Here’s a rundown of the 8 books I read in October. You might be wondering, “Hey Jeff, why don’t I see a library book?” Don’t worry. I have not failed in my endeavor to read library books. I simply did not finish the book I check out this month. I renewed the checkout and I’ll finish it in a day or two. You’ll see it on next month’s log. Happy reading!
The Transforming Power of Grace by Thomas Oden
I learned of this book from Roger Olson, a professor from my seminary days and the author of numerous volumes that have been extremely beneficial to forming my theological perspective. I agree with Olson in that this slim volume is the best argument for an Arminian soteriology. It is a mere 208 pages but the paragraphs are thick and dense.
The Calvinist perspective on soteriology is present in popular and academic systematic theology texts alike. This is a tremendous counterbalance. The book is comprised of five parts:
- Part One: Grace in Spiritual Formation
- Part Two: The Reach and Depth of the Forming
- Part Three: How Grace Becomes Freedom
- Part Four: On Predestination and the Permission of Recalcitrance
- Part Five: When the History of Grace Meets the Mystery of Personal Choice
Oden leaves no stone unturned, digging into the finer nuances of the subject and also interacting with opposing views. Most important to me, he provides a substantial understanding of prevenient grace. This theological concept is often neglected or poorly described by the Calvinist perspective. While definitely an academic work, this work is not beyond the reach of the laymen. Yet, it is no walk in the park. It will require a pen, a pad, your thinking cap, and a number of Google searches.
Biblical Ethics: A Guide to the Ethical Message of Scriptures from Genesis through Revelation by TB Maston
Maston is a legend among Baptist. From 1922-1963, Dr. Maston was professor of Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. He was a key figure in the seminary and baptist life in general. This book represents him well.
The title and subtitle of this book is pinpoint accurate. Maston provides a slow walk through the law, the prophets, the writings, the synoptic gospels, the Pauline epistles, and the Johannine literature examining the ethical implications and ethical realities. He even includes a chapter on the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The writing is clear and concise. The conclusion are solid and extremely helpful. This book, paired with Hay’s Moral Vision of the New Testament, provide a great introductory course on Biblical ethics.
I love these lines from the preface, “The writing of this book has also seemed from a conviction that an outstanding weakness, if not the outstanding weakness, of contemporary Christianity is ethical or moral. These are many factors contributing to this weakness, but a major one is the tendency to separate faith from daily living, theology, from ethics.”
He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testament of Faith by Walter Ciszek with Daniel Flaherty
This is a tremendous memoir and one that haunted me for the month of October. I read the first 100 pages in a day. I then had to read the remaining pages at a much slower pace. It was spiritually grueling to read of Ciszek’s faithfulness in the midst of unjust suffering.
Ciszek was captured by the Russians during World War II and convicted of being a “Vatican spy.” The book details his 23 agonizing years in Soviet prisons and labor camps of Siberia. It is a tremendous look at persecution. It is a even greater look at faith. Along the way, you learn many lessons on the providence of God.
The greatest value of the book for me was the opening pages of Ciszek discerning his call to ministry in Russia. You read of him struggling with the discernment process. We’ve all been there, huh? Yet, Ciszek sticks with it long enough and leans in to God hard enough, that he makes a faithful decision.
Unlike works of fiction, God does not pave the road ahead of him. The road of faithfulness was hard, bumpy, and included arrest, prison, labor camp, and more. After detailing his imprisonment, Ciszek offers a handful of chapters that attempt to put a theological bow on the experience. Simply powerful.
The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mind-shift that Changes Everything by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne
Pastors … pick this one up. Marshall and Payne explain ministry as a mix of trellis and vine work. Unfortunately, many of us focus on the trellis. Trellis work is the upkeep of the church. You know, maintaining the organization and running the programs. On the other hand, vine work is Great Commission labor. You know, the stuff you actually signed up to do. What if we could spend the vast majority of our time in prayer, preaching and teaching the Scriptures, discipling people into maturity, and training our leaders to be disciple makers?
Without providing 5 easy steps or a blueprint, the authors provide helpful suggestions on how to move away from trellis work and towards vine work. The biggest task is a shift in mindset. Marshall and Payne discuss the needed shifts:
- From running programs to building people
- From running events to training people
- For using people to growing people
- From filling gaps to training new workers.
- From solving problems to helping people make progress
- Form clinging to ordained ministry to developing team leadership
- From focusing on church polity to forging ministry partnerships
- From relying on training institutions to establishing local training
- From engaging in management to engaging in ministry
- From seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth
I’m sure many of can scream “Ouch!” just by reading those headings. A great illustration of the needed shift is to imagine a reasonably solid Christian approaching you after church as saying, “Look, I’d like to get more involved here and make a contribution, but I just feel like there’s nothing for me to do.” What would you think or say? Would you immediately start thinking of some event or program that they could help with? Some job that need done? That’s a symptom of the problem.
The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible’s Truth About Life to Come by Scot McKnight
I recently picked this book up for one dollar. I rarely pass up a McKnight book. A McKnight book for a buck? Here. Take my money.
McKnight provides a readable book on Heaven that is theologically sound while also practically relevant. It answers the questions people want answered without speculation or endless reasoning or technical and theological detail. It is just enough. I would have no problem recommending this book to the lay persons.
The beauty of the book is the premise. As the title suggests, McKnight focuses on the fact that God promised us heaven. That means we can rest assured that he will deliver upon that promise. The book is comprised of four parts:
- The Heaven Question
- The Heaven Promise
- God’s Six Promises About Heaven
- Ten Questions About Heaven
Simple enough. The questions in part four include: What about near death experiences? What about rewards in heaven? Who will be in heaven? Will there be family? What about cremation? All questions I’ve received countless times in my pastoral role.
All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir by Brennan Manning with John Blase
I reread this book due to seeing it quoted in the McKnight’s book about heaven logged above. Tragically, Manning died in 2013 in a poor state of health and mind. This volume is a reflection of his life and ministry, written while he suffered from “wet brain” from chronic alcoholism. Philip Yancey wrote the forward to the book. Yancey writes,
As you read this memoir you may be tempted, as I am, to think “Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t given into drink.” I urge you to reframe the thought to, “Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t discovered grace.”
Like many things, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Manning’s ministry was greatly diminished by his lies and battle with alcohol. Among many things it cost him a marriage and his health (this book was written with great assistance). Yet, you can’t help but see the grace of God through this memoir. God never gave up on Manning. As I often say, it is great to learn from mistakes … but you don’t have to be the one that makes them. This book is a fabulous read. Allow Manning to teach you about failure and grace. Avoid his failure at all cost but seek the grace he found and the grace that saved him.
Prince Caspian (The Chronicles of Narnia) by CS Lewis
I did not grow up reading The Chronicles of Narnia. I first read them while in college after the motion picture of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was released. I sat in the theatre mesmerized by the imagery. I knew I had missed out on something. I immediately went to my local bookstore and picked up a massive one volume edition of the series. I began reading. I think I’ve read through each book three times. I have read the first three books with my daughter. I look forward to her falling in love with the stories … and more importantly … the Christ of which they speak
I picked up Prince Caspian this month when I found the series, in single volume editions, while cleaning out a closet in the church. Many people frown up Prince Caspian but for some strange reason I find it to be one of my favorites. It is simple. It is fun. My favorite exchange from the book:
“Welcome, Prince,’ said Aslan. ‘Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?’ I – I don’t think I do, Sir,’ said Caspian. ‘I am only a kid.’ Good,’ said Aslan. ‘If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been proof that you were not.”
I have no need to say anything more about the series. If you’ve read them, you know they are amazing. If you’ve not read them, stop what your doing …
Gospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant by Ken Ham
This book was unsolicited but mailed to the church office addressed to the pastor. It is a book I would never choose to read but I picked it up and ended up finishing it one sitting. Ken Ham is of Answers in Genesis and the Ark Encounter fame. This book, seemingly a promo piece for those organizations, was an attempt to address our current culture climate and also defend the gospel. Ultimately, Ham fails at both.
When Ham speaks of culture he mostly rails against Millennials. According to most definitions, Millennials are those born approximately between 1982 and 2002. I’m never a fan of such conversations. Like Ham’s book, such conversation are usually filled with wide, broad generalizations. These generalization usually speak to the worst case examples and often neglect the best case examples and the voluminous examples of the in-between. Here’s another problem I have with such conversation: As one born in 1983, I fit into the definition of a Millennial! Here’s yet another problem I have with such conversation: Those who rail against Millennials, often are the parents of Millennials! The finger pointing needs to be replaced with self reflection.
Ham, in attempting to “reset” the gospel, continually preaches a truncated gospel. He starts in Genesis 3, jumps right to the cross, and then sometimes makes a jump to Revelation 21. I bring this up because the main thrust of the book is that we live in a culture that is biblically illiterate. He argues that we need to effectively preach the gospel in such a culture. Yet, he offers a choppy, truncated gospel that I don’t think answers the questions that the culture is asking of us. You can be faithful to the Bible while seeking to answer the posed questions: What does it mean to love my neighbor? What does it mean to love and be loved? How do we take care of the poor? What about injustice? The Bible provides great answers to these questions. The answers are a great onramp to the saving message of Jesus Christ that is much bigger and more beautiful than an elevator pitch of the gospel message.
Throughout the book Ham longs for the days when prayer was allowed in school and teachers taught the Bible. With that sentiment I want to offer up my own anecdote. I did not grow up attending church and only knew pop culture references to the Bible. Yet, I grew up in a day and age when the my high school freshman history textbook included a section on Jesus and the history of Christianity (not that long ago). As my history teacher was covering the brith of Jesus, I raised my hand in class and asked, “If Jesus was born in Bethlehem, why was he called Jesus of Nazareth?” It was a legitimate question. I did not know the answer. The teacher shrugged his shoulders. The class was silent. As a pastor, I’d rather Bible teaching be left to faithful followers of God.