Book Review: Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books

Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Crossway, 2011) immediately had me salivating when I first read that it was coming out over a year ago. With heavy hitters endorsing it (J.I. Packer, Leland Ryken, Randy Alcorn, Tim Challies, Russell Moore), and even the title itself I knew it would hit the spot. I love reading, and I love reading about reading, and I especially love reading a Christian’s thoughts about reading. The author, Tony Reinke, blogs over at Miscellanies and works for Desiring God as a “Content Strategist” where he does a mix of “theological research, reading, writing, journalism, and photography integrated with social media.” Last year he published his first book, ), which is a delightful look at the contours of book-reading.

Layout

The book is split into two sections: 1) A Theology of Books and Reading; and 2) Some Practical Advice on Book Reading. Both sections were good, but I particularly enjoyed the second section. For many Christians, becoming serious about their faith means becoming serious about reading, whether it’s Scripture or other Christian literature. That’s my story. My maturing faith has led me to value books, the insights I can take away from them, and the ways they shape me. It has also caused be to be a bit more cautious about what I read– sometimes too cautious, to the point where I’m agonizingly slow to pick my next book. My need wasn’t for a robust theology of books (although part one was affirming and crystallizing the thoughts I had already been having) but rather for a more practical approach.

I was hoping Lit! would help me

  • In deciding how to choose which book to read next.
  • In understanding how and the reading of fiction is valuable.
  • In reading non-fiction well, so I retain more of what I’m reading.
  • In finding and making time to read in a busy schedule.

All of these questions were answered, and more.

It gives hope. Reinke writes with personality, so it feels like he’s right there with you coaching you along in the process to become a better reader. At one point in the book he admits that most of his material is autobiographical– things he’s learned on the journey. It feels that way, and I count it as a plus, because it becomes clear that Reinke is not unlike me– he’s quite a normal guy who has a job to do and a family to lead, diapers and all. And if he can do it, I can too!

It’s very accessible. Since I finished this book a few weeks ago, I’ve been turning back to it regularly. One of the reasons I think it turns out to be so helpful is that it’s short and compact. Not much fluff. Reinke writes “This book is short and to the point, or at least as short as I could possibly make it. The shortest chapters are short because they could be short; the longer chapters are longer because there was no possible way to make them shorter” (Introduction, 18). This means that his points are made quickly. He doesn’t dwell anywhere too long. I like this approach because it gets me through the book faster and serves as a great reference for later usage.

It’s practically helpful. The book actually changed the way I read. After I finished, I realized that there was so much good stuff I needed to think through it all again, and write it down in a compact way for the future. So I went through part two and developed a one-page tool for reading non-fiction well. I marked all the things he suggested to do before reading (skim the book, examine the skeleton, read the last chapter, etc), during reading (mark thesis statements, trace the argument, use specialized markings), and after reading (revisit certain markings, summarize the book in a paragraph, etc). Many of these tips and tricks I’m putting into practice now. Later I’ll be blogging about how helpful they are.

Lit! was, without question, the most enjoyable book I’ve read so far this year. It was fun, like having a long conversation about books and reading with an old friend who likes those topics as much as you. He writes playfully with good humor, making the tone more like a conversation than a manual. After reading the book I feel better equipped to read well, retain more, and enjoy the process. Reading this book now will help you read and enjoy books in the future.

Pillars of Grace– a premature review

I am not finished with the book, but per my desire to become a book reviewer, and my promise to start somewhere, here’s my review of Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men, by Steven Lawson.

I started by reviewing chapter one, which you can read here if you want to.

Chapters 2-13

After an introductory chapter, the book focuses in on individual Christian stalwarts. They are arranged chronologically. I am now on chapter 14, and I’ve read of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, and Isidore of Seville.

Mini-Biography

Each chapter is arranged essentially the same way. It begins by setting the stage. Lawson writes of the main dilemmas Christians were facing, whether it’s government decreed persecution, discredit from the world of philosophy, or heresy. Once he establishes the scene, the hero takes center stage. What follows is a short biography: where he grew up, what influenced him, what he wrote, why he wrote, and what became of him. I found these sections to be the most interesting.

I also found that the chapters later in the book have gotten better. This is partially because the cumulative testimony of these witnesses to the doctrines of grace is so strong. Each chapter is like a brick being laid, and the total effect is a beautiful building.

The later chapters are better also because the farther we go through church history, the more biographical information we have. For example, the extant writings of 1st century Clement are infinitesimal compared to the voluminous writings of 4th-5th century Augustine. The more material, the better the biography and the greater understanding of who they were and what they taught.

Major Works

After introducing you to the character, he briefly describes his most popular writings. In the chapter on Justin Martyr, he mentioned his Apologies, who they were written to and what they were about. The chapter on Irenaeus discussed the importance of his Against Heresies, what it was, why he wrote it, and what effect it had.

Because of Augustine’s incredible output of literature (242 books), Lawson focuses on the most popular ones (Confessions, The City of God, etc). For Isidore, who also wrote extensively, he makes sections (Biblical and Theological works, Dogmatic and Apologetic works, etc) and highlights the most important writings in each. These sections, combined with the comprehensive citations at the end of each chapter make for a great reference.

Doctrines of Grace in Focus

The chapter then turns to focus on their doctrine. He looks at them through five or six doctrinal categories, each category having its own section: divine sovereignty, radical depravity, sovereign election, definite atonement, irresistible call, and divine reprobation. Lawson goes through each doctrine and shows what the father believed about it by citing original sources.

A few comments about this section. First, it tends to be dryer than the rest. It mostly consists of original source citation (which is helpful) and Lawson’s summarizing comments. Second, in some cases it seems difficult to truly understand whether the churchman in question was actually articulating the specific doctrine. In most cases, Lawson is right on by nailing down the father’s stance on an issue. In other cases, the father’s writings simply don’t offer enough information on the subject, and the few quotes offered aren’t very convincing. This is a small quibble, however, because it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, Lawson is quick to admit that the writings are blurry.

On the more positive side, Lawson makes it clear early on that these men are by no means infallible. In many cases, he critiques their view, shows how it contradicts Scripture, and offers an opinion as to what influences caused them to take that view. Lawson doesn’t make the Catholic mistake of unwittingly buying everything the fathers said.

Conclusive Exhortation

After the doctrinal focus, Lawson ends with an exhortation for his readers. This section is short and pointed. He summarizes the life of the father and shows how it applies to people today– men need to rise up and proclaim strong theology, live with conviction, and do all for the glory of God while they have breath.

Conclusions

This book might be difficult to read lengthy portions in one sitting because it doesn’t tell a single cohesive story. It’s like reading a compilation of short stories– they’re not much related. In many instances, it reads like a series of lectures, which, according to the preface, it was– Lawson put together this material to teach the men of his church (I find this fascinating) and ended up editing it and publishing it as a book. This means that there are many repeated statements throughout (I have no problem with that, I need to hear something again and again for it to stick). With that being said, it doesn’t feel academic. Lawson is a preacher, and you won’t finish a chapter without being exhorted to faithfulness.

A great way to approach this work would be to read it devotionally. Since the chapters are around 10 pages each (except for a few longer ones, like Augustine’s and Luther’s), I think it would be a great exercise to read a chapter each morning, perhaps after your Bible reading and prayers. I continually find my soul soaring to great heights after reading reading of these men and the truths they proclaimed.

Through reading this book, I am convinced more than ever that pastors need to be familiar with church history. What we can learn by reading the pages of the centuries is far more important than what we can learn by reading the latest issue of Relevant Magazine.

Pillars of Grace: Chapter 1

This post is a part of my attempt to master the art of the book review. It is one of the things I am doing to practice. Critiques regarding whether this is a helpful, and what I can do to improve are welcome.

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Pillars of Grace: Chapter 1

Dr. Steven Lawson was born in the wrong era. Or so many contemporary American church-goers might think. He’s all Reformer. He makes you uncomfortable. He’s doggedly biblical and he preaches like a pit bull. Give him the pulpit in most American churches and they’d kick him out. He wields the two-edged sword of Scripture to attack the easy-believe-ism Christianity light that has plagued our nation for far too long.

In all the sermons I’ve heard from Lawson, I’ve noticed that he often makes reference to figures in church history. Most of the preachers who utilize church history in their preaching do so for anecdotes and interesting stories. Lawson is different. When he takes the pulpit, you wonder if he spends more time with dead men than living. He is sopping wet from swimming in the river of the centuries. He looks like a modern American, but he feels like a Puritan. He references Whitefield as if he’s alive, ministering down the street. And Edwards like he just died last week. He is acutely aware of the giants of church history, the role they play in the church, the necessity for a new generation of such men, and most importantly, the sovereign Lord of the harvest who raises up such laborers. History is made totally alive– and Lawson invites you to join the great cloud of witnesses who lay down their lives to proclaim God’s truth.

So it’s not surprising to me that he wrote a tome on church history and the men who made it. This work, at over 500 pages, traces the doctrines of grace from the Apostolic Fathers (100-150 AD) to the Reformers (1483-1575). The book gives 23 brief biographies of influential churchmen who taught, in some way, the doctrines of grace. He writes, “This volume is devoted to tracing this triumphant procession of godly men from AD 30, with the birth of Clement of Rome, to 1564 with the death of John Calvin in Geneva.”

The volume is built upon a previous work titled Foundations of Grace, in which Lawson goes through each individual book of the Bible to show how God’s sovereignty in all things is demonstrated. He rightly contends that Scripture has laid the foundation, and it is upon this foundation that the pillars stand. I have not read this book, so I won’t be making any comments about it.

Chapter one of Steven Lawson’s book Pillars of Grace is a simple overview of the first 1500 years of church history. He basically gives you the birds-eye view of the Christian story. He lays out three main divisions (The Fathers, The Medeival Leaders, The Reformers) and further divides them up into subcategories. This helps you see the trends of thought that were popular during each age, and how sound doctrine was preserved throughout.

It is to be noted that every man whose story is told on these pages, without exception,  has deep oak tree roots in the soils of conviction. These men, like Abel, still speak even though they are dead. Or as Piper says, the swans are not silent. They proclaim the glories of God and the privileges of living and dying for him. Their tone is convincing.

By the end of the chapter, the sweeping overview is inspiring. He creates a chain links of faithful men, showing how they remain consistent throughout the ages. It becomes readily apparent that we are all part of the story, and it is now our generation that must carry faithfully the torch. In the grand epic, you feel quite small. In the same moment, the weight of responsibility is heavy. What great work have we to do.

 

Becoming a book reviewer

A couple friends sent me some links to help direct me in this venture. The first comes from the world famous Challies, who inspires hacks everywhere to take to the keyboard and blog. I wonder how many stay-at-home dads are banking their retirement on finding a niche in the blogosphere because of this guy. Here’s his article:

How to Review a Book

The second is from John Starke (not to be confused with John Starks), a guy over at the Gospel Coalition who edits book reviews:

How to Write a Great Book Review (Or at Least How Not to Write a Bad One)

As part of my attempt to master the book review, I am going to be trying some new things.

  1. I will be commenting on chapters from Steven J. Lawson’s Pillars of Grace, the second volume in his Long Line of Godly Men series. The goal is to process, evaluate, and review small portions of the book at a time in preparation for later full book reviews.
  2. Also, I am going to try and review at least two short stories between now and January 1st. As for now, I’m trying to avoid anything longer than 10 pages.
  3. I’m now keeping up my Goodreads account. Though there are probably millions of bad book reviews on this site, it at least encourages you to share your opinion about the things you’re reading. I intend to write 1-3 sentences on each book I update (if I can remember them enough) without using too many cliches.

Anything else I should try?

Mastering the book review

I am committing myself to learn how to write good book reviews. Why do I want to write good books reviews? Here’s a few reasons:

  • Writing reviews requires critical thinking and discernment. By committing to mastering the book review, I am committing to read well.
  • Writing reviews requires writing. And writing is an important skill that takes practice to master. The people who leave dents in history are notable writers. How do we know that? We read their books.
  • Different books require different measures of attention. Writing book reviews will force me to learn how to evaluate books. It will force me to understand the piece good enough to take what’s good and discard the junk. Also, I’ll learn how much time I should spend with a book.Bacon writes: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”
  • To write a good review, you have to have convictions. Book reviews are not like pre-school tee-ball. We keep score here. Not everyone gets a blue ribbon. It’s important to develop the ability to determine what is good, and what isn’t. The best reviewers stick to their guns even when the tides of popularity are against them. For instance, Challies’ review of The Shack is constantly his most popular post. And the reason the review is so good is because he stuck to his theological guns even when the whole world was caught up in Shack-fever.
  • You don’t really understand something until you have to teach someone else about it. Writing about the books I’ve read will bring me into a deeper understanding of them. For me, writing and thinking go hand in hand. Articulating what I’ve had to think about will solidify the thoughts in my mind. I am among the number of those who must “write themselves clear.” Writing is the wind that blows away the mind-fog.
  • Free books. Seriously. If you become a reputable book reviewer, writers will be drooling for your endorsements. Kevin Deyoung has new manuscripts on his desk every week. Imagine that.

If I can master the book review, I will be a better scholar for it. Oh, and let me in on some resources if you know any.

 

The man who cannot believe his senses

Here are some great quotes from G.K. Chesterton‘s Orthodoxy.

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed.

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The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives. They have both locked themselves up in two boxes, painted inside with the sun and stars; they are both unable to get out, the one into the health and happiness of heaven , the other even into the health and happiness of the earth. Their position is quite reasonable; nay, in a sense it is infinitely reasonable, just as a threepenny bit is infinitely circular. But there is such a thing as a mean infinity, a base and slavish eternity.

*  *   *

Then when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother’s face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, “He believes in himself.”

Orthodoxy is the most unique apologetic for Christianity I’ve ever read. Chesterton writes weighty concepts with a kind of humorous levity that makes it fun and intriguing and compelling.

Recommendation: If you’re a doubter, read it. If you like apologetics, it’s a must read. If you enjoy a good use of words and images, give it a try.

6 Books that Have Shaped My Life & Ministry

1. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, John Piper

When I read the introduction to this book in 2007, I was overtaken by an emotion that I could only describe as being liberating and burden-lifting and eye-opening. The whole concept that God does not only want our duty but our delight in Him rocked my Christian moralism to its core. God didn’t ask for decisions, he commanded desire. And as the truth that God demands that we have joy in God freed me from legalistic attempts to live the Christian life, it also devastated me. I immediately began to see the implications of this doctrine John Piper calls Christian Hedonism. The implication is that I am helpless to change my affections apart from the work of God in my heart– I must consistently go to him and I must completely rely on Him for all things. This thinking changed my life and ministry.

2. The Autobiography  of George Muller, George Muller

This book changed my life. I wrote about it on one of my earlier blogs because I couldn’t keep it in. It showed me a life that humbly trusted in God for everything, and did so through constant, persistent, relentless, desperate prayer– without ever being disappointed. The words of Jospeh Scriven’s hymn became real:

O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

George Muller had such a profound impact on my life that I’ve decided that my first son (Lord willing) will be named Jack Muller Durso. George Muller taught me to pray.

He also showed my what it’s like to trust God for everything, and how we can wean ourselves from trusting the usual things that aren’t sinful, but are potentially robbing us of the joy of being sustained only by God. He modeled generous giving, honesty and precision, and humility.

3. Finally Alive, John Piper

The main reason this book has been influential in my life is that it biblically expounds how people get saved. Piper has been singularly the most influential theologian in my life– and his explanation of how the new birth happens gripped me and shaped the way I teach, pray, and present the gospel.

4. How People Change, Timothy Lane and Paul David Tripp

This book opened my eyes to the centrality of the gospel in daily life. There are probably many other books that do this better than How People Change– it’s not a theology book– but it connected the theology of the cross the the reality of daily life for me. Chapter one titled “The Gospel Gap” showed me that most people see that the gospel saves (past), the gospel guarantees (future), and never connect the gospel to its present work. I had never understood how the gospel- the body of information about Jesus living, dying, rising, reigning- changed my lifestyle now. During my read of this book, I wrote a few blog posts on it (How the Gospel is Essential for All of Life and How the Gospel Changes Us), trying to articulate my thoughts on how it all goes together. Since this book, I’ve seen the Christian life in the constant light of the gospel, and it clarifies everything.

5. The Trellis & the Vine, Colin Marshal and Tony Payne

This book is shaping how I do ministry. The metaphor in the title is for the church– the trellis is the building, the structures, the systems, the programs, the events, etc; and the vine is the people. One of the main questions the book addresses is who in the church is called to be a vine-worker? (answer: everyone) and how does real gospel growth happen? along with practical ways to structure your church to make it happen best. I recommended it in January as a “must-read” for people in ministry.

6. The Deliberate Church, Mark Dever

I know Mark Dever has written a lot on the church and how to do church, but this was my first of his. It was extremely helpful. He introduced me to the regulative principle, which states that “everything we do in a corporate worship gathering must be clearly warranted by Scripture” (pg. 77). So simple I never thought of it– I was under the impression that God hadn’t given much clear direction for the way a church should function and therefore if it wasn’t explicitly spurned in the Bible it was fair game. But Dever has shown me the value in the the regulative principle–it keeps the church simple, safe, and pure. This book was an eye-opener for me, and challenged many of my perspectives and practices.