Critical thinking is good for your soul

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

There’s a line I shared in my little eBook on how to write book reviews that goes like this:

“Brothers and sisters, we are not to be sycophants. Don’t write a review that sounds like it was written by one.”

I want to take a bit of time today to expand on that a little more.

One of the mistakes I see less experienced bloggers make—which, by the way is a really bizarre statement to make (when did I become one of the more experienced bloggers??)—is always writing positive reviews. They seem to be wowed by every single book they read!

Now, I know there are some bloggers who only write reviews of books they like, and that’s fine, if your genuine, heartfelt conviction is you only want to talk about books you unabashedly love. But honestly, I can’t go there. Why?

Because critical thinking is good for your soul—and it’s a skill we sorely lack in our culture, Christian and otherwise. The Bible calls critical thinking “discernment,” which is referred to as both a discipline and a spiritual gift. Basically the idea is being able to identify truth from error, and doing so requires effort. It’s like exercising. The more consistently you do it, the stronger your muscles get, and the more your endurance increases.

So what do you need to do? The best way to know how to identify truth from error is to know the truth really, really well. So you read your Bible, you study it diligently. You work hard at this.

But then you need to put it into practice. There are two ways I do this: the first is I periodically read books I know I’m unlikely to align with theologically (such as A Year of Biblical Womanhood or Love Wins). This allows me to both test my own assumptions as well as think through the arguments and implications of other works. The goal, particularly when reading a book like this for review purposes, is to develop a balanced, helpful critique.

The other way I put it into practice is by, as I explained in the eBook, treating the author as secondary to the message. This is especially important when reading someone you like. Because you’ve got your own biases at work, you’ve got to be diligent to push through and not assume—whether because the author is a personal friend or an influential figure you admire from afar—what’s being written should be given a pass. Doing so is both dishonoring to the author’s intentions1 and damaging to you as a Christian. Thinking critically about the material from trusted sources has allowed me to dig into my own assumptions in a way that even reading opposing views doesn’t.

This was certainly the case when reviewing Why Cities Matter, which actually helped me to focus my views on urban ministry a little more definitively (in that I’m now far less comfortable saying we should focus on urban contexts at the expense of rural ones in order to “reach the culture”). Driscoll’s new book helped me work out my views on video preaching and think about the implications of a teaching pastor divorced from the body.

Finally, moving beyond the personal, there’s the benefit to those reading the review: when you read a critical review, you’re seeing a model of how to think critically. When I write a critical review, I don’t want you to just know what I think, I want you to see how I got there. I want you to see how I think and use what’s helpful in your own thinking.

Obviously I’m not advocating slamming books for the sake of slamming them. And I don’t want anyone to feel bad about writing predominantly positive reviews. What I am advocating for is careful, consistent, thoughtful discernment. A little good ole fashioned critical thinking is good for the soul, both your own and your reader’s.

Links I like

The 5 Gossips You Will Meet

Tim Challies:

Gossip is a serious problem. It is a problem in the home, in the workplace, in the local church and in broader evangelicalism. It is a problem in the blogosphere, in social media, and beyond. In his book Resisting Gossip, Matthew Mitchell defines gossip as “bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart” and shows that when the book of Proverbs uses the word “gossip,” it does so in the noun form, not the verb form. In other words, the Bible is concerned less with the words that are spoken and more with the heart and mouth that generate such destruction. Words matter, but they are simply the overflow of the heart. As always, the heart is the heart of the matter.

Here, drawn from Mitchell’s book, is a gallery of gossips, five different gossiping people you will meet in life.

Pastors, how do we respond to brothers in error?

Denny Burk:

So here’s the question we have to ask and answer anytime we are refuting error. What are our motives in the confrontation? Are we just being pugnacious? Or is there a more biblically formed motive for the controversy? If all we’re trying to do is put red meat before the congregation or drive up blog stats, that’s not really a good motive. That’s the sign of a person who’s self-promoting through public pugnacity. Everyone can smell that rot from a mile away, and it’s not very becoming of a man of God (Rom. 12:18).

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Get The Prince’s Poison Cup in today’s $5 Friday at Ligonier.org

Today you can get The Prince’s Poison Cup by R.C. Sproul (hardcover) for only $5 in today’s $5 Friday sale at Ligonier.org. Other items on sale:

$5 Friday ends tonight at 11:59:59 PM Eastern.

Don Carson on The Hole in our Gospel

…some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.

Of bloggers and book hoarders

pressgram-readingpile

Up until recently, A&E ran a creepy show called Hoarders, showing the struggles of people who can’t part with their stuff and their road to recovery. These are people who are living surrounded by overwhelming amounts of stuff—and often in terrifyingly unhealthy situations.

One of the things I really appreciate is the kindness of a number of publishers who send me a lot of books. This is really kind since they don’t have to do this (and I don’t always read what is sent—because it simply isn’t possible). But it also makes me a bit nervous. How do I balance the self-imposed sense of obligation that comes with receiving a book? Do I read it? Give it a shout-out and be done with it? Say nothing at all?

Worse, there’s a tendency to want more (which may well be an example of what the Bible calls “coveting”). It doesn’t matter if I can get through it or not, it doesn’t matter if I can start it or not—when I see a book I get excited about, there’s a temptation to get it.

And before you know it, my shelves are double (or triple) stacked, and my kids are building forts out of my book collection.

Which brings me back to Hoarders. Something that really hit home for me (and my wife) over the last year is the similarity between bloggers—whether they receive books or other products—and hoarders. If we’re not careful, we can let these things pile up and they overwhelm us.

Because of this, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about three basic rules that help me keep a bit of control over the growing number of books in our house. Hopefully these will be helpful for you too:

1. Pass up. If someone sends me an email asking if they can send me a book, there are times when I wind up not responding at all (usually because it gets lost in the sea of awful that is my inbox). But often, I find myself having to respond and say “thanks, but no.” Sometimes even to books that sound interesting to me.

Even if you’re not in a position where people are asking to send you material, if you’re just going to the book store, this is an important practice to get into the habit of. When you’re looking at a book, maybe ask, “But what I really need is…” and see what you’d actually fill in the blank with. Chances are, it’s not the book that’s in your hand.

2. Prioritize. One of my early mistakes as a blogger was failing to prioritize. I signed up for too many review programs (which I now don’t use) and requested too much material. I wound up in a place where I didn’t really know where to start.

These days, I tend to choose what I’m going to read based on:

  • If I have an outside assignment (such as when I’m reviewing a book for The Gospel Coalition)
  • If it’s part of my research for a book project
  • If it’s a book that will help me serve others
  • If it’s something dealing with a cultural issue that interests me

These are pretty broad categories, but they still help me a ton simply because they force me to be a bit more particular in what I’m reading and not try to do too much.

3. Purge. This is the hardest one for book lovers in general, but is the most exciting one for my wife. But if a book is on your shelf for more than a year and you’ve not opened it, it’s probably time to give it to someone else. If you read a book and it was terrible, strip the cover and recycle it.1 If you read a book and you loved it, but know you’re not going to read it again, give it to someone else. It’s rare that you’re going to have the chance or desire to go back to most of the popular level material you’re reading, so it’s just fine to say goodbye to it.

You don’t need the books you’ve not read, and you don’t need to keep most of the ones you have. There’s no shame in admitting it and a regular purging of your books gives others the opportunity to read something potentially really great.

Evangelism means being honest

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Let’s not believe that we are simply all engaged in some search for truth. The fall did not leave people neutral toward God but at enmity with him. Therefore we must not pretend that non-Christians are seekers by the simple virtue of their having been made in the image of God. The Bible teaches that people are by nature estranged from God, and we must be honest about that.

What is repentance? It is turning from the sins you love to the holy God you’re called to love. It is admitting that you’re not God. It is beginning to value Jesus more than your immediate pleasure. It is giving up those things the Bible calls sin and leaving them to follow Jesus.

When we tell the gospel to people, we need to do it with honesty. To hold back important and unpalatable parts of the truth is to begin to manipulate and to try to sell a false bill of goods to the person with whom we are sharing. So however we evangelize, we aren’t to hide problems, to ignore our own shortcomings, or to deny difficulties. And we are not to put forward only positives that we imagine our non-Christian friends presently value and present God as simply the means by which they can meet or achieve their own ends. We must be honest.

Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism, 56-57

What should I review?

I just got back from a trip to Colorado Springs (day job related). After a fantastic welcome by my kids that included Hudson nearly walking outside barefoot shouting “Car-car!” and Abigail attaching herself to me like a spider monkey, I found a wonderful present waiting for me from my friends at Crossway:

presents-from-crossway

Image via Pressgram

If you’re struggling to see all the titles, here’s the complete list:

I’m very excited to dig into these over the next few weeks, and perhaps even sharing a few thoughts.

Now, here’s where I need your help: If were going to review one, which should it be?

Get serious about your studies: how should you read the Bible?

Get-Serious-About-Your-Studies

This might seem like a strange subject to bring up at the (possible) end of a series, but it’s an important one.

A great deal of the discussion surrounding getting serious about our studies has been focused on different tools and learning aids—study Bibles, systematic theologies and technology. There’s so much I’ve not touched on (yet) including commentaries, original languages (although I’ve dealt with that elsewhere), Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias…

But there’s one thing I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t address this critical question:

How should you read your Bible?

What I’m talking about here is the science of hermeneutics, which is a big fancy word for “rules and principles for reading the Bible.” Whether we realize it or not, we do this every time we pick up our Bible—and the rules and principles we hold to drastically affect what we believe the Bible says. For example:

  • Whether you believe pastoral ministry is for men only or is open to women as well stems from the interpretive decisions you make.
  • How you approach the “God-hates-yet-loves-sinners” paradox is heavily influenced by your hermeneutical approach.1
  • How you understand the world to have come into being and how this world will end is drastically affected by the principles you use for interpreting the text.

I could go on with numerous examples, but I trust you get the drift. Hermeneutics really, really matter—we all use rules and principles of interpretation so we are obliged to do our best to make sure the rules we use are sound. [Read more...]

Links I like

Ordinary Cook, Unlikely Hero

Matt Smethurst:

He is history’s most widely read preacher outside of Scripture. More written material exists from him than from any other Christian author, living or dead. It’s estimated he preached to more than 10 million people during his lifetime. The ripple effect of his life and ministry is immeasurable.

And he got his theology from an old school cook.

Kindle Deals for Christian readers

5 Questions with an Emmy-Winning Illustrator

Bethany Jenkins:

Norman Rockwell was horrified when a fellow illustrator suggested that their craft was a way to just make a living—”You do your job, you get your check, and nobody thinks it’s art.” He replied, “Oh no no no. How can you say that? No man with a conscience can just bat out illustrations. He’s got to put all of his talent, all of his feelings into them.”

Illustrators are image-makers. Their craft employs the imagination to create the visual equivalent of a verbal idea. When illustrators pick up their markers and draw “good” pictures, they bear the image of God as Creator. I recently corresponded with Amanda Geisinger, an Emmy Award-winning illustrator and interactive designer, currently on staff at Nickelodeon in New York City. We talked about how illustrations were a part of her journey from atheism to Christianity and about how her faith intersects with her work.

5 Reasons You Should Write in Your Books

Joel Miller:

I’ve been thinking recently on an important topic for bibliophiles: Should you write in your books? The answer varies for every person, but as for me and my tomes: Yes. Scribble away, especially with nonfiction. Here are five reasons I believe defacing an author’s work is warranted.

Why I Don’t Go By “Pastor Mark”

Mark Altrogge:

To me, for someone to call me “Pastor Mark” creates an artificial separation or an artificial class system in the church. There’s the flock down here and the pastors up there. I don’t believe Jesus wants that division. He said to call no man “Father” or “Teacher.” The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were shocked that Jesus would eat with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus didn’t look for honor, but washed his disciples’ feet.

How To Care For Your Pastor

Dave Jenkins:

Those four words may not be on your radar right now but by the end of this article, I hope to persuade you of the importance of caring for your pastor, his wife and his family.

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:

pressgram-readingpile

Image via Pressgram

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

  • The Adam Quest: Eleven Scientists Explore the Divine Mystery of Human Origins by Tim Stafford (Amazon)
  • Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller (Westminster | Amazon)
  • The Unfolding Mystery by Edward Clowney (Westminster | Amazon)
  • The Person of Christ by Donald Macleod (Westminster | Amazon)
  • Fight: A Christian Case for Non-violence by Preston Sprinkle (Amazon)
  • Greek for the Rest of Us: The Essentials of Biblical Greek (Second Edition) by William D. Mounce (Amazon)

What’s on your to-read pile?

Bloodlines: Racism in the 1960s American South

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Via Crossway:

An exclusive video documentary featuring Pastor John Piper as he walks through his personal story of growing up in the segregated South. His personal story boldly champions the transforming power of the gospel and the beauty of racial diversity and harmony in Christ.

Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian

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I’m really looking forward to reading John Piper’s latest book, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. The trailer above is for a 20-minute documentary that accompanies the book where Piper describes growing up in the South and how the gospel transformed his life.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction (available for download at DesiringGod.org):

Many things have changed since 1963. And some deep things have not changed. Let me illustrate. There are probably more vicious white supremacists in America today than there were in 1968. The victims are as likely to be Latinos or Somali immigrants as African Americans whose ancestors have been here for centuries. The Ku Klux Klan has no corner on hate any more.

On June 7, 1998—that’s ’98, not ’68—outside Jasper, Texas, James Byrd, a forty-nine-year-old African American, was beaten and chained by his ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged two miles until his head ripped off. The perpetrators had racist tattoos, one of them depicting a black hanging from a tree. Many things have changed in the last forty years, but in some people some deep things haven’t changed. There is still plenty of hate.

Bloodlines promises to be a powerful read. I hope you’ll check it out.

Who is the Master?

As I was working on a paper for my Ligonier Academy program, I had to stop and consider this passage from Peter Jensen’s book, The Revelation of God:

In the end, the Bible is the most reasonable of all books, for it conforms with reality. It is our culture that is irrational, our minds that are darkened. Just as the gospel commends itself to us by making sense of our experience, so too does the Bible. It insists on bringing moral judgment to bear on our existence, and revealing the truth about the human heart. It brings before us a standard of morality and godliness that would absolutely transform the world were we to live in accordance with its precepts. It provides a pattern of the relationship between the sexes that endorses the difference while affirming the equality. It majors on forgiveness of the wounded conscience. It gives hope for the future. Undoubtedly it cuts across many of the ideas held most dear in the culture. It is all the more important, therefore, that Christians should not capitulate to the contemporary mores. It is the difference of Christianity that will make the biggest impact, and, if indeed the Bible is the word of God, we may be sure tha tit will prove to be centred on ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1:24).

In short, human reason in all its variety is a most useful servant of the gospel. But where reason or tradition becomes the masters of the gospel, dictating how the word of God may come to us, it serves only that evil from which God aims to free us.

Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God, pp. 177-178

As I’ve read this over and over again, I keep coming back to one thing:

At the heart of all the controversies around the Bible and its reliability seems to be one issue—control.

When it comes studying to the Bible, who is in control?

If God has revealed Himself through the Bible, then we are obliged to obey. Yet, because it seems foolish to us naturally, we seek to ignore it. We rebel against because we want control.

But the Bible refuses to obey us.

It keeps pointing out the foolishness of our minds, the irrationality of our thinking. This is why we need the Holy Spirit to illuminate the Scriptures and free us from our bondage to our desire for human autonomy and allow us to understand and obey what can often seem so paradoxical.

Thinking about this has made me consider how I read and apply Scripture with great care. Am I doing so, hoping to control it or be brought under its control?

I’m praying it’s the latter.

Book Review: The Gospel Commission by Michael Horton

What is the mission of the Church? Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to hear answers that address various aspects of social and personal transformation. Some will say that we as Christians are to care for the poor, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to be salt and light in the world.

And all of these are true. But what is the mission of the Church specifically?

Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus provided the answer to this question when he said to His followers, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

The mission of the Church is to make disciples. But is it possible that we’ve gotten a bit off-track? Are we actually making disciples—or are we doing something else? In his new book, The Gospel Commission: Recovering God’s Strategy for Making Disciples, Michael Horton offers a careful biblical and pastoral examination of the Great Commission, offering many helpful insights into how the Church can move forward in its role.

Two Promises

This book marks the culmination of a work that Horton began with Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life. Where those books necessarily spent a great deal of time dealing with the very serious errors that have crept into the Church, the vast majority of The Gospel Commission is decidedly more positive. Following the structure of Matt. 28:18-20, Horton bookends this work with the two great promises of this verse:

  1. Jesus’ absolute authority over all things in heaven and on earth given to Him through His death and resurrection; and
  2. Christ’s assurance that the Great Commission will not fail.

These two promises are essential to the Church fulfilling its mission. Without the assurance of Christ’s authority, we have no hope, nor any reason, for making disciples. “The early Christians were not fed to wild beasts or dipped in wax and set ablaze as lamps in Nero’s garden because they thought Jesus was a helpful life coach or role model but because they witnessed to him as the only Lord and Savior of the world.” (p. 33). His authority strips away ideas of private religion because He is not simply a “personal Lord and Savior,” He is the Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, Redeemer and Judge of all the earth. In light of this, the call to make disciples is not a “nice to have,”—it’s an urgent imperative for all churches.

Additionally, because Christ is Lord—because He is decisively in authority over all things—disciples will be made. We cannot fail in the task to which He has appointed His Church. It also relieves us of a great deal of pressure. Horton explains:

Jesus is not waiting for us to fulfill the Great Commission before he returns in glory; rather, he is fulfilling the Great Commission by his Word and Spirit and will return on the day that the Father has set. This relieves us of an impossible burden, liberating us to participate in the missionary movement in which the Triune God has been engaged from the beginning of the world. (p. 294)

The return of Christ does not depend on you.

Disciple-making does not depend on you.

It all rests on the sufficiency of the gospel and His authority. Is that not good news for the weary believer? [Read more...]

Around the Interweb

John Piper interviews Rick Warren on Doctrine

Piper’s remarks from the DG blog:

The nature of the interview is mainly doctrinal. I read Rick’s The Purpose Driven Life with great care. I brought 20 pages of quotes and questions to the interview. You will hear me quote the book dozens of times. With these quotes as a starting point I dig into Rick’s mind and heart on all the issues listed below (with the times that they begin on the video).

My aim in this interview is to bring out and clarify what Rick Warren believes about these biblical doctrines. In doing this my hope is that the thousands of pastors and lay people who look to Rick for inspiration and wisdom will see the profound place that doctrine has in his mind and heart. . . . Rick and I are very different in methodological instincts and inclinations. . . . We both have chosen risky ways. There are pitfalls of short- and long-term unfruitfulness. But in the end we do not govern the impact of our lives. God does. We do what the Bible and our hearts call us to do. I believe Rick’s is a faithful heart. Listen to the clarity of his doctrinal commitments and hear the heartbeat of his love for Christ and those perishing without him.

Also Worth Reading:

Music: Steve McCoy reviews Sojourn’s new album, The Water & The Blood

Books: Advice for Slow Readers

Theology: Loopholes for Hell: A Response to Jeff Cook’s Response to Francis Chan

Missing Persons: Pray for Matt Hill, a Christian brother from D.C. who has gone missing. Update: Matt has been found, alive and unharmed!

Bible: How Should the Books of the OT Be Ordered?

Contest Winner: The winner of a copy of The Next Story by Tim Challies is Mark Koiro! Congratulations, Mark!

In Case You Missed It

Here are a few of this week’s notable posts:

What Will It Take?

Book Review: The Next Story by Tim Challies

Are You Studying or Skimming?

A Few Lessons I’m Learning

Spurgeon: A Constant, Delighting and Enduring Love

Flavel: The Snare of Prosperity

A Few Lessons I’m Learning

Several months back, I mentioned that I’m writing a book and haven’t said too much about it since publicly. There are reasons for that, obviously, most of which amount to I haven’t had much to say.

However, I thought I’d give you a quick update on where things are at with it and what I’m learning through the process.

1. Having good friends and contacts is essential. The deeper I get, the more I realize that if you don’t have a good network to help, you’re going to have a hard time getting your foot in the door. On top of that, good friends and contacts who are willing to give you constructive feedback on what you’re doing will make the process that much easier. The feedback (and encouragement) I’ve received from Trevin,Tim, Dan, Andrew and Amber in particular has made even the process of submitting proposals that much easier.

Which brings me to my next point…

2. Submitting to publishers is not for the faint of heart. It can really hurt to get rejected, particularly if what you’re working on is something you’re sure God has put on your heart to write.

3. Rejection can be really encouraging. I’ve sent a proposal to six publishers at this point and have already received my first rejection. Believe it or not, I was really encouraged by it as the editor (a friend of a friend, incidentally), let me down really easily and reminded me that I can write real good when I’m trying.

4. Get an established author to show you how they write book proposals. I had no idea how to write a book proposal when I started this thing. At all. Fortunately, my friend Dan Darling gave me the down-low. I am unbelievably grateful for this. So grateful, in fact, that I will hyperlink to himTwice. [Read more...]