Category Archives: .Reading Digest
Hello blog readers. It’s been too long since I posted my reading digest and I apologize for that. So here’s what I’m reading currently:
Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, 2nd ed (Princeton; 2011). This book wades much deeper into literary theory than most how-to books on writing style. The authors bring classic writing style into the foreground in a way that makes it theoretically understandable and, with a number of very clear examples, well illustrated too. If there’s anything I take away from this book is a deeper appreciation for the non-fiction prose style of C.S. Lewis. Although Lewis is nowhere mentioned in the book (an oversight), he is a prime example of classic style and this book helped me discover what attracts me especially to his essays and non-fiction writings. Another point I take from this book is the power of truth to persuade. A William Blake line is quoted: “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d” (125). Worth dwelling on that line for a few moments. Write the authors, “To show truth is automatically to persuade. Truth carries its own sufficient force. In this way, truth is inhuman: it is absolutely self-sufficient; it cuts through all human deficiencies; it needs no help from human beings. All it needs to be perceived is an unadulterated human presentation … Truth is self-evident once shown” (126). Theologically we must also say that truth gets suppressed in unrighteousness, so truth presentation is not so persuasive as these authors make it appear. Regardless, the point is an important one because for the writer there isn’t a greater power to wielded than clear truth. Classic prose writers seek to communicate the truth as clear and simply as possible, because where truth is presented clearly, an audience cannot help but be persuaded. That’s an excellent point to be learned and employed by writers and preachers alike.
Aristotle, Poetics; Longinus, On the Sublime; Demetrius, On Style (Loeb Classic; 1995). The Loeb classics are beautifully constructed and perfect in size. Reading them is a pure aesthetic delight for a bibliophile like myself. As for content these three books coincide with Thomas/Turner. In Aristotle’s classic on writing style, he does a fine job comparing and contrasting the value and function of fiction and non-fiction genres. Not long ago on the blog I posted an excerpt and some thoughts on this topic (see here). Demetrius has written a style textbook that makes for a good read. Longinus likewise covers many themes as well, providing the most help where he distinguishes between sublime writing that elevates a topic from an overly emphasized amplification that actually does nothing to move the reader. How do you elevate without redundant amplifications, is the question Longinus is largely concerned with. In the spirit of Thomas/Turner, Longinus writes, “a grand style is the natural product of those whose ideas are weighty” (185). This trio of classic books on writing style were a perfect complement to my read of Thomas/Turner.
G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Baker; Dec. 1, 2011). Of all the many theological disciplines that interest me, biblical theology is one of my favorites, and I’m always watching for new BT works to come along. I’ve been anticipating this one since over one year ago when I first heard about it. This is Beale’s opus, and may be the most important book published in 2011, at least it’s now atop my book of the year list. Beale is convinced that a better understanding of the OT will help us understand the NT more clearly and he masterfully ties together prominent OT themes into the NT storyline, helping the reader see the many parallels and connections. Perhaps the most important strength of this work is the emphasis on inaugurated eschatology. Writes Beale, “the major doctrines of the Christian faith are charged with eschatological electricity.” Nicely said. I agree. This is not an introduction to BT, and it at times gets very dense and technical, as is true of most of Beale’s works. But if you are serious about BT (if you can fill in the first names of these men by heart: _______ Vos, _______ Eichrodt), you’ll want to start saving your coins for when it gets released in a few months. Perhaps we’ll have a book giveaway to celebrate its release?
Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology (P&R; Sept. 16, 2011). Union with Christ is an essential theme drawing together the full personal and work of Christ and applying that reality to all of Christian life and future. In his forthcoming book Letham addresses union from the three categories mentioned in the title. Often he lands somewhere between Gaffin and Horton, being willing to critique each of them when necessary (according to the introduction both Gaffin and Horton read and made suggested changes to his manuscript). One highlight was chapter 5: “Union with Christ and Transformation.” There Letham historically traces the theme of union as it developed from the patristic age, where it was rooted more directly to the Incarnation, and then to the reformation and Luther and Calvin, where union and the finished work of Christ emerged more clearly into view. There are some gems in this book, like this one: “Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it” (6). Good stuff. And while I’m not fully versed in all the dynamics of the reformed debates over justification/union (a major theme throughout this book) and I’m not sure yet where I stand on the Horton <> Letham <> Gaffin spectrum, yet there’s a lot of material in this book that is not up for debate and that I think we can find a large degree of agreement. Most of all Letham wants us to live out our union with Christ. He closes his book with this plea: “If you are not united to Christ and all we have said is a purely academic exercise, please consider your situation, believe in Christ, and serve him with all that is in you by the help of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, theological discussion, bibliographical information is important—but it is far from ultimate. There is something far greater. If we are united to Christ, endless vistas open” (141). Beautiful. Given the importance of union with Christ in the NT, and the relatively few recent works on the theme, I welcome any/all new books to help us uncover this doctrinal treasure, and one that looks at union both biblically, historically, and theologically is especially welcomed.
So those are some books I’ve finished or am finishing up now.
And here are some books waiting on deck:
- Thucydides, The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War (Free Press; 1996).
- Brian G. Hedges, Licensed to Kill: A Field Manual for Mortifying Sin (Cruciform; July, 2011).
- John Anthony McGuckin, St. Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (St Vladimir’s Press; 2001).
Once a year I slip away for a few days to do nothing but read. On a hotel desk I spread out a large stack of reading, unpack snacks and drinks, pray the God would bless my time, and then dig into my books with unusually focused attention. I find these experiences to be spiritually invigorating.
As you can imagine a retreat setting like this provides me with many hours to focus on one particular area of study, normally one that is so complex that I really need the extended concentration. At the same time this practice helps me to combat the brain fragmentation that I experience in the world of social media.
By the time this blog post goes life (it was auto-saved) I will be into my next retreat. In this retreat I will be focusing on theme of “inaugurated eschatology,” or the already in the already/not yet of God’s sweeping historical plan of redemption and cosmic restoration. My interest in this topic was sparked a little over a year ago when I began to seriously study the implication of Christ’s resurrection as the dawn of the new creation. God used that season of focused study just before Easter of 2010 to help me begin to see the cosmic scope of the gospel, leaving me with a greater desire to know more about this topic and to read more carefully on a cluster of related themes of the Kingdom of God in the gospels, the two-ages in Paul, the resurrection as the inauguration of the new creation, and the eschatological significance of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As I see Easter approaching it makes this whole topic more attractive to me for sustained study.
So why this topic? It seems a bit abstract and vague. In many ways inaugurated eschatology is complex, which is why I need the focused time to read. But it’s also a very important topic with consequences for the Christian life. Balanced eschatology is necessary for a balanced Christian life. An imbalanced eschatology can lead to disastrous consequences. For example, to concentrate on the already without the not yet leads to an over-realized eschatology which tends to lead people down the path of moral perfectionism, diminishing the need for future/final transformation. On the other hand, a concentration on the not yet to the exclusion of the already causes us to overlook what God has already accomplished in Christ in past history and to fail to grasp the eternal consequences of his cross and resurrection. In this way sanctification tends to become man-centered moralism in an unhelpful way that fails to appreciate the role of Christ’s finished work in personal renewal. Balance in the Christian life requires some level of equilibrium between living in the already and the not yet, the finished and the unfinished, the started and the yet uncompleted. This retreat will help me appreciate those areas where God’s eternal purposes have been already inaugurated in time and history.
The literature on inaugurated eschatology is expansive and rich, but the literature will also continue to collect dust on my bookshelf unless I take the time to pursue this theme. And that brings me to my reading retreat. With an open Bible, a tall stack of books, and an iPod loaded with some related seminary lectures, I plan to spend my days kicking back and reading, listening, and having my horizons broadened.
As is typical I will bring far too much material than I have time to work through. But my goal is never to exhaust all of my reading. In fact only one or two of the books will be read entirely with great care, some books will be read in parts, other books will be scanned carefully, and a majority of the books will be scanned quickly. In case you’re interested, here is a list of the 18 books and 27 lectures I have packed into a Rubbermaid tub:
- Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Eerdmans, 1975), pages 14–100, 183–184, 205–252, 487–562. This is an impressive book and I suspect much of my retreat will be focus here. In his survey of Bible commentaries, Don Carson writes, “of all the books that wrestle with Pauline theology, in some ways the best is still Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology.” Hard to argue with that. Most relevant for me at this point is Ridderbos’s firm grasp of inaugurated eschatology in Paul.
- Herman Ridderboss, The Coming of the Kingdom (P&R, 1962). A classic on the kingdom theme in the gospels.
- Herman Ridderboss, When the Time Had Fully Come: Studies in New Testament Theology (Eerdmans, 1982).
- Herman Ridderboss, Paul and Jesus (P&R, 1977).
- George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1993), pages 31–211, 351–378, 555–575.
- George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Eerdmans, 1974).
- Gordon Fee, Paul the Spirit and the People of God (Hendrickson, 1996), pages 49–62.
- Gordon Fee, 12 lectures, “The Life and Teachings of Jesus” (Regent College).
- Gordon Fee, 11 lectures, “Biblical Theology of the New Testament” (Regent College). Of special interest will be his two lectures on the eschatological framework of Jesus and Paul.
- Gordon Fee, four lectures, “Kingdom, Spirit, and the People of God” (Regent College).
- C. Marvin Pate, The End of the Ages Has Come: The Theology of Paul (Zondervan, 1995).
- Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans, 1979), pages 3–75.
- Paul Beasley-Murray, The Message of the Resurrection: Christ Is Risen! (IVP, 2001).
- Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Eerdmans, 1952).
- Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Banner of Truth, 1975), pages 372–402.
- Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Zondervan, 2011), pages 535–547.
- Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (WJK, 2006). I’ll give this a scan.
- N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996). I plan to give this a scan as well.
I make time for fun reading in these retreats as well. This year I’ve packed baseball books that focus on my favorite era, from the birth of American professional baseball in the early 1870s up until the year 1918. On my previous retreat I read Cait Murphy’s delightful book Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History (Collins, 2008). This time around I’ve packed this trio of titles:
- Timothy Gay, Tris Speaker: The Rough-and-Tumble Life of a Baseball Legend (Lyons Press, 2007). Perhaps the best all-around baseball player in Boston Red Sox history (and the Cleveland Indian’s history for that matter), I simply want to learn more about his life and career.
- Edward Achorn, Fifty-Nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had (Harper, 2011). This appears to be a colorful account of one of baseball’s greatest pitching feats set in the first 15 years of the professional sport at a time when players fielded the ball without gloves!
- Mike Vaccaro, The First Fall Classic: The Red Sox, the Giants, and the Cast of Players, Pugs, and Politicos Who Reinvented the World Series in 1912 (Anchor, 2010). Tris Speaker (the AL MVP) and his Red Sox won the World Series in 8-game showdown (game 2 ended in a tie). The Sox somehow beat the Giants and their unhittable pitching staff (the Giants ERA in the series was 1.59!). I look forward to reading more about the 1912 World Series.
In a previous life I wanted to be a baseball historian. In this life I have the privilege of serving the church. In either case I am a reader, and I pray that this reading retreat will match my previous retreats in education, edification, and delight.
Since much of my time was spent writing, I ended up reading fewer books in 2010. Oddly, I was separated from books because I was writing about them. And most of the books that I did find time to read were books on the topic of reading. This prohibited me from reading many of the new books released in 2010.
By God’s grace, I still managed to read a fair number of books this year and—thanks to your kind prodding—I was encouraged to recount the books I read and assemble my favorites into this list. So I scoured my shelves and heaped my favorites into a bloggable pile.
In effect this is a list of my 30 favorite books that I read in 2010 (besides Scripture, of course). Not all of these books have been read from cover-to-cover (and you will soon see why: several of the books are large reference works). But many of these I have read in their entirety (or close to it).
My list is pretty haphazard, as you have come to expect. Here’s my list, broken down categorically and in no particular order.
ON READING AND LITERATURE
Leland Ryken, Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective (Wipf & Stock, 2003). In my research on reading I came to value Ryken’s books that equip Christians to benefit from classic literature. By far, this book is my favorite book on the topic. Ryken moves from classic to classic, drawing out edifying themes. In this book Ryken provides a clinic on how Christians should read fiction for the benefit of the soul.
Leland Ryken, editor, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing (Shaw, 2002). This book is a compilation of the best Christian writing on the topics of literature. Any Christian interested in reading or writing literature should own this collection. If it’s been said, and if it’s worth reading, you will find it somewhere in here.
Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, editors, William Shakespeare Complete Works (Macmillan, 2008). This 2,500-page mammoth published by the Royal Shakespeare Company was a sweet find. Shakespeare’s writings expose the limitations of my literacy skills, and I bought this book in the hopes that it would help guide me along. It has. The editor’s introductions are skillfully written and brief explanatory notes at the foot of each page “explain allusions and gloss obsolete and difficult words, confusing phraseology, occasional major textual cruces … bawdy innuendo, and technical terms (e.g. legal and military language).” Readers should be forewarned that the editors refuse to let any “bawdy innuendo” pass silently, and they are quick to suggest innuendo that I think is more a reflection of the editor’s imagination than of Shakespeare’s intention. But in general the introductions and the brief notes make the experience of reading Shakespeare less laborious and more delightful.
C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, 1961). Readers often critique books, but this is one book that critiques readers. Only Lewis could write this, and he pulls it off brilliantly. I was left with a holy reverence for books that I didn’t have, or had lost over the years. Reading is a sacred act and we should handle books–at least the best of them–with great care and respect. Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for the reminder.
Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Eerdmans, 1985). Measured in influence, images tend to get more attention than the written word. This book celebrates the importance of language and revelation, and it cautions us about life in a culture that is dominated by visual communication. Of all the books on this list, I disagree with this one more frequently than any other. And yet of all the books on this list, few were more intellectually invigorating. Ellul is like that.
ON CHRISTIANS + CULTURE
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford, 2010). This book is a thoughtful discussion about how the Church can and should seek to influence culture. It’s worth reading, because when Hunter is spot-on he is also vivid. I’ve posted examples of these excerpts on the blog. Here’s one. This book gets much respect, and it’s a well deserved respect.
Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (Dutton, 2010). A careful biblical look at the Christian’s responsibility to care for those most vulnerable to injustice: widows, orphans, immigrants, minorities, and the poor. I counted 234 biblical references in this book. The book is well researched, biblical, provocative, and it gives me eyes to see the needs of the culturally vulnerable. It is too easy to neglect our most needy ‘neighbors.’ But Keller makes this neglect more difficult.
D. A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway, 2010). One of the great living Bible scholars, writing about the pinnacle of our Savior’s work, with the goal of edifying a broad Christian audience … need I elaborate?
D. A. Carson, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Baker, 2010). One day we will hold in our hands a full biblical theology of Scripture from Carson. But until then we can make due with this book that traces the major themes throughout Scripture. If you are looking for a book that will help you make sense of how the Bible fits together from Genesis to Revelation, while avoiding reductionism, this is the best book I’ve read. It is also offered as a discussion leader’s guide and as a DVD series (see the free materials here). In my opinion, this is the most important Christian book published in 2010.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker Academic, 2008). Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck was born on December 13, 1854. His birthday (Monday) is an annual reminder to me of God’s kindness in giving the church this theologian and his 4-volume systematic theology. Rarely does a day pass that I don’t reference this opus in my research. It is an incredible accomplishment; clear, precise, useful, and worth noting on this list. But if RD is too much, check out Our Reasonable Faith.
Athanasius, On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir, 1977). A ‘classic’ is a book that everyone talks about but nobody reads. I had not read Athanasius’ classic until a few months ago. I was surprised at the simplicity and clarity of writing. Although to say this is a book about the incarnation is limiting. Athanasius covers everything from the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, simultaneously explaining the incarnation, life, substitutionary death, resurrection and return of our Savior. And of course the introduction by C. S. Lewis on old books is worth the price of the book (literally!). This is a classic that should be read.
J. Mark Beach, Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions (RHB, 2010). A few excellent study guides for Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion have been published in the past couple of years. And some are still forthcoming (Douglas Wilson will eventually publish his excellent study guide). Beach’s summary oozes with pastoral sensitivities. For an audience that is frightened by the Everest-like size of Calvin’s work and the rock face of 16th century prose style, Beach is the experienced sherpa you want along for the climb. A brilliant book that can broadly benefit the church.
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission (IVP Academic, 2004). I dipped into this 2-volume book a few times throughout the year and was impressed at its breadth and its detail. Schnabel has an encyclopedic mind and he traces the expansion of the church beginning with Jesus and the twelve disciples (vol 1) to Paul and the early church (vol 2). If you are interested in how God’s church has expanded in the NT, this 2,000-page work is a trove of biblical, historical, and archeological information relevant to biblical missiology. And he excels at applying early church history to contemporary topics in missiological discussions. If you want to learn about church planting and missions from a reliable Bible scholar, Schnabel is your man.
ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition (Crossway, 2010). This is an outstanding book on taking risks and shooting big for God’s glory. “Risk always leads us to experience God in a deeper way. This is by design. Risk rescues us from misplaced security by anchoring us in the eternal” (180). The boost of motivation I experienced while reading this book was a key factor in my decision to write my own book. Dave’s message is very important, and especially for any Christian who dreams big for the glory of God. And it’s for any Christian who has never dreamt big. This is a horizon-expanding book.
Samuel Ward, Living Faith (Banner, 2008). A short 96-page booklet that is loaded with wisdom. Whenever I travel I keep this little book in my backpack. “It is sad to see a Christian pursuing joy in coarse and earthly pleasures when he has more noble and angelical delights, second only in degree and manner of enjoyment to heaven itself. Our faith takes us to the third heaven. We roll and tumble our souls in beds of roses, that is, our meditations of justification, sanctification, and salvation through Christ” (p. 30). This book makes a great gift, too.
Charles J. Daudert, Off the Record with Martin Luther: An Original Translation of the Table Talks (Hansa-Hewlett, 2009). Off the Record is a handy collection of Luther’s off-cuff statements, freshly translated from German into English and collected into topics. The chapter on “Advice to Pastors” is very good (pp. 205–240). The publisher includes a download URL in the introduction for those readers who wish to read Luther’s most racy comments. I posted more details about this book on Justin Taylor’s blog this summer.
Danny E. Olinger, A Geerhardus Vos Anthology: Biblical and Theological Insights Alphabetically Arranged (P&R, 2005). This book is not new but very useful when I want to quickly find Vos’ punch line on just about any theological topic. This book is a collection of brilliant quotes, organized topically. If I ever meet Olinger, I will give him a bear hug, lift him from the ground, and spin him in a circle! It’s that good.
Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Gallup, 2007). This book is built around an online test that gauges personal strengths. The test revealed my five personal strengths after completing a 20-minute multiple-choice test. This simple exercise was life-focusing (no hyperbole!). The results of this test have helped bring clarity to my daily priorities and direction to the long-term goals that I set. The test and the book also helped me discover personal weaknesses. By seeing these weaknesses I can better appreciate the co-laborers that God has placed in my life. The test, and the direction offered in the book, has been incredibly encouraging, humbling, and helpful.
Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 2010). For years I have benefited from Peter O’Brien’s commentaries on Colossians, Ephesians, and Philippians. In 2010 O’Brien gave us a commentary on Hebrews. I studied this commentary in my devotional times and was richly blessed by my deepening appreciation for the work of the Savior. This is a wonderful commentary.
Gary A. Stringer, editor, The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, Volume 7, Part 1: The Holy Sonnets (Indiana Univ., 2005). Donne’s sonnets are brief but devotionally rewarding. To study the sonnets in greater detail I use this commentary. Just about every substantive comment ever published by a scholar on the sonnets has been collected into this “comprehensive digest.” Studying this commentary has made Donne’s sonnets come alive in striking depth, color, and detail. Commentaries like this one do more than provide information for the reader, they inform our interpretation, and they sharpen our ability to read other poetry.
Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, The Lord of The Rings: A Reader’s Companion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005). This is a paragraph-by-paragraph commentary of The Lord of the Rings. It is paginated to the retypeset 50th anniversary edition of LOTR. This commentary offers valuable background information that only the nerdiest Tolkien fans would ever discover without assistance. This beautifully designed commentary illuminates many details and helps me better appreciate the LOTR storyline.
Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Fortress, 2000). A huge biography (1,050 pages) written with detail, clarity, and warmth, reflecting the close relationship the author enjoyed with Bonhoeffer. I have completed about 30-percent of this book so far, choosing to read it slowly on Sunday mornings between devotions and breakfast. Bonhoeffer was brilliant, and Bethge proves to have been a faithful and capable biographer. I look forward to waking early on Sundays to meet with Bethge.
Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale, 2009). This is another biography that is ‘in progress.’ Gordon has done a fine job bringing Calvin to life in this book. Here is what struck me from the beginning: Gordon applauds Calvin’s genius and his theological contributions without glossing his failures. This is an honest biography of a spiritual giant, which is evident from the book’s opening words: “John Calvin was the greatest Protestant reformer of the sixteenth century, brilliant, visionary and iconic. The superior force of his mind was evident in all that he did. He was also ruthless, and an outstanding hater.” I don’t think I could have put this book down if not for a writing deadline that slapped this book from my hands.
BOOKS ENJOYED WITH THE FAMILY
Stephen J. Nichols, The Church History ABCs: Augustine and 25 Other Heroes of the Faith (Crossway, 2010). Teach kids church history and make them laugh, too? This brilliant book raises the standard for Christian books written for little munchkins. No child is too young to be introduced to pillars of church history like Zacharias Ursinus.
Sally Lloyd-Jones, Jesus Storybook Bible, Deluxe Edition (Zonderkidz, 2009). The deluxe edition includes an audio CD of the entire book, which our kids have listened to many times while riding around in the car or listening at night before bed. This audio version has made a deep impact in the lives of our kids. We are on our third copy of the book (they get trashed from heavy use in our home).
Peter J. Leithart, Wise Words: Family Stories That Bring the Proverbs to Life (Canon Press, 2003). The book is a collection of brief fantasy stories, that each illustrate a particular Proverb. Leithart is an imaginative writer and these short stories are loaded with allegorical biblical inferences. I know of nothing like it, and few books have gained more widespread appreciation from the kids. After dinner we read a chapter from this book as a family.
So that’s my list of 30 favorite reads from 2010.
Tell me, what were a few of your favorite books from the past year?
Starting today I’ll be enjoying a three-day writing/reading retreat. During the retreat I hope to edit a number of the chapters in my forthcoming book and enjoy reading a few favorite authors. Here’s what I’ll be working on over these days (from the bottom-up):
My manuscript. That stack of pages on the bottom is a version of my manuscript. I hope to edit the final nine chapters (6–15) this weekend. The manuscript is due in 50 days and at this stage, more than anything else, I am sharpening the prose style, smoothing out any lumpy-flow-issues, and taking time to address notes and questions from editors.
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear in The RSC Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pgs 2004–2073. Last week I received this newly edited version of Shakespeare’s works (1623 First Folio ed.) and I’m impressed with the clear and abundant footnotes and the penetrating introductions. I find this edition is far more helpful than other collections I own (ie Riverside). I was delighted to read portions of The Tempest last week. This weekend I’ll skip over to KL.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition (University Of Chicago, 2010). I will flip through the new manual to learn things I should have learned in English class but didn’t because I wasn’t paying attention. At this stage in my book writing I’ll need to invest time formatting all the knotty ends that have been largely neglected (footnotes).
John Newton, The Works of the Rev. John Newton: Vol. 1 (London, 1820). Apart from the letters in the New Testament, no other personal letters more consistently edify my soul than those from Newton’s hand. This weekend I plan to read and study three of his letters more closely, each from the first volume in his six-volume works. I plan to share these letters on the blog early next week.
Frans Bengtsson, The Long Ships (NYRB Classics, 2010). A recent re-release of two Viking tales originally published in Sweedish in 1941 and 1945, translated into English in 1954, combined into one novel, and then fell out of print and was forgotten for a while. The book is now back in print. TLS is an absorbing read and provides a sobering look into the savagery of the 10th century Viking world. I’ve rowed for 75 pages. 400 to go.
Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Counterpoint, 2000). Just arrived. The book opens with a line from King Lear: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” Berry is profound, although the reader knows what to expect: “…under various suasions of profession and personality, this legitimate faith in scientific methodology seems to veer off into a kind of religious faith in the power of science to know all things and solve all problems, whereupon the scientists may become an evangelist and go forth to save the world” (p. 19). Berry always makes the true Savior more beautiful in my eyes, and he tightens my clinch on the grace of God that I need to survive this mystery called life, although I don’t recall him ever mentioning Christ in a meaningful way. Often the great authors are marked by their influence that can slowly and subtly and permanently change your outlook on the world (eg Marilynne Robinson).
So that’s a bit about my weekend which has now officially begun at 5:30 AM on Saturday morning.
But first, personal devo’s.
Sometimes I like to post excerpts from literature simply because I think they model great prose skill, like this excerpt from a historical novel set in WW2, The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. Wouk fought in the Pacific and his portrayals of the war have been acclaimed for their realism and accuracy. This quote is taken from near the end of The Winds of War, and takes place after the Pearl Harbor invasion (p. 884):
The darkness was merciful to Pearl Harbor. The smashed battleships were invisible. Overhead a clear starry black sky arched, with Orion setting in the west, and Venus sparkling in the east, high above a narrow streak of red. Only the faintest smell of smoke on the sea breeze hinted at the gigantic scene of disaster below. But the dawn brightened, light stole over the harbor, and soon the destruction and the shame were unveiled once more. At first the battleships were merely vague shapes, but even before all the stars were gone, one could see the Pacific Battle Force, a crazy dim double line of sunken hulks along Ford Island—and first in the line, the U.S.S. California.
Victor Henry turned his face from the hideous sight to the indigo arch of the sky, where Venus and the brightest stars still burned: Sirius, Capella, Procyon, the old navigation aids. The familiar religious awe came over him, the sense of a Presence above this pitiful little earth. He could almost picture God the Father looking down with sad wonder at this mischief. In a world so rich and lovely, could his children find nothing better to do than to dig iron from the ground and work it into vast grotesque engines for blowing each other up? Yet this madness was the way of the world. He has given all his working years to it. Now he was about to risk his very life at it. Why?
That is a picturesque and moving scene, one of many from Wouk’s writings. I look forward to reading his better-known War and Remembrance sometime in 2011 (DV), but after reading this article in The Paris Review I decided that my next historical fiction read would be The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson, which I hope to begin this weekend.
Are you reading any good literature? Did you read a great book earlier this summer? If you have any great excerpts to share please post those in the comments for us all to enjoy.
Book writing is still at full-throttle pace for me, and it’s been that way for all of January and February. I have completed the rough drafts of the thickest theological chapters (1-6) and have now shifted my attention to writing the much more practical—and much less intense—chapters (7-14). And since the intensity of writing has dropped off a tad I’ve decided to intensify the reading. For this season I have decided to focus on theology.
Here’s my current list:
• Brooke Foss Westcott, The Victory of the Cross (Macmillan, 1888). I found this old gem on the bottom shelf in a dusty used book warehouse in DC. It’s a collection of sermons from a noted bible scholar and the Bishop of Durham, on the topic of the cross. I completed it the other day. The book fed my soul. I’ve quoted from it on the blog in the recent past and plan to post a couple other excerpts soon enough. You can read it online for free here.
• Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (WJK, 2005). The book was written to encourage the church see the relevance of theology. Already I like what I read: “he who is tired of doctrine is tired of life, for doctrine is the stuff of life” (xiii). Nice. Also, he writes that theology is essential because it helps us (1) cope with life, (2) celebrate the activity of God, (3) communicate the works of God inside and outside the church, and to (4) criticize what is false. Vanhoozer’s goal in this book is to present theology as a drama, which seems fitting enough at first glance. Whether or not I’ll end up biting on the theo-drama approach I cannot say this early. But any book that emphasizes the seriousness of theology in the Christian life is worth reading. Alister McGrath says this book is “essential reading for all concerned with the nature and future of doctrine.” That’s me!
• Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (Fortress, 1993). Of all the branches of theology I think eschatology is the most underdeveloped. Not that there aren’t a lot of books that bicker about things like timelines, because those are plentiful. I mean books that seriously explain how eschatology informs the Christian life, how it protects us from worldly thinking, and how our future hope—not merely our past memory—shapes our theology and our priorities as Christians. I’ve only begun reading but I’ve eaten at café Tübingen before and they serve only lobster, a dish with hardly enough exegetical meat feed a man or to justify the time, the effort, or the price. Having read Moltmann in the past I cannot endorse the book or paste quotes from it on this here blog.
• John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. I continue to plug away at the Institutes. Is there a better work of theology? Nope, not even my man Herman comes close to Calvin. My goal is to reread The Institutes cover-to-cover in 16 months. Right now I’m focused on 2.2.1–2.13.1 (or 1.255-475) where Calvin focuses in on free will, depravity, the law, and the mediator. Calvin is so relevant to our modern questions. Like what is the purpose behind the Lord sending earthquakes? Calvin has articulated the clearest and most careful answer to this question that I’ve read (see 1.17.1). Rich and relevant.
• Martin Luther, Off The Record With Martin Luther (Hansa-Hewlett, 2009). For fun I’ve been reading this new translation of Luther’s Table Talk. I’m tempted to quote my favorite excerpts but that would get me into trouble. This is a wonderful collection of colorful quotes from Luther’s free-tongued dinner conversations over meat, potatoes, and a mug.
So that’s what I am reading at the moment. How about yourself? I love hearing from you, and especially if what you are reading is less nerdy.
For a bibliophile (me) reading an exceptional book is satisfying, if for no other reason than because outstanding books are so uncommon. But to finish one superb book and begin another in the same night—to go back-to-back—is quite a rush, quite a blessing, quite a rarity. Yet that’s what happened recently when I read the final page and closed the cover to The Killer Angels and picked up and began page 1 of Evening in the Palace of Reason.
For his historical novel of the battle at Gettysburg—The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War (Modern Library, 2004)—Michael Shaara was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. This book left me with munition dust in my hair and dirt on my face and a cold downpouring thunderstorm washing over the final quieted battle scene. Shaara’s concluding words were the perfect capstone to his literary feat, a work filmmaker Ken Burns would later write, “changed my life.” It was very good.
Quoteworthy 1: In the final paragraph of The Killer Angels, the bloody closing day of battle has finished and all is quiet. Shaara writes—
The light rain went on falling on the hills above Gettysburg, but it was only the overture to the great storm to come. Out of the black night it came at last, cold and wild and flooded with lightning. The true rain came in a monster wind, and the storm broke in blackness over the hills and the bloody valley; the sky opened along the ridge and the vast water thundered down, drowning the fires, flooding the red creeks, washing the rocks and the grass and the white bones of the dead, cleansing the earth and soaking it thick and rich with water and wet again with clean cold rainwater, driving the blood deep into the earth, to grow again with the roots toward Heaven. It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July. [p. 330]
With the rain still falling in my imagination, I grabbed Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (HarperCollins, 2005) by James R. Gains, the former managing editor of People, Life, and Time magazines. He sets the stage for a clash of worldviews: a Lutheran, theologically-minded musician (Bach) against one enraptured with the enlightenment (Frederick the Great) for a single meeting one evening in 1757 where “belief collided with the cold certainty of reason.” The story is masterfully retold.
Quoteworthy 2: For a little taste (or smell), here are a few of Gains’ words from an early chapter in Evening in the Palace of Reason—
For all its spires and watchtowers and red-roofed houses, its cobblestoned market square bordered by church, town hall, and castle, the residents of Eisenach would not have called their hometown charming. To get a sense of Eisenach as it was when Sebastian Bach was a boy, one must conjure up the scent of animal dung from the livestock that shared its streets and walkways, the putrid breeze that wafted from the fish market and slaughterhouse in the square, and, under those red-tiled roofs, a general atmosphere strongly redolent of life before plumbing. The homes of all but Eisenach’s wealthiest residents were small—close and hot in the summer, frigid and smoky in winter—and crowded. … What Eisenach had in great abundance, the solace and balm of its six thousand souls, was music. … [pp. 39–40]
Two excellent excerpts from two books written by masters who paint through their prose.
For the past month I have not read much of anything. Hard to believe, I know. I’ve taken these summer weeks off to hang at the pool with my family rather than read intensely. The break has been invigorating (Ecc 12:12). But routines are good and this week I dive back into my reading routine.
Of all the reading schedules I’ve developed this one is the most eclectic. Over the next few weeks I will studying theology as usual, but also reading to better understand ancient myth, its cultural value, and whether there is value in Christians reading pagan myths (and what that might be). Apart from a few essays by C.S. Lewis on myth, this is largely a new field of reading for me. A couple of books on the art of reading and marking in books will be included in this round. Theologically, I’ve chosen several books and commentaries, most of which I will not be devouring slowly but scanning quickly to determine their relevance and importance.
I should note that over the months several blog readers have sent along gracious gift certificates to subsidize my reading habit (ie addiction). You support helps make this all this reading possible (ie enabled). From me to you: Thank you!
With that introduction, here is my next round of books:
MYTH AND MYTH MAKERS
The Tolkien Reader by J.R.R. Tolkien (Del Rey, 1962; 272 pgs). Specifically his chapter “On Fairy-Stories.” This book is the cheapest means to this essay.
An Experiment in Criticism by Lewis, C.S. (Cambridge, 1992; 151 pgs). Several important chapters on myth I need to read.
The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs (HarperOne, 2008; 348 pgs).
Mythology by Edith Hamilton (Back Bay, 1998; 512 pgs).
The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Pantheon, 1981; 320 pgs).
Classic Myths to Read Aloud: Greek and Roman Myth by William F. Russell (Three Rivers, 1992; 272 pgs).
ON BOOKS AND READING
How to Read Slowly by James Sire (Shaw, 2000; 192 pgs). How can I resist a book with such a counter-cultural title?
Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books by H.J. Jackson (Yale University, 2002; 336 pgs). I write in my books and I’d like to learn about others who did this, too. Why’d they do it? How’d they do it?
THEOLOGY AND COMMENTARIES
The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation + Human Nature by Reinhold Niebuhr (Westminster John Knox, 1996; 684 pgs). A classic theology I hear mentioned frequently, but have not read. I do intend to read this cover-to-cover.
A Biblical History of Israel by Iain W. Provan, V. Philips Long, Tremper Longman, and Philips V. Long (Westminster John Knox, 2003; 416 pgs). In preparation for a fall class with Longman on the biblical theology of the Old Testament (RTS-DC).
Plowshares & Pruning Hooks: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic by D. Brent Sandy (IVP, 2002; 228 pgs). A friend recommended this as a book on prophetic and apocalyptic imagery in the Bible. It does look very good.
Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Faith by Christopher J. H. Wright (IVP Academic, 1994; 160 pgs). Always a topic of interest.
Psalms: Expositor’s Bible Commentary by Willem A. VanGemeren (Zondervan, 2008; 1024 pgs). Recently redone, this is a single-volume commentary on the entire book of Psalms that has received high marks. Doing nothing more with it than scanning it to become familiar with the work.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians [NIGTC] by Anthony C. Thiselton (Eerdmans, 2000; 1424 pgs). Deeply appreciate everything written by Thiselton. Scanning this commentary.
Second Epistle To The Corinthians [NIGTC] by Murray J. Harris (Eerdmans, 2005; 1000 pgs). Very thankful for the writings of Harris. Merely scanning this commentary.
This is my first digest since April, so it’s a bit long. My goal in posting my reading is not to impress you, but to hopefully encourage you to read more, and to point your bibliographic antennae in the direction of books you may find useful, informative, and edifying.
And, as always, I’d love to hear what you’re reading. Let me know in the comments.
Galatians (personal devotions).
Galatians 5:6 (family devotions). We have been meditating on a single passage that wonderfully boils down the two main components of the Christian life—faith in God (vertical) and love towards others (horizontal). “Faith working through love” has become our mantra in family worship, the theme of our recent conversations, our mutual aspiration. … Also, last night we started reading The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.
RECENTLY READ, CURRENTLY READING …
The Epistle to the Galatians (NICNT) by Ronald Y. K. Fung (Eerdmans, 1998, 342 pgs). Fung’s commentary is the most readable technical work on Galatians, a feast for the mind, and spark for the soul’s meditation. It’s not too much to say that this book models how technical commentaries on Paul’s Epistles should be constructed.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (Everyman’s Library, 1993, 110 pgs). Considered to be one of the most unrelenting fiction works. At a recent dinner with biblical counselor, David Powlison told me that here in this book Conrad stares directly into the pit of human heart. Reading this dark realism reminds me of the darkness of this sinful world, darkness the gospel has arrived to redeem sinners from, a darkness that remains the only alternative path apart from faith in Christ.
The Infinite Merit of Christ: The Glory of Christ’s Obedience in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards by Craig Biehl (Reformed Academic, 2009, 2009, 250 pgs). I’ve read so many average books about Edwards’ theology I often wonder why I don’t just read more of Edwards! Not with Biehl. In this monumental synthesis, Biehl weaves together 800 direct quotations into a breathtaking, overarching framework of Edwards’ theology. And at the center of that framework stands the person and work of Jesus Christ. Majestic in scope, clarity, and organization, Biehl has made the center of Edwards’ theological framework more explicable to my little brain. This is one of the most important works published this year and a defining volume in the cottage industry of books on Edwards’ theology.
Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions by John S. Hammond (Broadway, 2002, 256 pgs). Hammond’s book is worthwhile. In it he provides a clear system for digging to the bottom of important questions (a crucial, but often neglected, first step in making decisions) and then works toward assembling multiple creative solutions. I found his principles a bit rigid and sometimes overly structured, but the case study examples are packed with creativity and innovative thinking. These examples keep the book moving at a steady pace.
5 Minds for the Future by Howard Gardner (Harvard Business, 2008, 196 pgs). Gardner, an influential intellectual, argues that successful minds of the future will intermix the following five skills or “minds”—disciplined, synthesizing, creative, respectful, and ethical. I myself am a synthesizer. And from what Gardner says, this is an important skill in the information swamp we now live. A helpful book.
Heralds of God by James S. Stewart (Hodder & Stoughton, 1946, 222 pgs). Cross-centered books on preaching are not numerous, so I appreciate any volume, even an old one like Stewart. He does a fine job connecting the preacher’s priorities to the Cross. A little book now long out of print.
The Preacher: His Life and Work by J. H. Jowett (Harper & Bros, 1912, 239 pgs). Very similar outline and flow to Stewart. Jowett displays a great sense of the splendor and particulars of the preacher’s life and ministry. Also short, worth finding, and now long out of print.
The Life of Alexander Whyte by G. F. Barbour (Hodder & Stoughton, 1924, 675 pgs). Barbour has a gift for locating, extracting, and reproducing many devotional bits from the life and ministry of the famous Scottish preacher. I have enjoyed pouring over the yellow, musty, Deckle-edged pages of this classic biography. Also out of print, unfortunate for such a superb model of Christian biography.
A Geerhardus Vos Anthology edited by Danny E. Olinger (P&R, 2005, 375 pgs). Vos is not remembered as a man of the one-liner, spouting off zingers from the hip to satiate the thronging masses. But he was one of the Church’s greatest biblical theologians. And sadly his pointed wisdom can get lost in the thicket of his dense prose. Olinger rummaged Vos’ writings and excavated hundreds of terse theological quotes on topics ranging from communion with God, the kingdom, pride, etc. His quotes are arranged alphabetically by topic. No student of Reformed theology should be without this collection. Useful, informative, and often devotional.
A digest of my current reading diet.
Proverbs 4. Studying this chapter on my own, with my son, and together for family worship. Stressing the importance of watching over our hearts to ensure our affections are not drawn towards worldliness.
CURRENTLY READING …
Say It Ain’t So Joe!: The True Story of Shoeless Joe Jackson by Donald Gropman (30%, 2.80 stars). Because baseball is in the air and Joe Jackson is a celebrated hitter from my favorite era (1900-1920). Gropman reveals the many features of Jackson’s skills, his incredible power at the plate, and his ability to toss a baseball over 400 feet in the air (no fielder in the baseball could match his throwing distance)! Yet the author allows the flaws to come forward, too, and appears he will not make SJJ out to be a helpless victim of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Although he did not intentionally lose World Series games (which is statistically obvious), Jackson was aware of the scandal and did nothing to stop it. Thus far this book is balanced and enjoyable. Read selections from the book here.
The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis (25%, 4.00 stars). In this excellent collection of essays I have been carefully studying “The Weight of Glory” and “Transposition.” Although I am not terribly familiar with Lewis, I have found him especially gifted in articulating the places where spiritual reality meets natural reality. Lewis opens my dim eyes to see the work of God in ways I previously missed… His thoughts on metaphor-as-reality are striking as well, although these thoughts are developed in other books.
A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C.S. Lewis by Clyde Kilby (20%, 4.50 stars). A collection of Lewis’s greatest quotes on all theological topics of consideration. “This book is so good,” John Piper said in 1970, “you won’t be able to finish it without putting it down.” As I’ve experienced myself. A precious little anthology of Lewis at his best.
The Christology of John Owen by Richard Daniels (15%, 4.00 stars). Daniels has written a masterful comprehensive Christology of Puritan theologian John Owen. To balance, I’ve been reading slowly from Owen on the difference between faith in Christ and our sight of Christ (1:374-389). A slow read, part of my morning devos.
The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume 3: A Christian View of Spirituality (15%, 3.80 stars). On his blog recently, Justin Taylor quoted from the book, No Little People, and my friend CB is reading True Spirituality. Schaeffer, I believe, was at his best behind the pulpit. Both books are comprised of sermons delivered at L’Abri and are included in volume 3 of Schaeffer’s works. My devo time has been richly reward by these sermons/books. A slow read, part of my morning devos.
A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White, Jr. (30%, 3.00 stars). A spanking new, highly endorsed, biography of president Lincoln. A hearty 900-page volume that has received at least one negative review (Weekly Standard), but the more I read the less I agree with that criticism and the more I enjoy this definitive bio. Slow read, being a nightstand book.
Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte (35%, 3.40 stars). Collection of over 1,000 sentences from the writings of the modern literary greats, organized topically, with syntactical exegesis to expound the stylistic construction of each sentence. I love the organization, the format, and the depth of explanation. Few books on style are as valuable. Artful Sentences is a rare book that excels at explaining abstract style within concrete examples straight from the pages of modern literature. You’ve seen this book on my list for a while and it’s not a book I’m trying to complete quickly.
RECENTLY COMPLETED …
The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone (15%, 2.50 stars). The ornamented world of Renaissance Italy is recreated by Stone in this ‘historical novel,’ praised for its research and historical detail (the author studied all 495 known letters written by Michelangelo). The author zooms in from the period to focus on the artistic tensions and life of M., whose sculpting is genius and a small miracle. His aristocratic family was not keen on the idea of son pursuing art, his father apparently hated the idea of a son working with his hands, and was appalled that he would chip rocks with a chisel. Sculpting had passed its height in Italy and there were no gifted sculptor mentors. Yet M. followed his inner conviction that he was created to sculpt. A captivating story of divine artistic gifting. Will pick this up as a summer read.
Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds by Chris Brauns (50%, 3.50 stars). Good book on how Christians forgive others. Written with immediate application in mind. Explains the fascinating (and I think biblical) concept of forgiving others for their sin only when they ask for forgiveness and not before. Good book but leaving it aside for now.
Our Reasonable Faith by Herman Bavinck (30%, 5.00 stars). My favorite condensed systematic theology noted for its theological splendor and for moments of breakout doxology. This is my go-to volume for rich, slow-paced theological learning. I’ll pick this up later in the fall.
ON THE DOCKET …
Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch. Dipped into this book on a recent flight, long enough to know this is a book I want to read cover-to-cover.
Revising Prose (5th Edition) by Richard A. Lanham. Recently heard great things about this (overpriced) book on editing. My training in the fine art of self-editing will never be completed.
Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions by John S. Hammond. It took me a while to decide between paperback and hardcover but I flipped a coin and went paperback. Decision making is an area I can improve and this book comes highly recommended.
Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works Bernard of Clairvaux (Paulist Press edition). After reading Dr. Daniel Akin’s PhD dissertation on the soteriology of Bernard last year, I more greatly appreciated the medieval theologian’s evangelical understanding of the atonement and his penetrating spirituality. Dipping into Bernard for myself has been a personal goal for a while. This little collection will provide a suitable initiation.
J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter. Comes recommended and looks very interesting.