Thoughts on some books I’ve read this year

20121222-160302.jpgBest book so far: “The Conviction to Lead” Al Mohler

Wrote about this book here, and I’m convinced this is a book I’ll be benefiting from in years to come. I like to go back to it regularly and remind myself of what I’ve learned. It was close, but I’m calling it the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Book I’ve referred back most: “The Master Plan of Evangelism” Robert Coleman

This was a close second to Mohler’s book. I would recommend that any pastor read this book for an accessible, practical, and biblical look at Jesus’ method of reaching the world. I think the title of the book is somewhat misguiding, for the book is more about discipleship than what we think of when we hear evangelism. I’d love to read through this with a group of guys.

Biggest surprise so far:My Friend, My Hero, My Dad” Stephen Altrogge

Huge surprise. I loved this book. Probably should write a fuller review about it somewhere. As a new dad, I was blessed by the example of fatherhood presented in here and I think I might read it again someday.

Biggest disappointment so far: Tie between “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction” by Alan Jacobs or “Passing the Baton” by Colin Marshall.

I think Jacobs’ book was disappointing because I had high, high hopes. I’m not saying it was a bad book. It was a good book. A nice book. But, as someone who loves reading, and reading about reading, my expectations weren’t met. I liked it, but didn’t love it.

Passing the Baton, coming off the same presses as one of my favorite books on ministry The Trellis and the Vine, also didn’t reach the bar. Again, it wasn’t a horrible book. But it was mostly a manual, and lacked life and zeal. There are many other books that accomplish better what this book intended to accomplish, and I’d start with The Trellis and the Vine.

Worst book so far: “Handle with Prayer” Charles Stanley

Frustrating for its bad theology.

Book I’d buy to give away: “Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart” J.D. Greear

I’m reading through this with my staff and because it’s very beneficial for ministry. Really good, really readable, and really short.

Notable Mentions:

Created in God’s Image by Anthony Hoekema

Getting to No: How to Break a Stubborn Habit, Erwin Lutzer

On Writing, Stephen King

 

 

Tolkien’s fascination with words and language

Tolkien had a fascination with words. He seems to have been obsessed with them. Shippey writes, “On some subjects Tolkien simply knew more, and had thought more deeply, than anyone else in the world.” The following description of Tolkien’s ideas about the intrinsic beauty of languages fascinates me, and it puts to words something I’ve known to be true for a long time but have never set to expression: tolkien

[Tolkien] thought that people, and perhaps as a result of their confused linguistic history especially English people, could detect historical strata in language without knowing how they did it. They knew that names like Ugthorpe and Stainby were Northern without knowing they were Norse; they knew Winchcombe and Cumrew must be in the West without recognizing that the word cwm is Welsh. They could feel linguistic style in words. Along with this, Tolkien believed that languages could be intrinsically attractive, or intrinsically repulsive. The Black Speech of Sauron and the orcs is repulsive. When Gandalf uses it in ‘The Council of Elrond’, ‘All trembled, and the Elves stopped their ears’; Elrond rebukes Gandalf for using the language, not for what he says in it. By contrast Tolkein thought that Welsh, and Finnish, were intrinsically beautiful; he modelled his invented Elf-languages on their phonetic and grammatical patterns, Sindarin and Quenya respectively. It is a sign of these convictions that again and again in The Lord of the Rings he has characters speak in these languages without bothering to translate them. The point, or a point, is made by the sound alone–just as allusions to the old legends of previous ages say something without the legends necessarily being told.”

J.R.R. Tolkien:Author of the Century, by Tom Shippey

Two books I’m looking forward to

The Pastor’s Justification, by Jared Wilson.

Jared Wilson’s blog is a good source of gospel-saturation, and I’m looking forward to his new stuff directed toward the pastoral ministry. The pastor is tempted to find his “justification” in many things: ministry success, congregation approval, likable-ness, numbers, converts, budgets, church plants– you name it. The obvious but elusive solution to this problem is the gospel, and specifically, the idea that our justification is certain and fixed in the mind of God.

“For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18). In other words, the ultimate aim of every pastor (and every Christian) is the be faithful in the eyes of the Lord, and the rest in the fact that his commendation means everything. I think I will be helped by the book.

It’s going to be released July 31st, but I’ve already pre-ordered it.

Crazy Busy: A (Mercifully) Short Book about a (Really) Big Problem, by Kevin Deyoung.

Kevin DeYoung is an emerging voice that is worth listening to. Hopefully, he’ll be around for a while serving the church with  his writing gifts. DeYoung seems to recognize problems in the church and write to help. He’s a practioner–laboring to shepherd his local church in the everyday–which means that his writing is forged in the fires of real ministry difficulty. Far from ivory-tower academia DeYoung writes to real people. The Hole in Our Holiness was written in the midst of a big and popular discussion on the nature of sanctification.  Many of his other books are about the nature and purpose of the church (Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be, What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission). The “really big problem” DeYoung aims to address here is busy-ness, which, I imagine, everyone struggles with. His clarity of thought will help me think through this important issue and hopefully develop good habits.

This one will be released September 30th, 2013.

Book Review: “The Prince’s Poison Cup” by R.C. Sproul

The Prince’s Poison Cup, by R.C. Sproul. Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008. 35 pages.princespoisoncup

Stories shape. As the father of a two-year-old who loves a good story, I am beginning to see how powerful a well-woven tale can be. God’s Word is mostly narrative, and the whole of revelation can be described as the Great Story. Stories help us experience the world. The best ones help us experience God.

The Story

The story begins with a sick little girl who can’t understand why her medicine tastes so bad. When she asks her dad, he tells her that she should ask grandpa the question later. When grandpa arrives she blurts out her question which reminds the grandpa of a story. He sits her down and begins the story of The Prince’s Poison Cup.

It is an allegory of the Bible’s story of redemption. It starts with the King of Life as Creator, his subjects in a beautiful park, and the subsequent rebellion instigated by “the man in the dark cloak.” After the Fall, all the King’s subject leave the park and set up a new city, the City of Man. The prince, representing Jesus, goes to the City of Man rescue the people by drinking the cup of the King’s wrath. The story climaxes as the prince takes his cup and drinks from the poison fountain in the middle of the city, and falls down dead.

Now, it’s one thing if I like the book; it’s another thing if my two-year old does. And let me say, she does. When I got my PDF copy I pulled it up on my iPad after breakfast one morning and started reading. She was gripped first by the pictures, and then eventually by the story. We’ve read it multiple times after meals in the last few weeks.

So yes, the story engages my two-year-old. I think it’s one of her favorites. The story is so engaging there have been a couple times when she wants to sit on mommy’s lap when the “man in the dark cloak” appears. Since we usually read it when we’re sitting around the table, I’ll grab a cup and pretend it’s the poison cup, but Emma doesn’t want me to do that anymore; it’s too realistic.

The Theology

R.C. Sproul is a respected and notable theologian. One of the reasons why he’s so popular is because he can take complex subjects and reduce them into simple and understandable concepts. When I first listened to a series of sermons by him a few years back, I thought (and I told this to my wife) that he sounded like an old fun grandpa who loved to tell stories to his grandchildren. I think I was dead on– for the two children’s books I have written by him (the other is The Priest with Dirty Clothes) begin with a grandpa telling his grandchildren a story. It’s obvious he has a vested interest in making important doctrinal truths not only understandable for children, but wonderful.

The Priest with Dirty Clothes focused on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness toward sinners; The Prince’s Poison Cup deals with the doctrine of Christ’s propitiation of our sin. For parents who aren’t sure that they’d be able to explain the theology in the story, there’s an appendix in the back for parents. It gives all the symbolism and helps the reader to communicate the biblical truths in the book. There are Scripture verses included there too, which could make a great resource for family devotions.

The Illustrations

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Here’s a screenshot of my favorite illustration from the book, when the King of Life (representing God) comes down to save the prince.

I think a good children’s book must be well illustrated. Sometimes a good story is, in my opinion, ruined by abstract, impressionistic illustrations that don’t portrayed the scene well. This is especially true when you’re reading to a two-year-old, who needs some concrete imagery to help her fill in for all the words she doesn’t know. Also, good illustrations will enhance the vocabulary. I point to the cloak when I read cloak; I show her the fountain when I’m describing it. The best illustrations are able to strike a balance where they portray things from the real world but do so in such a way that invokes wonder.

Justin Gerard, the artist who illustrated this book is phenomenal. This is part of the reason I love the book so much. Bad artistry can make wondrous things feel common, and so when the King of Life appears to raise the prince from the dead (pictured to the right) the imagery is amazing, complementing the text perfectly, and invoking awe.

Conclusion

If you’re into reading to your children (and you should be), and you want to teach them solid biblical truth (and you should want that), and you have a few extra bucks (and you may not have this), get this book. Read to it your kids. It’s a great story, with solid theology, and stunning illustrations. And I think it will increase in value as they get older and more able to understand the depths of the truths inside. I am very happy about it, and am looking forward to any other children’s books Dr. Sproul might release.

What I’m reading right now

gods-word

I happen to be one of those people who read better when I’m reading more at the same time. I read worse (and less) when I try to do one at a time. So here’s what I’m doing, with a brief explanation:

1. Keeping the Heart, John Flavel. I read this along with my morning Bible reading. I like wading through Puritan-ish works like this slowly, reading it like a devotional. I find most modern devotionals shallow; Puritans work like a charm.

2. Gospel Coach: Shepherding Leaders to Glorify God, Scott Thomas. The title interested me, and after perusing it I noticed it has a practical edge. A pragmatic read tends to challenge me and help me think about what I do and how I can do it better. I usually get at these in the evening.

3. No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. I need to read for fiction, and this is my attempt at that. It’s a gripping book. I’m starting to see what people say Cormac McCarthy is the best living American writer. I read this when I feel like it, sometimes at lunch or in the evening.

4. A Year with G.K. Chesterton, Kevin Belmonte. This offers a Chesteron reading for each day of the year, along with a “What GKC Did This Day” thingy. Whets the appetite for more, and is filled with good one-liners.

5. Handle with Prayer: Unwrap the Source of God’s Strength, Charles Stanley. Listen to this on my kindle during my commute. Don’t really like it much, but I want to finish it.

6. The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, Douglas Moo. My favorite and most consulted commentary for studying Colossians. I’m teaching through it Wednesday nights, and Moo’s is excellent.

7. The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, Mark Twain. I’ll usually read this when I’m about ready to sleep and don’t feel like anything long or heavy. Laugh out loud funny. Plus good illustrations for preaching.

 

What is a Healthy Church Member?

Thabiti Anyabwile’s little book What Is a Healthy Church Member? is helpful. It does no more than the title suggests, which keeps it short. Lands exactly at 120 (small) pages. When I first got it I was looking through the table of contents and doing an x-ray and before I knew it I was 57 pages in. Simple, practical, and readable.

The best books always include practical suggestions, and there are some good ones here, which is great for new-ish believers asking the “how-to” questions. Here are some of those sections:

How can church members cultivate the habit of expositional listening?

  1. Meditate on the sermon passage during your quiet time
  2. Invest in a good set of commentaries
  3. Talk and pray with friends about the sermon after church
  4. Listen to and act on the sermon throughout the week
  5. Develop the habit of addressing any questions about the text itself
  6. Cultivate humility

What does a committed church member look like?

  1. Attends regularly
  2. Seeks peace
  3. Edifies others
  4. Warns and admonishes others
  5. Pursues reconciliation
  6. Bears with others
  7. Prepares for the ordinances
  8. Supports the work of the ministry

I’m going to keep a few of these on hand to give away.

Book Notes: “The Conviction to Lead” by Al Mohler

Albert Mohler. Conviction to Lead, The: 25 Principles for Leadership that Matters, Bethany House, 2012

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Mohler aims high: “Let me warn you right up front—my goal is to change the way you think about leadership. I do not aim merely to add one more voice to the conversation; I want to fundamentally change the way leadership is practiced.” In this work, Mohler describes how firm, unflinching conviction in the truth is the one non-negotiable in leadership. Each chapter details how it manifests itself in a variety of ways.

Here’s a few ways I benefited from the book:

A different foundation. There’s a fundamental difference between Mohler’s “convictional” leadership and normal leadership as popularly understood, and it has to do with the foundation of leadership. Modern leadership is built around technique;  convictional leadership is built upon truth. According the Mohler, leadership doesn’t exist until someone is absolutely convinced of truth and draws in others around and toward his cause.

A clear definition. I like his definition of leadership: “Remember that leadership is conviction transformed into united action” (201). What you believe drives what you do, and how you bring people along with you, and what you call them to.

Hope for everyone. At several points in the book he tells his readers not to assume that leadership is something only the lucky few are born with. Conviction is something that can be developed. And it’s simple. Disappointingly simple, to those who are looking for a quicker way to do it. The ordinary means of grace build conviction. “Convictional intelligence comes by what we rightly call the ordinary means of grace” (36).

The concept of convictional intelligence. Convictional intelligence comes from developing habits that are aligned with the truth. They are established when one  girds himself in God’s truth and is trained to function accordingly. There are no short cuts to develop this; they grow in the soil of committed study and everyday faithfulness.

Realistic about social media. Has an entire chapter devoting to the digital world, which, he contends, is very much a part of our real world. Leaders are encouraged to blog, tweet, and be on Facebook.

Insight into an interesting man. In the middle of this book I told my brother-in-law that Al Mohler is the real deal. And that was before I got to the section where he describes his fascination with cemeteries (not seminaries!), his love for the ticking of clocks, and how his writing desk has nothing on it except a life-like replica of a human skull.

It’s the best leadership book I’ve ever read, and from the reviews it’s getting, many others feel the same. I recommend it for any Christian who is compelled to lead in any kind of organization or ministry.

 

Wordsmithy, by Douglas Wilson

wordsmithy

Doug Wilson gave us a real gift when he banged out Wordsmithy on his blog June 2010. The writing has been captured and set to print in a fine little 120 pager. It was excellent, and here are a few reasons why:

First, the tips are for the writing lifeEmphasize life. A plumber could benefit from many of them. Wilson rightfully connects your life and your writing, clearing up the false idea that you can write an interesting book without living an interesting life. He sees the mundane responsibilities of being human as essential to the writer’s development. And so I quote:

My point is that the time in between was not wasted–submarine service, marriage, college, bring up three kids, starting a school for them, and so forth. This kind of life experience is not distracting you from your appointed task of writing. It is, rather, the roundabout blessing of giving you something to say.

He likes rules, and breaking them too. This strikes the balance between the literary legalists and libertines. Quote:

Oscare Wilde once defined a gentleman as one who never insulted somebody else accidentally. In a similar spirit, a competent writer wants to be the kind of person who is never guilty of a solecism accidentally. If you do it, do it with your eyes open.

This approach creates a sense of spontaneity and surprise, which gives way to punch and wit. That’s why he recommends reading books on writing mechanics and books on slang. His rule is “Master the rules before you assume that you have the right to break them.” Mastering the comma usage will prevent grandpa from being dinner (Let’s eat, grandpa!). Though mistakes of this nature can be quite funny:

Justin Taylor, editor of Crossway, cites the example of one writer who wanted to thank “my parents, Jesus and Ayn Rand.”

So we listen to grammarians and libertines. And we make sure we’re able to communicate who our real parents are.

These things can be learned and developed. Yes, genetics are a thing. And they have something to do with your make-up and how you play with words. But discipline is a thing too, and hard work and time and practice can make a writer. Chestertons exists, but they are anomalies and don’t offer the best help to become a writer. Most writers, like 99.99% of them, became writers because they worked hard and practiced a lot. Is writing hard to you? Good, you’re human. Writing is hard, wake up.

Does this lesson really need repeating? Yes, it does. You became good at basketball because you shot hoops after school every day until the sun went down. You learned piano because mom made you take lessons every Tuesday for three years. Malcolm Gladwell was on to something when he wrote about the 10,000 hour rule. I’m not sure one can be so precise, but the point is clear: becoming an expert on anything takes time. Yes, even writer. So,

Be at peace with being lousy for a while. Chesterton once said that anything worth doing was worth doing badly. He was right. Only an insufferable egoist expects to be brilliant the first time out.

There are seven main tips, each with seven sub-tips. They read quickly, so if you want a plunge into an icy pond to shock the writing senses, this seems like a good place to jump. I could see myself picking this book up again in a year to revisit some of the things I’ve been taught. I highly recommend it.

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.

Has something been tinkering with your brain?

Nicholas Carr wrote an article titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” containing this section. Tony Reinke quoted it at length in his book Lit! to describe why we’re having a harder time reading these days. As I read it, I kept saying, “Me too! Me too!”

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going–as far as I can tell– but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle…And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.