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February 27, 2009

Free Stuff Fridays

This week’s sponsor is Crossway Books. Crossway is offering five prizes, each of which will include three books by Sam Storms: More Precious than Gold, Hope of Glory and To the One Who Conquers. These are the three titles in a series of devotional books. One focuses on Colossians, one on Revelation 2-3 and the other on the Psalms.

In More Precious Than Gold, Storms combines years of life experience and his biblical and theological training to bring readers 50 brief, daily meditations that are both stylistically accessible and theologically substantive. Each meditation includes a historical or theological reflection on the psalm in context, a story that brings it alive, and creative tools to support the key idea. Storms also interweaves the words of such luminaries as Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, and John Piper to help readers better understand the concepts that are featured throughout Psalms: worship, prayer, joy, forgiveness, steadfast love, mercy, sin’s consequences, the law of the Lord, and our relationship with our enemies.

Books by Sam Storms

Rules: You may only enter 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. The giveaway closes tonight at midnight.

February 26, 2009

As you might imagine, I receive a good deal of email from people who read this site. Probably the most common questions I receive (other than those mentioning The Shack) deal with books and reading. I guess I’ve established a reputation as a bookworm and people often ask just how I find time to read all these books, what books I recommend, and whether I’ve developed a system to help me retain information. Every now and then I try to jot down my thoughts and I thought I’d share those today. These are, then, some rather random thoughts on reading. And after I’ve jotted down all of my thoughts, I’d love to hear your tips on reading.

I love to read and have nearly always loved to read and ever since I learned how to do it, it has been a passion of mine; it has been my favorite hobby. When I was younger my parents gave me books by Christian authors like R.C. Sproul and encouraged me to read biographies of great men and women. They modeled a love for reading as both of them constantly read good books. While I merely toyed with the books they gave me dealing with spiritual topics, I positively devoured books on history, and in particular, military history. My love for this subject took me through university and into adulthood. About eight or ten years ago, though, I began to be drawn towards Christian books. As far as I can recall, the first of these I bought was Classic Christianity by Bob George (withhold your comments, please) and it was soon followed by Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? by James Boice. That began a trend that has only intensified as the years have gone by.

It just a few years ago that I decided, mostly on a whim, that I would try to read a book each week for what I hoped would be the rest of my life. Subsequently, I also decided that I would attempt to provide reviews of the majority of these books. My reasoning was simply that through these reviews I could help other people who are interested in reading only a few books per year focus on titles that are worth their while, while at the same time helping them avoid the mountains of trash on the bookstore shelves. I realized that if I were to live for another fifty years, this commitment would mean that I would be able to read over 2500 books before I die. The thought of being able to learn from what God has taught 2500 other people was inspiring. Since I set that goal I have found that I can actually read closer to two books every week, so now tend to read and review around 100 books a year. I suppose this raises the potential to reading over 5,000 books in the next fifty years. I’m going to need some more bookshelves.

What follows is some seemingly-random points about reading. I hope you may find something here a little bit helpful.

First, an encouragement for those who have difficulty with reading. The more I read, the easier it is to read; the more I read, the better I get at it. A few years ago I read four books that discussed godly principles for decision making. Three of them were based primarily on the fourth (and anyone who has read about this subject will know the book I am referring to). Needless to say, it became progressively easier to read and understand each subsequent book. I have found that this is true of any topic. It is also true of reading in general. The more I have dedicated myself to reading, the better I have become at it. I have often spoken to people who have given up on reading because they have found it difficult. To these people I offer this encouragement: press on. Like any discipline, reading will become easier as you dedicate yourself to it. Don’t give up!

A lot of the books I read are short. The majority of the books I read are under 250 pages, and quite a few have fewer than 200 pages. I generally do not discriminate against a book based on its page count, so this is either a product of coincidence or of percentages. It seems to me that the average “Christian Living” book weighs in between 160 and 200 pages. Biographies and books dealing with theology or church history tend to be longer and require greater effort. So obviously the quantity of books I read has something to do with the average number of pages.

I read all the time, or most of it anyways. I watch only very little television (especially after having cut cable), but even when I do, I usually have my nose in a book. I also try to get out of bed a couple of hours before everyone else so I can have some quiet time to read. When I go to the doctor or the barber, I tend to stick a book in my pocket so I can use that fifteen minutes doing something other than reading old copies of People magazine. It is amazing how many ten and fifteen minute periods there are in life that can be used for reading.

Speaking of which, for those who insist that they have no time to read, consider this (and excuse the vulgarity). If you were to read one page of a book per day, you would be able to read at least two of the average Christian Living books in a year, right? And, of course, a bathroom break is the perfect time to read a page or two of a book. So consider: if you were to keep a book in the bathroom and read only when you were, you know, using the bathroom, you could read two books per year. If you were to read only when you were brushing your teeth, you could read another book or two a year. So if you feel that you do not have time to read, why not keep a book in the bathroom and commit to reading it there? Two books a year is better than none!

One of my peculiarities, but one I have found helpful, is reading two or even three books at a time. I used to find that I would sometimes mistake physical fatigue for what was actually a fatigue brought about by dwelling too long on a particular subject. Sometimes when I put down that first book and begin reading a second book, I immediately feel refreshed. It turns out that my mind was tired and this was making my body feel tired. So consider keeping a couple of books on the go, and books that deal with completely different topics.

Here is a basic outline of how I read a book. I begin by giving the book a quick scan, hoping to understand what it is about, what the author is going to attempt to prove and how he is going to set about this task. I read the back cover and the endorsements. I skim over the table of contents and look through the end notes and bibliography. Having done that, I tend to linger a little bit over the introductory chapter(s), since I find this to be the most important section in the book. It generally lays out the basic framework of the author’s argument and lets me know what he is arguing against. I read with a pencil in hand (I buy those clickable Bic pencils by the box) and highlight liberally. I also tend to jot short notes and questions in the margins or at the end of chapters. Points that are important to the author’s argument tend to receive a *, and points that are exceedingly important receive a bigger, bolder *. I often also make a list of important page numbers and questions on the inside front cover of the book. In some cases I’ll make two or three columns of page numbers. By doing all of this, I am making the book my own and not just reading it, but actually interacting with it as I go. This is tremendously helpful for both understanding and retention.

I don’t know if there is an objectively good way of marking books, but I doubt it. So work on a system that works for you and stick with it. But don’t be afraid to mark your books. Again, books are meant to be interacted with.

I’ll be honest and admit that I forget a great deal of what I read. Anyone who tells you otherwise may not be telling the truth (unless he has a Spurgeon-like photographic memory). I used to be discouraged if, a year (or a month or a week) after reading a book, I could barely remember the content. I have since realized that this is inevitable. I focus on remembering what I can and trust that simply because I do not remember the complete outline of a book, this does not prove that a book has not been edifying to me. After all, if this was our standard, just about every sermon would be a complete failure. I trust that the Spirit works in me as I read good books and that He works despite my imperfect memory.

Reviewing books is an excellent way of driving home the main points of a book. It is as good a memory device as I can imagine. In fact, I would encourage every reader to review the books they read, even if those reviews will never be made public. It is a good discipline to think through the main points of the book and is as valuable a discipline to formulate thoughts on whether or not the reader agrees with a book. When you finish a book, why not jot down a short review, even if it is only a few lines, and stick it inside the book? You’ll be grateful later on.

Let me wrap it up this way. I see reading as a discipline, but a pleasurable one. I love it and have found it to be tremendously beneficial to my spiritual life. Reading and writing have together brought me untold benefit. I can honestly say that most evenings there is nothing I’d rather do.

I’ve said my bit. Do you have any tips or tricks or practices that might be beneficial to those who are trying to read, to read more and to read better? If so, leave a comment…

February 13, 2009

I am about to hit the road for what marks the beginning of a busy spring conference season. This evening I’ll be speaking at a church in Mt. Morris, Michigan and will then travel with the youth to some kind of a retreat center. I’ll be speaking to them five times over the weekend, covering issues related to discernment. I covet your prayers as I seek to minister effectively to these young people!

Before I leave, I wanted to make note of just a couple of things that have been on my mind the past couple of days.

That’s A Lot of Babies

You’re heard of Nadya Suleman, no doubt. She is all over the news after giving birth to octuplets. That is newsworthy by itself, but there is more to the story. She already has six children at home, is a single mother, and had all fourteen of her children by in vitro fertilization. She collects food stamps and up to $2300 per month in state support for her disabled children.

America has reacted to her with utter disgust. Recent headlines show that she has even been receiving death threats. And it seems that taxpayers are going to pick up the massive medical bills for these octuplets. Some of the comments have been shocking in their frankness and their rudeness. Some think she would be better off dead; many think her children should be forcibly taken from her and put up for adoption; a columnist in the LA Times calls her story “grotesque.”

Now I will admit that there is something very odd about this situation and something distasteful, even. It seems pretty obvious that God does not intend that single mothers bring children into the world to be raised without fathers; in vitro fertilization is not without some serious moral issues; and so on. But as I read stories about this woman and as I hear reactions to her, I find it difficult to separate legitimate concern from a more general dislike for life. So many of the reactions to this woman and her family may focus on legitimate concerns, but underlying many of these is a hatred for life. Many of these people would not voice any concern if Suleman had chosen to selectively abort a handful (or two) of her children. Many of these people cannot conceive of a family greater than two or three children. Stories like this one are a good opportunity to read with discernment and with critical thinking. What are the moral or ethical issues and what are the social or cultural issues? There seems to be quite an even split. We need to celebrate life even while being unintimidated by the serious underlying moral and spiritual concerns.

Read With Discernment

And speaking of reading with discernment, Lifeway Christian Stores has a strange new policy. They are selling certain titles with a sticker affixed to them. The sticker warns, “Please Read with Discernment™.” Note they’ve even trademarked the phrase! Authors whose books have received such a warning include Rob Bell, William Young, Brian McLaren and Donald Miller. The company’s web site offers an explanation. “We are making these titles available to our customers (along with the background and additional insight offered here through Read With Discernment) because we believe the books do present content that is relevant and of value to Christians and/or because pastors, seminary students, and other ministry leaders need access to this type of material, strictly for critical study or research to help them understand and develop responses to the diversity of religious thought in today’s postmodern world. Our prayer for you is that in whatever you read, you place the material under the magnifying glass of scripture and read with discernment, asking God to reveal His truth to you.” For each of the selected authors they post a document outlining some of their concerns. It is rather an interesting policy, this. It leaves me wondering (honestly wondering, not sarcastically wondering), if books deserve a warning like this one, should Lifeway sell them at all?
February 11, 2009

As you may know, I decided to read through both of the Finding God in The Shack books released this month (two books, two authors, one title). Last week I reviewed the first of these (see: Finding God in the Shack (1)) and in a day or two I will review the second. But first, I wanted to share a few quotes from the book.

It is not lost on me that the majority of the people who vocalized objections to The Shack were Calvinists (Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, Yours Truly, etc). Randal Rauser and Roger Olson noted this as well and both make a point of refuting some components of Calvinistic theology in their books. Rauser, a Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary, touches on Calvinism several times, but does so primarily under the heading of “The Biggest Problem in the Universe”—a chapter that deals with theodicy (the justice and goodness of God in the face of suffering). This is, after all, one of the main themes of The Shack and one whose treatment offended many Calvinist readers. Unfortunately, Rauser’s portrayal of Calvinism is, in many ways, just plain wrong. It is offensive and almost libelous at times. I am a Calvinist and have been for many years. Never have I heard anyone claim what Rauser says to be true of Calvinism.

Here are a few examples. I have taken the liberty of bolding a few of the most outrageous statements.


Our first pass at theodicy will consider the possibility that God is not all-loving. While this may come as a surprise to many Christians, this is the position of a major theological tradition called Calvinism. … To be more specific, Calvinists believe that God is perfect in his love, but he chooses not to show this love to all his creatures.

To begin with, the Calvinist believes that God controls all events perfectly, including free human choices. That is, God gives us the desires that we freely fulfill, both good and bad. (Other Christians disagree and think instead that while God can know what we will do in advance, he cannot make us do it if we are truly free.) As a result, Calvinists believe that God could have made the world such that Adam and Eve would never have fallen. It follows that Adam and Eve sinned because God gave them the free desires to sin. Likewise, the Little Ladykiller [the villain of The Shack] sinned because God gave him the will to sin. Everyone who sins does so because God has formed his or her character to do so. As Paul tersely put it, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (Romans 9:18). So the reason there is evil in the world is simple: though perfectly loving, God wants there to be some evil!

This Calvinist view raises an obvious question: why would a perfectly loving God desire evil in the world? In order to explain this, the Calvinist denies what many Christians assume: that God loves all his creatures equally. Rather, God’s ultimate concern is to manifest his glory most fully. Therefore, God is concerned to ensure that creation provides the best opportunity for God to display his magnificent attributes. … [A]dversity within creation provides an opportunity for God to display his leadership qualities.

In the midst of adversity God is able to manifest his mercy and love to those creatures he has decreed to choose the good. At the same time, he manifests his wrath and justice to those creatures he has decreed to choose the evil (Romans 9:22-23). Through all good and evil, God’s glory is more fully on display than if he had willed a creation where everyone did his will perfectly. One final point: the same reasoning that applies to the present age applies in eternity as well. There, too, rebellion must be present so God’s fullest display of attributes can be manifest. As such, Calvinists believe that God decrees that some people would reject the offer of salvation so God can rightly damn them eternally and thereby ensure that his perfect wrath and justice are both forever on display.

I confess that I am one of many people who find Calvinism not only unpalatable but nearly incomprehensible. Let’s start with God’s glory. I don’t accept that the only way to have a high appreciation of God’s glory is by seeing God crush human rebellion. There have been many great leaders in history who led their people in peacetime. Couldn’t God have fully displayed his attributes through peaceful rule as well? Indeed, Calvinism is in danger of Manichaeism, the view that good and evil are equal and necessary opposites so that good can only be known to the extent that evil exists. But my biggest problem is with Calvinism’s view of God’s love. Contrary to the Calvinist claim that God only loves some creatures and hates others, I believe that God loves all people (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).


My reaction when reading all of this was, if not anger, real frustration. I hate to think that thousands of people will read such an inaccurate, uninformed, fictitious view of Calvinism (and this by an author who has some credibility by virtue of his position as a Professor of Theology). Even where Rauser is correct, his words often lack the charitable nuance we might well hope for. But in so many ways he is really, really wrong. Not surprisingly, he does not quote any sources; I know of none that would support his statements.

I thought of writing an article to refute some of the worst of these statements. But then I found myself thinking about R.C. Sproul’s book Getting the Gospel Right. Here Sproul exhorts Christians to be careful in the way they portray what other people believe. The context of the book is a defense of the gospel against Catholicism and he says, rightly I think, that Christians often caricature Roman Catholic theology, not taking the time to find what the Church really teaches. It is too simplistic to say “Protestantism is about grace and Catholicism is about works.” I know I’ve been guilty of this myself. Sometimes it is easier to take the little tidbits we have heard from others, assume they are fact, and build a case. But I think we owe it to others to truly understand before we determine that we know the facts.

So when I saw this nonsense that Rauser had passed off as fact, I guess I saw an opportunity to ensure that when I speak out against Arminianism or Open Theism or Catholicism or any other area of poor or false theology, I do so with grace and I do so only after ensuring that I know what I am speaking about. There have been too many times when I’ve failed to do just that.

February 06, 2009

Calvin CoverWe’re going to try something new around here. For the next few weeks, at least, I’m going to make Fridays a giveaway day. Check in Friday mornings and there will be something to win.

Today I’m giving away five copies of a great little book on John Calvin (courtesy of Reformation Heritage Books). “In this attractive volume, Simonetta Carr introduces young readers to the life, thought, and work of one of the most famous Reformers of the Christian church. She tells about the life of John Calvin from his birth to his death, placing him within the troubled context of the sixteenth century. She also introduces Calvin’s writings in a way that children will desire to know more about his ministry and influence.”



To enter the draw, all you need to do is send along your name and email address using the form below. I’ll accept entries until midnight tonight. At that point I’ll randomly choose the winners, notify them via email, and then erase all the information (thus assuring you that you will never be spammed or otherwise annoyed).

The only rule is: only one entry per person. Please.

{Entry Form Removed After Contest Closed}

January 31, 2009

Aileen is away for the day and I’m at home with some sick children. So we’re sprawled out on the couch and instead of doing my usual reading, I’m kicking back with an old favorite, With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. Sledge’s memoir is probably the best Second World War memoir I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a few). I first encountered it studying military history in university and have read it a few times since then. Once relatively unknown, Sledge’s name recently came up in Ken Burns’ excellent documentary about World War II and rumor has it that Sledge will also be a character in the sequel to the Band of Brother series. What I love about Sledge’s book is that it gives such a realistic and unglamorized perspective on the war in the Pacific. Sledge was not a hero (at least, not any more than any of the men who fought in the War) and came home with no medals for valor. Were it not for this memoir, it’s unlikely that anyone would remember his name. Yet because of it, his name is almost synonymous with the battle for the little island of Peleliu. His account is fascinating, not just for the history of the battles but for the account of what it is like to be a soldier under fire.

Here are just a couple of excerpts from his book to give you a bit of its flavor.


We waited a seeming eternity for the signal to start toward the beach. The suspense was almost more than I could bear. Waiting is a major part of war, but I never experienced any more supremely agonizing suspense than the excruciating torture of those moments before we received the signal to begin the assault on Peleliu. I broke out in a cold sweat as the tension mounted with the intensity of the bombardment. My stomach was tied in knots. I had a lump in my throat and swallowed only with great difficulty. My knees nearly buckled, so I clung weakly to the side of the tractor. I felt nauseated and feared that my bladder would surely empty itself and reveal me to be the coward I was. But the men around me looked just about the way I felt. Finally, with a sense of fatalistic relief mixed with a flash of anger at the navy officer who was our wave commander, I saw him wave his flag toward the beach. Our driver revved the engine. The treads churned up the water, and we started in—the second wave ashore.

We moved ahead, watching the frightful spectacle. Huge geysers of water rose around the amtracs ahead of us as they approached the reef. The beach was now marked along its length by a continuous sheet of flame backed by a thick wall of smoke. It seemed as though a huge volcano had erupted from the sea, and rather than heading for an island, we were being drawn into the vortex of a flaming abyss. For many it was to be oblivion.

The lieutenant braced himself and pulled out a half-pint whiskey bottle.

“This is it, boys,” he yelled.

Just like they do it in the movies! It seemed unreal.


Later, reflecting on the campaign, Sledge writes this:

None of us would ever be the same after what we had endured. To some degree that is true, of course, of all human experience. But something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war’s savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it.

But I also learned important things on Peleliu. A man’s ability to depend on his comrades and immediate leadership is absolutely necessary. I’m convinced that our discipline, esprit de corps, and tough training were the ingredients that equipped me to survive the ordeal physically and mentally—given a lot of good luck, of course. I learned realism, too. To defeat an enemy as tough and dedicated as the Japanese, we had to be just as tough. We had to be just as dedicated to America as they were to their emperor. I think this was the essence of Marine Corps doctrine in World War II, and that history vindicates this doctrine.

December 10, 2008

I’m not quite sure how many books I read this year, but it is probably in the neighborhood of 80-100. I recently combed through the list, looking for the books I read in 2008 that were also published in 2008. And as I did that, I built a list of my favorites. Now do note that these are my favorite books. This is different than attempting to say in some objective manner that these are the best books published in 2008. No. Instead, this is simply a list of the books that, for one reason or another, I most enjoyed.

So here they are. The top 8 of ‘08. In each case I’ve linked to my review of the title. With the exception of the final title, they are in no particular order.

Don’t Stop Believing by Michael Wittmer looks at rigid conservatism and loose postmodernism, attempting to find a third way that cuts through the middle, holding fast to sound Christian theology while also emphasizing love and action.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan, though targeted primarily at a younger audience, is a powerful challenge to those “who are bored with what American Christianity offers. It is for those who don’t want to plateau, who would rather die before their convictions do.” It is a call to emphasize obedience far higher than comfort.

The Reason for God by Tim Keller is Keller’s long-awaited major release—one of two this year. It is written specifically to challenge postmodern skeptics. It carefully and patiently answers the objections of their skeptical friends and does so with grace and in a way consistent with the Bible.

Christless Christianity by Michael Horton shows that much of what passes for Christianity today is really anything but; it is Christianity without Christ. This book is a call for the church to return to its biblical foundations and to remain true to those convictions. It is a clarion call and one that Christians would do well to heed.

Unpacking Forgiveness by Chris Brauns deals with a tough subject and one which we all have opportunity to practice. He eschews the easy, pat answers and looks to the Bible to provide God’s wisdom on how and when we are to forgive. Relying on his experience as a pastor and on his deep knowledge of Scripture, he provides what is a logical, well-illustrated book on the subject.

Love or Die by Alexander Strauch focuses on Revelation 2:2-6, verses where Christ praises the church at Ephesus for their love and discernment but exhorts them to be marked by love. Strauch turns these verses on the reader, encouraging Christians to view love as a distinguishing mark of the Christian. Had Carson not written his book (below) this would have been my top pick.

And here is my favorite book of the year:

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by D.A. Carson is D.A. Carson’s tribute to his father, a pastor who labored for many years in relative obscurity. Tom Carson was an ordinary pastor, a man who struggled with depression and who saw his ministry bear visible little fruit, but he was a man who remained faithful and who served the Lord with all his heart. This is a must-read book for anyone in ministry.

Honorable mentions: The Courage To Be Protestant, Do Hard Things, A Tale of Two Sons, Why We’re Not Emergent, He Is Not Silent, and Touching History.

Finally, I want to make special mention of the ESV Study Bible. The more I use it, the more I come to love it.

Related: here are my Top 7 Books of 2007.

October 10, 2008

I just got handed a copy of the ESV Study Bible by a roaming Crossway marketing guru. Ah, the joys of being a reviewer. The Bible is set for release this Tuesday and you can now order it from Amazon, Westminster Books, or any other online retailer. Westminster is offering it at a ridiculous discount in each of the eight editions and is shipping it starting today.

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I hope to have a thorough review of it on Tuesday.