A Banquet of Books

J.I. Packer is one of the leading theologians of our time. His classic Knowing God was transformative for me during my college days more than 35 years ago when I first read it. Crossway’s blog has published a list of 50 books recommended by Packer. This is more than a year’s worth of reading, even if you are a fast reader, because I suspect, based on the ones on this list that I have read, that these books contain rich food for thought that will require digestion, not just consumption.

Enjoy the feast!

Reading Culture Rightly

How should we think about viewing, reading, and participating in the products of contemporary culture? This article by Alex Duke posted at The Gospel Coalition provides a very helpful guide to how we ought to think about and approach this issue. Though it is written with a focus on movies, using a recent documentary film on the life of British singer Amy Winehouse, the principles he outlines can be, and I think should be, applied to other forms as well.

I hope you will read the article and comment.

2015 Reading List

Biographies can be some of the most fruitful reading we can do. By learning about the lives of those who have gone before us or who have been successful in their lives, we can glean valuable lessons that can be applied to our own lives. We can also learn from their flaws and mistakes and gain insight into areas where we need to grow ourselves. This year’s reading list is a selection of biographies of great figures of the faith. We have selected a range of figures from church history beginning with Augustine all the way up to a recent biography of Billy Graham. We hope you will both enjoy, benefit from, and be inspired by these great lives.

Here is the list and schedule:

  • Jan – Feb: The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin by John Piper Amazon Christianbook
  • Mar – Apr: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas Amazon Christianbook
  • May – Jun: Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby by Edith L. Blumhofer Amazon Christianbook
  • Jul – Aug: Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life by Colin Duriez Amazon Christianbook
  • Sep – Oct: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, Elizabeth Sherrill, and John Sherrill Amazon Christianbook
  • Nov – Dec: Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham by Billy Graham Amazon Christianbook

All these books are available as Kindle books. All except the Blumhofer are available in ebook format from Christianbook. All but the Blumhofer and Graham books are available from iBooks.

Putting Your Theology of Work to Work

Our final book in this year’s reading list brings all we have read together this year to its practical conclusion. Amy Sherman’s Kingdom Calling gives us a presentation of a theology of work similar to that presented in the previous book on our list by Timothy Keller along with a series of practical illustrations of what this looks like in real life application. Sherman acknowledges that much of her view of this theology is based on Keller’s writings and teaching. Beginning with the theological foundation in part one, she turns to a brief manual for training people in vocational stewardship, and concludes with a helpful description of four pathways to actually being vocational stewards.

The central idea in her presentation of this theology is the church as the tsaddiqim, the doers of justice, which is also drawn from Keller. She describes this work of doing justice as having three parallel aspects: the rescue of the helpless and innocent from their oppressors; promoting equity; and restoration. The objective is what Sherman calls the “rejoiced city,” drawing from Proverbs 11:10, which tells us that “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.” Another way to describe this, she says, is that the work of the tsaddiqim is “offering our neighbors foretastes of kingdom realities.” (27) The goal of this is to give the world a picture of what biblical shalom will look like when God completes his redemptive work and creation is as it was meant to be again.

After giving us a picture of what we ought to be like as the tsaddiqim, Sherman explains why we so often aren’t that way. Her primary reason boils down to a misunderstanding of the scope of the gospel.

If we want to make progress in discipling Christ-followers who will live as the tsaddiqim, we need to understand the reasons why many do not live that way. The prevalence of an individualistic understanding of the gospel is the number-one reason. in many of our churches, our gospel is too small. While it is rightly centered on the vital atoning work of Jesus on the cross, it fails to grasp the comprehensive significance of his redemptive work. Consequently, it fails to direct Christ-followers into the righteous lifestyle of the tsaddiqim, who gladly join Jesus in his grand mission of restoration. (64-65)

What follows is an insightful critique of the evangelical church in America, including how we worship, how we fail to really disciple each other, and the results of both. Her solution? A proper understanding of the gospel is the only path to being who we ought to be as believers and, collectively, the church in the world. All this recalls Keller’s emphasis on Jeremiah 29 in both his Gospel in Life study and in Every Good Endeavor. It is because we truly understand why we are placed where we are placed that we are able to be the doers of justice and the signposts to what shalom is like.

If one of the problems with the church today is our failure to disciple, Sherman seeks to help correct the problem by giving some practical tools for discipling toward vocational stewardship, toward properly using the gifts and places God has given us in our work. Her call to the church to help members integrate the gospel with their daily lives echoes Keller again as well as the work of James Davison Hunter in To Change the World. Her suggested approach includes teaching a comprehensive gospel that points toward integrating faith and work as well as its lasting value, along with helping Christians discover their individual giftedness and how this informs bringing the comprehensive gospel to work.

Sherman closes her book with a description of four paths to putting all she has presented so far into practice. Her intention is to help Christians with “discerning where to invest their efforts.” (143) This is directed at church leaders, and intended to equip them first to respond to her challenge to disciple those under their teaching. Her four pathways include a place for every believer and their unique giftedness. They recognize that there are some who serve on the front lines, and some who provide support in the background in the role of doing justice. No one need feel that they can’t contribute to the work.

Sprinkled throughout with real-life examples, in Kingdom Calling Amy Sherman has provided both church leaders and individual Christians with a practical manual for teaching how to be good stewards of the gifts, callings, and vocations that God has given each of us. As we seek the prosperity of and to rejoice the cities in which we are placed, this book helps us understand more deeply our role in God’s redemption of creation so that we can perform that role with excellence where He has placed us.

Do You Have a Theology of Work? Should You?

If you have been keeping up with our reading list this year, you know that the theme is calling. You have read two views, from Christopher J. H. Wright and Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, of the general calling of God’s people. You have also read what Sinclair Ferguson says about who God’s people are, a key element in relating this general calling to your own life. Then we read about what calling means from Os Guinness. The fifth book in our list, by Timothy Keller, begins the process of pulling this all together for each of us.

In including this book in our list, we begin with the presumption that, for most of us, calling leads to work in some context. This extends upon the idea, from Guinness, that God places us, calls us, to be where we are for the purpose of his redemptive plan. Keller uses the same concept, pointing to Jeremiah’s letter to God’s people living as exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29 for the idea’s foundation. (242-243) He argues that, since we are placed, called to, our various jobs and professions by God, we need to understand what doing those jobs from the perspective of the gospel means. In short, Every Good Endeavor gives us a theology of work.

This book captures some foundational ways of thinking about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit; who we are in relation to that Trinity; and how all this affects the work we do. How we work-in the the context of our particular culture, time in history, vocation, and organization-is something we all need to be thinking through in our own communities. But the answers will all hang on this essential theology: the knowledge of who a God is, his relation to man, his plan for the world, and how the good news (or gospel) of Christ turns our lives and the way we work upside down.

This statement by Katherine Leary Altsdorf in her foreword to the book sets the stage for its content and the way it is presented. The book elaborates on these three points, first laying a foundation by challenging the reader to clarify his understanding of God, then arguing for viewing our work as part of God’s plan for his world, and finally how the gospel changes everything, including the way we view and do our work.

God’s own example for work provides the model for us. Genesis shows us that work is not a consequence of sin, as so many view it. Work preceded the Fall or Rebellion, the term I prefer, of man in the story. The word “work” is used of what God did in creation, and man is given work to do, tending the creation, before sin entered the picture. Understanding this is the first step in rethinking work and developing a theology for it. God is at the center of it. Work has a design, it has dignity, it is part of the cultivation of creation we were assigned in the beginning, and it should be seen as service to God and to creation, including other human beings.

Of course the reality of our situation is that we are on this side of the Rebellion, and that has some consequences. We both can’t and don’t do our work the way we should. The Rebellion affected our work and the environment in which we do it (Genesis 3:16-19). Fruitlessness, pointlessness, and selfishness all affect our thinking about work and must be combatted from the perspective of our understanding of God, our theology. One of Keller’s most helpful chapters in this section challenges us to understand how work shines a light on our idols. Someone has said that we serve what we worship. Work reveals what we are really serving and why. Are we serving the modern idols of success, or individualism, or work itself, or are we serving God first through our work?

If we are to serve God the way he intended through our work, Keller argues that we need to see the gospel as integral to it. The gospel provides us a story from which we are to understand our work, and the story we should be telling through it. Through the gospel we have a new idea about what work really is, and that common grace is an important part of how we should understand it. In other words, while Christians have a different perspective on work, non-Christians do good work and contribute to the cultivation of God’s creation because they are made in his image. This doesn’t change the state of their salvation, it only affirms what Paul talks about in Romans, that creation, though fallen, still reveals the glory of God.

The gospel also provides us a direction finder, a compass, to guide us as we work. It is the standard by which we can measure our decisions about what we do so that we perform the work of cultivation of creation based on God’s plan for the world. And all of this gives us a new power to do the work to which we are called. The gospel enables us to be the disciples in exile that Keller argues for as he concludes.

This is a very readable, thought-provoking book, with a helpful, though brief, description of how a church might train its members in the theology the book presents. No matter what your vocation, your calling, your work needs a theology behind it. In Every Good Endeavor, Keller does an excellent job of providing us with a guide to developing the theology we need for what we spend the majority of our lives doing—work.

Why Am I Here?

“Are you looking for purpose in life? For a purpose big enough to absorb every ounce of your attention, deep enough to plumb every mystery of your passions, and lasting enough to inspire you to your last breath? This book is about the reason why we are each here on earth. It explores the deepest, highest, grandest purpose that any human has ever experienced and history has ever known—a reason so profound that no one and nothing else even comes close.” (vii) This is how Os Guinness begins the fourth book on our reading list for the year, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.

If you have been reading from the list this year, you have already gotten two views of what God’s people as a whole are here to do in the books by Wright and DeYoung and Gilbert. We followed this with Ferguson’s book about who we are. This fourth book takes the next logical step in the process. It asks, from the perspective of the collective mission of God’s people and our identification as Christians as members of that group, the big why question at the individual level.

In his introduction to the book, Guinness identifies three approaches to answering the question posed in the opening paragraph. All three arise from the three basic worldview categories. The Eastern answer, typical of Hinduism and Buddhism for example, basically tells the questioner that his individual reason for being isn’t relevant because the ultimate goal is the “undifferentiated impersonal.” (viii) The secularist answer, typical of atheists, most agnostics, scientific naturalists, for example, is that we don’t discover our purpose; we decide what it is and pursue it. (viii-ix) Finally, the biblical answer tells us that our purpose “comes from two sources at once—who we are created to be and who we are called to be.” (ix) This book explores this last view in detail.

The subject of this book is important. It is a question that every human being asks, often more than once in his life. Guinness does an excellent job of helping the reader wrestle with the implications of the question. He uses the concept of calling as the central theme of the discussion. He defines calling as “the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.” (4)

Within this discussion the idea of primary calling—as followers of Christ—and secondary calling—the specifics of the way we are to live out our primary calling—is introduced. Guinness helpfully unpacks the two fundamental distortions that have developed on understanding calling, the Catholic one, which elevates spiritual callings over secular callings, characterizing the first as “the perfect life” and the other as “permitted,” and the Protestant one, which reverses the hierarchy. As the answer to these two distortions, he rightly proposes a balanced view where the primary calling based on identity in Christ and the secondary calling of service through giftedness are taken together. The title of the book’s sixth chapter summarizes this approach well—“Do What You Are.”

The closing chapters of the book bring the reader to the end of life and the end of the age. Guinness asks us to consider, as we contemplate our lives at the end, what the assessment will be. Have we “answered the call, followed the way, and finished well?” (233)

With this book, Guinness has provided a helpful, thoughtful resource. The edition we have recommended includes a set of study questions that would be very appropriate for use in a small group setting. It is a book to which you will want to return to reevaluate your secondary calling as life brings its inevitable changes. What is not in doubt about calling is the primary calling. No matter how it may be expressed in our lives, all Christians are called to be Christ followers. It is this, Guinness teaches us, that is the key answer to the question, “Why am I here?”

2014 Reading List

This year’s reading list is on the related themes of calling, vocation, and work. The question of how we understand these three words and how they relate to both our individual everyday occupations and the work we do together as the church should be one we are asking. Our list for this year is assembled to help us think about these topics. As usual, there are six books to read, one every two months. The exception to this is the first pair, which I think should be read as closely together as time allows. (Also, since I am late publishing this list!)

In the early part of the period in which these books are scheduled, you will find a brief review of each one on Let My People Read. I hope this will help encourage you to look at them, and I hope your reading will lead to some discussion of them via comments on those review posts.

Here is the list and schedule:

  • Jan – April: The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission by Christopher J. H. Wright Amazon Christianbook
    What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert Amazon Christianbook
  • May – Jun: Children of the Living God by Sinclair B. Ferguson Amazon Christianbook
  • Jul – Aug: The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life by Os Guinness Amazon Christianbook
  • Sep – Oct: Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Timothy Keller Amazon Christianbook
  • Nov – Dec: Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good by Amy L. Sherman Amazon Christianbook

All these books except the Ferguson work are available as Kindle books. All except the Ferguson and Keller are available in ebook format from Christianbook. All but the Ferguson and Sherman books are available from iBooks.

A Different Approach to Reading Through the Bible

There are numerous Bible reading plans available at numerous internet sites. Most of these are organized around reading the Bible in small sections every day with the goal of reading it all in a year. Over at the Gospel Coalition blog, Peter Krol suggests a different approach, reading the Bible as quickly as possible. I can attest to the value of this approach. For most of us, the Old Testament is heavy going when we read it. My own experience with reading as Krol suggests is that reading large sections helps focus attention on the big themes in each book. As he notes, this is particularly helpful with books like Leviticus and the books of Kings and Chronicles.

Although we’ve missed the last couple of years, there will be a recommended reading list for 2014 published here soon. In addition to that list, make sure the Bible is on your list to read this year. Whether you try Krol’s approach or another plan, get started and stick to it. Happy reading in 2014!

New blog added to our Blogroll

We recently have gotten to know Kyle Owenby and have added his blog to our Blogroll (see the list on the right). Kyle is a Reformation historian and instructor in history at a small college in North Georgia, and you can learn more about him on his blog site. Kyle has recently been reviewing some interesting books and has given us permission to link to them here. As we see reviews that may be of interest, we will add notices for you. Maybe we can even get Kyle to write some pieces for this site in the future. Hope you enjoy getting to know his work as much as we have.

Happy reading!