nail Florida was Andrew in 1992, and it permanently changed building codes across the state.

Charley was the last major hurricane to really devastate Florida, and it did so as a Category 4 in 2004. It made landfall on the Gulf Coast near Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, effectively leveling both. I was just north in Venice and drove down after it passed to see the devastation. I had rode the storm out in a house that was built before Andrew, and had it come just a bit north, would have probably been part of the devastation instead of an observer of it. Much farther inland on the other side of the state, Charley wrecked Orlando, bringing gusts over 100 mph and tornadoes in its wake.

Since then, not much had affected central Florida, hurricane-wise (although after Charley, Frances came and brought heavy rains and wind). But, by mid-day Tuesday, this was the projected hurricane path:

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It was supposed to weaken as it got closer to Florida and not actually make landfall, but as Tuesday turned into Wednesday, that line in the middle of the red cone came closer and closer to Orlando. The steady forecast by Thursday was heavy rain and sustained winds of 60-80 mph from 2am Friday morning until 7pm Friday night. Schools had been cancelled since mid-day Wednesday, but by mid-day Thursday, most places were closed, bottle water, bread, and similar staples were long gone. Gas was hard to come by, but I was able to top off and make final preparations for whatever long haul we were in for.

Boarding our windows was not really an option because a) I had no way to get plywood to the house and b) once it was there, I had no way to attach it to the half of the windows I could actually reach. I still made the trek to Lowe’s, wandered around aimlessly, and then settled for some contractor’s grade plastic sheeting. You know, just in case a window is blown out and we need to keep some rain out.

By late evening we had an imposed curfew in effect that was planned until Saturday morning. With everything closed and potential devastation on the horizon, I’m not sure where we would have gone anyway. But if there were any lingering doubts this was serious, they were now eradicated. We passed the time watching TV and I checked my phone every so often for weather updates. By the time we went to bed, we were still just seeing occasional squalls and general breeziness.

In the night though, the forecast changed and Matthew tracked more to the east than originally anticipated. This cut our forecasted wind speeds in half and that’s why the first picture was a relief. It meant Matthew was going to stay offshore, and though it is perilously close, it is going parallel to the shore instead of directly into it. As you see the eye right next to my blue GPS dot, you can rest assured I wouldn’t be blogging right now if the path was due west instead of toward the north.

Instead of devastation, we basically had all the amenities of a sick day without the bother of getting sick. Our power stayed on the whole time and we only saw minor damage to part of our fence. The curfew was lifted mid-day and today is basically a normal Saturday for people in our neck of the woods (except for maybe a little extra yard work).

While we are beyond grateful that our prayers for a eastward turn were answered, we’re also aware that others were not as fortunate. Just one look at the Bahamas and Haiti will tell an entirely different story. Further up the coast, there will probably be record level floods. Georgia and the Carolinas are probably getting it worse than we got, and we had the eye of a category 4 storm pass right by us.

This hurricane has made me more aware of how much I can’t control, but also how privileged we actually are. Not once during all the build-up to Matthew did I ever worry for our personal safety. We rent a very spacious house that structurally, would have easily withstood even stronger winds than were originally forecasted. Even if Matthew had made a direct hit right off the space coast and barreled directly to our neighborhood, I wasn’t particularly worried that we’d be in personal danger. The homeowner’s insurance would cover any house damage and our renter’s insurance would cover any stuff that was ruined. Worst case scenario, we get displaced for a few days and then everything is back to normal.

But that’s not the reality most people would have in the wake of a storm like this. Even in our city, there were certainly people in homes that would not have been able to take a direct hit. I was worried about inconvenience, others were worried about loss of life. Haiti, a nation that seems to regularly endure natural disasters, is also inconveniently suited to deal with the preparation and ensuing aftermath. Disasters compound rather quickly. We may joke about rebuilding, but that’s their reality for who knows how long.

Although I shouldn’t interpret events like this too myopically, I was glad to have the personal reminder that I can’t control the weather. I am also glad to be reminded how blessed I already am, even before a hurricane passes off in the distance. And, I’m a little more grateful than usual for a nice sunny Saturday that will be filled with reading and college football. Once again, grace has led to gratitude, and I hope the pattern continues.

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September turned into a busier and more distracting month than I anticipated. I still read a fair amount, finishing the books listed below and making progress on several others for the Tim Challies Reading Challenge. I’m working toward being more focused in general for my reading (pretty sure I said that last month too). I’m behind on reviews and writing in general, so I’ve gotta get that in gear this month. Here’s to being more disciplined!

This past month I completed:

If you’re keeping score at home, I’m up to 72 books in the lists below, but I’ve read 127 new books total this year.

Here’s the whole list, in case you’re curious (and even if you’re not):

THE LIGHT READER (9 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (11 BOOKS)

THE COMMITTED READER (17 BOOKS)

THE OBSESSED READER (35 BOOKS)

(image via challies)

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I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a study Bible connoisseur, but I’m in the neighborhood. I’ve used and profited from several different ones over the years, mainly the MacArthur Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible, the Reformation Study Bible, and more recently the NIV Zondervan Study Bible.

Even more recently, I had the opportunity to check out the newest Zondervan study Bible, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. You can find a good deal of insights on it at the book’s website. The project is headed up by John Walton and Craig Keener, the former of whom was highly influential in my own understanding of Old Testament contexts. While there is an editorial team involved, those two scholars are responsible for the bulk of the study notes found throughout this Bible.

One particular book of the Bible where these kinds of notes are handy is Job. Notoriously one of the hardest books to translate from Hebrews, it also has the distinction of being enigmatic even after translation. It is one of the few books in the Old Testament than mention Satan, and he also has dialogue with God in the early chapters. The end of Job is just as curious and open to a range of interpretations.

If you’re utilizing the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible as you’re reading, you not only have notes throughout the text, there are numerous sidebars that go into detail on key issues. Here are some that you’ll find in Job:

  • Satan
  • Innocent Suffering in Ancient Near Eastern Texts
  • Retribution Principle
  • How the Book of Job Differs from Ancient Near Eastern Thinking
  • Ways in Which Job Still Thinks Like an Israelite
  • Mourning
  • Death and Sheol
  • Cosmic Geography

Those are all within the first 10 chapters. After that, they are a little more sparse, but thankfully, there’s an entry for the Identification of Behemoth and Leviathan. Many of these may eclipse what the average person wonders when reading Job, but they hit all the hot-button topics that tend to come up in a seminary classroom (or at least in some of mine).

Drawing on some of these sidebars, you would learn that Job most likely takes place before Moses, or is at least set in that time period. You’d also learn that throughout Job, “Satan” has a definite article before it (“the satan”) and in Hebrew that is something that is not done. In all likelihood, “the Satan” character who appears in Job is not the same as the devil of later parts of Scripture, specifically the character who tempts Jesus in the New Testament (you’ll need to read the sidebar for yourself to see the whole argument).

You’d also learn that there are many different versions of a story like Job throughout the ancient Near East. They do not however have a prologue quite like Job. Along those lines, you’d see in detail how Job presents a much different take on the problem of righteous suffering than its ancient Near East counterparts. Even though set before Moses, you’d see some evidence that Job thinks like you’d expect an Israelite to do.

You’d read about the connection between death and Sheol in the OT and ancient Near East (and that the latter is not necessarily “hell”). This ties into what you’ll find out about ancient understandings of cosmic geography and how they differ dramatically from modern scientific understandings (but still have their own logic based in observational evidence). You’ll also find out why it is extremely unlikely that either Behemoth or Leviathan refer to current or past zoological specimens (i.e. they aren’t real animals).

All in all, just within Job there is much to glean from this study Bible. The insights don’t necessarily change any major doctrinal understanding of the book, but they certainly enhances one’s understanding of what’s going on. In my experience, that is often the best of what cultural studies have to offer. They give insight into context and the thinking of the original audience but they don’t need to lead to major revisions (although they might). If that’s something you’d find interesting to explore further, I’d highly recommend picking up your own copy of this next study Bible.

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Reading has predictably slowed, and school is in full swing. We’re on week 3 of 36. Through it all, I continue to make meager progress on Tim Challies Reading Challenge. I haven’t been so concerned to read through the list as to just read whatever I feel like. Next month I plan to be a bit more focused and/or judicious.

Here’s what I read in August, that I won’t write about elsewhere:

And here’s what I’ll end up posting a review on sooner or later:

Lastly, if you’re keeping score at home, I’m up to 69 books in the lists below, but I’ve read 118 new books total this year.

Here’s the whole list, in case you’re curious (and even if you’re not):

THE LIGHT READER (9 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (11 BOOKS)

THE COMMITTED READER (15 BOOKS)

THE OBSESSED READER (34 BOOKS)

(image via challies)

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Crossway let me get a hold of an eBook version of John Piper’s latest, A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (see this sample). If you’ve ever read a book by John Piper, I’m not sure this much here that would surprise you. However, if you happen to be looking for an accessible overview of why we can trust the Bible, this could be a good place to start.

The book has 5 parts that span almost 300 pages. In the first, Piper gives his personal story of coming to trust the Bible. The next part of the book takes three chapters to discuss the basics of canon and original manuscripts. As I heard Michael Kruger frame it recently, the basic questions are, “do we have the right books?” and “do these books have the right words?” Piper takes two chapters to answer the first (one for Old Testament and one for New, obviously) and one to answer the second. While not overly technical, Piper does give a good overview of the same kind of material I studies on these questions in seminary.

The next part of the book asks what these books claim for themselves. Without spoiling too much, the consistent witness across Old and New Testaments is that the Bible claims to be the word of God. Most people tend to feel like this is circular, to which I usually say, “yes.” I’ll then explain that your ultimate authority needs to be self-attesting (verifies itself) if it’s really your ultimate authority.

When we discussed this recently in my 11th grade Bible class, I pointed out that if someone claims reason is the ultimate authority for determining truth, they have to use reason to prove their point. Same problem of circularity, different ultimate authority. Much to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s chagrin, it’s even worse if you claim science as ultimate authority.Since you can’t use the scientific method to prove science is or should be the ultimate authority, you’ll have to provide a logical argument instead, and now we all know that reason is your ultimate authority and that your worldview is just as circular as the Christianity that you like to pick on.

All of that is a roundabout way to point out that it is not a problem, logically speaking, for your ultimate authority to prove itself. That’s kind of what makes it ultimate. It’s the end of the road. The Bible is the Word of God because it says so. Believe it, obey it, and it will prove itself true in your life. To further support that, Piper’s next part of the book take an historical turn and visits Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, and Pascal’s wager. I thought this was helpful after looking at what Scripture claimed for itself.

In the final part of the book, Piper continues to tease out how the glory of God is seen in Scripture and also the means by which it is confirmed for us as the Word of God. Having started with his own story, moved through Scripture’s claims for itself, and what great theological minds have made of it, this is a great way to draw the book to a close (and mention that it has a sequel in the works). It is also the part of the book that is perhaps most distinctive to Piper, since earlier parts are mostly summarizing and translating available scholarship into a more lay accessible format.

Overall, I found this book to be classic Piper, and a helpful refresher on an important topic. I’m still a bit more partial to John Frame’s Doctrine of The Word of God for a stand alone volume on the topic, but I appreciate Piper’s angle on it. I will be interested to see how Piper lays out his thinking further in the planned follow up to this volume, which I think comes out next spring.

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It all started when Alan Jacobs wrote an article for September’s issue of Harper’s Magazine. I had heard of the piece, but didn’t read it until I read Owen Strachan’s response to it, as well as Jacob’s response to Strachan’s response (which has a response by Strachan and final word by Jacobs). Then I saw Jake Meador’s response that brought Francis Schaeffer into the mix (which Jacob mentions later). To cap it off, Al Mohler responded, and now here we are.

I think it’s fair to say with all that responding going on, Jacobs struck a nerve that started a much needed discussion. His original article’s subtitle, “What became of the Christian intellectuals?” tells you what this conversation is about. Jacobs brings up two examples from mid 20th century, Reinhold Niebuhr and C. S. Lewis. As already mentioned, Jake Meador throws Schaeffer into the mix. Mohler raises the question of whether we really want another Niebuhr given his actual take on Christianity. In closing his response to Jacobs, he says,

I join in Professor Jacobs’s lament over the failure of Christian intellectuals, for surely there is failure to be found. But we must be careful lest a quest for Christian intellectual influence meets its end in an intellect that is neither Christian nor influential.

The Christian intellectual influence we should seek is the influence of an intellect saturated in Christian truth, keenly applied to the questions of our times. Whether the secular world will listen to us, much less thank us for the effort, is another question altogether.

Taking the last point Mohler made, I think the reason Christian intellectual influence has waned can be explain via two issues: translation and publishing.

Now, when I say “translation,” I don’t necessarily mean from one language to another, but I kind of do. A general problem I see in the articulation of Christian thought is that the people with thoughts worth thinking don’t always express them in a way a general audience can grasp. The flipside is that those who connect with general audiences don’t always have thoughts worth thinking (or words worth saying).

Tim Keller provides a counterpoint to this, and is a good illustration of what I’m getting at with translation. If you’ve ever read any of his bigger books (or listened to a sermon or two), you’re probably aware that he is able to take philosophical, sociological, and theological concepts and explain them to a general audience really well. The audience needs to be fairly educated, but he started his pastorate in a rural Virginia church, so he can speak the language of common (i.e. normal) people. That’s what I mean by translation. You are able to understand academic conversations, but you can express them to normal people in a way that is illuminating for them.

N. T. Wright is another example of someone who does this well. He is able to navigate between the two worlds if you will, of the academy and the local church. Even more, I think he is able to navigate the local pub as well. That last part is more key than you think. It is one thing for a theologian or biblical scholar to be able to take the fruits of the academy and offer them to lay Christians. It is another for him to be able to explain the relevance of those fruits to his atheist neighbor over pints.

Contra Keller and Wright, it seems that man Christian intellectuals who could be influential are predominantly writing books to other Christian intellectuals. I’m certainly generalizing here a bit, but try to think of anyone else who has a Ph.D, deals with academic material, but also has a New York Times Best-Selling book or two. Authors tend to be in one or the other category. Certainly there are exceptions, but many fields only have one or two representative scholars who take the insights of the academy to the street.

Some of this is because of the other issue, which is publishing. I’d say by and large, the publishing opportunities available to Christian intellectuals gain them an audience of other like minded people. It’s a great time if you’re already on board with the Christian intellectual tradition, but you’re not really speaking to the larger society. Publishers that could have the reach aren’t going to publish you unless you’re a good writer (and/or have a good agent to facilitate the connection). And as grateful as I am to the many fine Christian publishers out there producing quality biblical and theological works, those books aren’t making the New York Times Best-Seller list anytime soon.

One reason for that is that these books can very often be boring, even to people like me. Boring might not be quite right. What I mean is that the subject matter is interesting, but the reading of it is rarely riveting. They are almost never as page turning as the book I read last Saturday, and I’m saying that as the target audience for many of these books. If I think they’re boring, they certainly aren’t going to be read by anyone who isn’t disciplined enough to force their way through for an assignment, review, or just to be able to say you’ve read that “important” book everyone is talking about.

This was actually a point that Jacobs somewhat made, that Strachan pushed back on. Jacobs suggested that Christian intellectuals are not getting published like they could because their writing isn’t that good. Strachan thinks it has more to do with the content and bias against it. The bias is certainly there, but if we go back to Keller, he wouldn’t have a contract with Penguin if he wasn’t a good communicator. If we had more people who could translate and communicate like Keller, I think we’d see more people getting published like he does, bias against Christianity or not.

But I think one reason we don’t is that people that could be translators like Keller don’t develop the skill because they mostly read books that aren’t well written. Keller is as good as he is, I think, and he has probably said, because he has absorbed so much C. S. Lewis. Whatever you think of Lewis’ theology, dude could write. And if you become a student of his writing, you’ll start down the road of perhaps starting to write like him (but hopefully in your own voice and not his).

However, I think unless you try otherwise, you mainly write and speak like what you read. And if you nerd out about the latest theology books and exclusively read them, that’s what you’ll sound like when you try to write, and will only really appeal to others who already share your interest and worldview. I would say we have a cycle of Christian intellectuals doing an excellent job of developing future Christian intellectuals, but by and large neither generation is developing the skills to speak to non intellectual, non Christian audiences well.

While I’m sure my analysis is open to scrutiny on many points, my main plea is hopefully not, and that is this. If you want to be an influential Christian intellectual, you need to understand the Christian intellectual tradition, as well as the world around you. A big part of that is understanding how people think, and what is important to the average person. Knowing that, you need to be able to communicate clearly and winsomely. You probably need to be a good story teller, and it helps if you have a sense of humor. Honestly, getting the Christian tradition down is the easy part. The rest of the intangibles take time and wisdom to develop, and our culture just doesn’t cater to doing that now does it?