“What will they do before the sentence of God?” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (5)

Then Christian said to Hopeful, “If these men cannot stand before the sentence of men, what will they do before the sentence of God? And if they are mute when dealt with by vessels of clay, what will they do when they shall be rebuked by the flames of a devouring fire?”1

Personal reflection

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I remember a conversation with my first pastor about money. At the time, Emily and I had a lot of debt and we were trying to figure out how to pay it off (a little faster than paying a bit at a time). We were brand new Christians, and said, “If we took the money we give and applied it to the debt instead, we could have it cleared in about a year. Would that be okay?”

“No, it wouldn’t be an issue,” he replied. “The problem is you won’t do it.”

“Why?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

I’ll never forget his answer: “You said ‘if.’”

The “if” statements we make when it comes to money reveal a lot about us. If I make more money, then I’ll start giving. If I get the bonus, I’ll make this donation. If this happens, then…

If, if, if.

The problem with the ifs is we use them as an escape from doing what the Lord has already called us to. We know we’re to be generous, but really, we like our stuff better. And it’s a sore spot for us. So when we hear a sermon that talks about money, or when we read a book that describes the radical self-sacrificial nature of the Christian faith, we get our backs up, pull the legalist card and bail.

But the words that confront us—these are the words of men. And we cannot stand before them. How then will we stand “before the sentence of God”? Without a broken and contrite heart, we cannot.

Reading with Ryken

The interaction between the travelers and the worshipers of wealth is a temptation scene par excellence. Here the danger is not external hostility but the allurement of worldly success. The allegorical antagonists are not bullies but qualities (such as Money-love and Save-all) that make life easy in the name of religion. Accordingly, what the conflict requires from Christian is the ability to provide convincing intellectual reasons against the claims that religious people can pursue wealth and success as their highest goals.2

Next time

The next discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters 10 and 11 (I should note: chapter breaks are based on the 2009 Crossway edition).

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. Here are a few questions to help guide our discussion:

  • How does the temptation to live an easy life in the name of religion?
  • Consider 1 John 2:15-17. How do you see John’s warnings exhibited in the worshippers of wealth? Why is this form of worldliness so dangerous?
  • How can you protect yourself from it?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

3 reasons I’m reading more fiction

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When I was a boy, I loved reading (and obviously I still do). I remember going to the mall in St. Albert, Alberta, with my mom and sister one Saturday morning, and as soon as I was able, I beelined for the bookstore and spent all the money I had on a paperback novel. If I remember correctly, it was A Rock and a Hard Place, one of the early Star Trek: The Next Generation tie-in novels.

(Don’t judge me.)

When we got home from the mall, I went up to my room and I started reading. I didn’t finish until the entire book was done. Incidentally, this may have been the most peaceful day of my mother’s entire life as a parent.

All through high school and college, I read tons of fiction and dabbled in non-fiction as I got older (provided the topic was interesting enough). My reasonably eclectic (and sometimes pretentious) tastes always made for interesting late night reading on bus rides home from my college job at a bookstore here in London (Coles in White Oaks Mall, for those interested—it’s now a Bath and Body Works, I believe).

And then, for some reason, I just stopped reading fiction and began almost exclusively reading non-fiction. The genres were, again, pretty varied—business, social commentary, theology, biography—but for nearly a decade, I lived on a steady diet of non-fiction.

A couple of years ago, a co-worker of mine challenged me to change that. So, I did. I spent most of that summer reading fiction, including the Hunger Games series. And I’m really glad I did, because it reminded me how unbalanced my reading had become.

Since then I’ve tried to keep a pretty decent balance of fiction and non-fiction in my literary diet. Here are three reasons why I think it’s a good idea—especially for us yahoos who are really into theology and such—to be reading fiction regularly:

1. It exercises my imagination. One author I really enjoy is Greg Rucka. He’s a genius when it comes to placing you in a real world. Exceptionally well-researched work that gives you all you need to properly picture the scene—whether it’s a Disney-esque theme park, Middle Eastern streets so crammed with people you almost feel claustrophobic, or a small apartment filled with the scent of pancakes and orange juice. When I read his stuff, I get very excited as my mind starts to build the world he describes. It’s the same with series like The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings—good authors know how to make their fictional worlds feel real by giving your imagination enough room to work.

2. Balance is really important. Imagine you only get your news from CNN or FoxNews. You won’t actually be getting the news, you’ll be getting a sensationalized interpretation of said news from one perspective or another. But when you watch or read multiple perspectives on the same story, you begin to get a better picture of the reality of the situation. Our reading habits are like that. When we only read one genre, or a very limited range of genres, we become unbalanced. We start thinking too small, and overlook different possibilities, and kind of bore people when we talk about what we’re reading (because, honestly, it’s a rare person who actually wants to talk with me about a biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones or a book on heretics).

3. It makes me a better writer. I’ve gotta be honest: too many non-fiction writers seem to lack any sort of artistic passion in what they write. They write technically well, but it’s not terribly exciting stuff to read. But good fiction—keep in mind, there’s a bunch of poorly written gobbledygook out there (I’m looking at you, Twilight)—is great art. And good writing—great art—makes me want to write better.

How varied is your reading? What’s one fiction book you want to read?


photo credit: gioiadeantoniis via photopin cc

What’s on your to-read pile?

Every so often I like to share a few titles on my reading pile. Here’s a quick look at what’s currently on tap:

new-books-spring

If you can’t see all the titles, they are:

  • Know the Heretics by Justin Holcomb (Amazon)
  • Know the Creeds and Councils by Justin Holcomb (Amazon)
  • Recovering Redemption by Matt Chandler and Michael Snetzer (Amazon)
  • Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd Jones (Westminster | Amazon)
  • What’s Best Next by Matt Perman (Westminster | Amazon)
  • The Last Run: A Queen and Country Novel by Greg Rucka (Amazon)

What’s on your to-read pile?

“All this is true, and much more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (3)

Apollyon accused, “You almost fainted when you first set out, when you almost choked in the Swamp of Despond. You also attempted to get rid of your burden in the wrong way, instead of patiently waiting for the Prince to take it off. You sinfully slept and lost your scroll, you were almost persuaded to go back at the sight of the lions, and when you talk of your journey and of what you have heard and seen, you inwardly desire your own glory in all you do and say.”

“All this is true, and much more that you have failed to mention,” Christian agreed. “But the Prince whom I now serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive. Besides, these infirmities possessed me while I was in your country, for there I allowed them to come in. But I have groaned under them, have been sorry for them, and have obtained pardon from my Prince.”1

Personal reflection

If I ever flirted with the idea of the Christian life being one of health, wealth and happy relationships, God effectively ripped such notions out of my head and heart very quickly. My earliest weeks as a believer were filled with strife and conflict.

  • Sins I’d committed (all related to speech) were levelled against me.
  • Conflict with family over lifestyle changes created tension.
  • Trying to untangle the mess of Emily’s and my pre-Christian life together into something pleasing to God nagged at us.

This was a time of intense accusation mixed with serious conviction.

I wonder if this is the case for more of us than we think—and I wonder if it’s part of the reason so many get frustrated in their walk with the Lord? There seems to be an assumption that everything should be coming up Milhouse once we put our faith in Jesus. And as soon as anything remotely bad (or mildly inconvenient) comes up, we start shouting, “Why isn’t this working? Where are you, God?”

We forget that the Christian life is a war. It’s a war that’s already one, to be sure, but a war nonetheless. Our enemy is constantly accusing us, and yet we do not need to despair. We win the battle when say with Christian, “All this is true, and much more that you have failed to mention… But the Prince whom I now serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive.”

Reading with Ryken

At a purely narrative level, the two episodes are among Bunyan’s most inspired creations. They take their place among the best of epic and romance adventures and are triumphs of the literary genre known as “fantasy.” Doubtless the book of Revelation was an influence on Bunyan’s imagination when he composed this chapter. The journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is equally heightened, replete with such archetypal details as a place “as dark as pitch” and a narrow path with “a very deep ditch” on one side and “a very dangerous” bog or quagmire on the other. Adventures such as the two in this chapter require a childlike willingness to be terrified by monsters and dangers. C. S. Lewis’s comment on Edmund Spenser’s allegorical poem The Faerie Queene applies equally to Pilgrim’s Progress: it requires a dual response, one childlike and the other sophisticated and able to figure out the allegorical meanings of the details.

On the allegorical level, then, we are given pictures of the power of evil in the form of what the Bible calls “principalities and powers.” Compared to these giant threats, the more subtle obstacles to the Christian faith represented by people named Talkative and Timorous seem rather tame. The dangers through which Christian passes in this chapter are more than human.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters six and seven.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. A few questions and points to consider:

  1. How does Christian’s battle with Apollyon reflect your own experiences as a believer?
  2. What similarities do you see between the physical details of Christian’s adventures to this point and the dangers we face in our spiritual lives?
  3. What means has God given us to overcome these dangers?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

Paper vs pixels revisited

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As y’all know, I tend to get a lot of books in the mail. You know this, in part, because I mention it here and on Twitter (which I hope is not seen as bragging—I’m just genuinely excited when I get mail!). While I love reading a good physical book… but I’m also pretty comfortable reading eBooks, too. In fact, more often than not, when I purchase a book it’s a digital copy (at least initially). I also research using my Logos library, which is super-convenient.

And, a lot of review programs—such as Crossway’s Beyond the Page and Cruciform Press’ review program—are shifting to digital offerings in lieu of physical books. This makes complete sense, especially from a business perspective, because:

  1. Mailing costs are super-expensive (especially when you’re sending books to places like Canada)
  2. It reduces risk, since you can’t always guarantee a reviewer is going to actually read or write about the book being sent (as many who have sent me books know).

My Internet friend Mike Leake (who I look forward to hanging out with at T4G in a couple weeks) reminded me of all this yesterday when he shared four reasons why he still prefers paper to digital. And since it’s been a couple of years since I last shared anything about my personal experience with pixels vs. paper, I thought I’d revisit the subject. So here are four things I’ve found in my experience:

My engagement level is generally about the same. Whether it’s paper or pixels, I tend to give the same consideration to the content—which is to say, careful. I make lots of notes in both formats, underline and highlight many passages, occasionally cross out redundant (or flat-out wrong) passages… How I do it just looks a bit different.

Writing notes is easier in a paper book, definitely (all I need is a pen!). Writing notes in a digital edition sometimes helps me think through my response a little more carefully, in part because of the familiarity of the environment. It comes closer to engaging the way I would in a blog post than when I just scribble in the margins.

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

My retention is different. At the same time, I have noticed that I don’t retain the content I read in an eBook quite the same way I do with a physical one. This is due to “landmarks”—when I’m reading a paper book, I tend to keep an eye on the page number and the paragraph position. I don’t really have those firm landmarks in an eBook, though. The paragraph breaks always remain static, but their position depends on the font size and orientation of my iPad. As a result, I tend to remember where something is, as well as why I thought it was important a little easier with a paper book.

My wife is happier with my digital books. Now, to be clear: my wife actually prefers reading physical books in general. But she prefers me having more digital ones. The reason? It keeps the clutter to a minimum. Our poor bookshelves tend to be double-stacked most of the time, which isn’t terribly helpful to me since I can’t see what’s all there. Now, I know the solution is buy more bookshelves,  but we don’t have space. As a result, I tend to take a lot of books to my office to give away. In the last couple of months alone, I’ve brought in over 50, which my coworkers seem to appreciate. My wife does, too. But with my digital books, there’s nothing to stack or give away. The files are sitting in the cloud or on my iPad, and this is a good thing for my wife’s stress levels.

Physical books feels more special. Now, receiving a book is always great, but I’ll be honest: it feels more special when I receive a physical book. When I come home from work and see Janni or another publicist have sent me something they think I’m going to like, it’s exciting. I realize that’s probably silly, but there you go.

So in the end, where do I find myself in the ongoing paper vs pixels saga?

Paper is more fun, but pixels are more convenient. But in the end end, as long as the content is great, the format doesn’t bother me too much. How about you?

“It fell to be seen no more.” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (2)

He ran till he came to a small hill, at the top of which stood a cross and at the bottom of which was a tomb. I saw in my dream that when Christian walked up the hill to the cross, his burden came loose from his shoulders and fell off his back, tumbling down the hill until it came to the mouth of the tomb, where it fell in to be seen no more.1

Personal reflection

A friend once told me one of his frustrations with The Pilgrim’s Progress was the placement of the cross—we don’t find Christian relieved of his burden until chapter three, which seemed oddly placed:

He’s already on the path to the Celestial City. He’s passed through the slough of despond, although not without being trapped in it for some time. He went astray following the devilish advice of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, who encouraged him to take an “easier path,” that of morality and legalism…

So why do we have the cross here?

As much as we might prefer the book begin with Christian’s burden dropping from his back, we need to stop and consider whether or not this reflects our own experience? When you first became aware of the burden you carried—the weight of your sin—did you immediately know to run to the cross? Perhaps, perhaps not.

The journey itself is reflective of Bunyan’s own walk with Christ—one which was mired with despondency and futile attempts to justify himself through legalism and moralism, things “intent to rob you of your salvation by turning you away from the way in which I directed you,” as Evangelist told Christian.

As an adult convert, I certainly resonate more with Christian’s journey—one of haphazardly walking the path to the cross, and not finding relief until I stood at its foot. But the point, arguably, is not when Christian finds relief from his burden, but where.

Relief, true relief, is found only at the foot of the cross. Run to it!

Reading with Ryken

The importance of this leg of the journey is disproportionate to the small amount of space given to it. Losing the burden of sin at the foot of the cross is one of the two most important events in the first half of Pilgrim’s Progress (the other being Christian’s entry into Heaven). Whereas the obstacles to spiritual progress that have befallen Christian up to this point have painted a picture of the life before conversion, the ones that happen now represent impediments in the spiritual progress of someone who has been converted to the Christian life.

At the level of travel story, the physical events in this episode are threats to someone who needs to reach a destination. Viewed thus, the events in this chapter resemble those that any traveler encounters—distracting characters, people who give bad advice, the physical ordeals of traveling, losing time by falling asleep, and needing to backtrack to find a lost passport. On this plane, this unit is one of Bunyan’s nightmare passages.

But of course the second level at which the journey unfolds is the spiritual. We should view all the people whom Christian meets in this unit and the physical difficulties he undergoes as pictures of the temptations that befall Christians in their spiritual walk.2

Next week

Next week’s discussion of The Pilgrim’s Progress will be centered around chapters four and five.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. A few questions and points to consider:3

  1. What spiritual realities did you resonate with in reading these two chapters?
  2. How are the early days after Christian’s conversion like the experiences of other people you have known?
  3. Why did Bunyan choose the specific spiritual vices that he did, as represented by their allegorical names?
  4. What real-life experiences or observations are embodied in Bunyan’s personified vices?

Post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

“What shall I do?” Pilgrim’s Progress conversations (1)

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I came to a certain place where there was a cave; and I lay down in that place to sleep. As I slept, I dreamed a dream, and in this dream I saw a man clothed in rags, standing in a place with his face turned away from his own house. He had a book in his hand and a heavy burden upon his back.

I looked and saw him open the book and begin to read; and as he read, he wept and trembled. Not being able to contain himself, he cried out in a loud voice, “What shall I do?”

It’s impossible to overstate the power of the opening words of The Pilgrim’s Progress.1 Bunyan masterfully captures the plight of man in his description of Christian—he is a man burdened, weeping, utterly destroyed by the book he carries. But he cannot turn away from its pages.

He can only read and cry out, “What shall I do?”

Personal reflection

How many of us have faced a similar crisis in our own hearts? Conviction comes—and what shall we do?

Many of us, like Christian, keep it to ourselves for as long as possible. We pretend everything is fine, even though we’re troubled to the core of our being. Sooner or later, though, we reach a breaking point and can no longer keep what’s going on hidden—”For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17).

And, as is so often the case, when we speak, people begin to reject us. They find our message absurd, laughable, ignorant. Family rejects us. Friends scorn us. Some come alongside us and encourage us to stay on the path; others seek to draw us away. We have moments of joy, from which we quickly slip into the slough of despond…

This is how the journey to the celestial city begins for so many of us.

Reading tips from Ryken

But the first chapter of The Pilgrim’s Progress is equally as demanding as it is captivating. As Leland Ryken puts it well in his guide to this classic book, “Part of the genius of Pilgrim’s Progress is that it requires readers to analyze the symbolic level of the story and in particular to figure out the nuances of the theological truth that is embodied in the narrative details.”2

So as we feel our way around the first chapter, we need to consider what each detail symbolizes and what it teaches us about the Christian life at the point at which Christian finds himself on the journey. But even so, we would do well to heed Ryken’s advice as he offers four tips for reading this book:3

(1) The most important prerequisite for enjoying this book as literature is the ability to abandon oneself to the travel motif and the adventure genre. At this level, the book is like Homer’s Odyssey or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—a continuous series of narrow escapes and threatening ordeals. (2) Equally, we need to relish the technique of allegory in which places and characters bear the names of abstract qualities. But the word allegory does not quite do justice to what is happening, so we need to add the concept of symbolic reality, which results when we enter a realm of the imagination in which the leading ingredient is a “forest” of symbols. (3) Putting the previous two points together, Pilgrim’s Progress requires us to read at a physical level as the basis of everything else, but also to see that the two protagonists have undertaken a spiritual and psychological journey in addition to the physical journey. (4) The primacy of the spiritual governs everything that Bunyan does in the story and determines his storytelling techniques and choice of material.

Discussing together

This reading project only works if we’re reading together. So if there are things that stood out to you in this chapter, if there are questions you had, this is the time and place to have your say. Two points to consider:

  1. How does this chapter portray the lost state of man?
  2. How does what you’ve read in this chapter reflect or differ your own experience?

Feel free to post a comment below or to link to your blog if you’ve chosen to write about this on your own site.

A quick look at some new books

Every so often, I get a really nice present in the mail—books! Here’s a look at a few that have shown up over the last few days:

In case you can’t make them all out, they are:

I’ve only had a chance to start digging into one of these books (United), there are a number I’m excited about reading, particularly Truth Matters and Everyone’s A Theologian (Sproul does a wonderful job of making systematic theology accessible and interesting to the common person).

What stands out to you on the list? What are some books you’re looking forward to reading over the next few weeks?

Read The Pilgrim’s Progress with me

One of my favorite parts of the day is reading books with my kids, especially with Abigail (our eldest). While I love reading with the younger two, Abigail’s old enough that I get to start reading cool stuff with her.

Last year, we read through The Chronicles of Narnia in its entirety (it took about three or four months). I’ve just introduced her to Calvin and Hobbes (and soon the complete collection will become part of our family library). More recently, we’ve been working our way through John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

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And I’ve been having such a good time reading it with her, I wanted to invite you to read it with me, as well.

Why this book?

One of the major reasons is this is one of the few books outside the Bible all Christians should read. In fact, historically, it’s been the most widely-read book outside the Bible, although this is not the case today. It’s a book that was instrumental in the faith of Charles Spurgeon and countless other believers. And it’s one of which’s influence is in danger of being lost. J.I. Packer wrote:

For two centuries Pilgrim’s Progress was the best-read book, after the Bible, in all Christendom, but sadly it is not so today.

When I ask my classes of young and youngish evangelicals, as I often do, who has read Pilgrim’s Progress, not a quarter of the hands go up.

Yet our rapport with fantasy writing, plus our lack of grip on the searching, humbling, edifying truths about spiritual life that the Puritans understood so well, surely mean that the time is ripe for us to dust off Pilgrim’s Progress and start reading it again.

Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.

Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet? 1

The way this reading project will work is pretty simple:

  • We’ll read one chapter a week, starting the first week of March.
  • I’ll be sharing some reflections on the chapter in a new post, along with some additional questions for discussion.

Like I said, pretty straightforward, but I promise it’ll be worth it.

So how about it? Will you read The Pilgrim’s Progress with me?  

6 quotes Christians need to let lie fallow

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

We Christians do love our quotes—and there are so many brilliant ones to choose from! But by golly, we sure do seem to be a repetitive bunch. Far too often, we’re using the same quotes, over and over.

And over.

So yesterday, inspired by a friend’s lament of the increased use of the Samwise “everything sad is coming untrue” quote from Lord of the Rings, I took to the Interwebs to get your feedback, asking what you believe are the most over-used quotes from Christian authors.

Here are the top answers:

1. “We are far too easily pleased…” From C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses:

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

2. John Piper’s mission statement. From Desiring God (and pretty much everything else he’s ever written and/or preached since):

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

3. “He is no fool…” From The Journals of Jim Elliot:

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

4. “More wicked… but more loved.” Tim Keller’s gospel summary, from multiple books and sermons:

“We are more wicked than we ever dared believe, but more loved and accepted in Christ than we ever dared hope.”

5. C.S. Lewis’ trilemma. From Mere Christianity:

‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

6. The one which Martin Luther never actually said. But the ideas can definitely be gleaned from his work:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.

You can see why they’re quoted so often. They’re conceptually brilliant and (in most cases) captivating in their simplicity. But there are two dangers with quoting these so frequently:

We risk cheapening their meaning. And when that happens, powerful truths become pithy sentiments. 

That’s the first danger. The second is it reveals we may not be diversifying our reading in a healthy fashion. When we all read the same books, by the same people, quoting the same things, we risk creating a homogenous intellectualism. And when this happens, we risk losing our ability to think critically, as well as the joy of discovering ideas that come from outside our normal spheres of influence.

7 signs you’re reading a book by a prosperity preacher

fortune-cookie

They’re big, bold and beautiful—or at least wearing beautifully tailored suits. Prosperity preachers, selling you the finest in positive attitudes, living your dreams and making every day a Friday.

Not too long ago, my wife was feeling a bit down, and a super-nice lady whose kids go to the same school as our daughter gave her some books to encourage her. Funnily enough, they all happened to be prosperity theology books (which has led to some entertaining and positive discussion around the house).

Every so often we all stumble into prosperity theology, usually unwittingly. While occasionally you’ll get a nugget of helpful truth (in the same way that you’ll find some helpful things in your average self-help book), there’s a lot of goofiness which can make for a fun night of “Joel Osteen or Fortune Cookie.” So, how do you know if you’re reading a book written by a prosperity preacher? Here are seven signs:

1. A bright shiny smile that looks like it belongs on a poster for a dentist office. For example:

The only exception? TD Jakes, but that’s only because he seems incapable of smiling in a photograph (although he does smirk).

2. The title makes it clear someone is really important—and that someone is you.

God is Not Mad at You, Reposition Yourself, Your Best Life Now, Become a Better You, It’s Your Time… I’m noticing a trend here. Someone’s a pretty big deal, and apparently that someone is me.

I feel so much better now.

3. It’s advice that could easily be confused with the message from a fortune cookie. Taste the highly processed encouragement:

“You may think there is a lot wrong with you, but there is also a lot right with you.”1

“Unhappiness does not come from the way things are, but from the difference between how things are and how we think they should be”2

“Never make a permanent decision about a temporary situation.”3

“Sometimes you can tell what something is by what is isn’t.”4

I have no idea what that last one even means.

4. There’s a proverb on the cover. Often something like Proverbs 10:22, “The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it”—but you’re not likely to find Proverbs 18:11, “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his imagination.”

5. Someone’s caps lock got stuck. For example:

God has said to us, just as surely as He said to Isaac, “I WILL PERFORM in your life THE BLESSING of Abraham. I heal you! I prosper you! I create the conditions of Eden around you, and you will carry THE BLESSING to people everywhere you go!”5

I’m pretty sure Kenneth Copeland needs a new keyboard, he may have broken his in his excitement, what do you think? Also, what does that even mean?

6. It may or may not be trying to cast wicked spells. Remember, “It’s our faith that activates the power of God.”6

7. Seven is always the magic number. You can learn the seven steps to living your full potential, the seven keys to improving your life every day, and how to be happier seven days a week. Seven really is the magic number, isn’t it?

So there you have it. The seven signs you’re reading a book by a prosperity preacher. Wait—seven signs??

The re-reading project: diversifying our reading in 2014

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

One of the difficulties that can arise when you read a lot is you sometimes forget to re-read the really great books you’ve enjoyed from years past. This has been my problem for the last couple of years—I’ve been reading so many new books that I’ve been missing out on the really great books I read years ago and actually want to read again.

So, this year, I’m doing something about it by sharing with a plan I’m calling “the re-reading project.”

(Super clever, I know. Can you tell I’m a writer and stuff?)

Here’s how it works: every month, I’ll be re-reading one book from my library and sharing a few thoughts on each here. These books will almost certainly be pretty broad—there will be a mix of books by Christians and non-Christians, as well as (I hope!) a bit of variety in terms of genre. Here are some of the first books I’ll be re-reading as part of this project:

So far, there’s nothing on the list less than 20 years, old, although that could change. The point of the whole project isn’t simply to read “more,” or to read older books instead of newer ones—it’s just to read (and re-read) better. When all we take in is first-time reading, we miss out on what we can discover about a book that we might’ve missed the first time around.

I’m pretty excited about this little project—wanna join me?

14 books I want to read in 2014 (and think you should too)

Every so often, I wonder whether or not we really need more Christian books being published. After all, if we were honest, we’d admit that much of what’s being released is either entirely forgettable at best and trash at worst.

But even so there’s a glut of books that are the equivalent of cotton candy, there’s a lot of really, really good stuff being put out there. Here’s a look at a few I’m excited to read in 2014:

The Most Encouraging Book on Hell Ever by Thor Ramsey (Cruciform Press)

This one had me at the title, and it comes out soon (like, this week!). What excites me most about this book (aside from the title) is its approach to the question of Hell itself, asking: “What if Hell itself is good news about God?”


The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables +

The Wonder-Working God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Miracles by Jared Wilson (Crossway)

These two are so closely connected I have to include them together. In the first, “discarding the notion that Jesus’s parables are nothing more than moralistic fables, Jared Wilson shows how each one is designed to drive us to Jesus in awe, need, faith, and worship.” And in the second, “Wilson shows readers how the amazing miracles described in the Gospels attest to Christ’s divinity, authority, and ultimate mission: restoring us and this world to a right relationship with God.”


Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by Mack Stiles (Crossway)

This is one of several books coming out in the 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series from Crossway. I’m particularly excited about this one because Mack Stiles is both a, a gifted evangelist, and b, incredibly passionate and articulate on the subject. If you heard him speak on this subject at TGC’s 2013 pre-conference, you know what I mean.


The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ by Ray Ortlund (Crossway)

Another entry in the 9Marks: Building Healthy Churches series, “this short book helps readers experience the power of God as they are encouraged to trust in Christ and allow him to transform their beliefs, perspectives, and practices. For everyone who wants to be true to the Bible and honest with themselves, this book offers a practical guide to the fundamental teachings of the gospel and how they affect our relationships with others.”


The Pastor’s Kid by Barnabas Piper (David C. Cook)

I’m not a PK, but I know a number of them, and I know enough to know they’ve got a bit of a rougher go than the average Christian—largely because everyone is watching what they’re doing. Instead of venting about all the problems that come with being a PK, Barnabas “shares the one thing a PK needs above all else (as do their pastor/father and church) to live in true freedom and wholeness. With empathy, humor and passion, this book courageously addresses one of the most under-the-radar issues affecting almost every church and pastor, and their children.”


The Social Church by Justin Wise (Moody)

“This book is for Christians who are advocates of social media and who want to learn better about how to use these new technologies to further the Kingdom of God. Justin Wise speaks about social media as this generation’s printing press-a revolutionary technology that can spread the gospel further and faster than we can imagine.” I’ve heard Justin speak on this topic in the past and his insights are guaranteed to be worth your time.


Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb (Moody)

The Holcombs’ Rid of My Disgrace is one of the most significant recent books on the issue of sexual abuse, and I have no doubt this will be equally as beneficial as it “addresses the abysmal issue of domestic violence with the powerful and transforming biblical message of grace and redemption.”


The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters by J.P. Moreland (Moody)

This looks fascinating. “Countering the arguments of both naturalists and Christian scholars who embrace a material-only view of humanity, Moreland demonstrates why it is both biblical and reasonable to believe humans are essentially spiritual beings.… [and] shows that neuroscience and the soul are not competing explanations of human activity, but that both coexist and influence one another.”


Know the Heretics by Justin Holcomb (Zondervan)

Part of Zondervan’s KNOW series, this one by Holcomb looks particularly interesting, especially for use in a small group setting, because when it comes to the subject of heresy, we need “a strong dose of humility and restraint, and also a clear and informed definition of orthodoxy and heresy. Know the Heretics provides an accessible ‘travel guide’ to the most significant heresies throughout Christian history.”


The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing by Jonathan Dodson (Zondervan)

Dodson can always be counted on for an insightful and thought-provoking read. “Showing readers how to utilize the rich gospel metaphors found in Scripture and how to communicate a gospel worth believing—one that speaks to the heart-felt needs of diverse individuals—Dodson connects the gospel to the real issues people face each day by speaking to both the head and the heart.”


Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung (Crossway)

With the Bible’s authority under almost constant attack, this is a much-needed book. “With his characteristic wit and clarity, Kevin DeYoung has written an accessible introduction to the Bible that answers important questions raised by Christians and non-Christians alike.… Avoiding technical jargon, this winsome volume will encourage men and women to read and believe the Bible—confident that it truly is God’s word.”


Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? by Mark Jones (P&R Publishing)

This one came out in 2013, but didn’t show up on my radar until fairly recently (and now sits on my Kindle waiting to be read). “This book is the first to examine antinomianism from a historical, exegetical, and systematic perspective. More than that, in it Mark Jones offers a key—a robust Reformed Christology with a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit—and chapter by chapter uses it to unlock nine questions raised by the debates.”


Against the Church by Douglas Wilson (Canon Press)

This, again, is a late 2013 release that slipped by me (not surprising since it’s official release date was December 19th!). Wilson is always worth a read, if for no other reason than the way he writes. “Alongside a critique of philosophical assumptions about human nature, dualism, and grace, Wilson stresses the unavoidable and absolute necessity of individual hearts being born again.”


So those are a few books I’m excited to check out in 2014. What are some on your list?

My favorite books to review in 2013

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Yesterday I shared some of my favorite books to read in 2013 (many of which I reviewed). Today, I want to share a few of my favorite books to review.

(And no, this isn’t a case of “I just liked so many books I couldn’t limit the list,” as you’ll see in a minute.)

These are not all books I enjoyed, nor are they all books I’d recommend you read yourself. But all were books that challenged me in some way as I tried to figure out how to best review them, whether because of disagreements with the content or because the genre was something I’d never tackled before. Simply, they were some of the books that let me exercise my critical thinking skills.

So, with that in mind, here are the reviews I most enjoyed writing in 2013:

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Why’d it make the list? Being familiar with Evans’ work, I knew I wasn’t likely to agree with her conclusions in the book from the get-to. But the challenge here was finding ways to articulate my disagreement in a way that would be helpful and appreciate the good points of the book.

One of my concluding lines was “On some points, A Year of Biblical Womanhood offers some extremely helpful insights. On others, though, it comes across as petty and juvenile,” so I’m not sure how well I succeeded there.

Mapping the Origins Debate by Gerald Rau

Why’d it make the list? While the book is a bit stuffy in its writing style (it skews academic), its subject matter is too important not to give careful consideration. I’ve seen attempt to present a balanced view of the major positions on human origins. Rau did a very good job of this, as well as pointing out the often overlooked role of our presuppositions in interpreting scientific data.

Clear Winter Nights by Trevin Wax

Why’d it make the list? Trevin’s book is one of the first serious attempts I’ve made at reviewing a work of fiction. In fact, it might actually be the first fiction book I’ve reviewed. And any time I need to start a review writing, “Clear Winter Nights is not an ugly book,” I think it means I had some thinking to do.

Does God Listen to Rap? by Curtis Allen

Why’d it make the list? Because controversial subjects require a lot of thought. Allen clearly worked hard to address the concerns about Christian rap from a biblical perspective and his arguments require careful consideration.

God’s Good Design by Claire Smith

Why’d it make the list? This book had almost the opposite problem of A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Because I’m in agreement with the arguments made by the author, I still needed to figure out how to think through these with a degree of objectiveness. Again, not sure how well I succeeded there, so you’ll have to be the judge.

The Boy and the Ocean by Max Lucado

Why’d it make the list? Mostly because reviewing a book geared toward children is incredibly challenging. At the risk of being obvious, writing a book for kids isn’t the same as writing for adults. There’s more nuance you can include in a book for big people that doesn’t work well with little ones. Nevertheless, I think I stand by my conclusion: “A gospel-driven book, this is not; but it is an opening to a gospel conversation with your kids. And if that’s what Lucado set out to do, then he’s succeeded admirably.”

A Call to Resurgence by Mark Driscoll

Why’d it make the list? This was, far and away, the most challenging review I wrote all year for me personally. I found myself with a large list of concerns, as well as a number of things I appreciated about the book—which, in hindsight, actually were some of my concerns!

So those were a few of my favorite books to review. Although a number of them are books I’d probably recommend you not read, hopefully checking out the reviews will help you understand why I like the process of reviewing so much.