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The Cowboy & The Shepherd

A friend sent me this video yesterday. It is an excellent, brief discussion of pastoral ministry, hitting many of the key points I try to speak to at this site. I recommend this video for any pastors, and especially for guys just starting out as pastor John Powell talks about some of his struggles in his first two years, struggles which are common to most of us.

Sadly, John died this weekend after being struck by a car as he had stopped to help someone. I never knew John, but I appreciate deeply what he shares here and I have joined others in praying for his  family. I hope you will benefit from this video and then pray for his family a well.

What’s a Pastor for?

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching at my home church, FBC Jackson, TN, as we celebrated Justin Wainscott’s 10th anniversary as pastor at FBC. I thought it was a good opportunity to revisit what the New Testament says about the task of pastors, so that we might be reminded what it is God has called pastors to do.

I am convinced many churches are not clear on what the Bible says pastors are to do, with the result that some pastors are praised for the wrong reasons and some are criticized for the wrong reasons. Here is my attempt to speak to this issue and to encourage my brother in his faithful pursuit of God’s calling as a pastor.

Luther on Pastoral Duty during a Plague

At the London Review of Books blog, historian Lyndal Roper has a helpful, brief piece on Luther’s response to the plague that came to Wittenberg. Roper is Regius Chair of History at the University of Oxford and has written a biography of Luther.

Her column is largely a summary and interaction with Luther’s pamphlet, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. As we deal with a pandemic it is helpful to hear Luther’s thoughts as he faced more death and devastation. He was clear on the duty of pastors to stay and to minister to the sick and dying. Roper gives some moving examples. It is well worth reading.

The Psalms: The Paradise of Devotion

spurgeon_charlesI am editing for publication a brief piece on the Psalms and came back across this beautiful quote from Spurgeon on the Psalms:

“Above all, I trust that the Holy Spirit. has been with me in writing and compiling these volumes, and therefore I expect that he will bless them both to the conversion of the unrenewed and to the edification of believers. The writing of this book has been a means of grace to my own heart; I have enjoyed for myself what I have prepared for my readers. The Book of Psalms has been a royal banquet to me, and in feasting upon its contents I have seemed to eat angels’ food. It is no wonder that old writers should call it,—the school of patience, the soul’s soliloquies, the little Bible, the anatomy of conscience, the rose garden, the pearl island, and the like. It is the Paradise of devotion, the Holy Land of poesy, the heart of Scripture, the map of experience, and the tongue of saints. It is the spokesman of feelings which else had found no utterance. Does it not say just what we wished to say? Are not its prayers and praises exactly such as our hearts delight in? No man needs better company than the Psalms; therein he may read and commune with friends human and divine; friends who know the heart of man towards God, and the heart of God towards man ; friends who perfectly sympathize with us and our sorrows, friends who never betray or forsake. Oh, to be shut up in a cave with David, with no other occupation but to hear him sing, and to sing with him! Well might a Christian monarch lay aside his crown for such enjoyment, and a believing pauper find a crown in such felicity.” (from the preface to volume 6, The Treasury of David, London” Passamore & Alabaster, 1882, vii)

Summer Class- Pastoral Ministry in Novels

This summer (June-July) I will get to teach a class I’ve been dreaming of for years- Portraits of Pastoral Ministry in Modern Novels.

I already teach our regular Pastoral Ministry class where we walk through key biblical texts while reading seminal texts on pastoral ministry from the 6th century to today. We seek to understand what pastoral ministry is by studying the Scriptures along with the church through the ages.

This new class is a follow up on my standard class. Having examined the biblical teaching, how might well-written novels help us better envision what this biblical model looks like in practice? Good literature has a way of helping us flesh out ideas, to see what ti looks like to put something into practice. One of the reasons God has given us literature, I believe, is to help stir our souls to love more deeply the truth and to move us with disgust at its perversion. This is what we will seek in this class.

As is typical for me, I have more books I’d like to include in this class than we have time for :). So, to keep it manageable, I have settled on these four books (you can see the full syllabus here):

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country
Lars Walker, Year of the Warrior
John Buchan, Witch Wood

I’ll mention at the end other books I had in mind. Gilead is a portrait of a faithful pastor in a small town in Iowa that no one would have heard about our much cared about. It is a beautifully written portrayal of ministry, wrestling with guilt, loss, forgiveness and care for souls without concern for the recognition of the world.

In Cry the Beloved Country, a Zulu pastor who must deal with a prodigal son in the midst of the racial tensions of South Africa in the mid-20th century. It is a moving story of love, loss and the challenge of faith with powerful pictures of ministry.

Probably the surprise book in the list is The Year of the Warrior, a work which combines historical fiction with fantasy. The story follows a portion of the career of the historical figure Erling Skjalgsson (975-1028), a viking leader who brought Christianity to his people. The main character is a captured Irishman who is required to become Erling’s priest- even though he is not a believer! The fantasy portion comes in as this priest encounters the spirits and old gods who are now being run out by this new “crucified God.” This story raises questions of faith and doubt, the power of the gospel, and the clash with principalities and powers.

Lastly, Witch Wood was a well-known book in days past but probably unknown to most of my readers today. Buchan was a prolific author and Scottish statesman who ended up as Governor General of Canada (1935-1940). Witch Wood is a story of pastoral ministry during the days of the Scottish Covenanters. The main character takes a pastorate in a sleepy little village where all seems well. However, while the people are faithful to the services of the church they are even more deeply embedded in dark practices and trouble begins when the pastor challenges this. This is more directly relevant to pastoral ministry today than we often want to admit.

This is already longer than I planned, so I will conclude by saying we’ll read these novels, have four Zoom meetings to discuss them and in between have mini-lectures on video that introduce the books further and layout biblical and theological framework of the vision of pastoral ministry we are discussing. I’d love to have you join us, and we have a special deal for those who’d like to audit the class. Write me for more details (rvanneste at uu dot edu).

[I had various other books in mind, but the other 2 that almost made the list were Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry and The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill, the American one not the British one. Jayber Crow is great but speaks more about the church, the community, than pastoral ministry. Churchill’s book is a powerful story about the allure of watering down the gospel, which the author sees as a good thing, but it is long and I wondered if students would appreciate the style as much as I did.]

“Behold the Throne of Grace”

At church this evening we sang a John Newton hymn, which I don’t remember ever singing before- “Behold the Throne of Grace”.

I enjoyed it immensely so I looked it up once I got home, and have pasted the full poem in below. This is great example of a poetic exposition of scripture with pastoral application. It is worth meditating on as a wonderful exhortation to prayer.

Behold the throne of grace,
The promise calls us near,
There Jesus shows a smiling face
And waits to answer prayer.

That rich atoning blood,
Which sprinkled round we see,
Provides for those who come to God
An all prevailing plea.

My soul, ask what thou wilt,
Thou canst not be too bold;
Since His own blood for thee He spilt,
What else can He withhold?

Beyond thy utmost wants
His love and pow’r can bless;
To praying souls He always grants,
More than they can express.

Since ’tis the Lord’s command,
My mouth I open wide;
Lord open Thou Thy bounteous hand,
That I may be supplied.

Thine image, Lord, bestow,
Thy presence and Thy love;
I ask to serve Thee here below,
And reign with Thee above.

Teach me to live by faith,
Conform my will to Thine;
Let me victorious be in death,
And then in glory shine.

If Thou these blessings give,
And wilt my portion be;
Cheerful the world’s poor toys I leave,
To them who know not Thee.

Best Reads of 2019

imageEach 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. Becoming C. S. Lewis (1898-1918): A Biography of Young Jack Lewis, Harry Lee Poe- This is a fascinating account of the early years of C S Lewis pointing out how the key themes of his thought are rooted in his early experiences.I look forward to the follow up volume in 2020 and the final volume of this biography in 2021
  2. Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, Tom Schreiner- This new edition is due out next month, but I had the opportunity to read it early in order to write a blurb for it. I loved it! It is a faithful exposition in a conversational tone, not bogged down in what could have been an avalanche of footnotes, though he does point to key works. This is a go to resource for anyone reading Paul- students, pastors, professors.
  3. Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology, Robert W. Yarbrough- A superb treatment of a crucial topic- the divide between biblical scholarship which is rooted in Christian faith and that which instead begins with and prioritizes human wisdom. A must read for anyone involved in academic study of the Bible.
  4. A Little Book for New Historians, Robert Tracy McKenzie- A wonderful treatment of the importance of historical thinking and a primer on how to develop such thinking. Aimed at students, this is a valuable resource for anyone in biblical studies as well (really any discipline). It is well written and engaging.
  5. The Wingfeather Saga, Andrew Peterson- I know I am late to this party, but I listened to this series this year and loved them! They are fun, rich, deep, powerful and profound. So many beautiful portraits, wonderful wordings, and strong concepts. In his make believe world, Peterson helps us face the reality of pain along with the importance of hope.

Here are the books in the series in order:

 On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

North! Or Be Eaten

The Monster in the Hollows

The Warden and the Wolf King

  1. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Jean Twenge & Keith Campbell- This is an important book especially for parents and educators. Not written from an explicitly Christian worldview, these authors point out so many practices that have seeped into typical everyday life that encourage self-absorption. The scary thing is that this book is already 10 years old and these patterns have only increased. Reading this book prompted me to follow up by reading Christopher Lasch’s classic, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, which is full of keen observations.
  2. Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World, William H. McRaven- This is a powerful, little motivational book strong on perseverance. Well-written, punchy and engaging. When I saw Admiral McRaven had a second book, Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations, I had to read it as well, and it I enjoyed it as well.
  3. A Students Guide To Core Curriculum, Mark C. Henrie- The core curriculum at colleges is often overlooked or looked down upon, but Henrie does an excellent job demonstrating the wisdom of a carefully constructed core curriculum. He writes to help students pick classes for a solid core even if their college doesn’t prescribe one. The book is also useful to faculty considering the core at their colleges.
  4. Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, Jim Mattis and Bing West- Part memoir, part leadership book, I found this fascinating. Mattis is well read, serious about education, a believer in empowering the people he leads and a hardnosed realist.
  5. The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, Leland Ryken – I greatly enjoyed reading one of these poems each morning along with my other devotional reading.

Biblical Studies/Theology:

  1. Pauline Language and the Pastoral Epistles: A Study of Linguistic Variation in the Corpus Paulinum, Jermo van Nes- This is a very technical book which breaks new ground in the debate on Pauline authorship of 1-2 Timothy and Titus. My full review can be accessed here.
  2. The Book of Revelation; A Biography, Timothy Beal- I like the approach of this series. Beal is completely skeptical about the veracity of Scripture but provides many interesting insights.
  3. Paul: An Apostle’s Journey, Douglas Campbell- started off more conservative than I expected. Well written so that is reads smoothly. It is warm and engaging. Campbell clearly wants not simply to produce a textbook of facts, but aims to nurture and to shape his readers. However, in the end he totally jumps track. After arguing that careful research requires close attention to the text of the letters (before considering Acts for example), he leaves the text behind to argue philosophically why universalism must be the way. He even acknowledges that Paul doesn’t go here but the overarching philosophy requires it, and it is the proper outworking of Paul’s thought even if Paul could not see it.
  4. Paul in Fresh Perspective, N. T. Wright- He writes so well! Provocative and helpful. Obvious places where I disagree, but I like much as well, especially when he is pointing out the assumptions of higher critical scholarship which has just been taken as a given. He does this suggesting we reconsider and take seriously Pauline authorship of Eph and Col. I take that and say, “The PE, too.”
  5. The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World, Bruce Longenecker- Although it starts a bit flat, it grows as it goes and in the end I thought it was a good story while it teaches a lot about NT background.
  6. Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When It Is Tough, Tico Rice with Carl Laferton- good, very helpful at key points on just doing evangelism. Not triumphalistic as so many books are, honest about the struggles, good about urging you to simply trust in God and do it
  7. Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation, Josef Pieper- Very good! Striking and profound.


  1. Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West, Tom Clavin- This was a fun book. I started slow, but in the end was fascinating. I didn’t realize Earp and Masterson were such good friends and were connected so much. I didn’t realize their brothers were lawmen, and one of the Earps served as a lawman longer than Wyatt or Bat. They were also friends with Buffalo Bill Cody and Teddy Roosevelt. They interacted socially with Frank & Jesse James. I’ve begun keeping an eye out for other books by Clavin.
  2. The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II’s Largest Naval Battle, C Vann Woodward- A very interesting analysis of this important battle.
  3. The Escape Artists: A Band of Daredevil Pilots and the Greatest Prison Break of the Great War, Neal Bascomb- interesting, though it was slow moving back and forth to the stories of the different people. The latter part about the actual escape was more riveting. Many interesting points though. I was especially struck again by the total agreement among European countries of the strict distinction between officers and men and the “right” of officers to have servants (“orderlies”) even in prison camp
  4. Seal Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden, Chuck Pfarrer- An account of this mission by one man who was involved. It differs from the official account.
  5. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre- Started slow, but then picked up and was great. Had me on the edge of my seat. Also filled a gap of history- in my own lifetime- that I did not know. Fascinating
  6. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre- The previous book led me to look for other books by Macintyre. This one was fascinating as well, detailing the biggest scandal in British spy craft, with one of their leading spies being a Soviet double-agent from the beginning. Much here about human nature as well. The author interacts significantly with C. S. Lewis’s essay, “The Inner Ring,” to describe British culture.
  7. The Men of the Revolution, Edwin S. Grosvenor, ed.- A nice collection of essays on key men of this era. Good overviews and reminders. The essay on the governor of Spanish Louisiana and his role in fighting for the patriot cause was all brand new to me.


  1. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck- A good story, sad, even discouraging, but I think that’s what he was aiming for- forcing people to consider the plight of people in difficult circumstances, the oppressed and limited. It is effective to that end. Did the trope of the small smart guy and the big strong dumb guy come from this book or inform it?
  2. Darknet, Matthew Mather- very entertaining. A cyber espionage, conspiracy tale. Really drew me in.
  3. The Wreck and Rise of Whitson Mariner (Tales of Old Natalia Book 2), S. D. Smith – Fun, not quite as compelling as some of the other ones in this series
  4. Surfeit of Suspects, George Bellairs- I picked up a copy in the British National Library. They had a whole section of British Library Crime Classics. It was fun, though not great.
  5. No Traveller Returns, Louis L’Amour & Beau L’Amour- I haven’t always liked what Beau has done with his father’s stories, but this one is quite good. This is a previously unpublished novel that had been sitting in a file. Louis wrote in from 1938-1942 with the outbreak of WWII causing him to put it aside. You can see many of the common ideas of L’Amour here, especially if you’ve read his memoir. As usual I listened to several of Louis L’Amour’s books over the year. His moral code and concern for historical accuracy keep drawing me in.

The Turkey Feather Riders

Where the Long Grass Blows

Showdown at Yellow Butte

Reilly’s Luck, – I particularly liked this one

Man Riding West

The Key-Lock Man

The Californios

Trouble Shooter (A Hopalong Cassidy novel),- from what I had read about L’Amour distancing himself from his Cassidy novels I didn’t expect much from this, but I enjoyed it. It was quite similar to his other books.

  1. Silence, Shusako Endo- I still have not watched the movie, but wanted to engage the book.  It is an important discussion of missions and the problem of persecution. I did not find it as challenging as others have suggested, though. The questions raised have been addressed along the way in the history fo the church.
  2. The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury- very good, essentially a collection of short stories, many very insightful. He foresaw much. His story about a racial harmony is powerful, especially coming from 1951. His story about men in space encountering a society where Jesus had just visited is a strong expose of presuppositionally critical approaches. The entire book is available online here:
  3. Fractured State: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller, Steven Konkoly- fun, engaging story set in California in the near future where poor decisions have led to a water shortage which has then led to a drastic increase of government control of everyday life in California and thus a desire among some to secede from the Union.  I enjoyed it so much that I immediately moved on to the sequel: Rogue State: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller .Too much profanity, but other than that a captivating story.
  4. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P. W. Singer & August Cole- an entertaining story, intriguing in what it imagines for the near future


  1. Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller, Burke Davis- Burke Davis is one of my favorite historical writers, and Chesty Puller’s is a fascinating life.
  2. Just Show Up: And Other Enduring Values from Baseball’s Iron Man, Cal Ripken, Jr.- Very good- a great title for Ripken and a great piece of advice. Not as well written as Mattis, but solid advice
  3. The World as I See It, Albert Einstein- interesting. Some places to agree some to disagree. Interesting to see him so strenuously arguing for complete disarmament of every nation and then for each nation to give up some of its national sovereignty to a world court for arbitrations. Also striking to see his argument for an atheistic Judaism, that Judaism has great insights for the world and that the idea of God was only aa crutch which can now be discarded as insignificant to the whole. Sounds a bit like what some German liberal “Christians” about that time were arguing.
  4. Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album, Danny Robbins- I really enjoyed the first half with the story about how Cash ended up doing a concert at Folsom and his reaching out to the songwriter in jail there. The author/narrator is overly dramatic, but I enjoyed it. It went on to too much of a debunking tenor after that
  5. Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches, Peter Greer and Christ Horst, with Anna Haggard- Excellent! This was required reading but I really enjoyed it. Well written and many great points
  6. Mapping Your Academic Career: Charting the Course of a Professor’s Life, Gary M. Burge- Insightful. I think in a few places he sees only one way a prof’s career might develop when I think there are several, but still this is immensely helpful for people just beginning this career, in mid-career, or at the close of their career.
  7. Brett Favre: America’s Quarterback, Chuck Carlson- fun, easy read
  8. Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Stephen Eric Bronner- A dull read, but important as this is a key text on this topic by a leading proponent. The history of this idea/movement reads like a ship without a rudder. Having rejected God they flail about looking for some basis for authority and meaning. They talk about the need for the transcendence but reject religion.
  9. The Red Bandanna: A Life. A Choice. A Legacy, Tom Rinaldi- A compelling account of a young man who died in World Trade Center on September 11. He worked there but was preparing to leave his lucrative job to be a fireman. He had been a volunteer fireman for years. In the midst of the tragedy he helped people escape and went back to help more.


  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John LeCarré- not very good at all. I didn’t care for the first Smiley novel I read (last year), but this one is on lists of great novels so I tried again. But disappointed. The moral ambivalence doesn’t’ engage me, and the way he writes makes it hard to follow the jumps and understand what’s going on. No need to bother with any more of his books
  2. Preacher’s Justice, William Johnstone- fair, action-packed story, but lacked the moral compass of L’Amour and the attention to historical accuracy. This made me appreciate Louis L’Amour all the more.
  3. Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World, Thomas Cahill- Cahill is a compelling writer but not much of a historian. He has his own point to make and will fit everything into that. Worth reading, but it started so well that I had high hopes.

Hope for Beleaguered Christians

Recently I had the opportunity to preach at my home church, First Baptist in Jackson, TN. We are currently in a series through the book of Revelation so the text up that week was Revelation 3:7-13, the message to the church in Philadelphia. I have taught this text various times, but I felt like in preparation for this sermon I finally came to understand it better than I had before.

Here is the video, and despite the screen shot here I didn’t scowl at anyone on the front row. :)

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.


  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


  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.


  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.


  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: