Three books from 2012

person-reading-a-book-226x300It is no secret: there are times when I love books more than people. Because I spend so much time reading I thought that I should offer some book suggestions, not summaries, from last year. The three books that I have chosen were those that I found most significant for my Christian life, the content of them was both practical and pressing. I pray that these brief caveats will encourage thoughtful reading and application to your own lives.

ministriesmercyMinistries of Mercy by Timothy Keller. Admittedly, if not obviously, my appreciative venture into this book is long overdue. But even though the 2nd edition was published 15 years ago it seems, because it hit bookstore shelves before Keller was in vogue, that it has been largely overlooked. And that is a great pity. Without getting entrenched in the war over word ministry and social work, Keller takes us beyond theological nuts and bolts to make it apparent one cannot function without the other. Sure, they can exist without each other, but only in an impoverished form of Christian life. I was immensely challenged by Keller’s clear application of the gospel to motivate generous love that partners the gospel truth. Furthermore, the book is heavily weighted with plain, practical advice for Christians, both individually and corporately, to put structures into place for ministries of mercy. You may not agree with everything Keller writes, but I think that much of our resistance to what he is saying is our own hardness towards gospel motivated works, the kind that Jesus said would make the church stand out from its surrounding society. They are an inconvenience, difficult and time consuming. Yet, as Keller clearly articulates, God’s people who have grasped grace should be at the forefront of this work.

bookreview-next-challiesThe Next Story by Tim Challies. This book, which I also got to reading later than many, is Challies’ exploration of the relationship between technology, especially social networking and online communication, and the Christian faith. Perhaps one of the reasons I found this book such a helpfully insightful read is because I have long felt  that we are becoming increasingly enslaved to our technology, idolising communication and convenience, as well as outsourcing knowledge – or memory – to data stores. This has, in my opinion, damaged Christian fellowship and hindered the deep, intimate, and personal relationships that God created us for. While it is a bugbear for me, Challies has worked hard at locating the place of technology in our lives – for it’s too late to revert to how things were before, Graham said nostalgically – and he challenges Christians to think with theological discernment regarding the internet, time spent in the digital world, lives that are interrupted and disjointed by technology, and our dependence on (tending towards idolatry of) immediate or instant communication. As with Keller, this book will disturb and challenge you. We always assume that progress is good, but the reminder of this book is that it always depends on how we make use of it, whether we become its slave or wield it in our service of God.

Lit!Lit by Tony ReinkeThe people who need to read this book more than everyone else are those who don’t read. I often find myself bemoaning Christians’ fixation with terrible literature or functional illiteracy. If Christians would just read Reinke’s book I believe that our sluggish apathy towards reading, with theological thoughtfulness, would be upended. I don’t remember if Reinke makes the point, but when one looks over church history you will notice that wherever the gospel went, literacy and education dovetailed. But today our engagement with other worldviews and contemporary culture is limited to tabloids, tweets, television sitcoms, and news-bytes. If you are a reader, which is quite likely since you’ve made it this far through my post, then Reinke’s book will aid you in establishing sound theology for reading. As an avid reader, he helps plan a reading schedule that will assure giving the right amount of time to different types of literature. The book is broken up into theory and practice of reading. If you don’t read, then I would challenge you to read the first half: a theology of reading. In closing, reading is a discipline and being unfit for it, finding the stimulation unnecessary or time unavailable, might shed light on your Bible reading, or lack thereof. Revealed biblical truth is our touchstone, but very few Christians in the past have stopped there, and I would go as far to say it pleases God when we become thoughtfully engaged with literature, seeing it through gospel eyes.

Book Reflection: Drops Like Stars

Drops Like Stars Book CoverLet’s be honest, Rob Bell knows how to communicate. Whether or not we agree with anything he says, Bell knows how to make what he says sexy. Drops Like Stars is dressed up in designer attire; the book’s barcode is exiled and even the publishing information gets relegated to the back of the book. The book is filled with striking contrasts, “death by wallpaper and flooring” over against starvation or being shot. Opening the book, after an empty spread and an initial title page, we are presented with a double page spread which has the words, “I know a man who” “has two sons” which springs into another of these contrasts; the joy of life, and the sorrow of death that hospital hallways see, “We live in the hallways, don’t we?” From this point, Bell offers his readers “a few thoughts on creativity and suffering” (an apt tagline on the back cover).

Creativity and suffering are an interesting pair to coordinate. Bell draws from sculptors, novelists and lyricists, deftly painting the picture of a world in which some things don’t make sense. Suffering, he argues, is a powerful uniting force because it goes beneath the veneer and forces us to be honest with ourselves and each other.

Bell demonstrates a remarkable ability to draw from his sources. Every other page involves quotation or explanation of some or other artist or artistic endeavour whether that be Pope John Paul II, Johnny Cash, bumper stickers or soap sculpture. His ability to draw such breadth of life into so brief a book is notable and contributes to his literature’s ability to draw the reader in.

Ultimately though, Bell is offering an answer to what is perhaps one of the most profoundly human questions posed to Christianity: what about evil and suffering? Of course, more questions are asked than answers given but, Bell would argue, that’s the point. He ardently avoids downplaying suffering and giving pat answers to real pain. That may be unsatisfactory to many but the notion will resonate with many in our age.

Probably the best answer that Bell provides is near the end of the book where he quotes a sculptor,

So in the end every major disaster, every tiny error, every wrong turning, every fragment of discarded clay, all the blood, sweat and tears – everything has meaning. I give it meaning. I reuse, reshape, recast all that goes wrong so that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious to me.

In the mouth of God, such words are indeed a comfort, “I give it meaning … nothing is wasted”.

CrossThis was not the answer with which, I think, the book as a whole leaves its reader though. The mounting of story upon story, striking cord upon cord with anyone who has suffered, does not culminate in a real answer. “Nothing is wasted” is certainly an answer but it’s not the direction of the book. Providing an answer would undermine Bell’s need not to provide an answer because any answer must generalise pain and he sees the danger of divorcing the concept of pain from the person suffering it. The cross is mentioned to illustrate a God “suffering like us” and “screaming alongside us”.

The cross, it turns out, is about the mysterious work of God which begins not with big plans and carefully laid out timetables
but in pain
and anguish
and death

Plans and timetables don’t sit with creativity. Unfortunately this is where I find the fundamental flaw in Bell’s response to suffering. Certinaly, “pain, anguish and death” are central to the cross but it was, nevertheless, in “the fullness of time” that “God sent forth his Son”, it was planned from the “foundations of the world”. This, I think, is a far more powerful response to suffering: God sees evil and he says, “No” – and in saying “No” he resolves to overthrow it at extraordinary cost to himself and that, not on a whim, planned from eternity; an immeasurable cost that God would pay and that he knew he would pay and that he orchestrated all of history to pay.

Suffering is not meaningless then, but it’s also not good and so we don’t have to try to find answers because God’s plan for the universe is to bring suffering to an end. God sees pain and his response is not simply to come to our side and share in our pain, though he does this too, his response is to declare war upon it and bring it to an end. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them.

Book Review: The Legacy of Sovereign Joy (John Piper)

The great thing about going on holiday is that it takes one away from his/her regular activities. This gives him/her the opportunity to engage in such activities as extensive reading. I wish I could say that this is what I did, but I can’t. However, in the past week I did finish reading John Piper’s “The Legacy of Sovereign Joy”, the first book in his series “The Swans are Not Silent” (available as a free pdf ebook download here [600kb – it’s worth it!]). The subtitle is an accurate summary of the books content, “God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin”.

The book is divided into 5 sections. Before I discuss each chapter’s contents, however, I should mention that the Preface contained a fantastic defense of the series’ title “The Swans are Not Silent”; this is the most significant portion:

In December 1414, Hus … was arrested and kept in prison until March 1415. He was kept in chains and brutally tortured for his views, which anticipated the Reformation by a hundred years. On July 6, 1415, he was burned at the stake along with his books. One tradition says that in his cell just before his death, Hus wrote, “Today, you are burning a goose [the meaning of “Hus” in Czech]; however, a hundred years from now, you will be able to hear a swan sing, you will not burn it, you will have to listen to him.
As to the book’s actual content, the first chapter is simply an introduction as to why Piper appreciates Augustine, Luther and Calvin. The second, third and fourth are, naturally, each devoted to the most significant aspects of each of man’s life and faith. I doubt any biographer would claim to be producing an exhaustive account of any individual’s life and this is certainly not Piper’s goal here, nevertheless, it is an highly readable, enjoyable and encouraging account. Finally, by way of conclusion, Piper draws applications from the lives of these men in the fifth chapter talking of triumphing over sin by savouring Christ above all things and highly esteem His Word.

As I read of Augustine’s struggle with sin but his savouring of Christ (Piper meets his match in Augustine’s revelry of God) and the quotations Piper inserts regularly I find myself immensely drawn to reading Augustine’s writings (his “Confessions” was already on my tentative reading list but it received a promotion). However, this is immensely true of each character; reading of Luther and Erasmus added “The Bondage of the Will” to my reading list and Calvin, well – I already read bits of Calvin (the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life is amazing if you want to get into some of Calvin’s writing!).

What I particularly appreciated about this book was its constant reference to God, His Word and His Glory as being absolutely central to each of these men. Constantly I was pointed back to the Bible as Piper marveled at God’s grace revealed in the lives of these men – one of my favourite quotes from this book (by Martin Luther) is,

The writings of all the holy fathers should be read only for a time, in order that through them we may be led to the Holy Scriptures. As it is, however, we read them only to be absorbed in them and never come to the Scriptures. We are like men who study the signposts and never travel the road. The dear fathers wished by their writing, to lead us to the Scriptures, but we so use them as to be led away from the Scriptures, though the Scriptures alone are our vineyard in which we ought all to work and toil.
Which is a very useful (and in a way ironic) reminder and so my prayer for myself and all those who may read this book (or any other that has the potential to take away time spent in God’s own Word) is that we would not be pretend tourists who study the signposts and never travel the roads – let us be veterans! Let me conclude with a further, apt quote by Martin Luther once again (which I hope will not discourage you from reading this excellent work but illustrate where your focal point should be and, hopefully, will be when you close the final page in “The Legacy of Sovereign Joy”),

O how happy the dear fathers would have been if they had our opportunity to study the languages and come thus prepared to the Holy Scriptures! What great toil and effort it cost them to gather up a few crumbs, while we with half the labor–yes, almost without any labor at all–can acquire the whole loaf! O how their effort puts our indolence to shame!

Book Review: The Reformation (Stephen J. Nichols)

It seems appropriate that the first content on this site should be a review of a book about the reformation. “The Reformation” was published in 2007 but as usual, it took its time getting to South African shores. I picked my copy up at CUM Books a few months ago (sorry) for only R20 so it was quite a bargain.

Nichols has a way of retelling history which draws you in. The book follows a sort of chronological/geographical approach, beginning with a chapter justifying the book and its contents. He then moves on through Luther, Zwingli and Calvin but has interesting chapters on the Anabaptists (which I don’t think he handled that well).

I particularly enjoyed his sixth and seventh chapters entitled “A King and a Divorce” about “The Anglicans and the British Reformation” and “Men in Black” about “The Puritans and the British Reformation” as I was largely ignorant of the history of the period. The surprise is the last chapter about “The Untold Story of Women and the Reformation” about women like Lady Grey or, Wibrandis Rosenblatt, a woman who had four husbands all of whom played significant roles in the reformation.

Nichols does a brilliant job of writing simply enough for anyone to read. It wasn’t so dense as to lose you and force you to reread paragraphs so as not to miss anything and yet it was dense enough that it was well worth the read.

The author also works at bringing the reformation into our context (which may have had some impact on my enjoyment of the book). I would gladly recommend this book to anyone wanting to get an overview of the reformation and I enjoyed Nichol’s writing so much that I’ve just bought his books on Martin Luther (this may still be on sale at CUM for R40) and Jonathan Edwards (I got this one from Good Neighbours).