I found several good options of books this week, and I even read some fiction too. I was still more drawn to non-fiction towards the beginning of the week, but I’ve been easing my way back into fiction. I did pass the threshold of 60 books read for the year, which puts me in great stead to have another 200 book year. (Last time I read at this pace, I had a 238 book year.)
If you’re wondering what my March stats were (because I doubt I will finish a book between now and Monday between church and my children’s recital), I ended up reading 23 books. My favorite book was A Ladder to the Sky. However, Daisy Jones and the Six came in a fairly close second. I recommend you read both!!
Humble Calvinism by J.A. Medders. Medders notes a growing danger to the new Calvinist movement, as most Calvinists are quick to defend their theology, but they are very slow to love other Christians. Medders ponders this phenomenon, suggests that perhaps Calvinism would be best served by a more humble and loving ethic, and goes through the five points of TULIP, explaining how each point is best served by a humble attitude.
Medders pinpoints a serious problem in the modern Reformed movement. Calvinism is trendy again (and I should totally write a blog post about the correlation between American Christianity’s feelings of loss of control over culture and their lives and the rise of Calvinism), but these Calvinists are often their own worst enemies, as they drive others away from Christianity and their own doctrinal realizations with their combative ways and their attempts to argue others into their point of view. Medders writes with much humor about Calvinism and how Calvinists often know their theology in their head but fail to live it in their hearts. This is Medders at his best.
A big portion of the book is focused on going through the five points of TULIP, with special given to how truly understanding the points will make the believer more humble. In some ways this section was on his thesis, but in other ways it seems like just another argumentation of the five points. I am not sure that a book about humility needed yet another argumentation of the five points, and there’s a slight irony of a book on humble Calvinism having an explanation of the five points.
I also grow weary of all Calvinism being reduced to the five points, but that’s another topic for another day. I will admit that the title is what got me to buy the book, as the one thing I have never met, especially in discussions on doctrine, is a humble Calvinist. This is probably only a three star book, but the humorous tone of the author and his pointing out the “elephant in the room” of arrogant Calvinists definitely makes this one worth four stars. It’s a quick and easy read. (book 56 of 2019)
Flourish by Lydia Brownback. We all want to get closer to Jesus and we all long for lives that are full of joy. However, many things stand in the way. These may include self-consciousness, self-help attitudes, self-indulgence, self-analysis, self-condemnation or self-victimization. While these can range widely in their guises, what all these obstacles to joy have in common are an undue and unhealthy focus on ourselves. When we focus on ourselves, we often find that we have crowded Christ either out of our lives or onto the margins of our lives. We find ourselves the star of our life, and we have no room for worship of anyone but self.
Brownback helps to gently correct these erroneous views, show how sometimes even Christian subculture helps to encourage these views, and allows us to put a right focus on Christ instead of ourselves. This is the most helpful book that I have read in a long time, as I find that I often struggle with several of the self-focused habits that Brownback outlines. This is an early contender for my best reads of the year, and I have thought about going back through the book with the 30-day guide and bible study questions that Brownback includes after the main text. It remains to be seen whether I’ll do that or not, but this is one that I could find myself re-reading on a fairly frequent basis, as I truly need some lenses to help me see beyond myself and to the glory that is Christ. (book 57 of 2019)
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Roy and Celestial are young newlyweds that appear to be on their way up the ladder. They’ve only been married 18 months, and their marriage still has kinks, but everything seems to be smoothing out. Then, Roy is jailed for a crime that he does not commit, and as time goes by with Roy in jail, the distance between him and Celestial progressively grows. Five years go by, and Roy’s conviction is overturned. He’s ready to pick up with their marriage where they left off, but does Celestial feel the same?
This is a sad book with a sad situation. There’s a lot of prejudice exposed in the book, and I think reading books like this helps me to understand better the racial prejudice that plagues our country. Everything is unfortunate and tragic, and the center that was holding the fragile sapling of Roy and Celestial’s marriage together just seems to come flying apart. I enjoyed Roy’s character so much, feeling what he’s going through and seeing how racial prejudice and jail changes him. Unfortunately, I felt like Celestial was a bad wife, and I did not understand how she could just draw back from their marriage the way that she does while Roy is in jail, especially given her knowledge that Roy is an innocent man. I also did not really like Andre, Celestial’s best friend. I felt like he took a little emotional advantage of Celestial’s drift while Roy is in jail, and so I was disgusted with some of his actions in the book. I did not like the neat and tidy epilogue that Jones put at the end, and I think I would have liked this book much better had it ended in a completely different way. (book 58 of 2019)
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. A charming book of letters exchanged between writer, Helene Hanff and the staff of a used-book shop over the course of twenty years. Some of the letters are very professional, but as the bonds of affection grow between Hanff and the staff, the letters take a very warm and personable turn.
This book is delightful, touching and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. I read it over the course of about an hour, and placed it directly on my bookcase so that I might go back and re-read it when I need a warm, fuzzy pick-me-up kind of read. (book 59 of 2019)
Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of the Pastoral Ministry by Paul David Tripp. Tripp both understands and has lived through the high pressure environment that pastors are subject to as they minister. With such a high pressure environment and such high responsibilities, pastors are prone to many sins, and even more importantly, they do not receive the pastoral care and accountability that any member of his church might receive.
Tripp details the things that go wrong for a pastor. Many of these things boil down to misplaced pride and blindness to his own sin. Other sins boil down to lack of pastoral care and accountability to other Christians. In this day of megachurch pastors gone awry, the me-too movement and scandals among church leaders, these warnings sound timely. I find that in my own ministry life, even though I am not a pastor, that I can relate to many of these challenges, and some of them are ones that I do struggle with.
I find myself quoting this book in my own writing lately, and seriously pondering how to overcome these challenges for myself. My only issue with the book is that I found Tripp’s writing on this topic to be meandering and repetitive. While I appreciated the confessional style and how Tripp holds nothing back (in a good way), there are places that could have used a little editorial tightening. (book 60 of 2019)
The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel by Dean Inserra. Sometimes (and in some places) in the United States an evangelist or pastor can feel that there is not much of a mission field. After all, we live in a strongly Judeo-Christian culture, one where most people seem to know at least a little about Christianity. However, according to Dean Inserra, that just makes our mission field more difficult. After all, cultural Christianity and growing up with a Christian heritage are not the same things as actually believing in the gospel of Christ. Inserra wrote this book to give pictures of different basic types of cultural Christians, including some key characteristics and points at which to be able to start gospel conversations. These pictures range from nominal Christians to heritage Catholics to more liberal mainline Protestant denominations. He concludes with some pointers on how to determine if your own Christianity is true or merely cultural.
Inserra raises some good points and begins a good discussion on determining the difference between what it means to be a cultural Christian and what it means to be a real Christian. However, by the end of the book, it seems that he’s pointed to almost every variety of Christian expression in the United States and labelled it as merely cultural. This reader was left knowing if Inserra truly found a real expression of Christianity at all other than his own. While doctrine is has essential areas where we often must be inflexible on, there are often wide varieties of people and beliefs that can qualitatively be called Christian. In this, Inserra’s book is exclusionary to the point of stereotyping, and I do believe that if taken to heart will find people judging good Christians and merely cultural Christians.
The last chapter of his book, determining whether or not you are a cultural Christian is also problematic. Rather than pointing to faith alone, Inserra seems to be adding several works-based indicators to judge someone’s faith by, while maintaining that people might do these very things and still be merely cultural Christians. I do not think that this is his intention, and I think he merely wants to say that a baptism or a magical special ritual prayer does not make one a Christian. Still it’s confusing to the point of being something that I would feel could be a stumbling block to someone who already struggles with uncertainty in their faith and could perhaps lead to someone attempting to attempt to do more works in order to assure their salvation. (book 61 of 2019)
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne. Maurice Swift has one desire in the world, and that is to be a famous and acclaimed novelist. The only problem? He has no clue what to write about, but he’s not about to let that keep him from his goals. Instead, he decides to take an unconventional route to the top, a route that gets more and more horrific with each passing section with of the book. To say more would be “spoilers,” even though there are some things I would consider spoilers that are even on the jacket of the book!
I was totally mesmerized by this book. I started reading it about 7:30 on a Friday night, and even with other stuff I needed to do (like sleep and write for grad school), I struggled to put it down and finished it soon after lunch time on Saturday. Maurice is seen through the eyes of other people and eventually through his own eyes. He is the ultimate user, the complete psychopathic, narcissistic charlatan, and I have not despited as literary character as I despise Maurice in a very long time. . . .and the section with the fictionalized Gore Vidal in it and superb! Actually, the whole book was superb, unputdownable, and extraordinary. And just like usual, when I read something I really like, I’m struggling to put it into words. Maybe some further reflection later on will help me to gain a little more perspective on the book. If so, I’ll write more on it later! (book 62 of 2019)