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July 26, 2010

Centuries ago the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter penned some wisdom on the subject of reading. His concern was for people to become better, more discerning readers. His advice seems as timely today as it must have been for the men and women of the seventeenth century. It may be it is even more important today since we have access to far more books and writing (and blogs and web sites and Twitter feeds and e-books and…) than the Puritans could ever have imagined.

I’ve taken the liberty of adding annotations to his words of wisdom.

Make careful choice of the books which you read: let the holy scriptures ever have the pre-eminence, and, next to them, those solid, lively, heavenly treatises which best expound and apply the scriptures, and next, credible histories, especially of the Church … but take heed of false teachers who would corrupt your understandings.

Devotion to reading must never take pre-eminence over the study of Scripture. If we spend many hours every day reading but only a brief period of time studying the Scriptures, we would do well to examine our priorities. This is not to say there has to be a certain ratio (if I spend one hour reading the Bible I earn one hour of reading other material). Rather, it simply means that in our hearts, in our affections, the Bible must remain supreme. It is not a sign of spiritual health if we wake up eager to read a book but dreading time in the Bible. We should also take care if we find that we enjoy reading about the Bible more than we enjoy reading the Bible itself.

When we do read, we need to give priority to good books that increase our knowledge of and love for the Scriptures. Beyond them, it is wise to study the history of the church so we can never lose sight of our roots and seek to avoid the sins of our fathers. And finally, we should read with discernment and avoid submitting ourselves to the writings of false teachers who will corrupt our understanding of the truths of Scripture.

1. As there is a more excellent appearance of the Spirit of God in the holy scripture, than in any other book whatever, so it has more power and fitness to convey the Spirit, and make us spiritual, by imprinting itself upon our hearts. As there is more of God in it, so it will acquaint us more with God, and bring us nearer Him, and make the reader more reverent, serious and divine. Let scripture be first and most in your hearts and hands and other books be used as subservient to it. The endeavours of the devil and papists to keep it from you, doth shew that it is most necessary and desirable to you.

Baxer reiterates that the Bible must be pre-eminent. The Bible alone is God’s full, inerrant, infallible, authoritative revelation to us and we must treat it accordingly; it must be first and most. All other books must take a subservient and complementary role to Scripture.

May 28, 2010

In my recent review of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy I mentioned that it might just make it onto my top ten list of favorite biographies. A couple of people subsequently asked if I’d write out such a list. It took some thinking and some rummaging around my bookcases, but eventually I got one together. Now I can’t remember every biography I’ve ever read, but I rummaged through my mind to recall as many as possible, put together a list of favorites and then winnowed that down to ten. And so here you have them in no particular order—ten favorite biographies.

John Adams by David McCullough. Probably the most important work by a highly-regarded historian and biographer, this is about as much of a must-read as you will come across. If you’ve watched the PBS series you have the basics, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the book. As with all good biographies, try to get a copy of the hardcover rather than the more recent paperback. (my review)

Calvin by Bruce Gordon. One of several biographies of Calvin to be released by publishers this year, this one is, I think, the best of the bunch. Gordon does an especially good job of setting Calvin within his historical context, showing how Calvin was a product of his time, his nation, his church. (my review)

Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. One of two excellent biographies by Metaxas to make it to the list, Bonhoeffer is hot off the press. A lengthy but still not exhaustive (or exhausting) account of his life, this is a fascinating account of a fascinating life. (my review)

Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas. Metaxas’ second biography, which was actually written first, this one deals with the life of social reformer William Wilberforce. I have heard it has close competition with Kevin Belmonte’s William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity. But since I haven’t read that one, all I can say is that Metaxas’ book is well worth the read. (my review)

Spurgeon by Arnold Dallimore. Dallimore also gets two books on the list. Spurgeon was the first of all the books on this list that I read but it is one I remember having a profound impact on me. I find it quite surprising that there is not a longer, more recent go-to biography of Spurgeon. I doubt, though, that any could be significantly better than this one. (my review)

Jack by George Sayer. This is a life of C.S. Lewis written by a friend and contemporary. He tells the life of Lewis very well and at a very human, personal level. (my review)

George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore. Where Dallimore’s biography of Spurgeon is quite short, this biography of Whitefield is a massive two-volume set that tells the life of one of God’s more unusual servants. This may be one of the most impactful biographies you’ll ever read. (my review)

Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden. Marsden brings to life the great preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards. I haven’t yet read Iain Murray’s biography of Edwards, so cannot compare the two. I’ve heard great things about it but have a tough time believing it could be better than this one! This would be very near to the top of my list, were I to put them in order. (my review)

The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate. Henry Ward Beecher was everything Edwards and Whitefield were not. A fake, philanderer and apostate, he still remained one of America’s most celebrated preachers in his day. This biography is worth reading to see how men, both good and evil, may rise to prominence even within the church. (my review)

Fearless Pilgrim by Faith Cook. Faith Cook is one of my favorite biographers and in this book she tells the life of John Bunyan. Well-written and nicely paced, this is one of the better biographies of Bunyan and certainly the best from recent years. (my review)

And here are a few biographies I’ve heard are really good, which I’ve got on my to-read shelf, but which I haven’t actually gotten to yet:

D. Martyn Lloyd Jones by Iain Murray.

American Lion by Jon Meacham (a biography of Andrew Jackson).

Truman by David McCullough.

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson.

Churchill by Martin Gilbert.

March 12, 2010

Here we are at another Friday. This is a significant one around these parts because it’s the last day of school for our kids before they get a week off for March Break. This means that hundreds of thousands of Canadians are heading for the airports and, from there, to southern climes. And who can blame them, really. It has been a long winter.

But I digress. Now, to the business at hand. This week’s Free Stuff Fridays sponsor is Granted Ministries. About their ministry they say, “Our site consists primarily of sermons that are available for purchase or free download.  We refuse to profit in any way from this ministry and will give you the resources if you are in any way unable to pay for them. The messages you will find on this site are not necessarily unique to us.  Several of these messages can be found on other, more well-known websites.  It is not our aim to be anything special or unique.  We are simply endeavoring to serve the people of God with the teaching of His glorious Word.”

They are offering five prize packages, each of which will contain two books they’ve published: Justification & Regeneration by Charles Leiter (which I’ve reviewed here) and The One True God by Paul Washer (which I’ve also reviewed, as it happens).

March 05, 2010

With a new Friday comes a new edition of Free Stuff Fridays. This week’s sponsor is ChristianAudio, a company you must know by now for their monthly free downloads. If you visit their site just once per month and you’ll be well on your way to building a solid library of audio books. This week they have put together a great prize package for you. Five winners will each receive the following three audio books:

December 07, 2009

Every year, sometime in December, I begin to think about all the books I read that year, trying to determine which ones I liked the best and always wondering just how many I actually read. Every year I’m disappointed to find that I haven’t kept very good records so I really do not know how many books passed through my hands (my estimate this year would be between 100 and 150). Fortunately, because I review many of the books I read, I can at least generate a list of favorites.

Note that these are my favorite books. That is an admission that this is a subjective list of the books that I most enjoyed this year, not the books that were necessarily objectively best or most important (though hopefully there is some degree of correlation). Also, I’ve only included Christian books here. Except for the final book, the one I’ve determined is my absolute favorite, these come in no particular order.

November 13, 2009

Free Stuff Fridays

This week’s sponsor of Free Stuff Fridays is Shepherd Press. Shepherd Press is a ministry dedicated to publishing solid, biblical books and material. They are likely best-known for publishing material by Ted Tripp (including Shepherding a Child’s Heart) but they also publish material by a variety of other authors. I have yet to find a Shepherd Press book that was not worth reading.

One of the more unique products they offer is a series of commentaries designed for children (titled Herein Is Love). These are written by Nancy Ganz and are based on Sunday School material she has taught for many years at Ottawa Reformed Presbyterian Church where her husband, Richard, serves as pastor. I have been to that church many times and count both Rich and Nancy as friends. In fact, I remember sitting in Nancy’s classes when I was just a boy.

Today Shepherd Press is offering as a prize five sets of these commentaries. Each of five winners will receive Genesis (in a brand new second edition), Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.

D.A. Carson (who knows a thing or two about commentaries) says these volumes are “Interesting and very competent … a major contribution!” Here is an introduction to Genesis:

This book is truly wonderful. It has captured parents and children with creative, gripping, and beautiful portrayals of what truly happened in the beginning. The beginning books of the Bible are essential to our understanding of God’s redemptive story. The author of Herein Is Love creatively focuses our attention on the events that bring this story to life. The series has the richness of well-written literature and the depth of understanding inherent in a commentary. The result is a series of books whose details live and sing. They help parent and child understand the Christ-centered Word, and they are enjoyable reading for both. Your own faith will be strengthened while reading to your children, and your children will be encouraged, lesson by lesson, to believe in the Lord Jesus.

These books are an ideal addition for any library—personal, home or school. They are great for reading to your children and I’m willing to guarantee you will learn a few things yourself along the way.

Rules: You may only enter the draw once. Simply fill out your name and email address to enter the draw. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at noon.

Enter here:

October 23, 2009

If you were one of the four million people to read the bestselling book Freakonomics, you will pretty well know what to expect from the long-awaited sequel SuperFreakonomics. It has five chapters, each of which stands on its own and each of which ties varied economic data into some kind of a cohesive whole. It is just as interesting as its predecessor and sticks very closely to the formula that made the first book such an unlikely hit.

The first chapter is titled “How Is a Street Prostitute Like a Department-Store Santa?” and this chapter is a lengthy look at the economics of prostitution. The authors draw out all kinds of interesting conclusions about prostitution and especially about how prostitution has changed over the years. For example, they show that the wages for prostitutes have fallen drastically over the past hundred years. The reason is pure economics and goes back to the law of competition. “Who poses the greatest competition to a prostitute? Simple: any woman who is willing to have sex with a man for free. It is no secret that sexual mores have evolved substantially in recent decades. The phrase ‘casual sex’ didn’t exist a century ago (to say nothing of ‘friends with benefits’). Sex outside of marriage was much harder to come by and carried significantly higher penalties than it does today.” In other words, in decades past women held closely to their virginity and were unlikely to give it away to anyone but their husbands. Today a man has, in the words of the authors, “a much greater supply of unpaid sex.” According to the laws of supply and demand, prices must then fall. In our generation only 5% of men lose their virginity to a prostitute; in days past it ran as high as 20%. Today more than 70% of men have sex before marriage; in days past it was just 33%. Premarital sex has proven a free substitute for prostitution. Once the domain of the professional (at one time one in every fifty American women in their twenties was a prostitute!) premarital sex is now the realm of any woman. This has driven down wages through a strange but sad kind of free market force. I guess this gives us something to think about the next time we hear about the falling levels of prostitution. Though we rejoice when prostitutes find another line of work, it does not necessarily mean that we have cured one of society’s ills. It may point to changing market forces based in turn on declining morality.

There was something else in this chapter that gave me a lot to think about. In their research the authors found that certain sexual acts have always commanded a premium; some are more costly than others. That is no surprise. Acts that are taboo in society are going to cost more than acts that are considered “normal.” What is interesting, though, is to see that this is a moving standard. As society has become increasingly sexualized, acts that were once taboo are now considered bland or boring. What once commanded a premium is now considered barely worth thinking about. This got me thinking about sin and about the very nature of sin. Have you ever had one of those moments where you found that sin was suddenly taking charge of you? If you think about it I’m sure you can come up with a moment when you realized that it was no longer you who was in charge, but sin. Sin had taken over; sin was taking the lead and you were just following along. It is a terrifying place to be! Sin always wants more, always demands more. It is progressive, beginning with something small but always demanding more and greater. Give it an inch and it will take a mile. The economics of prostitution shows the progressive nature of sin. Just in a brief look at rates and wages we can see how society has changed as women have become more willing to give their bodies away and as the vulgar and invasive and degrading has become mainstream.

This book illustrates why I love reading and why I always seek to read widely. I rarely regret reading Christian books and have benefited from such books immeasurably. But I would be impoverishing myself, I think, if I were to read only Christian books. Here in a book that is not in any way “Christian” I found all sorts of interesting facts, interesting ideas, that I can grapple with. They are issues that I can think about within my Christian worldview and use them to uncover great truths about people and about the God who created them.

October 15, 2009

While I write many book reviews, the majority of these reviews cover titles that are written on a popular level. Rarely do I look at reference material or commentaries. Yet I do receive many such books and today I want to mention some of the more notable ones that have come across my desk recently.

The Acts of the Apostles by David G. Peterson (The Pillar New Testament Commentary) - With this huge addition to the series, the Pillar New Testament Commentary series now has eleven volumes. Though readers may not be familiar with the author, David Peterson, they will know of the series editor, D.A. Carson. In his Preface, Carson describes some of the challenges anyone will face when writing a commentary on Acts and then declares, “All of these challenges David Peterson has met superbly. His commentary focuses on what the text actually says, and his judgments are invariably sane, even-handed, judicious.” Acts is not a book that lacks strong commentaries but even then it sounds like this is a welcome addition to what is fast becoming a very valuable series. Carson’s endorsement pretty much seals the deal.

The First and Second Letter to the Thessalonians by Gordon D. Fee (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) - The NICNT has been underway forever, it seems (1946 is pretty close to forever). In fact, some of the volumes have already been replaced even while other books have yet to receive a first commentary. New to the series is this volume by Gordon Fee, now the editor of the NICNT and the author of the volumes on Philippians and 1 Corinthians. It is good to see this series grow one volume closer to completion.

Luke 1-5 by John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary) - With over one million volumes sold, the MacArthur Commentary series hardly needs an introduction. One the cover of this edition are accolades from Mark Dever, Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, all of whom affirm this as a valuable and understandable commentary useful for either pastors or lay persons. Can you believe it is currently the only MacArthur Commentary in my entire library (not including the ones in Libronix which I do refer to often)? I am glad to have it and hope to add the rest of the set as soon as I’m able.

Ephesians by Bryan Chapell (Reformed Expository Commentary) - I have often lauded this series, the Reformed Expository Commentary. I have read many of the volumes from cover-to-cover and look forward to reading through the latest, Ephesians by Bryan Chapell. Like its predecessors, it is based on a sermon series and is thus suitable for pastoral study or for personal study. I often use these commentaries in my personal devotions and have benefited from them a great deal.

1 & 2 Timothy and Titus by Samuel M. Ngewa (Africa Bible Commentary Series) - I know next to nothing about this new commentary series published by Zondervan (under their Hippo Books imprint—Hippo in honor of Augustine of Hippo, not in honor of the animal). The series is edited by Ngewa who teaches at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology in Kenya. In this case I am not recommending the commentary as much as I am letting you know that it exists and hoping that someone can tell me more about it. I would love to hear from anyone who has had opportunity to read it through.

Tracts and Letters by John Calvin - Banner of Truth has recently published this huge 7-volume set of the tracts and letters of Calvin. Having just finished an engaging biography of Calvin I can attest to the value of those tracts and letters! The series comes in at 3488 pages but costs just $80.

The Whole Counsel of God by Richard C. Gamble - The Whole Counsel of God is a book, the first in a series of three volumes, dedicated to recounting God’s acts in the Old Testament. This first volume “discloses the theology of the Old Testament within the organic, progressive, historical development of the Bible.” It is more than an Old Testament survey as it includes discussion of a wide variety of topics such as ecclesiology, the nature of God, justification, and so on. It comes highly recommended by scholars such as Richard Pratt and John Frame. I suspect it will appeal primarily to scholars but pastors, students of theology and other thoughtful readers will undoubtedly find great value in reading it.