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Tim Challies

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May 29, 2010

As a book reviewer I am constantly receiving new books in the mail, the majority of which are unsolicited (which is to say that they just show up). Sometimes publishers send them, sometimes authors or publicists, sometimes just people who really want to see a review of a book they’ve enjoyed.

For sake of interest (and maybe in the hopes that you’ll be able to sympathize with my plight in choosing which to review) I thought I’d let you see the list of books that showed up this week and then do a little poll, letting you have your say. As you can well imagine, choosing which to review is quite difficult. Most of them look good, but I’ll only have time to read and review a couple before the next batch shows up. Over the past few weeks I’ve done two of these polls and have been glad to be able to start reading the books you want to see reviewed. Rather than make this post really long with descriptions of the books, I’ve just added links to Amazon if you want to read more about any of them.

Do note that Doctrine by Driscoll and Breshears and Humanitarian Jesus by Buckley and Dobson are already on my reading list based on previous polls. Both should get a review in the next couple of weeks. For that reason I’ve left them off of the poll.

So here are the books that showed up this week:

Beyond all the books, I also received a CD, My Cry Ascends: New Parish Psalms by Gregory Wilbur (produced by Ligonier Ministries) and two DVDs, Speaking the Truth in Love to Muslims from Vision Video and then the DVD version of Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad. And finally, I received Soul, which I understand to be a young adult adaptation of Christianity Explored. It is a DVD and comes with a leader’s guide and a study guide.

Vote For a Review

  • “Mere Churchianity” by Michael Spencer
  • “Before God” by Mike Sarkissian
  • “What Is Vocation?” by Stephen Nichols
  • “The Prism and the Rainbow” by Joel Martin
  • “Spiritual Parenting” by Michelle Anthony
  • “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr
  • “What Is the Gospel?” by Greg Gilbert
  • “What Did You Expect?” by Paul Tripp
  • “It Is Well” by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence
  • “God’s Lyrics” by Douglas O’Donnell
  • “Tributes to John Calvin” by David Hall
  • “Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church” by Michael Lawrence
  • “Burning Down The Shack” by James DeYoung
  • “The Sword” by Bryan Litfin

May 24, 2010

Today is known as Victoria Day up here in the Great White North. Way back in the middle of the nineteenth century Canada declared this day, May 24, a holiday, in honor of Queen Victoria’s birthday. And after she died it was officially established as a national holiday. Since then, “May Twenty-Four” as it’s known colloquially, has become Canada’s unofficial start to summer. This is typically the weekend when people head to their cottages for the first time and when those who stay behind get started on their gardens (since by now it’s pretty much a sure thing that there won’t be any more frost at night). Traditions on the day involve barbecues, beer and fireworks (not always the best combination). Many people refer to the day as “May Two-Four,” a reference to a case of beer.

This year has been especially warm and today is supposed to be beautiful—around 25 degrees (that’s 80 for you Americans) and sunny. It’s about the perfect weather for a day away from the desk; a good day to pick up the year’s first sun burn.

My plans today involve a little bit of reading, a little bit of writing, a little bit of hanging around and maybe a bike ride with the kids. Later in the day I’ll be heading out with the family to spend the evening with some friends. It’s got all the makings of a good day.

To keep you occupied as you go about your daily toil (you Americans can make fun of me in turn next week when you have Memorial Day) here are a few interesting and/or amusing things to read.

Creator or Curator - David Murray offers some good thoughts on the difference between preachers who are creators and preachers who are curators.

Crackdown in Bangkok - A series of powerful photos from Thailand.

The Black Keys to Amazing Grace - Thabiti posts an interesting video that includes a great rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Pray for a Cure - There’s a Bible for everything and everyone. The Pray for a Cure Bible stands as further proof.

Football’s for Girls - But hockey’s for men. First, here’s a story about Duncan Keith, a good Canadian boy, who lost seven teeth in a hockey game…and just kept playing. And then here’s a commercial about soccer/football.

May 09, 2010

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read is a book by Pierre Bayard, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris. In what is a bit of a provocative book and one that relies on more than a small measure of wit, Bayard argues that not having read a book does not need to serve as an impediment in having an interesting and intelligent discussion about it. He goes so far as to argue that in some cases the worst thing you can do, the thing that would most dishonor a book, is to read it.

“Reading is first and foremost non-reading,” he says. “Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe.” Therefore even the most prolific reader does far more non-reading than he does reading and makes far more decisions not to read than to read. Non-reading is a genuine activity as much as reading is a genuine activity. It is not just the mere absence of reading; it is a choice not to read particular works. And yet, he argues, non-reading should not prohibit us from having intelligent and guilt-free discussion about books we have chosen not to read.

So tell me. What do you think of his book?

May 06, 2010

Yesterday I spent some time thinking about how and why and where we all buy our Christian books. I started with the question, “Why do people shop at one e-commerce store and not another.” And from there I just found more and more questions that were asking for answers.

I started writing out such questions and before I knew it I had put together a survey suitable for Christian readers. And I’d love it if you’d take 2 minutes to complete the survey. It asks for no identifying information and really shouldn’t take you more than a couple of minutes. After we’ve gotten a good quantity of responses, I’ll let you in on the results.

Click here to take the survey

February 22, 2010

This morning I want to provide a few updates on life, books and web sites.

First off, I owe you an update on The Next Story, the book I’m writing. To this point, progress has been slow—discouragingly slow, really. Yet I’ve got hope that things will pick up soon. I have been focusing on gathering and pondering ideas more than actually putting ideas into words. So while the manuscript still has a word count of approximately 0, I think I’m getting to the point where the ideas are coming together in my mind. That means that I’ll soon be ready to write. In fact, I plan on spending most of today working my way through a couple more books with the hope that tomorrow I’ll have enough firm ideas in place that I can begin to work on some of the chapters. In the future I’ll try to write an article on the actually process I’m going through as I put this book together. For now, though, I covet your prayers and hope to have some good reports soon.

January 23, 2010

Over at 10MillionWords I’ve been working hard, reading all of the New York Times bestsellers that have been on the list so far this year. Just yesterday I posted a review of one that I found particularly interesting because it deals with a topic that is innately theological. Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert is a book about marriage.

At the end of her bestselling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert fell in love with Felipe. Four years later she returns to tell their story. Having fallen in love with this Brazilian man, Gilbert began to build a life with him. But before long the Department of Homeland Security intervened, deporting Felipe for spending too much time in the United States despite not being a citizen. The only solution, the only way to gain his citizenship, was for the two of them to marry. Yet both of them, scarred from prior divorces, had no desire at all to marry. In fact, they had both sworn off marriage, vowing to remain together, but unfettered by that age-old institution.

“…I was not convinced that I knew very much more than ever about the realities of institutionalized companionship.” says Gilbert. “I had failed at marriage and thus I was terrified of marriage, but I’m not sure this made me an expert on marriage; this only made me an expert on failure and terror, and those particular fields are already crowded with experts. Yet destiny had intervened and was demanding marriage from me, and I’d learned enough from life’s experiences to understand that destiny’s interventions can sometimes be read as invitations for us to address and even surmount our biggest fears.” Yet the reality was that if she wanted to live her life with Felipe, she would have to marry him. “Within one year—like it or not, ready or not—I had to get married. That being the case, it seemed imperative that I focus my attention on unraveling the history of monogamous Western marriage in order to better understand my inherited assumptions, the shape of my family’s narrative, and my culturally specific catalogue of anxieties.”

This book, half travelogue and half sociology, follows her as she and Felipe travel through Asia while they wait for the U.S. government to grant him permission to enter America and get married. As she travels she researches marriage, trying to get to the bottom of what it is and why it is so fundamental to humanity. Committed is, then, a book about marriage. In its own way it is pro-marriage, I suppose, though only if we grant quite a wide understanding of what marriage is.

You can read the rest of the review at 10MillionWords

*****

Here are a few other books I’ve reviewed recently:

November 22, 2009

Jerry Bridges has long been a great gift to the church. His books, especially the classics like The Pursuit of Holiness and The Discipline of Grace, have impacted millions of Christians. His speaking ministry has taken him across the world, allowing him to bless countless thousands more. A couple of years ago I was privileged to spend a half hour or so with him backstage at a conference and enjoyed the opportunity to just sit and enjoy his company. He is just the kind of Christian I want to be when I grow up.

Next month Jerry will celebrate his 80th birthday. One of his friends contacted me recently to see if I would like to send along some form of congratulations and of course I wanted to. We then discussed how we could allow others to do the same and thought that it might work best to simply give you the ability to do so right here.

So if you would like to wish a happy birthday to Jerry Bridges and, even better, if you would like to encourage him in his ministry or thank him for it, you can do so by filling out the form below. All replies will be be kept confidential and given to him by his wife on his birthday.

November 02, 2009

Seven years into blogging and six years into daily blogging, I’ve decided to try something, well, completely different. Today I want to introduce to you a new blog I’ve begun. It is called 10MillionWords.

10MillionWords

First, though, let me say that, as far as I see it, not much is going to change here at challies.com. I intend to continue to blog daily in much the same way I have been doing for all these years. I love what I do here and don’t intend to change things up anytime soon. This blog is still my priority when it comes to writing and, I hope, will always be so.

Having said all of that, let me tell you about my new project.

A few months ago I found a site that provides archived lists of all the New York Times bestselling books from 1950 to the present. I began browsing through the list and was struck by the great diversity in the books that make their way onto the list. They really do run the gamut, touching on every genre, covering the spectrum from left to right, from Christian to atheist, from one extreme to the other. I found myself wishing that I had been able to read more of these books over the years. What a well-rounded, interesting view of culture and worldview they would give me. To read these books from any given period, whether the 50’s or 60’s or today would be to learn something about the culture. It would be a snapshot of the people, of what they are thinking about, of what they are learning, of whom they are learning it from.

From there I began to wonder if it would be possible to read all of the bestsellers over the course of a period of time. I began to run through the archives, trying to figure out how the list works, how many books are added, how long they remain there, and so on. When I had done the quantifying and qualifying I realized that I could probably read all of the bestsellers for a year and do so without completely neglecting all of my other responsibilities in life. When I did the math I found that all of the words in all of those books would probably come in at somewhere around 10 Million Words.

You can see where this is going. In 2010 I intend to read all of the New York Times bestsellers. I will qualify this by saying that I’ll be reading all of the hardcover, non-fiction bestsellers. Fiction has little appeal to me and does not offer as valuable a snapshot of the culture as does non-fiction; the softcovers have generally already been released as hardcovers. So it made sense for me to focus on just that one list. There are fifteen books on the list and it is updated once weekly. On average there are three or four books added each week. Some weeks there are as few as one new one added or as many as seven. In any case, I am going to attempt to read them all. My intention in all of this is to find in those books lessons on culture and worldview.

Through the rest of 2009 I will be reading as many of the bestsellers as I can and trying to “find my voice.” I will be trying to find the best way to seek out and communicate the lessons about worldview and culture that will be the heart of this project. I may also try to focus some attention on books dealing with reading better, reading faster, increasing retention, and so on.

So I am going to encourage you to visit the new site, 10MillionWords.com. There are already quite a few reviews over there of some books you may enjoy. The site is hosted at Gospel Coalition. I mentioned the site to them and, for various reasons, we felt it would be a good idea to “park” the site for the year. You may like to subscribe via RSS or subscribe via email. You might also like to follow 10MillionWords via Twitter or join the Facebook group. At the very least, visit the site, bookmark it, and drop by a few times. I think (and hope!) you will find it an interesting and valuable stop on your online travels in the months to come.

10MillionWords

March 16, 2009

Toronto PastorsI dedicate a fair amount of attention on this blog to conferences. This is the first time I’ve done so for a conference my church is hosting. We are thrilled to announce that registration for the 2009 edition of the Toronto Pastors Conference is now open!

If you are a pastor or a church leader-or just interested in knowing how to serve to build Christ’s church-we would love to have you join us on June 1-3, 2009 at Richview Baptist Church here in Toronto.

The speakers for our main sessions will be Mark Dever and Matt Schmucker. We anticipate a tremendous blessing as these two hugely gifted and qualified men come to share with us from God’s word how he would have us serve his church.

Make sure to register early! The earlybird registration cost is only $100 for the three days of the conference. Also, if you register early there is free billeting available through some of the families at our church-but space is limited and offered first come, first served. So register fast!

Want more information on speakers, schedule, location, topic, or anything else to do with the conference? Check out the TPF website for all the details!

August 06, 2008

Almost eight months after my review of The Shack I continue to get daily emails about it. This is proof, I suppose, of the book’s continued success. I do not know if the novel’s popularity has peaked yet but can see that it is still at the top of its category on many of the bestseller lists. The emails I receive typically fit into one of two categories: the “thanks for the review” category or the “how dare you?” category. Today I want to address just two of the more common critiques of my critique of the book.

Here is how one reader expressed herself: “Hello Tim. I read your review after I had already read The Shack and I think your review is ridiculous. Your review reminds me of exactly why ‘stodgy old religion’ is so unappealing to masses of people.William Young wrote a novel - a story that inspired me and thousands of others to want to have a closer, more intimate relationship with God. All your theological arguments can’t erase that.” Another concerned reader told me of a professor in a conservative seminary who was untroubled by much of the book’s poor theology. “I was surprised that he seemed not as concerned due to the fact that it is a novel and so some leeway should be allowed for ‘poetic license.’ He acknowledged my concerns and said he shared them as well but said the novel did not ‘intend to do theology.’” I have received these comments, or ones like them, time and time again.

There are two broad arguments used here.

The first is pure pragmatism, implying that the book should be judged not on theological arguments, not on the basis of comparing it to Scripture, but on the basis of how people have reacted to it. Because so many people are responding positively to this book in opposition to “stodgy old religion,” we must believe that it is good. “William Young wrote a novel - a story that inspired me and thousands of others to want to have a closer, more intimate relationship with God. All your theological arguments can’t erase that.” The danger of such an argument is that it effectively places us over the Bible and over God. No longer do we judge right and wrong by what God says, but we judge right and wrong by how we feel. If the book inspires people to be intimate with God, we must judge it to be good. If it stirs emotions we like, we judge it to be good.

There are profound implications here. Pragmatism necessarily causes us to lose our focus on the absolute standard God has given us in His Word to determine right from wrong. When we lose that focus the church is placed on the slippery slope to becoming like the world. When we discard God’s standards we must depend on our own deeply flawed standards. We begin to trust in ourselves and lose our trust in God. We lose our reliance on His Word as the tool for discernment.

The second argument is that The Shack is not a work of theology and, therefore, must not be treated as such. An article at Christianity Today makes this argument. “It’s tricky to speak definitively of The Shack’s theology. Young could have written a theological treatise, a spiritual memoir, or even a long poem. Instead, he wrote what he calls a “parable” (not an allegory). That should give readers pause about confidently reading off a systematic theology from the book.” And in their review of the book they say, “Readers are talking about The Shack for its theology and its storyline, not for its faulty mechanics. Reviewers have criticized the book for hinting at universalism, as well as for feminism and a lack of hierarchy in the Trinity. Rather than slicing and dicing the novel, looking for proof of theological missteps, a better approach might be to look at significant passages as springboards for deeper discussion. The Shack is a novel, after all, not a systematic theology.”

This is a convenient argument but one we need to guard against. It creates a false, unrealistic division between works that are theological and works that are not. Surely we will admit that there are works that call for great theological precision (such as a Systematic Theology) and works that call for a more general precision, but we cannot neatly divide areas that require correct theology and areas that do not. The Shack is, by the author’s own admission, a work that seeks to change the reader’s perception of God. It is deeply theological! Read the reviews of this book and you will find readers saying how much this book impacted their understanding of God’s person and nature.

Tom Neven, writing for Boundless Line, covers this well in an article titled “But It’s Only Fiction.”

If you’re going to ground your fiction in the real world, then it must conform to the rules of the real world we live in. No unicorns or magic squirrels allowed. Even one of my favorite literary genres, Magical Realism, adheres to certain basic rules.

So if you’re going to have God as a character in your real-world fiction, then you must deal with God as he has revealed himself in Scripture. By using the Trinity as characters in this story set in the real world, The Shack author William P. Young is clearly indicating that he’s supposedly talking about the God of Christianity. But God has said certain things about himself in Scripture, and much of what Young does in this novel contradicts that. I don’t care if he’s trying to make God more “accessible.” He’s violated the rules of fiction.

More important, why does Young feel the need to change the character of God in this story? In a way, he’s saying that the God who reveals himself to us in the Bible is insufficient. Young needs to “improve” the image to make it more palatable. But as I said in the original post, God never changes himself so that we can understand Him better. He changes us so that we can see Him as he truly is. If God changed his nature, He would cease to be God.

The Shack is theological fiction. If it talks about God, it must be so! While it may not require the kind of precision we would expect from a work of formal theology, we cannot deny that the author seeks to teach what he believes to be true about God. And we cannot then deny that it teaches theology that is, in a word, false. It is not an issue of precision but of right and wrong! Fiction is a powerful medium for communicating truth and the evidence of this is in every positive review of the book; the evidence is in the fact that Jesus Himself often communicated using fiction.

The reader who complained about “stodgy old religion” exhorted me to “try to re-read the Shack with a more open mind.” But from her email and the others like it, I can see that in this case an open mind would require a closed Bible. We cannot set aside Scripture even when we read fiction. There is no such thing as only fiction.

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