March 2010: Books Read

1. Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain. As a fan of Twain’s, I have already read his most well-known works, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I have also read Roughing It, Life on the MIssissippi and an awful lot of his essays. It was about time, then, that I got around to reading Puddn’head Wilson.

It was not bad, but clearly there is a reason why this is not among his most-read stuff. It is about two children who were switched as infants, with one being raised as the scion of a wealthy family and the other being raised as a slave. The plot was interesting enough, but for a “mystery,” the ending was not at all surprising. The characters were not as compelling as in some of his better work. And this book was written in the 1890s, when Twain was becoming more and more of a cynic – as can easily be seen in the epigraphs at the beginning of every chapter. Though he was still talented, his later work is, with some exceptions, just not as entertaining to read.

2. Jane Austen (Christian Encounters Series) by Peter Leithart. Reviewed earlier here.

3. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. This is an excellent, short work on the interaction between Christianity and economics. It is made up of four essays, and is only 103 pages long. Cavanaugh is Catholic, and draws mainly on Catholic theologians, but his theology is not so distinctly Catholic that other Christians can’t benefit from his insights.

Cavanaugh critiques the definition of economic freedom as only “freedom from” and proposes instead that economic freedom ought to be “freedom for” participation in community and realizing our humanity more fully. He also critiques consumerism, globalization and the economics of scarcity. It is simultaneously a quick read and a dense read, and unfortunately I read it over a month ago and can’t describe its arguments with the nuance they deserve. It is a book well worth picking up, though.

4. The Glory of Preaching: Participating in God’s Transformation of the World by Darrell W. Johnson. I studied preaching under Johnson at Regent College, so it was no surprise that I found much to agree with in this book. He honed the material for this book in his preaching classes, so a lot of it was not new.

What is unusual about this book, as over against most other books about preaching, is Johnson’s confidence in the biblical text. That is not to say that other books on preaching are not confident in the Bible to change people’s lives. It is unusual, though, for a writer to say, as Johnson does, that when the living God speaks, something ALWAYS happens. Another unique thing about this book is that Johnson thinks preachers are not responsible for applying the text to people’s lives. I remember, when I was in preaching class, that some students pushed back on this. Johnson was adamant, though. Preachers can imply what the text means – they can state the truth that the text leads us to. But applying – that is, telling people what particular things they ought to do – is the job of the Holy Spirit.

This is a wonderful book, and one that I will return to over the years.

5. The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott. I decided that during Lent this year, in addition to fasting from something, I would read something that led me to focus on Jesus. I’ve had this book on my shelf since my time at Regent, and it is as good a book as any to accomplish that goal.

There isn’t a lot that I could say about this book, aside from saying that it is a classic work on what Jesus’ death meant and means. If you are interested in learning more about what Jesus’ death accomplished, this is the first place to turn.

December 2009: Books Read

1. What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question by Po Bronson. Since I have been thinking a lot lately about the question from this book’s title, it jumped out at me when I was at the library one day. Bronson, an author who was asking himself that very question in 2002, set out to interview scores of people who were wondering what to do with their lives.

The subtitle is not entirely reflective of what the book is about. Not that many people Bronson interviewed had actually decided what they were going to do with their lives, or had started doing it. Several people knew what they wanted to do, or had a vague sense of it, but were unable to go out and do it for various reasons: doubts, insecurities that go back to their family of origin, etc. Nevertheless, I found this book to be worth reading simply because of the sheer breadth of stories Bronson told. The book is made up entirely of people’s stories, and this made it hard to put down. At times, Bronson would philosophize about what he was learning from hearing all these stories, and one of these philosophical moments stuck with me. It was the idea that everyone has an “inner circle,” a table of people in their head that they are trying to please or keep up with. Sometimes this is a good thing, but other times it is a bad thing, as in the case of the inner-city schoolteacher who found his job fulfilling – but was always comparing himself to his rich, jet-setting classmates at Yale.

This book is a lot different from other books about guidance that I have read. The reason for this is that other books I’ve read are written from a Christian perspective, and talk about being called and a Caller (God). Bronson, who is not a Christian, does not use this language, but I thought he did talk about calling in an indirect way. Here is a paragraph from his summing-up chapter, addressing the question, “What do people really want?”:

They want to find work they’re passionate about. Offering benefits and incentives are mere compromises. Educating people is important but not enough – far too many of our most educated people are operating at quarter-speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing too little to the productive engine of modern civilization, still feeling like observers, like they haven’t come close to living up to their potential. Our guidance needs to be better. We need to encourage people to find their sweet spot. Productivity explodes when people love what they do. We’re sitting on a huge potential boom in productivity, which we could tap into if we got all the square pegs in the square holes and round pegs in round holes. It’s not something we can measure with statistics, but it’s a huge economic issue. It’s a great natural resource that we’re ignoring. (363-4)

I don’t know that I’d recommend it for anyone who is looking for what to do with their life, but I did enjoy it because I enjoy hearing about people’s stories.

2. Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? by Philip Yancey. When I was in high school and college, I was a Philip Yancey junkie. The first book that I read by him was What’s So Amazing About Grace? This was followed quickly by The Jesus I Never Knew, The Bible Jesus Read, and Reaching for the Invisible God. The first two are still two of my all-time favorite books on Jesus and the Christian life. The latter two were good, but not incredible. After reading those four, I got away from Philip Yancey for a while. Every now and then, I would pick up one of his newer books in a bookstore, leaf through it, and decide that the subject matter wasn’t compelling enough for me to get it.

Then I came across this book, which did have a compelling subject matter to me, and furthermore, was being sold for $2 at the library. So I bought it early this fall, and started reading it in October.

Reading it was like getting acquainted with an old friend. Yancey has always included personal anecdotes and demonstrates a wide range of reading in his writing, and those traits were evident throughout this book. He also evinces a humility that says he doesn’t have it all together when it comes to his subject. This attitude is good, but it is found throughout the book and I started to find it repetitive by the end.

I love Yancey’s writing style, anecdotes and humility, but to me the book lacked a compelling organization. Of course it had chapters and those chapters were grouped into sections, but I put the book down for several days at a time because I just wasn’t that interested to see what came next. I’m glad to have read it, but it doesn’t rank up there with the first two of Yancey’s books that I read.

3. Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place In An Extroverted Culture by Adam S. McHugh. I was interested in this book from the first time I heard about it earlier this year. It is on a huge subject – so huge that it’s surprising that no one seems to have written an entire book about it. I was also interested in it because I am an introvert, and I have spent a lot of time in the church.

The book did not disappoint. McHugh starts off with the problem: we live in a culture that is geared toward extroversion, and this is also the case in many churches. How do we make it so that introverts can thrive in the church? I loved this book, especially the chapters on introverted leadership and evangelism (no, they’re not oxymorons).

This book was needed by the church, and needed by me personally. As a person who has felt called to ministry in the church since my college days, but who has also felt a persistent sense of inferiority because of my introverted personality, I needed the encouragement that this book provided. In the past, I leaned heavily on the writings of Eugene Peterson to assure me that introverts could be pastors. Now, I can lean on this book as well.

4. A Guide to Biblical Prophecy: A Balanced and Biblical Assessment of the Nature of Prophecy in the Bible, edited by Carl Armerding and Ward Gasque. I picked this up at a used book store a year ago for two reasons: I wanted to learn more about the nature of biblical prophecy, and I trusted Armerding and Gasque, who are both retired professors from Regent College, where I went to grad school.

As mentioned above, though, Armerding and Gasque are editors of this volume, not writers. It contains 16 articles from 16 different authors, ranging in subject matter from the Old Testament (“Messianic Prophecies in the Old Testament”) to the New Testament (“The Millennium”) to the historical (“Nineteenth-Century Roots of Contemporary Prophetic Interpretation”). I thought it was an interesting and helpful volume, but because of its nature as a collection of essays, it wasn’t comprehensive. If you are looking for a passage-by-passage guide to prophecy in the Bible, this isn’t it.

5. Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation by Darrell Johnson. I’ve been reading this book slowly throughout the fall as my small group has been making its way through the book of Revelation (note: there is no “s” at the end). I read the last few chapters this week to help prepare for the class on Revelation I’m teaching at church starting in January, and also so I could include it on the list of books I read this year.

This book is exactly what the subtitle says it is: an expository journey through the book of Revelation. Johnson preached through the book in 1999, and then turned that series of sermons into this book in 2004. It is called Discipleship on the Edge because Johnson insists throughout the book that Revelation is not a “crystal ball” (as many interpreters would have us believe), but rather it is a discipleship document. It is meant to encourage (and challenge) Christian believers who are facing (or about to face) persecution by pulling back the curtain and showing what is really going on. I sometimes wished that there were a little bit more detail, but this is not a commentary. Each chapter, not surprisingly, reads like a sermon, and includes application of each text to our lives. I would recommend it, primarily because Johnson focuses on Jesus rather than on predicting catastrophic events.