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Best Reads of 2018

Each year I keep a list of the books I read all the way through, typically with brief notes, as a way of tracking my thoughts and a way to look back on each year and see some of what influenced me. So, in this post I have drawn from that list some of the best books I read this year with slightly edited versions of the notes I jotted down after reading them.

I selected a Top 10 from the books I read this year. These 10 aren’t listed in a particular order, and they made this list for various reasons ranging from sheer enjoyment to level of impact on me. Following the Top 10 are some more books I enjoyed reading this year (in no particular order) as well as some disappointing ones.

Top 10

  1. The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance- Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, Sinclair Ferguson- This is the best theological book I read this year. I first listened to this and then read it again with some students. It is vintage Ferguson- beautifully written historical theology packed with pastoral application and implication.
  2. The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Daniel James Brown- This is an amazing story, and Brown writes it so very well! From the preface with the main character reflecting back on life to the account of the medal race at the end- story telling at its finest. I have never had any interest in rowing, but this is a beautiful book about life, perseverance, teamwork. It was deeply moving to me.
  3. The Romanov Files, 1918-1953: A Non-Fiction Novel, Harry Lee Poe- My friend and colleague, Hal Poe, is a wonderful troy-teller and here he is in top form weaving together what we know in history with a wild conspiracy tale that just could have happened. Plus the gospel surfaces in natural and compelling ways.
  4. The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman- A fascinating account of bravery and perseverance, much better than the movie. The movie removed all traces of Bernie Webber’s faith which played a significant role, with his leading his crew in singing Rock of Ages as they went out on their daring rescue
  5. The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge, Michael Punke- I have not seen this movie, and was surprised by how captivating this story is! I was surprised to see biblical citations, allusions, etc. throughout.
  6. Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, Larry Hurtado- This book doesn’t match the “can’t put this down” writing of the previous books in this list. It is more work to read, but it is rich in information on the background of the New Testament. People today wrongly assume similarity between religions, but Hurtado shows how strikingly different Christianity was from practically all the other religions of the day, and yet most of those other religions have died out and today even unbelievers tend to think of “religion” in particularly Christian terms.
  7. Bill Wallace of China, Jesse Fletcher- This is a simple, compelling account of faithful missionary service under all manner of difficulty, from war to Communist takeover. The writing doesn’t match some of these other books, but the example of Wallace- Christlike humility and service, selflessness, mercy, perseverance and love- is a powerful witness. This is a story that needs to be heard.
  8. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance, Ben Sasse- Not the typical book by a politician since it does not argue for why he should be elected (or re-elected) or for any specific policies. It is more of a parenting book, asking the question, “How do we raise our children so that they become independent thinking adults?” Very good.
  9. Accompany Them with Singing- The Christian Funeral, Thomas Long- Profound. This is the most thoughtful book I know of on why and how we do funerals as Christians. We have lost much of our symbolism and don’t tend to think as carefully about death, the place of the worshipping community and how we honor. This is one I’m still pondering.
  10. The Golden Christmas: A Tale of Lowcountry Life, William Gilmore Simms- This is a fun Christmas story written and set in South Carolina in the early 1850’s by one of the most popular novelists of the 19th century. Equal parts comedy and romance, it also provides insight to the world of that time.

Biography/History

  1. Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham- Very well done, fascinating- almost made it into my top 10. I finished it about a month before Bush died. I didn’t want to put it down each night. I read it typically a chapter or two each night. I was never big Bush fan. I respected his grace in comparison to too much of what has followed, but this helped me see the man better. The father-son stuff (as always) moves me most. His support of his sons and their devotion to him is moving. Any man who has that has much and is worthy of admiration. The closing story was quite moving too, almost to tears for me.
  2. To Hell and Back, Audie Murphy- I see why this is considered a classic WWII account. It is really well written (I was surprised by that). He obviously wants to communicate how terrible war is and to obliterate any romantic notions. He accomplishes that very well.
  3. Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington- It was fascinating to get to see the world through the eyes of this great leader. I don’t remember often hearing of how central Chrstn faith was to Washington, but that comes through clearly in his book. We could use to hear again also his stress on hard work, perseverance, studying, and presenting yourself well.
  4. Through Gates of Splendor, Elisabeth Elliot- I read this years ago, but re-read it with one of my sons. This is a great missionary story. Epilogue 2 from 1996 has particularly strong, mature, important reflections in on not assuming we know the heavenly math or justification for suffering.
  5. Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris, Alex Kershaw- This is the fascinating story of a family caught in France, who seek to continue providing medical service and eventually begin covert work with the resistance.
  6. Bud & Me: The True Adventures of the Abernathy Boys, Alta Abernathy- I read this again with my younger children and it is still an amazing, wonderful story. (You can see my previous review here.)
  7. Churchill in the Trenches, Peter Apps- The story of Churchill’s time after being dismissed from leading the Navy during WWI until rejoining the government toward the end of the war. During this time Churchill joined the army leading a battalion in France. Typical Churchill- winning the appreciation of his men, over the top in various ways, stuck on himself, eager for power, insightful as well.
  8. The Old South: 50 Essential Books (Southern Reader’s Guide), Clyde Wilson- a lot of fun, some books I knew, many I did not. Led me to buy several!
  9. Orr: My Story, Bobby Orr- I have no interest in hockey, but on the encouragement of a friend I read this book and loved it because of the character shown by Orr. I now even have a Bobby Orr quote on my Greek syllabus! Hard work, humility, and appreciation of team and family shine here.
  10. Brave Companions: Portraits in History, David McCullough- This is a collection of various essays and some were slow while others were quite good.
  11. The Death of Caesar, Barry Strauss- Strauss does a great job of bringing ancient history to life, helping you to almost put yourself in the place of the people of the time.
  12. Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer, Jerry Kramer & Dick Schapp- This was a fun book, as Kramer detailed his thoughts and experiences through one year of playing for the Packers under Vince Lombardi. He shows how players loved Lombardi even as he was tough on them, even overly demanding. He also gives insight into how we got into the place of players’ injuries being overlooked and to pills being abused.Kramer’s book is better than When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss which has a lot of detail but wanders off on tangents and seems cynical. Run to Daylight by Vince Lombardi & H. C. Heinz was not as interesting as I had hoped. However, Winning Is the Only Thing, ed. Jerry Kramer, was a great read with chapters from players, fellow coaches, etc. who knew Lombardi reflecting on what he meant to them.
  13. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty, William Hogeland- A well written account of an often overlooked episode in US history. Hogeland highlights the conniving and machinations of Alexander Hamilton and others to manipulate things to ensure greater centralized power, especially the power to tax and to increase their own economic situation. This is a revealing look at this time in history, especially relevant to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist discussion as you see here the use of government that the Anti-Federalists (like Patrick Henry) warned about. Brion McClanahan’s How Alexander Hamilton Screwed Up America is clear in its aims.
  14. The Taking of K-129: How the CIA Used Howard Hughes to Steal a Russian Sub in the Most Daring Covert Operation in History, Josh Dean- This is another story in history which I had missed, occurring I the 1970’s. The sotry wanders a bit but it was fascinating especially to see how the various aspects of science and industry were brought to bear on this search for a downed sub.
  15. A City laid Waste: The Capture, Sack, and Destruction of the City of Columbia, William Gilmore Simms- A compelling first person account of the destruction of Columbia, South Carolina in the Civil War

Culture/Leadership

  1. Heavy Lifting: Grow Up, Get a Job, Start a Family, and Other Manly Advice, Jim Geraghty and Cam Rogers- This book surpassed my expectations, leading me to go back and buy a copy for each of my sons. The authors have fun with the subject while giving a lot of good advice for young men.
  2. Leadership is an Art, Max DePree- I appreciated the humanness of Depree’s approach to leadership.
  3. The Language of the American South, Cleanth Brooks- A fascinating study by a leading scholar of the time on dialect of the South. He argues and demonstrates that Southern speech actually preserves more typical British speech of the past. I’ve heard this asserted but the examples he drew from prominent British literature were fascinating, specifically where the speech patterns typically associated with slaves in American literature was shown to be common in British literature of the past among higher social classes (e.g. “d” in place of “th”, “dem,’ or “dis”)

Biblical Studies/Theology

  1. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, Thomas Kidd- Helpful, thorough. It is striking to note how thoroughgoing a providentialist reading was in that era. We now soundly reject that, but this was not just some fringe reading.
  2. Why Children Matter, Douglas Wilson- very good, helpful, nuanced, solid. The Q&A where they got to specifics I found less helpful. Still good points but more spots where I disagreed or thought it will get people off in the weeds where they might miss the great things earlier.
  3. Father Hunger, Douglas Wilson- Much good here.
  4. What I Learned in Narnia, Douglas Wilson- I had wanted to write a book on lessons from Narnia and this is it done better than I could.
  5. When I was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson- Collected essays, so they vary widely. Some I found fascinating and insightful, some I found opaque, and others misguided. I loved parts, but in the end had to push myself to get through others to finish.
  6. Can We Trust the Gospels, Peter Williams- An excellent, accessible treatment of the question.
  7. A Diary of Private Prayer, John Baillie- I found this little book of morning and evening prayers for one month stimulating. Some prayers were better than others, but it was often helpful to stir my thoughts in new directions.
  8. God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer- This is a collection of Bonhoeffer’s comments from various works which speak to Advent and Christmas. I found this very useful especially as he reflected on advent from his prison camp.

Fiction

  1. Ember Rising, The Green Ember Book III, S. D. Smith- Wow. Wonderful. This book is captivating, appealing to honor, love and loyalty, noting the importance and value of symbol and story. It captures so much of what I want to impress on my children. I was moved to tears at times and then left with chills at others. The brief installment, The Last Archer, was also good.
  2. The Singreale Chronicles, Calvin Miller- My friend Ron Sloan, gave me these three volumes (Guardians of the Singreale, Star Riders of Ren, and War of the Moonrhymes). They are a fun tales of a fantasy world caught in a struggle between good and evil. They are odd in places, but overall a compelling story.
  3. A Man Called Trent, Louis L’Amour- This was the first book I finished this year, and I relized last year I started with a L’Amour as well. This one was fun though not up to the better ones I’ve read of his.
  4. Last of the Breed, Louis L’Amour- really engaging story. Rather than the West, this one is set in Soviet Siberia in the 1980’s. A soviet officer is abducting Westerners to obtain information. He abducts a USAF major who happens to be Sioux. L’Amour gets to bring in his knowledge of the Sioux and pay them tribute as the main character draws on his knowledge of the “old ways” to survive and pay back his persecutors. It does leave a lot hanging, making me wish L’Amour had been able to write the sequel.
  5. The Walking Drum, Louis L’Amour- Here again L’Amour steps out of the American West, setting this story in 12th century Europe. This book has the most thoroughgoing pagan worldview of any of his I’ve read. His main character also lacks the gallantry in his approach to women I always find in his westerns.
  6. The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers- started quite slow with all the detail on bells and I think it likely communicated better in its day with so much of local flavor and custom missing me today. It was interesting. I was struck by how much has changed. Bells informing everyone of deaths, etc.. There is a nice portrait of pastoral ministry here. Throughout the story the rector is indefatigable in his labors to care for his people, is compassionate and attentive. He is eccentric in his own way, forgetful of items, but in the end it is his forward thinking and planning that saves the village in the flood. Also fun to see that the key clues are lines from psalms
  7. Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs- I really enjoyed getting into the Tarzan books. It was surprising how different they are from the TV series I knew as a kid. They also provide insight into the culture of the time they were written. It is not until halfway through the second book, The Return of Tarzan, that Tarzan returns to the jungle, and in the meantime he has been an agent for the war ministry in France!By the third book, The Beasts of Tarzan, some of the standard tropes  began to get a little old, though it was still fun. I liked this time Tarzan’s interaction with the animals and his gathering of an “army” of apes and a panther
  8. Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs- After enjoying the Tarzan stories I decided to try a John Carter story. It started a bit slow compared to similar books, but in the end I enjoyed it quite a bit. It was published about 1911, so that portrayal of politics on Mars is striking. There are different races which are trying to survive the decay of the planet. The “bad guys” have no freedom, raise children as the community without any sense of family, personal connection or private property. It sounds like communism. Burroughs critiques it showing how affection and familial connection make people stronger.
  9. The Jungle Book: The Mowgli Stories, Rudyard Kipling- I knew this would be different from Disney, and it was interesting to see. You can see where much of it is derived, but the real story, as expected, is rougher. I liked much of the poetry which Kipling included. Many good lessons in the story.
  10. The Pearl, John Steinbeck- At the beginning the writing felt pretentious. But along the way the story won me over. The point is what I expected right away, but it is a good point, and this is a good story for helping you to identify with the plight of those who are taken advantage of. Here the church and the wealthy conspire to extort the poor. You also see syncretistic religion which is too common as people just cling to whatever might help them. I think the wife is the strongest character. Even when her husband abuses her, she is picture of a strong, faithful woman.
  11. It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis- Strikingly relevant as Lewis, writing in 1935, imagines how the desire for a “strong man” president leads to the erosion of freedom in the US.
  12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller, Jr.- Odd but appealing. Miller tells a repeating apocalyptic tale noting humanity’s penchant for destroying ourselves and God’s work in the midst of it all. The interaction of the priest toward the end standing up for the sanctity of life despite government oppression is a high point of the book.
  13. In the Reign of Terror, G. A. Henty- This was a re-read, to my younger children this time. I noticed more this time the challenge of the language, but it is still an excellent story and a fine introduction to the French Revolution, filled with compelling portraits of courage, honor and nobility.
  14. Logan’s Run, William Nolan & George Clayton- Quite a bit different from the movie as I remember it. An engaging dystopian story of a post-apocalyptic civilization where freedom has been traded for security and central planning. Everyone must submit to death after you reach 21 years of age.  It has a good bit of sensuality, but some engaging points about civilization, freedom, etc. The sequel, Logan’s World (by William Nolan) lacked the strengths of the previous book and had more sensuality.
  15. Armstrong. The Custer of the West Series, H. W. Crocker III – A rip-roaring spoof! Custer survived Little Big Horn and composed a series of letters to his wife detailing his adventures as he secretly tries to clear his name before returning home. Completely over the top, Crocker lampoons Armstrong and makes various cultural critiques in his humor.
  16. The Christmas Hirelings, Mary Elizabeth Braddon- A wonderful little Victorian Christmas story written in 1894. Similar in basic theme to A Christmas Carol it’s basic themes are family, love, softening of a hardened old man and forgiveness. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the audible narration was wonderfully done.
  17. The Book of Boy, Catherine Gilbert Murdock- a fascinating, well-written story for older children. I will post a review soon at The Children’s Hour.
  18. Anthem, Ayn Rand- I read it in high school, so listened again now. In HS I thought of it simply in Cold War terms- the protagonist is for democracy and the bad guys were commies. I’ve realized since that her point was more radical, which is part of why I wanted to read the book again. I still like most of what is being said throughout the book right up until he declares the individual human soul to be the highest authority. I see what she’s against, and I agree with some of it. But she is, of course, against any religious restriction on man as well.
  19. Flags Out Front: A Contrarian’s Daydream, Douglas Wilson- really good! In his regular way, Wilson zings leftist totalitarian culture, spineless Christian leaders, idolatrous nationalism, liberal Christian professors, et al. and has fun doing it.
  20. Purge on the Potomac, David Thomas Roberts- interesting story but plagued by various things. The writing is tendentious in places and repetitive. I like dystopian novels and this is basically a current day dystopian story. But, in the end it is too lopsided and could easily be seen a demonizing anyone on the left. The concept is compelling if it was more carefully written.

Disappointing

  1. The Sea of Grass, Conrad Richter- I got this book because of David McCullough’s chapter on Richter in Brave Companions. However, I was not taken with it. I had to push through it, especially after the compelling narrative in The Revenant. There was some nice description, but the story itself did not grab me.
  2. Call for the Dead, John Le Carré- some nice descriptive language, but overall subpar story

 

Forgiveness of Sin, Sermon on 1 John 1:8-2:2

I had the opportunity this past Sunday to preach at First Baptist, Jackson, TN, where my family and I are members. We are currently in a series through 1 John so my text was 1:8-2:2, a beautiful passage which describes the reality of the hope for forgiveness of sins. You can watch the sermon here:

 

A Godly Pastor is a Grace-filled Pastor

I’m really enjoying Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Whole Christ. Among other things, it is a very helpful exposition of grace and the free call of the gospel to all people.

In the section below Ferguson is discussing the trouble of legalism and pastoral ministry. I think it is a wonderful portrayal of a pastor.

This will not do in gospel ministry. Rather, pastors need themselves to have been mastered by the unconditional grace of God. From them the vestiges of a self-defensive pharisaism and conditionalism need to be torn. Like the Savior they need to handle bruised reeds without breaking them and dimly burning wicks without quenching them.

What is a godly pastor, after all, but one who is like God, with a heart of grace; someone who sees God bringing prodigals home and runs to embrace them, weeps for joy that they have been brought home, and kisses them—asking no questions—no qualifications or conditions required? (73)

The Ultimate Aim of Pastoral Overisght

In any task one must keep in view the ultimate end or purpose. This is true for pastoral ministry as well. In the final assignment for my pastoral ministry class I always ask students to state the ultimate aim of pastoral ministry. Richard Baxter provides a good answer to this question:

“The ultimate end of our pastoral oversight is … to please and to glorify God. It is also to see the sanctification and holy obedience of the people under our charge. To nurture our people’s unity, order, beauty, strength, preservation, and increase must be our task. It is the right worshipping of God. This means that before a man is capable of being a true pastor of a church, he must have a high esteem of these objectives. He must make them the great and only end of his own life” – Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 68

importance of confession of sinThe Center for Baptist Renewal, directed by Matt Emerson and Luke Stamps, posted today a brief piece I wrote on the value of having confession of sin as a distinct piece of our corporate worship. You can read the piece here.

 

Lecture, “Portrait of a Faithful Pastor”

Earlier this month I had the privilege of participating in the lecture series of the School of Christian Ministries at California Baptist University. I titled my address “Portrait of a Faithful Pastor.” Drawing from 2 Timothy 2 and other texts I argued that to be a faithful pastor a man must give himself to God, to God’s word and to God’s people. The video is below.

 

 

CBU School of Christian Ministries Lecture Series with – Dr. Ray Van Neste – April 5, 2018 from California Baptist University on Vimeo.

 

From Good Friday to Easter

Good Friday:
Pause to perceive the pain,
sit with the sorrow,
contemplate the cruelty
of the condemnation of Christ,
the substitute of the sinless Son

 

Sad Saturday

Saturday, the settled gloom
Speaks only doom
Our Lord sealed in the tomb.
Our hopes were high.
Why did he have to die?
Was it all a lie?
Stumble through Sabbath, weak,
Everything so bleak
What to do at the first of the week?

 

Easter Morning:
Tears are turned to triumph
Woe to wonder
Sadness to singing
Aching to alleluia
The blues have blossomed to blessing
And darkness is driven away by delight.

He is Risen!

 

Rehabilitate the Noble Word, “Pastors”

Amen, John Stott:

“In our day, in which there is much confusion about the nature and purpose of the pastoral ministry, and much questioning whether clergy are primarily social workers, psychotherapists, educators, facilitators or administrators, it is important to rehabilitate the noble word ‘pastors’, who are shepherds of Christ’s sheep, called to tend, feed and protect them.”

- The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1990), 323.

Leadership in the Church

Today in my Pastoral Ministry class we will be discussing 1 Thess 5:12-13, which is a significant passage on the duties of pastors to congregation and congregation to pastors. Some seek to evade the language of authority in this text, but that is misguided. I think it reveals our discomfort with the idea of authority- which is a problem. Of course, there are examples of abuse of authority, but every good thing God has ordained has been abused somewhere. The way forward is not to reject what God has made but to pursue its proper use.

Greg Beale, in his commentary, speaks to this issue well:

One of the reasons for this predicament is that we too often view church leaders as CEOs of the church “corporation,” whose purpose is to meet our needs.  If the church does not meet our needs in the way we think it should, we find another “church store” to attend.  Another reason for this situation is that the American church has been so permeated with democracy and individualism that these two great American ideals have been taken to an extreme.  Too often churches proclaim that their goal is that every believer become a “minister.”  The implication is that every believer is to be equal with every other believer and that, ideally, there should be no one in an authoritative position over anyone else.  Of course, it is true that everyone in the church is equal in the sense of being in the image of God.  Accordingly, all should grow in their recognition and exercise of the diverse gifts that they have received from God.  But Christians are not equal in the sense that they have functional equality in the church.  Rather, they have different gifts that entail different kinds of functions.  Leadership is among these gifts (Eph 4:11).

We need to be instructed about the important role leaders play in the church and how others who have not been called to be leaders should look upon those in authority over them.[1]

 

[1] G.K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 158-59.

 

“Go, Labor On; Spend, and Be Spent”

I recently came across another hymn by Horatius Bonar, which I have added to my “Poems of Perseverance” file. It is on my office door this week as my Poem of the Week.

 “Go, Labor On; Spend, and Be Spent”

Go, labor on; spend, and be spent;
Thy joy to do the Father’s will;
It is the way the Master went;
Should not the servant tread it still?

Go, labor on: ’tis not for nought;
Thy earthly loss is heav’nly gain;
Men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not;
The Master praises, what are men?

Go, labor on; your hands are weak,
Your knees are faint, your souls cast down;
Yet falter not; the prize you seek
Is near, a kingdom and a crown.

Go, labor on while it is day,
The world’s dark night is hastening on;
Speed, speed thy work, cast sloth away,
It is not thus that souls are won.

Men die in darkness at your side,
Without a hope to cheer the tomb;
Take up the torch and wave it wide,
The torch that lights time’s thickest gloom.

Press on, faint not, keep watch and pray;
Be wise the erring soul to win;
Go forth into the world’s highway,
Compel the wanderer to come in.

Press on, and in thy work rejoice;
For work comes rest, the prize thus won;
Soon shalt thou hear the Master’s voice,
The midnight cry, Behold, I come!
-          Horatius Bonar