Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 2013 "Books I Read" Awards

At the beginning of 2013 I made a goal to try to discipline myself to average reading one book a week. I averaged slightly higher than that, reading 53 books this year. I have tried to read widely, as one must be disciplined to keep educating oneself after finishing school. On top of that, I am trying to avoid becoming a cookie-cutter of what I read, as often happens with ministers. While I give lip service to that, I admittedly say that I have a tendency to bias myself towards C.S. Lewis and Tim Keller. Nevertheless, I did not read more than four books by any one author. I tried to include new books and old books, fiction and non-fiction, classics and obscure, and Christian and non-fiction, as well as books that it was time for me to re-read. I have provided the list of books at the bottom and given awards out to some of my favorites. What do these books win? Nothing but the pride of being mentioned. Nevertheless, feel free to leave your comments and disagree with me, especially my heretical opinions concerning Charles Dickens.

Best Fiction Book

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

This Category was a tough call, but in the end The Kite Runner just edged out The Age of Innocence  (where else other than this blog could those two be in competition?). I really appreciated Wharton’s descriptions of this era in New York society and the way she honored traditional marriage, but I absolutely couldn’t put The Kite Runner down. I could easily relate to the real and appropriate feelings of guilt that the protagonist was plagued with and was touched about the way he found some relief in being able to love. While certainly not a Christian book, there are many places this could be bridged to the gospel. It is a great read.

2nd place: The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Honorable mentions: Sanctuary, William Faulkner; The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

Best Re-Read

Recalling the Hope of Glory, Allen Ross

This is kind of an odd category, but some books simply must be re-read. Given my love of C.S. Lewis, many of the books that qualify for this award belong to him. This fact, however, may have hurt his prospects of winning it, as it would be hard to choose which one. Mere Christianity, for example, is one of my all-time favorites and has probably influenced me more than any book other than the Bible. I read it every year, and this year I read it in French (Les Fondements du Christianisme). It is also a difficult category, as every book I would re-read I obviously liked.

That being said, the award goes to Allen Ross’ Recalling the Hope of Glory. Ross is a professor at Beeson Divinity School, of which I am an alumni. This was his textbook for his class on Worship Leadership. He has a brilliant Old Testament mind and he leads the reader through all the Bible has to say about worship. He makes difficult concepts concerning Israel’s traditions very accessible and easy to apply to the modern worshipper. This book is an absolute must read for the pastor who wants his congregation have a deeper understanding of worship than whatever the new Chris Tomlin CD says (with all due respect to Mr. Tomlin). Here is a little nugget from the book to entice you to read it: “Holiness is not one of many descriptions of God; it is the summary designation of all that God is and is known to be in contrast to all creation.”

2nd Place - Les Trois Mousquetaires, Alexandre Dumas (The Three Muskateers, read it in French this time)
Honorable Mention – The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis; Notes Freom the Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Best Christian Nonfiction

The Insanity of God, by Nik Ripken

I absolutely loved this book. In fact, I loved it so much that I wrote a review of it, which you can see here: http://parkerwindle.blogspot.fr/2013/08/the-insanity-of-god-by-nik-ripken-review.html  . In short, I loved the tough questions it asks about suffering and persecution in the Christian life, as well as the struggles of a missionary who wants to bring people to faith in Christ while observing the dangers that this prospect would bring. Ripken is humble in his questions and thorough in his attempts to answer them. I found this book extremely edifying and would recommend it.

2nd place: Mere Apologetics, Alister McGrath
Honorable Mention: Preaching to a Post Everything Word, Zack Eswine; The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller; Bloodlines, John Piper

Best Scholarly

The Age of Reform:1250-1550, Steven Ozment

If this seems like a bizarre category, then know that I pretty much made it up so I could say how much I liked this book. Steven Ozment, a professor at Harvard, writes a terrific introduction to the study of the Reformation. He gives great background on the Monastic and Scholastic movements which really help to understand the mindsets of figures like Luther and Calvin when they hit the scene. Ozment is also a good writer, and I enjoyed his work so much that I also read his When Father’s Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe. If you are interested in going deep into the Reformation, this one is a must read.

2nd Place: Christ and Culture, H. Richard Neibuhr
Honorable mention: When Father’s Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, Steven Ozment

Biggest Disappointment

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

This year I made my second attempt to try to get through this one, and, though it was grueling and sometimes excruciating, I finally made it. Put me in the camp with those who don’t understand why Dickens is heralded as such a genius. Sure, there are flashes of brilliance, but unfortunately those flashes are hidden within hundreds of pages of boredom. The one book of his that I do love, A Tale of Two Cities, I only really loved after I had finished it. While I did enjoy the tension of the tragic misplaced love of Pip for Estella, I had a hard time caring about the characters or the story as a whole. This is a classic, and Dickens is widely renowned as a genius, so I am sure he will survive my criticism here. Assuredly I will discipline myself to read another big Dickens novel sometime (note I said discipline myself), but I am not looking forward to it.

2nd place: The Book of Acts, Frank Stagg
Honorable Mention: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy; God on Sex, Danny Akin

Book of the Year

Center Church, by Tim Keller

This book stands way above and beyond any other book I read this year, and it is perhaps the best book I have read since I have gotten out of school. If you are a missionary and/or pastor in an urban setting, or need to be convinced of the necessity of gospel witness to cities, this book is an absolute must read. A consistent theme in the book is that the church/Christian ought to seek to stay balanced, or in the center, regarding the different questions that surround urban churches. The gospel ought to be
seed by which all ministry grows out of and flame through which all theological convictions are purged. Keller, as always, presents well-researched, scholarly material in ways that are accessible to the average layman, and he provides insightful wisdom that comes from years of experience. Refreshingly, he does not offer quick fixes or a step by step program; rather, he provides questions by which we can evaluate how we do things and what is appropriate for our contexts. The book is divided into 8 parts, which can be purchased separately on Kindle. I particularly enjoyed the sections on contextualization and cultural engagement.

2nd place: The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
Honorable Mention: The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken; Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

Book list:

Eyes Wide Open, Steve Dewitt
Jonathan Edwards: Lover of God, Douglas Sweeney
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller
The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis (Reread)
Tortured for Christ, Richard Wurmbrand
Louis XIV, Makers of History, John Abbot
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis (reread)
Recalling the Hope of Glory, Allen Ross (reread)
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern
Heidegger in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern
The Epistle to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT, by F.F. Bruce
The Praise of Folly, Erasmus
Notes From the Underground, Dostoyevsky (reread)
When I don't Desire God, John Piper
The Kreutxer Sonata, Tolstoy
The Book of Acts, Frank Stagg
Young, Restless, and Reformed, Collin Hansen
How Should I Live in This World, RC Sproul
The Empire of Austria: Its Rise and Present Power, John S.C. Abbott
The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Tim Keller
Selections From the Table Talk of Martin Luther, Martin Luther
Les Trois Mousquetaires, Alexandre Dumas (reread)
Christ and Culture, H. Richard Neibuhr
Letters to a Young Pastor, Calvin Miller
The Man with Two Left Feet, and Other Stories, P.G. Wodehouse
The Power of Suffering, John MacArther
Sanctuary, William Faulkner
Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis (reread)
The Age of Reform:1250-1550, Steven Ozment
The Insanity of God, Nik Ripken
The Story of the Amulet, Edith Nesbit
God on Sex, Danny Akin
Les Fondements du Christianisme, C.S. Lewis (reread)
Bloodlines, John Piper
Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thmas Hardy
Worldviews in Conflict, Ronald Nash (reread)
The Happy Prince and Other Tales, Oscar Wilde
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art, Abraham Kuyper
A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
L'humanite de Calvin, Richard Stauffer
Free Grace Broadcaster: Babies, multiple authors
Mere Apologetics, Alister McGrath
C is for Christmas, Warren Wiersbe
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Center Church, Tim Keller
When Father's Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, Steven Ozment
Preaching to a Post Everything Word, Zack Eswine
Derrida in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Baby Who Plays with Nails

But the LORD was pleased
    To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
    If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
    He will see His offspring,
    He will prolong His days,
    And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

Isaiah 53:10

There is a small sculpture in the Louvre that I love, though it often goes unnoticed amidst the wealth of art that surrounds it. If you enter one of my favorite rooms in the Denon section, you will pass by the famous sculpture of Cupid and Psyche. Just before you get to Michelangelo’s Esclaves you will pass this sculpture in the photo above, entitled,”L’Enfant Jesus jouant avec un clou,” (The infant Jesus playing with a nail), by Paolo Bernini.

Now, since it is Christmas season, I am immediately drawn to Christ being shown as an infant. What is celebrated on Christmas day is indeed the hope of all humanity. In the darkest of times, in the darkest of places, we see that we have a God who is willing to lay aside glory and power to become a man (a poor, infant child at that) in order that he might shine the true light in the places where it must be shown.

Christmas is our hope. It is the advent of our Hero, Heaven’s Champion. Yet, as I gaze into this sculpture, I realize that Christmas can only be appropriately viewed with the shadow of Good Friday lurking over the manger where Jesus lay. Jesus was born to suffer and to die. Suffering is the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation, and you can see it on the face of the baby in the sculpture. The innocent hands of that child would soon be pierced by those same jagged, rusty nails.

Isn’t that the testimony we are sometimes forced to give about our own lives? In the midst of all of our hopes, dreams, and joys is driven a rusty nail of despair. As much as we want our lives to be fairy tales with happy endings, most of the time our circumstances point us to difficulties and sufferings. If we must content ourselves with what this world is offering us, we submit to a bleak existence. The world does not teach hope.

Yet the baby that would take the nails was not taught of this world. He knew the terrible cup he would drink and still spoke of hope, peace, and joy. How could Christ preach the gospel he did?

The answer comes after death. It is Easter that trumps Good Friday. It is the resurrection where his glory would be manifested. It is the eternal that gives hope to the temporal. Jesus sent a very important message to all those who would believe in his name, namely, that unspeakable joy awaits the ones who make it through the perplexing sufferings that this life holds.

We will be grateful for the many joys that we receive from God this Christmas season, but we must also remember that the baby would take the nail. This world is not a place that is friendly to transcendent messages. Yet the baby that lay in the Christmas manger is nevertheless the invasion of God into a hostile world. He comes wielding weapons of love, patience, wisdom and kindness. The world fights back with wooden crosses and iron nails. And, despite the rebellious hearts with which the world fought, its nails proved to be His glory and our salvation.

Gloria in excelcis Deo