Books of the Year 2014: The Contenders

I plan to select a list of my favorite books of 2014. My last list covered 2012.

Unlike 2013, during those years when I do have time to stay current on the non-fiction releases from Christian publishers, I usually take some time in July to begin writing out a list of contenders. At this point the list is quite incomplete, but a rough list at this stage will help inventory the books that have caught my attention so far. So here is the early stages of my list of books that will be seriously considered as I develop my final list in November.

My list (updated on 10/10) is now up to 50+ titles (* = recent adds):

Reading Re-Treat

Once a year I set aside time for a personal reading retreat, a few days blocked off for me to dive into a stack of books I’ve collected (and some I’ve already started). In the last two years, neck deep in the John Newton writing project, these reading retreats have been focused on the topic at hand. And for the first time since we moved back to Minneapolis, this weekend affords me my first retreat to work through a stack of books on random topics of interest.

Whether I focus on one particular topic (like in my 2011 retreat) or whether I read more generally, these reading retreats give me a chance to largely disconnect from the Internet and cut away from the digital entanglements of daily web communication for the purpose of reading printed books for 12 hours each day (the goal). Such a discipline may seem daunting, but I find the practice life giving, and it has increasingly become an essential strategy I need to protect and develop my sustained, linear reading concentration, a skill that seems to otherwise erode every day (a concern I addressed at length in my book Lit!).

The goal of this retreat, like every reading retreat, is not to finish a lot of books, the goal is simply to read a lot. And for the interested, here are the titles I’ll be taking along —

Reading Digest (January 11)

Books I’m Reading

Every January I dedicate the month to reading books about writing. Writing is my golf game, requiring (never ending) practice as I chase (always elusive) perfection. This year, I’ll be reading five titles:

Forthcoming Books

Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank, The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home (B&H; February 1, 2014). A gem to help women navigate the tricky questions of work, home, and ambition. The particular strength is the way it walks through the decisions of women and the workplace through the many changing seasons of a woman’s life. The core chapters on purpose (5), rest (6), identity (7), and ambition (8), will benefit single and married women (and even the men who read it). Early they write: “Is this a book about women working in the marketplace? Yes. Is this a book about women working at home? Yes again. What follows is our exploration of how this looks for different women at various stages of life. We believe there is much wisdom to be mined from the Bible to help us think about love and labor throughout the entire arc of a woman’s life. Therefore, we have segmented this book into three sections: the story of work, the theology of work, and the lifecycle of work.” And it delivers.

Trillia Newbell, United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity (Moody; March 1, 2014). “Being black, female, and Reformed is one of those unique blends. I am a rare breed.” She is, and in her first book Trillia offers us a valuable message — a blueprint really — for building a diverse array of relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ, because maybe most rare of all, this black, female, Reformed friend is also a model of racial diversity in her own life. Her blueprint is clear and realistic and hopeful and driven by one clearly defined ultimate purpose. “My hope is that in reading United, your eyes have been opened to what I believe is the heart of God for diversity. What I am after as I share the beauty of diversity in the church is one thing and one thing only: the glory of God. I don’t want the church to find yet another trendy pursuit to latch onto. The pursuit of diversity is important, yes, but not because it’s trendy, this generation’s ‘hip thing.’ It’s important because the nations fill God’s Word. Seeing the importance of diversity in Scripture should make us want to explore how we can emulate this today. Ultimately it’s all about His glory on this earth and reflecting Him to a broken world.”

New Books

Stephen Altrogge, Untamable God: Encountering the One Who Is Bigger, Better, and More Dangerous Than You Could Possibly Imagine (self published; 2013). “In order to truly love and follow God, I must come to terms with the fact that I am a spiritual beggar. I am flat-out broke and desperately thirsty. I’ve got nothing to offer God. I must take advantage of him. I don’t have a two-way relationship with God, in which we both give and take. No, he does all the giving and I do all the taking. The reason it is more blessed to give than receive is because it is a model of my relationship with God. God does all the giving and I do all the receiving. There is no bartering with God. I don’t offer him two weeks of prayer and obedience in exchange for two weeks of blessing. I come to God a dirty beggar with empty hands. I leave a son loaded down with blessing. I come to God thirsty and spiritually dehydrated and leave refreshed and overflowing.” Classic Altrogge. The Kindle edition is currently 99-cents.

Reading Digest (January 4)

In 2014 I hope to bring back my frequent reading digests (likely on Saturdays). So, well, here we go!

Books I’m Reading

Books I’ve Read

The Dude’s Guide to Manhood: Finding True Manliness in a World of Counterfeits by Darrin Patrick (Thomas Nelson; Jan. 7, 2014).

I read the manuscript before the foreword by Willie Robertson was attached. It’s a very good one that will prove to be a useful evangelistic tool among men, at least among men who still read books. Eric Mason has recently written a similar book to this same end, addressing men on manhood and working up to the gospel (Manhood Restored). As an aside, I talked with Mason about how discussions over masculinity are opening new avenues to reach Muslim men in his community (listen here).

Needless to say, there’s a growing strategic need for books like Dude’s Guide and Manhood Restored both inside and outside the church.

In Dude’s Guide, Patrick spends the first 10 chapters addressing struggles faced by modern men (absent fathers, finding purpose in the world, work issues, laziness, porn, marriage, and conflict in the home, etc.). He then turns to the truly “heroic man,” Christ (ch 11), and then concludes with a chapter on Christian manhood, or how manhood is live out in Christ (ch 12). Most of the theological substance of the book is reserved for these final two chapters and the flow of the book works really good to this evangelistic end.

Irrespective of the cover, the common cultural tokens of masculinity (like beards) play little role in the book.

Choice quotes:

“Jesus is the true man, but he’s also the true God. And when we trust in him, we are given the gift of salvation. We are also given real power to change our lives because we have been given a divine power source — the Holy Spirit. In giving us himself, God gives us new life. And that gives us hope that we can be different as men. We don’t have to be trapped in the same patterns of rejecting our responsibility, of laziness and sloth, of anger, fear, and frustration. The life Jesus gives us is true life, eternal life, but also just life. It’s freedom, joy, peace, love, courage, and whatever we need to be like him.”

“Men consumed with filling their own emptiness rather than acknowledging it cannot be taught. If we spend our time and energy posing and posturing, we’ll only hear the criticism and not the constructiveness. Instead of craving help, we reject it because it feels like a threat to our manhood. The very thing we need most to enter into true manhood is the very thing we can’t stand.”

A breakdown of some common terms and phrases in the book (by word count):

  • 208  work
  • 78  God
  • 75  Jesus, Christ, Lord (chs 11, 12 = 71x)
  • 74  wife, spouse
  • 51  lust, porn
  • 50  children
  • 49  sex
  • 45  joy, happy, rejoice (ch 11 or 12 = 6x)
  • 41  pride
  • 41  fight
  • 39  control
  • 26  (biblical citations; ch 11 or 12 = 21x)
  • 19  church
  • 16  mentor
  • 7   gospel OR cross
  • 3   guilt
  • 1   beard

Reading Digest (August 9, 2011)

Hello blog readers. It’s been too long since I posted my reading digest and I apologize for that. So here’s what I’m reading currently:

Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, 2nd ed (Princeton; 2011). This book wades much deeper into literary theory than most how-to books on writing style. The authors bring classic writing style into the foreground in a way that makes it theoretically understandable and, with a number of very clear examples, well illustrated too. If there’s anything I take away from this book is a deeper appreciation for the non-fiction prose style of C.S. Lewis. Although Lewis is nowhere mentioned in the book (an oversight), he is a prime example of classic style and this book helped me discover what attracts me especially to his essays and non-fiction writings. Another point I take from this book is the power of truth to persuade. A William Blake line is quoted: “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ’d” (125). Worth dwelling on that line for a few moments. Write the authors, “To show truth is automatically to persuade. Truth carries its own sufficient force. In this way, truth is inhuman: it is absolutely self-sufficient; it cuts through all human deficiencies; it needs no help from human beings. All it needs to be perceived is an unadulterated human presentation … Truth is self-evident once shown” (126). Theologically we must also say that truth gets suppressed in unrighteousness, so truth presentation is not so persuasive as these authors make it appear. Regardless, the point is an important one because for the writer there isn’t a greater power to wielded than clear truth. Classic prose writers seek to communicate the truth as clear and simply as possible, because where truth is presented clearly, an audience cannot help but be persuaded. That’s an excellent point to be learned and employed by writers and preachers alike.

Aristotle, Poetics; Longinus, On the Sublime; Demetrius, On Style (Loeb Classic; 1995). The Loeb classics are beautifully constructed and perfect in size. Reading them is a pure aesthetic delight for a bibliophile like myself. As for content these three books coincide with Thomas/Turner. In Aristotle’s classic on writing style, he does a fine job comparing and contrasting the value and function of fiction and non-fiction genres. Not long ago on the blog I posted an excerpt and some thoughts on this topic (see here). Demetrius has written a style textbook that makes for a good read. Longinus likewise covers many themes as well, providing the most help where he distinguishes between sublime writing that elevates a topic from an overly emphasized amplification that actually does nothing to move the reader. How do you elevate without redundant amplifications, is the question Longinus is largely concerned with. In the spirit of Thomas/Turner, Longinus writes, “a grand style is the natural product of those whose ideas are weighty” (185). This trio of classic books on writing style were a perfect complement to my read of Thomas/Turner.

G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Baker; Dec. 1, 2011). Of all the many theological disciplines that interest me, biblical theology is one of my favorites, and I’m always watching for new BT works to come along. I’ve been anticipating this one since over one year ago when I first heard about it. This is Beale’s opus, and may be the most important book published in 2011, at least it’s now atop my book of the year list. Beale is convinced that a better understanding of the OT will help us understand the NT more clearly and he masterfully ties together prominent OT themes into the NT storyline, helping the reader see the many parallels and connections. Perhaps the most important strength of this work is the emphasis on inaugurated eschatology. Writes Beale, “the major doctrines of the Christian faith are charged with eschatological electricity.” Nicely said. I agree. This is not an introduction to BT, and it at times gets very dense and technical, as is true of most of Beale’s works. But if you are serious about BT (if you can fill in the first names of these men by heart: _______ Vos, _______ Eichrodt), you’ll want to start saving your coins for when it gets released in a few months. Perhaps we’ll have a book giveaway to celebrate its release?

Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology (P&R; Sept. 16, 2011). Union with Christ is an essential theme drawing together the full personal and work of Christ and applying that reality to all of Christian life and future. In his forthcoming book Letham addresses union from the three categories mentioned in the title. Often he lands somewhere between Gaffin and Horton, being willing to critique each of them when necessary (according to the introduction both Gaffin and Horton read and made suggested changes to his manuscript). One highlight was chapter 5: “Union with Christ and Transformation.” There Letham historically traces the theme of union as it developed from the patristic age, where it was rooted more directly to the Incarnation, and then to the reformation and Luther and Calvin, where union and the finished work of Christ emerged more clearly into view. There are some gems in this book, like this one: “Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it” (6). Good stuff. And while I’m not fully versed in all the dynamics of the reformed debates over justification/union (a major theme throughout this book) and I’m not sure yet where I stand on the Horton <> Letham <> Gaffin spectrum, yet there’s a lot of material in this book that is not up for debate and that I think we can find a large degree of agreement. Most of all Letham wants us to live out our union with Christ. He closes his book with this plea: “If you are not united to Christ and all we have said is a purely academic exercise, please consider your situation, believe in Christ, and serve him with all that is in you by the help of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, theological discussion, bibliographical information is important—but it is far from ultimate. There is something far greater. If we are united to Christ, endless vistas open” (141). Beautiful. Given the importance of union with Christ in the NT, and the relatively few recent works on the theme, I welcome any/all new books to help us uncover this doctrinal treasure, and one that looks at union both biblically, historically, and theologically is especially welcomed.

So those are some books I’ve finished or am finishing up now.

And here are some books waiting on deck:

Happy reading!

Reading Retreat

Once a year I slip away for a few days to do nothing but read. On a hotel desk I spread out a large stack of reading, unpack snacks and drinks, pray the God would bless my time, and then dig into my books with unusually focused attention. I find these experiences to be spiritually invigorating.

As you can imagine a retreat setting like this provides me with many hours to focus on one particular area of study, normally one that is so complex that I really need the extended concentration. At the same time this practice helps me to combat the brain fragmentation that I experience in the world of social media.

By the time this blog post goes life (it was auto-saved) I will be into my next retreat. In this retreat I will be focusing on theme of “inaugurated eschatology,” or the already in the already/not yet of God’s sweeping historical plan of redemption and cosmic restoration. My interest in this topic was sparked a little over a year ago when I began to seriously study the implication of Christ’s resurrection as the dawn of the new creation. God used that season of focused study just before Easter of 2010 to help me begin to see the cosmic scope of the gospel, leaving me with a greater desire to know more about this topic and to read more carefully on a cluster of related themes of the Kingdom of God in the gospels, the two-ages in Paul, the resurrection as the inauguration of the new creation, and the eschatological significance of the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As I see Easter approaching it makes this whole topic more attractive to me for sustained study.

So why this topic? It seems a bit abstract and vague. In many ways inaugurated eschatology is complex, which is why I need the focused time to read. But it’s also a very important topic with consequences for the Christian life. Balanced eschatology is necessary for a balanced Christian life. An imbalanced eschatology can lead to disastrous consequences. For example, to concentrate on the already without the not yet leads to an over-realized eschatology which tends to lead people down the path of moral perfectionism, diminishing the need for future/final transformation. On the other hand, a concentration on the not yet to the exclusion of the already causes us to overlook what God has already accomplished in Christ in past history and to fail to grasp the eternal consequences of his cross and resurrection. In this way sanctification tends to become man-centered moralism in an unhelpful way that fails to appreciate the role of Christ’s finished work in personal renewal. Balance in the Christian life requires some level of equilibrium between living in the already and the not yet, the finished and the unfinished, the started and the yet uncompleted. This retreat will help me appreciate those areas where God’s eternal purposes have been already inaugurated in time and history.

The literature on inaugurated eschatology is expansive and rich, but the literature will also continue to collect dust on my bookshelf unless I take the time to pursue this theme. And that brings me to my reading retreat. With an open Bible, a tall stack of books, and an iPod loaded with some related seminary lectures, I plan to spend my days kicking back and reading, listening, and having my horizons broadened.

As is typical I will bring far too much material than I have time to work through. But my goal is never to exhaust all of my reading. In fact only one or two of the books will be read entirely with great care, some books will be read in parts, other books will be scanned carefully, and a majority of the books will be scanned quickly. In case you’re interested, here is a list of the 18 books and 27 lectures I have packed into a Rubbermaid tub:

I make time for fun reading in these retreats as well. This year I’ve packed baseball books that focus on my favorite era, from the birth of American professional baseball in the early 1870s up until the year 1918. On my previous retreat I read Cait Murphy’s delightful book Crazy ’08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History (Collins, 2008). This time around I’ve packed this trio of titles:

In a previous life I wanted to be a baseball historian. In this life I have the privilege of serving the church. In either case I am a reader, and I pray that this reading retreat will match my previous retreats in education, edification, and delight.