1. Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century by John Stott. This book has been re-issued recently with the more up-to-date subtitle “The Challenge of Preaching Today,” but the version I read was the older one. I’ve long admired John Stott, and when I read this book, I found that he had some sensible things to say about preaching. He begins the book by giving a brief sketch of the history of preaching, and then addressing some contemporary objections to preaching. He continues to flesh out his reasons for thinking preaching is so important by giving some theological foundations for preaching. The next three chapters I found the most practical, the first of which was called “Preaching as Bridge-Building.” In it he talks about how a preacher might make the Bible more relevant to a contemporary audience. The next two chapters, “The Call to Study” and “Preparing Sermons,” deal with the nuts and bolts of putting together a sermon. He then closes the book with two chapters dealing with four characteristics that a good preacher should have: sincerity, earnestness, courage and humility.
These last two chapters, in my mind, set this book apart from other books on preaching that I have read. Stott, a long-time preacher himself, knows where good preachers get their power from, and it isn’t (just) eloquence. It is the character of the preacher and the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the listeners that give a message its force.
2. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark. I bought this book in the late ’90s for a religion class in college, but only had to read about three chapters. I heard so many good things about it in seminary that I decided to get it off my shelf and read the rest of it that I didn’t originally have to read for class.
Stark is a sociologist of religion who, before this book, had not spent much time looking into the history of religion. He insists in the preface that he is not a historian, nor is he a New Testament scholar; he’s just a sociologist who uses this book to look at the early history of Christianity with a sociologist’s eye (since this book was published in 1997, though, he has made several more forays into the history of religion).
It would take too much space to review the book in detail, but suffice it to say that it was eye-opening. A few things that Stark argues are: that Christianity was not initially a proletarian movement, but it appealed to the privileged classes, that one of the reasons why people in the ancient world were so drawn to Christianity was the way Christians cared for the sick during epidemics, that Christian women enjoyed higher status in the community than their pagan counterparts, that one reason why Christianity thrived in cities was because it had a better capacity to solve chronic urban problems than anything else, and that “Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death” (214). Definitely a great read, even for someone who doesn’t have a background in sociology.
3. Not Even A Hint: Guarding Your Heart Against Lust, by Joshua Harris. Like many Christian young men, I’ve had my struggles with lust (that’s not to say that these struggles are all a thing of the past, but I hope that the worst struggles are over). So when I was in the library a few weeks ago, this book by Joshua Harris (of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame) caught my eye. I read I Kissed Dating Goodbye about 10 years ago, when it was making big waves in my circle of friends. I thought it was a pretty good book, but I had never done the casual, aimless, “looking for a good time” dating that Harris had kissed goodbye to, so it didn’t change my life.
This is a small book, and a quick read. It comes in three parts: “The Truth About Lust,” “In the Thick of the Battle” and “Strategies for Long-Term Change.” The best part of the book, I thought, was chapter three of part one, called “You Can’t Save Yourself.” In it, he makes the case that a person can’t overcome struggles with lust (or any persistent sin) merely by deciding to. Legalism leads either to disillusionment and self-loathing (if you fail) or self-righteousness (if you succeed – and you will never succeed for long if you have fallen into self-righteousness). Instead, the Christian should realize that he or she is justified and forgiven by Christ’s work on the Cross, and that he or she is being sanctified, made holy, by his Spirit:
And only the Spirit can transform us. Our job is to invite His work, participate with it, and submit more and more of our thoughts, actions and desires to Him. (p. 57)
Harris goes on in the rest of the book to give practical tips on what that can look like: creating a custom-tailored plan, understanding how men and women are different in this area, dealing with masturbation, dealing with temptations in media, becoming accountable to others, using Scripture to fight lies and sowing so that we reap holiness. I particularly found his list of Scriptures helpful, so here they are: Job 31:11-12, Romans 8:6, Galatians 6:7-8, Romans 13:14, Matthew 5:29-30, 2 Timothy 2:22, Colossians 3:5-6, Ephesians 5:3, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6, Proverbs 6:25-27, Psalm 101:3, Romans 14:12, Hebrews 12:6, James 1:15, Proverbs 5:3-5, Proverbs 5:8-11, Psalm 84:10-12, Lamentations 3:24-26, Proverbs 19:23, Matthew 5:8, Psalm 11:7, Isaiah 33:17, Psalm 119:9-11.
All in all, I think this is a great little book to give young men and women encouragement and help in defeating lust.
4. A Holy Meal: The Lord’s Supper in the Life of the Church, by Gordon T. Smith. I preached a sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 recently at my church, and read this short (124 pages) book as part of my research. Smith is a professor at Regent, and one of my regrets about my time there is that I never got to take one of his classes, especially the popular “Spiritual Discernment” and “The Meaning of the Sacraments.”
However, reading this book seems like the next best thing to taking the latter class, since he spends the time expanding on what the Lord’s Supper is all about. Chapter 2 (“The Sacramental Principle”) alone is worth the price of the book. I found his discussion of signs, photographs and symbols immensely helpful in understanding what is going on at the Lord’s Supper. The bulk of the book is taken up with looking at seven different aspects of the Lord’s Supper, based on seven different Bible texts: The Lord’s Supper as memorial, as fellowship with Christ and with one another, as a table of mercy, as a renewal of baptismal vows, as bread from heaven, as a declaration of hope, and as a joyous thanksgiving celebration. Although short, there was enough to chew on in this book that I could have preached a whole series on the Lord’s Supper.