Here’s some of the books I’ve read through since the beginning of this year. Enjoy! May you go forth, prosper, and read great books!
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairytale – Buechner wants us to learn not only how to tell the truth, but to tell it beautifully, with a sparkle in our eyes and a fire in our hearts. To do this we must declare the bad news before we announce the good news. The bad news is the tragedy; the good news is comedy; the gospel is a fairy tale in that it’s too good to be true. Come and experience the hilarity of the gospel.
James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor – Smith invites readers to consider this work a DMin course on how to approach ministry in our secular age. He distills Charles Taylor’s much larger book and helps laypeople digest it. Along the way he breaks down many of Taylor’s phrases and concepts, which will assist cultural observers in interpreting what they hear and see in their daily lives, as well as give voice to their feelings, especially feelings of uneasiness—what Taylor terms being “cross-pressured.” In sum, interested readers will find this book useful for doing ministry and helpful for living in a secular age.
James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology – Another one from Smith! As Smith helps readers ponder how the church should think about politics, his main argument is that people are formed and shaped by their loves. Of course, he’s done this in his other works in the Cultural Liturgies project. In this volume, however, he shows how we’re shaped by our society’s values and mores. Whether we realize it or not, our cultural practices shape us; they are forming us into certain kinds of people. Our laws function as “social nudges,” giving us a view of the good life and what it means to be a good a citizen. However, as Christians we’re to be enamored by another story, a different liturgy. Specifically, the story of Scripture should captivate our thinking. The story of our crucified and risen King—and the kingdom he’s advancing and building should shape and form us. As is typical of Smith, he argues that the church’s historic liturgy does this best. Whether or not one buys into everything he says in this regard, it’s true that God intends to shape our hearts by his gospel and his story.
David Brooks, The Road to Character – A well-recognized New York Times essayist, Brooks has penned a profound book sure to assist us on the journey of life. Is Brooks a Christian? Honestly, I don’t know. Still, I think anyone would enjoy reading this work. A brief synopsis: After distinguishing rèsumè virtues from eulogy virtues, each chapter of the book is devoted to certain figures in history who, while flawed, left their mark on this world (Augustine and Dorothy Day are examples). Following a short biography of each individual, Brooks draws lessons from their lives. Most noticeably, each person he covered lived with a deep sense of personal calling, exhibited unusual amounts of self-control, and had an indefatigable work ethic. Nevertheless, weaknesses were their present companion. Some, like Augustine, lived with a persistent sense of self-doubt. Others, like Mary Anne Evans (we know her as George Eliot), made immoral decisions in their lives, which stain their reputations. But through it all we learn from their lives—what we should value and pursue, what to avoid and what negative habits we wish to overcome.
Carl Trueman, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind – While at times Trueman can seem oppressively pessimistic, I still enjoy most of what he writes, and this volume is no exception. The title is a play on Mark Noll’s 1995 publication The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll’s thesis in his work was that there was no evangelical mind; hence the scandal. Trueman does not necessarily disagree with Noll’s assessment, but he makes a different point: There is no such thing as “evangelical.” In making this point, Trueman is not breaking new ground. He’s simply adding his presence and voice to an already over-crowded space. Still, it’s what we need to hear. In particular, non-denominational churches wanting to exist as doctrinal minimalists should take heed to Trueman’s advice: You will probably need to thicken your statements of faith in order to exist. Additionally, Trueman has some wise words for those evangelicals longing for acceptance from the mainstream: “Cultural relevance can be a cruel mistress.”
Scott R. Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation – This will be my new go-to book I recommend for those wanting an intermediate theological introduction to the Bible. Swain beautifully locates the Bible within the Triune economy of grace, ably showcases the covenantal structure of the Bible, and skillfully displays the salutary nature of attending to the creedal consensus of the church in one’s biblical interpretation and theological and moral reflection. A great book indeed!
Michael Allen, Sanctification – Similar to Swain (Allen’s theological coauthor and editor on multiple journal articles and books), Allen begins by placing the doctrine of sanctification within God’s economy of salvation and situating it within the larger framework of the covenantal structure of his redemptive enterprise. He agrees with Thomas’s oft-quoted words—namely, that “God’s in a class by himself—but unveils how God’s holiness does not result in aloofness, but in effectuating a plan of salvation whereby image-bearers are purchased through substitution and made holy both positionally and practically. God’s goal in sanctification is to conform his people into the image of Christ.
Russell Moore, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel. If Christians ever were a moral majority, they certainly aren’t anymore. And that’s a fact about which Russell Moore is grateful. His thoughts on cultural Christianity are succinct and leave an indelible image in our minds: Kill it and let it die in the street. In an age where serious Christians are seen as odd creatures with kooky sexual ethics, Moore calls on believers to continue following Christ . . . all the way to the Place of the Skull, if necessary (64). He urges us to keep Christianity weird: “People who don’t want Christianity don’t want almost-Christianity,” he observes (5). If caving into the culture and “updating” Christian doctrine were the way to win the world, then Universalist Unitarian assemblies would be exploding in popularity, and liberal Presbyterian denominations like the PCUSA would be involved in some sort of church planting movement. But of course, they’re not. They’re closing churches and seminaries quite consistently. Still, this is not cause for celebration. Instead, what we need to do is maintain our fidelity to Scripture, keep preaching the gospel, and engage our neighbors and communities, as we live out the implications of the gospel. Of all people, Christians should care about the poor; they should show concern about matters of injustice like human dignity, abortion, and marriage. Embodied life in all of its dimensions is of crucial importance. For all of the good in this book, I must register one criticism. I struggled at times to follow Moore’s larger argument. I didn’t see the connection at times from one paragraph to the next. Although I can’t be sure, I wonder if this book consisted of a series of independent lectures he gave at various venues. If so, this would explain my struggle.