A couple months ago I had coffee and a bacon & egg breakfast sandwich with a friend who has long been part of NAPC. “What have you been reading?” she asked. “It would be helpful if you shared these books with us.”
I wrote about some of the books in Part 1. Entitling a blog “Part 1” implies a forthcoming “Part 2.” Better late than never for those who’d like to know what else I have been reading.
Here are some more of the books over the last year or so I have begun, am working through, or have finished and enjoyed (the list starts with #7, see part 1 for 1-6).
I am still considering a book discussion group, something informal that brings us together to enjoy a beverage and talk about books. If you didn’t respond before but you’re interested let me know.
7. Slaying Leviathan – Glenn Sunshine
Sunshine is history professor, and his book is an introduction to the history of Christian views on how individuals and churches interact with governing authorities. In short, we are heirs to a rich tradition of writing and thought on this matter that goes well beyond Romans 13:1 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” One such treasure is from the Reformation pastor and writer Christopher Goodman. He argued that
Romans 13 only applies to legitimate kings who reward good and punish evil, as the text itself shows; it does not apply to tyrants who punish good and reward evil. In fact, since tyranny comes from Satan, to obey a tyrant is to rebel against God.
Sunshine observes that the highest achievement in government from the Christian tradition (also carried by Enlightenment thought) happened in 1776. America is the embodiment of the culmination of Christian political theology. Why? It was conceived of by men who were not exclusively Christian, but whose Judeo-Christian roots informed their moral framework. This enabled them to draft founding documents that would both preserve individual liberty, as well as restrict the sinful nature of all human hearts, especially those human hearts in power. This lens of understanding was not without its glaring faults (the most obvious being slavery). But by and large these glaring faults have been overcome and continue to be overcome.
Ever since the American revolution, secular ideals instead of Christianity have fueled revolutions. The goal of these revolutions has been far more lofty – to create the perfect society (whether in France, Russia, China or elsewhere). The result has inevitably been blood in the streets, death and tyranny. This is a critical warning for our time, when similar revolutionary zeal fuels radical criticism of America (“the system is irredeemably unjust/racist/misgynist/etc.”).
One last note – even Benjamin Franklin, the least religious of the founders, believed that reliance upon a Power not our own was necessary for the creation of a government that would serve the people, and not vice versa. His speech to the Constitutional Convention, in the midst of deadlocks over numerous issues, is surprising in its piety. Franklin appeals to the Convention to stop what they are doing, acknowledge the Creator, and ask for His help:
In this situation of this Assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find political truth, how has it happened that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for divine protection. Our prayers were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance? I have lived a long time, and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs the affairs of men; and if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.
Franklin! The guy knew his Bible, even if he didn’t believe what it said about Jesus.
8. True Devotion – Allan Chapple
Chapple is an Australian seminary professor who set out to write a book about Christian spirituality without the unbiblical practices that many people (Christian leaders included) advocate, such as relying primarily on our feelings as an indicator of our closeness with God (rather than on the promises of God given through the Gospel).
How can we be truly devoted to God in a biblical manner? Our staff is reading this book together and enjoying Chapple’s insights, one of which is the following:
The crucial test of any devotion is not its intensity but its focus. No matter how earnest it may be, seeking God apart for the Christ of the gospel is a serious error. It is not simply invalid; it is sinful.
9. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self – Carl Trueman
Trueman is my favorite “public intellectual” of our day. He is a Brit, a professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, and a Presbyterian (boom). Rise and Triumph is one of the most important books I have read in the last 10 years, and is deeply rewarding if you invest the time and effort (not a beach read while sipping margaritas). Trueman traces the intellectual roots that have brought us to our current moment of defining ourselves not by what God (or nature) has given to us in all of its beauty and particularity and limitation, but by what our inner psychology tells us we are. And if our internal psychology tells us that we are something out of alignment with the rest of reality, authenticity demands that our psychology is right, and reality is wrong. How did we arrive here? And how do we as Christians fall prey to this strange set of assumptions? And how are we to lovingly engage with and respond to those who believe of this?
He closes this dense book with three suggestions for the church in our current situation. First, be doctrinal (the foundation must be on Christ and His Word). Second, value the body (we affirm that our identity is not inner self/soul only, but body and soul). Finally, be a deeply connected community (in an era of loneliness and disconnection, we need to be there for each other and people who come to our church). On this final point, Trueman notes:
Perhaps this is where the church can learn from the LGBTQ+ community, for, whatever moral disapproval we must have toward it, it was – is – a real community where real people look after each other in terms of meeting very real needs . . . Our moral consciousness is very much shaped by our community. And for this reason, the church needs to be a strong community.
10. A Little Book on the Christian Life – John Calvin
If you are looking for a brief and inspiring introduction to the writings of John Calvin, this is it. It is in fact little (in size), short (126 pages but because of its slight stature, think 75 pages or so) and filled with wonderful, convicting nuggets of Christian wisdom about the Christian life. The last line of the book should give encouragement through the normal, boring tasks we have to carry out in life: “every work performed in obedience to God, no matter how ordinary and common, is radiant – most valuable in the eyes of our Lord.”
11. Gay Girl, Good God – Jackie Hill Perry
My daughter Isabella gave me this after she read it. Jackie Hill Perry’s memoir of her daunting childhood, embrace of same-sex attraction and same-sex relationships, conversion to Christ and growth in finding her identity in Jesus instead of her sexual desires is insightful and helpful. Some of her observations about the shortcomings of the church are convicting. In this book Perry is honest, constructively critical and thought-provoking.
12. The Everlasting Man – GK Chesterton
Chesterton was a late 19th — early 20th century British satirist, novelist, philosopher, theologian and all around guy you should read. Chesterton was one of the most influential people in CS Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. Lewis is famous for his “trilemma” argument about Jesus (ie, that we cannot domesticate Jesus into merely a cannot be treated a good person, because he claimed to be far more than that. He was either “Lord, liar or lunatic”), but the seed of it is surely found in this book. Chesterton muses about the origins of humanity, the state, and religion, and argues (convincingly) why Jesus is unlike anyone else who has ever lived. He is enjoyable to read because of that rare combination of style, wit and insight. Here are a couple quotes:
Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy.
Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.
13. Man of the House – CR Wiley
This short book by a pastor, professor and property owner (with tenants) is filled with contrarian wisdom for young men who want to build a life with a wife. Wiley argues that men and women have specific roles to play in marriage (leader and helper, respectively), and that the building of households includes owning and cultivating productive property (property that yields income). The value of productive property has been understood for millennia (see Aesop’s story about the goose that laid golden eggs), but largely lost in our time. Men are at their best, he writes, when they see the claims made upon their lives and they respond responsibly by answering to those claims. No, unfettered freedom to do whatever we want and enjoy as much leisure as we can is not the best life. Being a man means answering the claims of parents, children, wife, country, and God. I read this book and discussed it with my son, and we had some great conversations together. It is likely you won’t agree with all of what Wiley has to say, but it rightly calls men to responsibility, and to build households that last all of their lives.
14. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
I read this novel in high school (so long ago I had forgotten most of it), and just recently listened to it on Audible. Lee’s novel is a classic for many good reasons – the narrative is engrossing, there are very humorous moments, it captures childhood, siblinghood and friendship poignantly. But the greatest value of it is the way it illustrates Christian hypocrisy in Jim Crow-era Alabama alongside genuine Christian love, hospitality and courage in characters like Atticus, Calpurnia, Reverend Sykes and Boo Radley. It upholds the MLK dictum of judging people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It emphasizes the importance of treating people with dignity and respect, regardless of differences. Recently, there have been moves to remove it from reading lists in school districts, primarily because the N* word is used so often throughout. This strikes me as incredibly misguided – the language used reveals the moral bankruptcy of those who use it. Re-read this one!