I hunt for fabulous books, reads that leave me reeling. Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for before I read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less. By God’s grace, I found 36 fabulous books this year, and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.
All of creation is the theater of God’s glory because “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) In this wonderful new book, Wilson helps his readers delight in the knowledge that “everything in creation tells us something about our Creator.” (201) The world is theomorphic, that is, all things “take the form they do because they are created to reveal God.” (4) Along the way, Wilson shows the scriptural significance of dust, earthquakes, pigs, livestock, stones, galaxies, honey, mountains, rainbows, gardens, donkeys, salt, rain, water, bread, trees, viruses, clothes, light, and more. (Check out these delicious excerpts here, here, here, and here.)
“For now, the created order is filled with signposts. One of my dreams in writing this book has been that you might look around you and see reasons to worship that you hadn’t noticed before. But the day is coming when the signposts will not be needed, because the reality is here. We will know fully, even as we are fully known. And on that day the things of God will stop pointing and start praising. ‘The mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands’ (Isa. 55:12). ‘Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together’ (Ps. 98:8). ‘The stones will cry out’ (Luke 19:40). The things of God will sing to the King of Kings and the God of things, for whom and through whom and to whom they exist. So will we.” (201-202)
Charles Simeon once said: “There are but two lessons for the Christian to learn: the one is, to enjoy God in everything; the other is, to enjoy everything in God.” This book, my favorite book of the year, can help you do both.
When Dr. Morales writes a book about the Bible, I read it. His volume on Leviticus is one of my all-time favorites. This new biblical-theological feast traces the exodus theme in Scripture around three movements: the historical exodus out of Egypt, the prophesied second exodus, and the new exodus of Jesus the Messiah. Exegetical insights abound. The section on the Servant Songs in Isaiah is worth the price of the entire book.
“All the streams of heavenly blessings converge through the one unifying sieve of this servant, the Messiah. He is the Rock through whom every divine promise pours out as a rushing river, transforming the wilderness of this age into the paradise of a new creation.” (145)
Morales helped me see more fully how “the cross on which Jesus shed His blood has become the doorpost of the world (John 19:29; Exodus 12:22).” (164)
How might pastors learn to shepherd well through a global pandemic? One way is by gleaning heavenly wisdom from godly pastors who faced the worst of plagues in the past. Coleman and Rester have translated and edited an enriching volume of treatises, letters, hymns, and prayers, from the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, that help us to think theologically and pastorally about living and shepherding during times of great crisis.
“Plague and disease deeply shaped the ministries of pastors and the congregational life of the early modern churches. A faithful pastor in this context needed a solid theology of God’s providence and the dignity of every human being, especially of the sick and the infirm; a deep love of neighbor; a strong commitment to the duties of pastoral vocation; and a robust Christian prudence to navigate the physical and spiritual needs of his family, congregation, and community. As we can all attest, pandemics tend to reveal the seams and tensions within a society. It was no different in the sixteenth century.” (xxvi)
You will find thoughtful reflections on Philippians 2, Psalm 91, Exodus 9, 1 Samuel 24, 1 Chronicles 21, and Ezekiel 5 and 14, as well as pearls of wisdom like this one from Theodore Beza:
“This especially must be agreed upon, that as our sins are the chief and true cause of the plague, so this is the only proper remedy against the same: that if the ministers would not dispute about infectiousness (which belongs to physicians) but, by their life and doctrine stir up the people to earnest repentance, love, and charity one towards another, then the sheep themselves would hear clearly and heed the voice of their pastors.” (29)
George Swinnock is one of the easiest Puritan authors to read. He’s also one of the most edifying. This little volume is a God-enthralled meditation on Psalm 89:6: “For who in the heaven can be compared unto the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the LORD?” Here’s a taste:
“Who could have imagined that God should become man, infinite become finite, the Creator a creature; the Father of spirits become flesh, and the Lord of life be put to death? Who could conceive, that He who made all things of nothing, should be made Himself of a woman, made by Him? That He whom the heavens, and heaven of heavens cannot contain, should be contained in the narrow womb of a woman? That the only bread of life should be hungry, the only water of life be thirsty; the only rest be weary, the only ease be pained, and the only joy and consolation be sorrowful, exceeding sorrowful unto death? Who could have imagined that one, yea, millions, should be rich by another’s poverty, filled by another’s emptiness, be exalted by another’s disgrace, healed by another’s wounds, eased by another’s pains, be absolved by another’s condemnation, and live eternally by another’s temporal death? Who could have imagined that infinite justice and infinite mercy should be made fast friends, and fully satisfied by one and the same action; that the greatest fury and the greatest favour, the greatest hatred and the greatest love, should concur in, and be manifested by one and the same thing? Could men or angels speak such mysteries? Surely no.” (106)
If you find yourself wayward and wandering, distracted and distressed, during your times of daily worship with the Lord, you might find help from this simple but incredibly rich devotional guide. Here’s a sample of what’s inside. Praying the daily offices and the rhythms of a fixed liturgy can be an oasis for the soul. Also, especially if you’re a pastor, avail yourself of Gibson’s Reformation Worship. It’s a liturgical goldmine.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne once gave this priceless wisdom: “Do not take up your time so much with studying your own heart as with studying Christ’s heart. For one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ!” I was reminded of this quote while reading this earnest, humble, and Scripture-saturated book by a pastor and friend I deeply love and respect. Garrett wisely helps us see the deceitfulness of sin and the deception of the devil:
“Satan is a historian. He is the master of replaying old sins to the tune of accusation. He digs up past failures and then blackmails us with reminders of why God is disappointed with us. Before sin, Satan is the tempter who whispers, ‘You should do this!’ After sin, Satan is the accuser who whispers, ‘How could you have done this!’ Satan kills through temptation and then buries with guilt. But whether he allures with sugar on the tongue or accuses with salt in a wound, the devil is always working. His aim is to turn your gaze from God, because seeing him with sober eyes strengthens your fight for faith in the one greater than all your foes.” (64)
But more than anything, Kell helps us long to see God. “When the hope of seeing God fills our hearts, it has a purifying effect on our lives.” (94) “We know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)
I spent much of 2021 pondering and preaching the Gospel according to Luke. No commentary was more helpful to me than this one. This new series of NT handbooks focuses on the content of the biblical books, rather than historical-critical questions. Gladd faithfully summarizes the passage, makes textual connections to other passages, paying careful attention to OT allusions and quotations. Check out this insight on the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:
“The father’s treatment of his prodigal son is remarkable in its similarities to the Joseph narrative. He clothes the son in his ‘best robe’ and puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet (Luke 15:22). The language is close to Genesis 41:42, when Pharaoh gives Joseph a ring and dresses ‘him in robes of fine linen.’ A few verses earlier, the prodigal son is forced to work with pigs because ‘there was a severe famine in that whole country’ (Luke 15:14). According to Genesis 41, Pharaoh dreams that seven years of famine would descend upon Egypt after seven years of prosperity (Gen. 41:25-32). The combination of these plot points refers Luke’s audience back to the Joseph narrative. The donning of clothes in the OT symbolizes the right to inherit and rule (Gen. 3:21; 37; Num. 20:24-28; 1 Kings 11:30-31; 19:19-21; Isa. 22:21). The prodigal son, after recognizing his sin, comes and receives a great deal of inheritance and rule over the estate, just as Joseph is given the right to rule over Egypt. The father elevates his prodigal son to the status of ruler. The restoration of the prodigal son, the sinner, symbolizes all the outsiders within Luke’s narrative and their new identity as the true Israel of God. They are all identified with the great patriarch Joseph. The father twice announces that the son ‘was dead’ but is now ‘alive again’ (Luke 15:24, 32). Life here should be understood as resurrection life, the new creational act of God whereby He spiritually resurrects those who trust in Jesus (see John 5:25; Rom. 6:11, 13; 1 Pet. 1:3; Rev. 1:18; 2:8; 20:5).” (267-268)
I read Spurgeon for admiration, not imitation. I don’t try to imitate him. But I admire God for what He did in and through His faithful servant. This sobering collection of pastoral addresses is full of wisdom, encouragement, and testimonies of God’s amazing grace. Even in the darkness of his depression, Spurgeon was used by the Lord to minister the gospel of Christ to others who, like him, found themselves in the silent shades of sorrow.
“When you and I become weak, and are depressed in spirit, and our soul passes through the valley of the shadow of death, it is often on account of others. One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ (Matthew 27:46) and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand upright, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, ‘I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.’
By God’s grace, I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge. God’s sheep ramble very far, and we have to go after them; and sometimes the shepherds go where they themselves would never roam if they were not in pursuit of lost sheep. You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds. Expect to grow weaker, brethren, that you may comfort the weak, and so may become masters in Israel in the judgment of others; while, in your own opinion, you are less than the least of all saints.” (172-173)
This is an outstanding book about growing in Christ. Sanctification is about growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) How does this growth happen? Here’s Ortlund’s answer: “The basic point of this book is that change is a matter of going deeper… Growing in Christ is not centrally improving or adding or experiencing but deepening. Implicit in the notion of deepening is that you already have what you need.” (16) We already have Christ, the One in whom are hidden unsearchable riches of love and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
“Let me suggest that you consider the possibility that your current mental idea of Jesus is the tip of the iceberg. That there are wondrous depths to Him, realities about Him, still awaiting your discovery. I’m not disregarding the real discipleship already at play in your life and the true discoveries of the depths of Jesus Christ you have already made. But let me ask you to open yourself up to the possibility that one reason you see modest growth and ongoing sin in your life– if that is indeed the case– is that the Jesus you are following is a junior varsity Jesus, an unwittingly reduced Jesus, an unsurprising and predictable Jesus. I’m not assuming that’s the case. I’m just asking you to test yourself, with honesty. When Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean in 1492, he named the natives “Indians,” thinking he had reached what Europeans of the time referred to as “the Indies” (China, Japan, and India). In fact he was nowhere close to South or East Asia. In his path were vast regions of land, unexplored and uncharted, of which Columbus knew nothing. He assumed the world was smaller than it was. Have we made a similar mistake with regard to Jesus Christ? Are there vast tracts of who He is, according to biblical revelation, that are unexplored? Have we unintentionally reduced Him to manageable, predictable proportions? Have we been looking at a junior varsity, decaffeinated, one-dimensional Jesus of our own making, thinking we’re looking at the real Jesus? Have we snorkeled in the shallows, thinking we’ve now hit bottom on the Pacific?” (22-23)
I love this intermediate-level introduction to the glorious world of biblical theology, which the authors define as “the study of the whole Bible on its own terms.” (16) The categories of canon, covenants, and Christ structure their approach. After sketching the Bible’s grand storyline, they trace several of the Bible’s significant themes (God’s glory, Kingdom, Covenant, Temple and Priesthood, Worship, Messiah and Atonement, Salvation and Judgment, Holy Spirit, and Mission).
“One of the main purposes of Scripture is to display Jesus Christ.” (81)
“At the heart of the story of the biblical covenants is the bedrock conviction that the God of creation is the God of the covenants.” (82)
“The gospel is still a story that takes two Testaments to tell.” (83)
“Two hermeneutical statements can begin to capture the conviction of the New Testament authors. For them, Jesus both fulfills and fills out the Scriptures.” (94)
“For the biblical theologian, the role of the reader is never to make a path to Christ, but always to follow the path to Christ that the biblical authors have laid down. Taking a canonical line to the cross may not be straight or fast, but it’s true.” (101)
“The Pentateuch was meant to be read as a whole, with each of its five parts connected to and building upon the others. The five books of Moses are really five narrative components of the one Book of Moses.” (121)
“The biblical authors were also biblical readers. The task of biblical theology requires reading and rereading.” (453)
Ortlund offers a winsome, rigorous, and engaging abductive argument for God’s existence. (The sections in Chapter 2 on math and music are phenomenal.) He carefully considers the cause, the meaning, the conflict, and the hope of the world. He then works backwards from a present set of conditions to the most likely explanation, an inference to the best explanation, by showing the beautiful reasonableness of Christian theism. This approach says, “If God doesn’t exist, so much of life– so much of what we already assume in the way we function– becomes inexplicable.” (13) Imagine this volume as a book-length expansion of what good old Puddleglum declared to the Witch in The Silver Chair:
“One word, Ma’am… One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.” (159)
This book is a masterclass in how to treat those with whom you disagree. Ortlund engages the best atheistic arguments with charity, clarity, and grace. And he keeps the promise he makes in the preface:
“I tell you that I’ve given you my best effort as a writer so that I may invite you to give the book your best effort as a reader. We live in an age of distraction and sound bites. The careful reader of books is not our defining strength. But if you will give me your attention from cover to cover, I will do everything I can to make it worth your effort.” (xi)
I plodded my way through Volume 1 of Turretin’s Institutes. Like other scholastics, his writings are lectures not sermons. The goal of an elenctic theology is to demonstrate and assert the truth of sound doctrine by refuting false doctrines. So expect an apologetic feel throughout. His reputation for doctrinal precision is well founded. (His section on the Trinity is wonderful!) But I also found some amusing surprises. For example, Turretin has an entire section devoted to the argument that the world was created in autumn rather than in spring, making his case, in part, from the timing of Israel’s feasts in Exodus and Leviticus. (1: 441–444) Most surprising of all was his warm-hearted devotion:
“These four things in the highest manner commend the love of God towards us:
(1) the majesty of the Lover;
(2) the poverty and unworthiness of the loved;
(3) the worth of Him in whom we are loved;
(4) the multitude and excellence of the gifts which flow out from that love to us.”
He in whom we are beloved is Christ, the delight of His heavenly Father and the ‘express image of His person.’ He could have given us nothing more excellent, nothing dearer, even if He had given the whole universe.” (242) (3.20.6)
The London Review of Books called this recently translated Hugo Award-winning trilogy “one of the most ambitious works of science fiction ever written.” I found this to be a gross understatement. These novels are mind-blowing, no matter the genre. The scale of the tale is staggering. Three volumes, The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, tallying over 1,600 pages. A narrative timeline spanning 18,906,450 years, encompassing ancient Egypt, the Qin dynasty, the Byzantine Empire, the Cultural Revolution, the present, and a time eighteen million years in the future. One entire scene is told from the perspective of an ant. (An ant!) The first book is set on Earth, but many of its scenes take place in virtual reality, inside a video game. By the end of the third book, the scope of the action is interstellar and annihilation unfolds across multiple dimensions.
Liu’s prose is plain. He writes like a computer engineer. This isn’t Dickens. This is hard science fiction (‘hard sci-fi’ has a lot of science in it, ‘soft sci-fi’ doesn’t). So expect lots of astronomy, cosmology, math, particle physics, molecular biology, all shot through with the Fermi Paradox. The Three-Body Problem takes its title from an analytical problem in orbital mechanics which has to do with the unpredictable motion of three bodies under mutual gravitational pull.
This might not be your bag, but I’m telling you the plot pops. Just stick with it. I almost gave up, but everything picks up 300 pages into the second book. Think contact with alien life cranked up to beyond sinister levels. Think H. G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds” (1898) but on a cosmic scale. The trilogy concerns the catastrophic consequences of humanity’s attempt to make contact with extraterrestrials. According to Liu, the reason we haven’t heard from aliens yet is that we’re the only species dumb enough to reveal our own location in the universe:
“The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.”
Shi Qiang lit another cigarette, if only to have a bit of light.
“But in this dark forest, there’s a stupid child called humanity, who has built a bonfire and is standing beside it shouting, ‘Here I am! Here I am!’” Luo Ji said.
“Has anyone heard it?”
It goes without saying, the author’s darkly pessimistic secularism permeates the story. Which is what makes the glimmers of hope and beauty and love in the face of death all the more strange. It’s like he can’t force himself to go gentle into that good night.
It’s been said that behind every great fortune there is a crime. For years, the name “Sackler” has been synonymous with art and philanthropy. But instead of their donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, the British Museum, Harvard, and Yale, the Sackler legacy now includes $10 billion in profits from OxyContin, millions of opioid addicts, a half million dead Americans, and an ever-growing tsunami of civil lawsuits. Keefe chronicles the fascinating, devastating, and infuriating history of the family who founded Purdue Pharma, the company which made a painkiller stronger than morphine in 1996. Here’s what happened next:
“In 1996, Purdue introduced a groundbreaking drug, a powerful opioid painkiller called OxyContin, which Americans from every corner of the country found themselves addicted to these powerful drugs. Many people who started abusing OxyContin ended up transitioning to street drugs, like heroin or fentanyl. The numbers are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the quarter century following the introduction of OxyContin, some 450,000 Americans have died of opioid-related overdoses. Such overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in America, accounting for more deaths than car accidents– more deaths, even, than than most quintessentially American of metrics, gunshot wounds. In fact, more Americans have lost their lives from opioid overdoses than died in all of the wars the country has fought since World War II. (4-5)
Ursula Le Guin once noted, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” (34) Anthony Doerr tells a beautiful story that will resonate most in the hearts of βιβλιοφάγοι, book worms, those who love and live in books. The story is really several interlocking stories, Swiss-watchery in its construction, dizzyingly told from the perspective of five characters in the ancient past, the present, and the distant future. In my favorite passage, Doerr perfectly describes the transportive power of reading as a frightened orphan named Anna is stranded in a Constantinople under siege. Anna finds consolation in a mysterious tale told on a Greek codex:
“The quiet moments frighten her more: when the work pauses and she can hear the songs of the Saracens out beyond the walls, the creaking of their siege machines, the nickering of their horses and bleats of their camels. When the wind is right, she can smell the food they’re cooking. To be so close to men who want her dead. To know that only a partition of masonry prevents them from doing their will.
She works until she cannot see her hands in front of her face, then trudges home to the house of Kalaphates, takes a candle from the scullery, and climbs onto the pallet beside Maria, her fingernails broken, her hands veined with dirt, and pulls the blanket around them and opens the little brown goatskin codex.
The reading goes slowly. Some leaves are partially obscured by mold, and the scribe who copied the story did not separate the words with spaces, and the tallow candles give off a weak and sputtery light, and she is often so tired that the lines seem to ripple and dance in front of her eyes.
The shepherd in the story accidentally turns himself into an ass, then a fish, and now he swims through the innards of an enormous leviathan, touring the continents while dodging beasts who try to eat him: it’s silly, absurd; this cannot possibly be the sort of compendium of marvels the Italians sought, can it?
And yet. When the stream of the old Greek picks up, and she climbs into the story, as though climbing the wall of the priory on the rock– handhold here, foothold there– the damp chill of the cell dissipates, and the bright, ridiculous world of Aethon takes its place.
Our sea monster battled with another, bigger and more monstrous even than he was, and the waters around us quaked, and ships with a hundred sailors on each sank in front of me, and whole uprooted islands were carried past. I closed my eyes in terror, and fixed my thoughts on the golden city in the clouds…
Turn a page, walk the lines of sentences: the singer steps out, and conjures a world of color and noise in the space inside your head.” (314-315)
Doerr reminded me to be ever thankful for the written word, for books, for libraries, for stories. “A text– a book– is a resting place for the memories of people who have lived before. A way for the memory to stay fixed after the soul has traveled on.” (51)
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, Steve Coll details the C.I.A.’s operations in Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1979 through the summer of 2001, including the rise of the Taliban, the secret efforts of the CIA to capture or kill Osama bin Laden beginning in 1998, and the intelligence failures that led to September 11th. In Directorate S, Coll “seeks to provide a thorough, reliable history of how the C.I.A., I.S.I., and Afghan intelligence agencies influenced the rise of a new war in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, and how that war fostered a revival of Al Qaeda, allied terrorist networks, and, eventually, branches of the Islamic State.” (5) Contemplating the myriad catastrophic and unforced errors is incredibly painful. But if you want to know what happened, and especially what went wrong in Afghanistan, read these books. And continue to pray for the Afghan people.
No living writer helps me marvel at the manifold splendor of God reflected in His creation more than Robert Macfarlane, Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. His prose is perfect. And his point is often the same: go outside, pay attention, find beauty, be still, and be amazed. In this volume, he records his search for the wild places in Britain and Ireland. Here is the lyrical description of his exploration of a sea cave hidden among the jagged cliffs along the shoreline of Ynys Enlli, a small island off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales:
“I dove in. Blue shock. The cold running into me like dye. I surfaced, gasping, and began to swim towards the cliffs at the eastern side of the bay. I could feel the insistent draw of the current, sliding me out to the west, back towards Enlli. I swam at a diagonal to it, to keep my course. Nearing the cliffs, I moved through different ribbons and bands of temperature, warm, then suddenly cold again. A large lustrous wave surged me between two big rocks, and as I put a hand out to stop myself from being barged against them, I felt barnacles tear at my fingers. I swam to the biggest of the caves. Holding on to an edge of rock, and letting the swell lift me gently up and down, I looked inside. Though I could not see the back of the cave, it seemed to run thirty or forty feet into the cliffs: cone-shaped, tightening into the earth from its mouth. I released the rock, and drifted slowly into the opening. As I crossed the shadow cast by the cave’s roof, the water grew cold. There was a big hollow sucking and slapping sound. I shouted, and heard my call come back at me from all sides. As I got deeper in, the water shallowed. I swam breast-stroke, to keep myself as flat as possible. I was passing over dark red and purple rocks: the voodoo colours of basalt, dolerite. The lower sides of the cave were lined with frizzy green seaweed, which was slick and shiny where the water reached it, like wet hair. Further back into the cave, the light was diffused and the air appeared powdery. The temperature had dropped, and I sensed the whole gathered coldness of the unsunned rock around and above me, pushing out into the air and water. I glanced back over my shoulder. The big semicircular mouth of the cave had by now shrunk to a cuticle of light. I could only just see out to the horizon of the sea, and I felt sudden involuntary lurch of fear. I swam on, moving slowly now, trying to sense the sharp rocks over which I was moving. Then I reached the end of the cave, and there, at its very back, and in its very centre, lifted almost entirely out of the water, sat a single vast white boulder, made of smooth creamy rock, shaped roughly like a throne or seat. It must have weighed five or six tons. I climbed awkwardly out of the water, slipping on weed, and sat on the rock, while the water slopped around its base, and looked back down the cave to the curved rim of light, all that remained of the world beyond. Remembering the white rock now, it seems like a hallucination. I cannot explain what it really looked like, certainly not what it was doing there, among the red and purple basalts. Nor could I conceive of the might of the storm waves that, over the centuries, must have brought that boulder to the cave, and then shifted it deeper and deeper in, until finally they had heaved it into that position, placed perfectly at the centre and the back of the cave.” (37-38)
Mark Twain defined a classic as a book which people praise and don’t read. In my experience, classics are those books I read in high school and didn’t quite grasp. I’ve now read Crime and Punishment three times and it gets better every time. After my re-reading this year, what lingered with me the most was Raskolnikov’s feverish, haunting, and prescient dream at the novel’s end:
“He lay in the hospital all through the end of Lent and Holy Week. As he began to recover, he remembered his dreams from when he was still lying in feverish delirium. In his illness he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate. People killed each other in some sort of meaningless spite. They gathered into whole armies against each other, but, already on the march, the armies would suddenly begin destroying themselves, the ranks would break up, the soldiers would fall upon one another, stabbing and cutting, biting and eating one another. In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious. The most ordinary trades ceased, because everyone offered his own ideas, his own corrections, and no one could agree. Agriculture ceased. Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part– but immediately begin something completely different from what they themselves had just suggested, begin accusing one another, fighting, stabbing. Fires broke out; famine broke out. Everyone and everything was perishing. The pestilence grew and spread further and further. Only a few people in the whole world could be saved; they were pure and chosen, destined to begin a new generation of people and a new life, to renew and purify the earth; but no one had seen these people anywhere, no one had heard their words or voices.” (547-548)
Wow. Here’s a helpful guide to the classics just in case you want to visit (or revisit) that daunting work of literature you’ve never quite finished and was never quite finished with you.
It’s easy to think that slavery in America is, thankfully, a thing of the past. But in this Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Blackmon, senior national correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, documents with devastating detail the re-enslavement of black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. In an effort to give a voice to the voiceless, Blackmon introduces his readers to Green Cottenham. In many ways, this book is his story:
“On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Alabama, and charged with ‘vagrancy.’ Cottenham had committed no true crime. Vagrancy the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Cottenham’s offense was blackness. After three days behind bars, twenty-two-year-old Cottenham was found guilty in a swift appearance before the county judge and immediately sentenced to a thirty-day term of hard labor. Unable to pay the array of fees assessed on every prisoner—fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses— Cottenham’s sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor. The next day, Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to former slaves in an adjoining county, was sold. Under a standing arrangement between the county and a vast subsidiary of the industrial titan of the North—U.S. Steel Corporation—the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence. In return, the subsidiary, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, gave the county $12 a month to pay off Cottenham’s fine and fees. What the company’s managers did with Cottenham, and thousands of other black men they purchased from sheriffs across Alabama, was entirely up to them. A few hours later, the company plunged Cottenham into the darkness of a mine called Slope No. 12—one shaft in a vast subterranean labyrinth on the edge of Birmingham known as the Pratt Mines. There, he was chained inside a long wooden barrack at night and required to spend nearly every waking hour digging and loading coal. His required daily ‘task’ was to remove eight tons of coal from the mine. Cottenham was subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners— many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement. The lightless catacombs of black rock, packed with hundreds of desperate men slick with sweat and coated in pulverized coal, must have exceeded any vision of hell a boy born in the countryside of Alabama—even a child of slaves—could have ever imagined… Forty-five years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves, Green Cottenham and more than a thousand other black men toiled under the lash at Slope 12. Imprisoned in what was then the most advanced city of the South, guarded by whipping bosses employed by the most iconic example of the modern corporation emerging in the gilded North, they were slaves in all but name… This slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery—a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of white masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion.” (1-2, 4)
“The commercial sectors of U.S. society have never been asked to fully account for their roles as the primary enforcers of Jim Crow segregation, and not at all for engineering the resurrection of forced labor after the Civil War. The civil rights movement focused on forcing government and individual citizens to integrate public schools, reinstate full voting rights, and end offensive behavior. But it was business that policed adherence to America’s racial customs more than any other actor in U.S. society. American banks maintained ubiquitous discriminatory lending practices throughout the country that until the 1960s prevented millions of working-class African Americans from obtaining the lines of credit that millions of white families used to accumulate wealth and move from lower- to middle-class status. Indeed, the opportunity for blacks to pursue the most basic American formula for achieving middle-class status—buying a home in desirable neighborhoods where real estate values were likely to appreciate over time—was openly barred by legions of real estate agents in every city and region. Until the 1950s, rules of the National Association of Realtors made it a violation of the organization’s code of ethics for an agent to sell a home in a white neighborhood to an African American, or vice versa. It was hundreds of thousands of individual businesses that refused to give blacks jobs, equal pay, or promotions. It was wealthy men on Wall Street and in the executive suites of southern banks that financed the organized opposition to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” (383)
“In my quest to find Green Cottenham, I also discovered an unsettling truth that when white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our ‘fault.’ But it is undeniably our inheritance.”(383)
Faulkner was right: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (73)
In September, on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I began reading Zuckoff’s definitive account of the tragedy, because I never want to forget. The great WWII historian, Ian Toll, once said this about Pearl Harbor: “The passage of time strips away the searing immediacy of the surprise attack and envelops it in layers of exposition and retrospective judgment. Hindsight furnishes us with perspective on the crisis, but it also undercuts our ability to empathize with the immediate concerns of those who suffered through it.” Already an entire generation has no direct memory of 9/11, despite its daily effects on their lives. Zuckoff helps us all remember so that we’ll never forget.
“Torn open, aflame, weakening from within, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center spewed paper like blood from an arterial wound. Legal documents and employee reviews. Pay stubs, birthday cards, takeout menus. Timesheets and blueprints, photographs and calendars, crayon drawings and love notes. Some in full, some in tatters, some in flames. A single scrap from the South Tower, tossed like a bottled message from a sinking ship, captured the day’s horror. In a scrawled hand, next to a bloody fingerprint, the note read:
12 People trapped
After the paper came the people. After the people came the buildings. After the buildings came the wars. The ashes cooled, but not the anguish.” (xviii)
The best baseball writer in the world gives his best shot at listing the 100 best players of all time. I devoured this book. Each chapter profiles a different player for 4-5 pages, delivering stats and anecdotes galore. And Posnanski is a gem of a writer. This is how he describes Ken Griffey Jr.’s swing: “Junior’s swing was majestic, gorgeous, the Grand Canyon of swings, the Machu Picchu of swings, the ‘Here Comes the Sun’ of swings. It tilted upward, and when bat met ball, you could feel the breath rush out of you.” (366)
I experience shortness of breath every time I watch this home-run swing. And just in case you haven’t heard, the Atlanta Braves finally won the World Series again and it was glorious. Go Braves! That is all.
I try to read at least one Bertie and Jeeves novel every year because Wodehouse never misses:
“Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that after two months of my company, what the normal person feels is that that will about do for the present.” (34-35)
“She cried in a voice that hit me between the eyebrows and went out at the back of my head.” (40)
“I have had occasion, I fancy, to speak before now of these pick-me-up drinks of Jeeves’s and their effect on a fellow who is hanging to life by a thread on the morning after. What they consist of, I couldn’t tell you. He says some kind of sauce, the yolk of a raw egg and a dash of red pepper, but nothing will convince me that the thing doesn’t go much deeper than that. Be that as it may, however, the results of swallowing one are amazing. For perhaps the split part of a second nothing happens. It is as though all Nature waited breathless. Then, suddenly, it is as if the Last Trump had sounded and Judgement Day set in with unusual severity. Bonfires burst out in all parts of the frame. The abdomen becomes heavily charged with molten lava. A great wind seems to blow through the world, and the subject is aware of something resembling a steam hammer striking the back of the head. During this phase, the ears ring loudly, the eyeballs rotate and there is a tingling about the brow. And then, just as you are feeling that you ought to ring up your lawyer and see that your affairs are in order before it is too late, the whole situation seems to clarify. The wind drops. The ears cease to ring. Birds twitter. Brass bands start playing. The sun comes up over the horizon with a jerk. And a moment later all you are conscious of is a great peace. As I drained the glass now, new life seemed to burgeon within me.” (48)
“He sat listening like a lump of dough.” (71)
“A man’s brain whizzes along for years exceeding the speed limit, and then something suddenly goes wrong with the steering-gear and it skids and comes a smeller in the ditch.” (90)
“His brow cleared, his eyes brightened, he lost that fishy look, and he gazed at the slug, which was still on the long, long trail, with something approaching bonhomie.” (104)
“My guardian angel had not been asleep at the switch.” (115)
“A tankard of their special home-brewed was in my hand, and the ecstasy of that first Gallup is still green in my memory.” (118)
“He rose and began to pace the room in an overwrought sort of way, like a zoo lion who has heard the dinner-gong go and is hoping the keeper won’t forget him in the general distribution.” (123)
“There is a time for studying beetles and a time for not studying beetles.” (166)
“One thing I have never failed to hand the man. Jeeves is magnetic. There is about him something that seems to soothe and hypnotize. To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid-stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.” (267)
Parker is a professional super-thief, the brilliant invention of Richard Stark, the prince of noir. Butcher’s Moon is a continuation of a robbery caper Parker began in Slayground, and serves as a culmination of the best of the series. The Parker novels all follow a four-part structure, with prose as orderly as a classical symphony, and most of them begin in medias res with a sentence that starts with the word “when.” For me and Parker, it was love at first line:
The Man With the Getaway Face (1963): “When the bandages came off, Parker looked in the mirror at a stranger.” The Mourner (1963): “When the guy with the asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.” The Jugger (1965): “When the knock came at the door, Parker was just turning to the obituary page.” The Seventh (1966): “When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.” Slayground (1971): “Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and the packet of explosive in the other.” Butcher’s Moon (1974): “Running toward the light, Parker fired twice over his left shoulder, not caring whether he hit anything or not.” Backflash (1998): “When the car stopped rolling, Parker kicked out the rest of the windshield and crawled through onto the wrinkled hood, Glock first.” Firebreak (2001): “When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” Ask the Parrot(2006): “When the helicopter swept northward and lifted out of sight over the top of the hill, Parker stepped away from the tree he’d waited beside and continued his climb.”
One of most accomplished astronauts in the world, who graduated as the top U.S. Air Force test pilot, and was CAPCOM for twenty-five Shuttle missions, and NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia, and served as Commander of the International Space Station, wrote a ripping murder mystery that takes place on a fictional Apollo Mission 18 during the space race and the Cold War in the early 1970s. This book is like Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October but set on the moon. Some readers don’t care for all the technical jargon but I dig it:
“Starting the world’s most powerful engine wasn’t easy. It took about nine seconds to crank one up—the time an Olympic sprinter could run 100 yards. The time it takes to tie one shoe. The most dangerous nine seconds of the whole flight. The amount of fuel needed to push the Saturn V off the pad was staggering: 3,400 gallons every second. That required fuel pumps with their own jet engines, just to spin them fast enough.
The rocketship had five of these jets pumping the kerosene and oxygen into the rocket chambers, where it would mix, explode and storm out the 12-foot-tall exhaust nozzles in a 5,800-degree, 160-million-horsepower inferno. The crew’s eyes were glued to the engine instruments as the clock counted down into single digits.
‘T minus ten, nine, and we have ignition sequence start.’
Four fireworks ignited inside each engine: two to spin up the fuel pump, and two to burn any flammable gases lurking in the exhaust nozzle.
‘Six, five, four…’
Two big valves opened, and liquid oxygen poured from its high tank down through the spinning pump and into the rocket, gushing out the huge nozzle under its own weight like a frothy white waterfall. Two smaller valves clicked open, feeding oxygen and kerosene to fuel the jet engines, spinning the pumps up to high speed. The pressure in the main fuel lines suddenly jumped to 380 psi. Conditions were set, with everything ready to ignite the rockets. Just needed some lighter fluid.
Two small discs burst under the high fuel pressure, and a slug of triethylboron/aluminum was pushed into the oxygen-rich rocket chambers. Like the ultimate spark plug, the fluids exploded on contact.
The middle engine lit first, followed quickly by the outer four; if all five had started at once, they would have torn the rocketship and launch pad apart. Two more big valves opened, and high-pressure kerosene poured into the growing maelstrom.
‘One, zero, and liftoff, we have liftoff, at 7:32 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.’
Hell, unleashed, creating 700 tons of thrust in each of the five engines—enough total power to lift more than 7 million pounds straight up. The ultimate deadlift. The last of the ground umbilicals feeding the rocket disconnected and snapped back. The four heavy hold-down arms that had been clamping the base to the pad hissed in pneumatic relief and pivoted away. The Saturn V was free.” (141-142)
I’ve given away dozens of copies of this devotional classic over the years and I’m thrilled the good folks at the Banner of Truth have reprinted it in a new edition. Alleine uses his encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture to string together the “exceeding great and precious promises” (2 Peter 1:4) of God with the goal of comforting the struggling believer:
“And in that day you shall know that I am a rewarder of them that diligently seek me (Heb. 11:6); and that I did record your words (Mal. 3:16), and bottle your tears, and tell your wanderings (Psa. 56:8), and keep an account, even to a cup of cold water, of whatever you said or did for my name (Matt. 10:42). You shall surely find that nothing is lost (1 Cor. 15:58); but you shall have full measure, pressed down and running over, thousands of years in paradise, for the least good thought, and thousand thousands for the least good word; and then the reckoning shall begin again, till all arithmetic be at a loss. For you shall be swallowed up in a blessed eternity, and the doors of heaven shall be shut upon you, and there shall be no more going out (Dan. 12:2, 3; Rev. 3:12; Luke 16:26).
The glorious choir of my holy angels, the goodly fellowship of my blessed prophets, the happy society of triumphant apostles, the royal hosts of victorious martyrs, these shall be your companions for ever (Matt. 8:1, 12; Heb. 12:22, 23). And you shall come in white robes, with palms in your hands, everyone having the harps of God, and golden bowls full of sweet-smelling aromas, and shall cast your crowns before me, and strike in with the multitude of the heavenly hosts, glorifying God, and saying, Hallelujah! The Lord God omnipotent reigns (Rev. 7:9-12; 19:5, 6). Blessing, honour, glory, and power be to him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb for ever and ever (Rev. 5:13).
In short, I will make you equal to the angels of God (Luke 20:36), and you shall be the everlasting trumpets of my praise (Rev. 7:10-12, 15). You shall be abundantly satisfied with the fatness of my house, and I I will make you drink of the rivers of my pleasures (Psa. 36:8). You shall be an eternal excellency (Isa. 60:15), and if God can die, and eternity run out, then and only then, shall your joys expire. For you shall see me as I am (1 John 3:2), and know me as you are known (1 Cor. 13:12); and shall behold my face in righteousness, and be satisfied with my likeness (Psa. 17:15). And you shall be the vessels of my glory, whose blessed use shall be to receive the overflowings of my goodness, and to have mine infinite love and glory poured out into you brimful, and running over for evermore (Rom. 9:23; 2 2 Tim 2:20; Rev. 22:1).
And blessed is he who has believed, for there shall be a performance of the things that have been told him (Luke 1:45). I the Lord has spoken it, you shall see my face, and my name shall be written in your foreheads; and you shall no more need the sun, nor the moon, for the Lord God shall give you light, and you shall reign for ever and ever (Rev. 22:3-5).” (39-40)
“Next to praying there is nothing so important in practical religion as Bible-reading. God has mercifully given us a book which is “able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim. 3:15.) By reading that book we may learn what to believe, what to be, and what to do; how to live with comfort, and how to die in peace. Happy is that man who possesses a Bible! Happier still is he who reads it! Happiest of all is he who not only reads it, but obeys it, and makes it the rule of his faith and practice!” (91)
I love books that point me to the Book. Nate Pickowicz’s brief and superb new book does just that. The subtitle says it all: “A Simple Approach to Learning and Loving the Word of God.” I can give this book to any member of my congregation knowing it will help both new and seasoned believers read and study their Bible more faithfully and more fruitfully. Buy several copies and give them away to those you’re discipling as a New Year’s gift.
Imagine suffering excruciating and bewildering pain for five years due to a devastating disease that doesn’t officially exist. That’s Douthat’s story, struggling day-by-day with Lyme disease. This poignant memoir helped me grow in sympathy for those who suffer with chronic illness. Chronic sufferers often feel all alone in their pain, surrounded by others who still feel “at home” in their own bodies.
“A friend could listen, another friend could visit, a family member could watch our kids or make us dinner, but there was a gulf fixed between my world and theirs, between my morning-to-evening experience of pain’s variety and novelty and their inability to comprehend what it would mean to be sick every day, the same thing waiting every morning upon waking, without recourse or relief. I could understand their bafflement, because I remembered what the term “chronic illness” had meant to me in the before times. Even with my mother’s struggles as an example, I still associated it with the fatigue that comes after you’ve stayed up with a newborn baby, or the aches and pains you feel after exercising for the first time in monthssuffering that was challenging but manageable, with recourse, in the worst case, to an exhausted sleep. Whereas the reality was pain that didn’t let you relax, let alone sleep; pain that made your body feel like a cage around your consciousness; tension, always tension, the opposite of a Victorian lady picturesquely swooning on a couch. All this was an education, an experience of what it meant to be an embodied human being that could be endured but not really explained to someone whose body was still a home, a cooperator, a friend.” (90)
Douthat has done a great service for the chronic-Lyme community and for those, like me, who don’t live on that “prairie of pain.” He beautifully lays bare both his struggle and his striving for life.
“The gift of chronic illness is the space and opportunity to strive and seek. The purpose of the illness in your life has to involve finding something– finding strength in learning how to endure, finding virtue in how to live for others, finding some hidden truth in unraveling the mystery of what actually ails you. And not to yield is often the hardest task of all.
I can’t claim to have gained all the things I should have gained from the past six years. Who will I be when this is over? my mind would sometimes ask in the depths, since it was hard to imagine the same self that went into this illness coming out the other side. But now that I’m closer, God willing, to the end than the beginning, I can still recognize the person beneath the peeling dragon scales– maybe a little wiser, a little more patient, a little less consumed by the political, little more open-minded, but still carrying many of the same habits and vices and temptations as the me I knew before.
But I have learned, at least, something about what it means not to yield, to go on searching and fighting and simply living in the shadow of despair, to do what must be done even when it seems like your body is incapable of the task and your mind is brutally imprisoned.
What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. But what doesn’t kill you doesn’t kill you, and sometimes that alone supplies the thin reed of hope, the solid thing to cling to when every other help and possibility goes through your fingers like sand.
That first sickened summer in Maine, sixteen months into the illness, when nothing was working and my body blazed with pain, I forced myself to do what I would do as a child, to run along the packed brown surface of the sandbar, splashing through the inch of water rippling beneath my feet, and then suddenly pivot and stagger out deeper and fling myself up and out and down, belly-whopping into the freezing water of the bay.
For an instant or more, the shock to my system would be more pressing than the pain, and I would come up spluttering, every nerve jangling, and think: I am still alive.
I am still alive.
That’s where this not-yet-finished story ends. I have lived for six years with invaders in my flesh, I have seen the world from way down underneath, I have done things I couldn’t have imagined, I have fought and fought and fought.
In 2019, Matthew Emerson wrote an incredible book on Christ’s descent to the dead. Christ experienced the fullness of human death; He also defeated it. He entered the realm of death itself, our mighty enemy, and came away with his keys. The keys of Death and Hades are now held in our Savior’s nail-pierced hands. (Rev. 1:18) The good news of Good Friday, and the ecstasy of Easter Sunday, is infused with the hope of Holy Saturday. In Samuel Renihan’s new book, he builds upon Emerson’s solid foundation, provides some more exegetical footing, and does significant theological retrieval of his own by including over 100 pages of historical excerpts on the descent from Reformation and Post-Reformation theologians. Hilary of Poitiers is right: “Virgo, partus, et corpus; postque crux, mors, inferi, salus nostra est. The Virgin, birth, and body, then the cross, death, and lower world; this is our salvation.”
This is a biographical meditation about trees, gardens, and the importance of place. But it’s really all about trees.
“It’s winter. I hear a gusty wind in the night beyond the window, low and groaning like a distant jet plane, and it occurs to me that the trees are speaking. Their limbs are shaken and bent by the cold front tearing across Tennessee. The Chapter House is warm, with the embers of a tired fire crackling like morse code in the hearth beside me—again, the voice of trees. The temperature has been dropping all day, so the wooden bones of this little building are contracting, causing the wood-paneled ceiling to creak now and then. When I came in just now, shoulders up to my ears from the chill, I slammed the arch-top door a friend made out of reclaimed barn wood, rattling the wooden picture frames on the wall—one of them containing that eighteenth-century print of the Castle Kalmar (printed on wood-pulp, of course). I stomped my feet on the hardwood floor, and the trees spoke again. The wooden shelves I built out of pine planks hold hundreds of books: Sayers, Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien; Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wilbur, Merton, and Berry. Trees made the pulp that made the pages (also known as leaves) where the words were preserved and printed and bound, each book the fruit of a life’s labor. There are journals full of songwriting ideas: bad lines scratched out and reworked, furious scribblings, prayers preserved on paper. The walls around the drafting desk are covered with drawings made by wooden pencils (there’s no smell quite like the aroma of pencil shavings dumped from the sharpener to the bin). Those drawings are mostly of trees, on sketch paper—again, made from trees. On the wooden mantel over the hearth there’s a collection of old smoking pipes made from briar wood, one of which I bought in a busy tree-lined market in Bordighera, Italy, just across the street from George MacDonald’s house, and it whispers a tale of Scotland and the North Wind and my family’s journey south to Italy from the forested Swiss Alps. To my right, on the little wooden table beside my chair, sits a black, leather-bound Bible with my name embossed on the lower right of the cover. The many pages within carry a translation of the Word of God, the Word that told trees to exist in the first place, and those words are made alive by a holy wind blowing through the book’s leaves. That living Word planted a seed in my parents, a seed that fell on good soil, and they in turn planted in me and my siblings an imagination-grounding story about a tree in a garden, a tree on a hill of death, and a tree in a heavenly city. Those trees fill my heart and my head, and they keep my compass trained on the Kingdom. Here in the Chapter House, at the dark edge of Warren Wood, the trees keep me company, and they keep me warm. I am kept by trees.” (191-192)
I particularly loved the book’s final chapter, where Peterson describes his visit to Israel, culminating with his journey to the Temple Mount at the heart of Jerusalem:
“This was Mount Moriah, where Abraham was spared from sacrificing Isaac by the ram caught in the brambly tree. This was where Solomon completed the temple whose pillars were pomegranate trees, where the Ark of the Covenant rested—the same ark that contained the ten commandments, the manna, and, yes, a tree: Aaron’s staff that had budded with new leaves. Not far away was the site where the crucifixion tree was planted atop Skull Hill, and not far away from that the Root of David, Abraham’s seed, was planted and reborn in a garden. This was where, at Jesus’ triumphant “It is finished!” the curtain was torn in two and he opened for us the gate of glory, which leads his children to a New Jerusalem where a Tree of Life will straddle the holy river. I was overwhelmed with love, and by love. I stood in the eye of a storm made up of living stories. Stories were the wind and the rain and the rolling thunder, and Jesus is king of it all.” (177-178)
Allison and I also visited Israel this year, and we met some new friends, and we saw an old friend, and even though we didn’t see enough trees, we did make some wonderful memories (and friends) that I pray will last a lifetime.
I was a latecomer to the “Dark is Rising” series. Apparently they’ve been hugely popular for decades, especially in the UK. The opening tale, Over Sea, Under Stone, is wonderful. English children, on holiday in Cornwall, discover an ancient treasure map in a secret room hidden behind a wardrobe. Mysterious enemies lurk about, waiting to steal what the three Drew children are seeking: clues from the map that could lead them to King Arthur’s grail. The second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, is, well, darker. It’s not a horror story, but a story of ever-present dread. A “shadowy awareness of evil” pervades the tale. It’s Midwinter Eve in a small English village, four days before Christmas and one day before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday. A snowstorm is brewing in the north, animals are fidgeting in the fields, and rooks are swirling in the grey sky. An old farmer sees these signs and warns Will, “This night will be bad and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” The Dark is rising. But there’s hope:
‘When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back; Three from the circle, three from the track; Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone; Five will return, and one go alone.’ (63)
Michael Reeves wrote a book on the fear of the LORD. Seriously, what else do you need to know?
“The filial fear of God is the soul of godliness and the essence of the new life implanted by the Spirit. It is the ultimate affection and the very aroma of heaven. It is the affection that expels our sinful fears and our anxieties. It is the affection that expels spiritual lethargy. To grow in this sweet and quaking wonder at God is to taste heaven now.” (168)
“The thread of this story is Frank Sheeran’s unique and fascinating life. The witty Irishman was raised a devout Catholic and was a tough child of the Great Depression; a combat-hardened hero of World War II; a high-ranking official in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; a man alleged by Rudy Giuliani in a Civil RICO suit to be “acting in concert with” La Cosa Nostra’s ruling commission — one of only two non-Italians on Guiliani’s list of twenty-six top mob figures, which included the sitting bosses of the Bonnano, Genovese, Colombo, Luchese, Chicago, and Milwaukee families as well as various underbosses; a convicted felon, mob enforcer, and legendary stand-up guy; and a father of four daughters and a beloved grandfather.” (5)
Sheeran was not only the right-hand man and mob enforcer for Russell Bufalino, he was also a close friend of Jimmy Hoffa.
“The first words Jimmy ever spoke to me were, ‘I heard you paint houses.’ The paint is the blood that supposedly gets on the wall or the floor when you shoot somebody. I told Jimmy, ‘I do my own carpentry work, too.’ That refers to making coffins and means you get rid of the bodies yourself.” (11)
Before he died, Brandt interviewed Sheeran one last time and he confessed to killing Hoffa. Some doubt the veracity of Sheeran’s claims. (See here and here and if you’re ready to go down the rabbit hole, read the “Hoffex” FBI memo). I don’t know what to believe, but I do know I Heard You Paint Houses is an engrossing glimpse inside La Cosa Nostra. (I think.)
This book does a good job introducing the experience, the history, and the treatment of trauma from a secular perspective. The strength of the book lies in awakening an awareness of what survivors of trauma fear and feel. Two quotes stuck with me:
“One does not have to be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors… Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable. Most rape victims, combat soldiers, and children who have been molested become so upset when they think about what they experienced that they try to push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened, and move on. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability. Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core and beyond redemption.” (1-2)
“At the opening session for a group of former Marines, the first man to speak flatly declared, “I do not want to talk about the war.” I replied that the members could discuss anything they wanted. After half an hour of excruciating silence, one veteran finally started to talk about his helicopter crash. To my amazement the rest immediately came to life, speaking with great intensity about their traumatic experiences. All of them returned the following week and the week after. In the group they found resonance and meaning in what had previously been only sensations of terror and emptiness. They felt a renewed sense of the comradeship that had been so vital to their war experience. They insisted that I had to be part of their newfound unit and gave me a Marine captain’s uniform for my birthday. In retrospect that gesture revealed part of the problem: You were either in or out—you either belonged to the unit or you were nobody. After trauma the world becomes sharply divided between those who know and those who don’t. People who have not shared the traumatic experience cannot be trusted, because they can’t understand it. Sadly, this often includes spouses, children, and co-workers.” (17-18)
As I reflected on this book, I was reminded of the importance of what Bonhoeffer called “the ministry of listening” in the local church:
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either.” (97-98)
It doesn’t mean we don’t speak. We must speak. But we must first be quick to listen and slow to speak.
I’m an avid notetaker. My children often make fun of my ever-present notebook and pen. I was immediately drawn to this book when I learned of it from an episode of the Reformed Forum podcast. A German sociologist, Niklaus Luhmann, developed an idiosyncratic form of note-taking that’s organized in an interconnected card catalog-type system called a Zettelkasten (‘notes box’). All of the note-taking is directed toward atomic writing. In the book, Ahrens explains and expands Luhmann’s system. He proposes dividing your note-taking into three types:
Ephemeral notes (these eventually get thrown out)
Literature notes (write these as you read a book, but keep them separate from the next type)
Zettel (process your literature notes and write permanent notes—one note per idea)
“Once written, you must then link a note to the other notes in your existing network of note-ideas. In my conceptualization, Luhmann’s method is a form of atomic writing. You must force yourself to formulate your thoughts and write them as if writing them for someone else. This can be difficult, and you may find much personal inertia to this approach. That’s because you think you know the subject matter better than you do. Writing is the thinking process. By using this method, Luhmann was able to write more than 70 books and 400 scholarly articles before he died at the age of 70. That is impressive. But perhaps even more impressive than his scholarly output is the nature of his scholarship. He was able to approach subjects in fresh ways, finding surprising connections among disparate disciplines. This was due in part to the unexpected connections made within his Zettelkasten.”
I’ll admit we’ve now reached peak levels of nerdishness. But if you’ve made it this far then you have to be… intrigued. You don’t have to build an old-school wooden card catalog. After all, there are lots of digital options for creating a Zettelkasten. I’m gonna give this approach a try in 2022. Have any of y’all ever used the “Smart Notes” method? Let me know.
Michael Connelly is a storyteller extraordinaire. You probably already know his beloved police detective, Harry Bosch. But you might be less familiar with Bosch’s half-brother, LA defense attorney Mickey Haller, also known as “The Lincoln Lawyer.” Here’s his legal philosophy:
“A murder case is like a tree. A tall tree. An oak tree. It has been carefully planted and cared for by the state. Watered and trimmed when needed, examined for disease and parasites of any kind. Its root system is constantly monitored as it flourishes underground and clings tightly to the earth. No money is spared in guarding the tree. Its caretakers are granted immense powers to protect and serve it. The tree’s branches eventually grow and spread wide in splendor. They provide deep shade for those who seek true justice. The branches spring from a thick and sturdy trunk. Direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, forensic science, motive, and opportunity. The tree must stand strong against the winds that challenge it. And that’s where I come in. I’m the man with the ax. My job is to cut the tree down to the ground and burn its wood to ashes.” (4)
This latest story is the sixth (and best) in the series and we find Mickey in the trial of his life, but this time he’s the one on trial.
“A trial often comes down to who is a better storyteller, the prosecution or the defense. There is evidence, of course, but physical evidence is at first interpreted for the jury by the storyteller. The physical evidence fits both stories. One might be more believable than the other when writ small. But a skilled storyteller can even the scales of justice or maybe even tip them the other way.” (190-191)
Kathleen Nielson has done a great service for parents who long to pray without ceasing for their children. She’s penned Scriptural prayers for young children, for teens, for young adults, and for adult children, covering requests for saving faith, delight in God’s Word, love for the church, friendships, generosity, humility, hope, strength for suffering, and even one for a good night’s rest.
For Nighttime Rest
My son, do not lose sight of these– keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble. If you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. (Prov. 3:21-24)
How good to pray for our children’s rest! (We can’t help but be praying for our own rest as well.) And how important– not just that their bodies would be healthy and refreshed by regular, deep, peaceful sleep, but also that their souls would be at rest, at peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ and the ministry of the Spirit. Our grown children do not go alone into their days and nights. What a comfort to commit them to the Lord who does not slumber or sleep (Ps. 121:4).
May he know the rest of one who labors well and wisely,
having aimed in hours of light to please you, Lord,
then resting in the hours of night as one who knows his way
along the path you put before him,
going before him night and day
and by your Spirit showing him the way.
I pray he would embrace the rhythm of dark and light,
of sleep renewing and of morning zest.
When he lies down, would you make his sleep sweet?
May evening prayers seep into dreams
that would not haunt or frighten–
comfort, rather; gladden; or pass harmless by.
And if he wakes, Lord,
may he know You with him,
there to lighten the dark watches of the night
with echoing sustenance of the Word
and comfort from the saving love of Christ
and songs that sweeten all the shadows
’til the morning sends the dark away.
Now, Lord, I do admit,
I’m praying for my rest as well–
so let me rest
in offering this prayer to you. (56-57)
Now may the God of peace grant you perfect peace, and living hope, and glorious grace, and steadfast love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
“I know no true religion but Christianity. I know no true Christianity but the doctrine of Christ: of His divine person, (the image of the invisible God, Col. 1:15); of His divine office, (the Mediator betwixt God and men, 1 Tim. 2:5); of His divine righteousness, (He is the Lord our Righteousness, Jer. 23:6; which name is also called upon His church, Jer. 38:16) and of His divine Spirit, (which all that are His receive, Rom. 8:9).
I know no true ministers of Christ, but such as make it their business, in their calling, to commend Jesus Christ, in His saving fulness of grace and glory, to the faith and love of men; no true Christian, but one united to Christ by faith, and abiding in Him by faith and love, unto the glorifying of the name of Jesus Christ, in the beauties of gospel-holiness.
Ministers and Christians of this spirit, have for many years been my brethren and companions, and, I hope, shall ever be, whithersoever the hand of God shall lead me.
Through the Lord’s mercy to me, (as to many in London), I have often heard what is far more worthy of the press, than anything I can publish.
Whatever you may think of my way of managing this subject, (and indeed there is nothing in that, either as designed or expected by me, or that in itself deserveth any great regard); yet the theme itself, all must judge, who have spiritual senses, is of great importance, and always seasonable.
It is concerning the throne of God’s saving grace, reared up in Jesus Christ, and revealed unto men in the gospel; with the application all should make to that throne, the great blessings to be reaped by that application, and mens great need of those blessings.
May the Lord of the harvest, who ministered this seed to the sower, make it bread to the eater, and accompany it with His blessing on some that are called to inherit a blessing, and I have my end and desire; the reader shall have the benefit; and the Lord shall have the glory; for of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things; to whom be glory forever. Amen.
E.B. White is right: “Books are good company, in sad times and happy times.” I kept company with many good books in 2020, but these were my favorites. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.
I lingered in this palace of a book for most of 2020 because I didn’t want it to end. Think of it as a more accessible and less footnotey alternative to the four-volume Reformed Dogmatics. The fear of God is evident on every page. To read Bavinck is to be reminded afresh that theology must lead us to rest in the arms of our gracious God:
“To know God does not consist of knowing a great deal about Him, but of this, rather, that we have seen Him in the person Christ, that we have encountered Him on our life’s way, and that in the experience of our soul we have come to know His virtues, His righteousness and holiness, His compassion and His grace. That is why this knowledge, in distinction from all other knowledge, bears the name of the knowledge of faith. It is the product not of scientific study and reflection but of a childlike and simple faith. This faith is not only a sure knowledge but also a firm confidence that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. Only those who become as little children shall enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:3). Only the pure of heart shall see the face of God (Matt. 5:8). Only those born of water and of the Spirit can enter the kingdom (John 3:5). Those who know His name will put their trust in Him (Ps. 9:10). God is known in proportion to the extent that He is loved.” (13)
The “Sweet Dropper,” the heavenly Doctor Sibbes, once asked: “What will we do for Christ, if we will not feast with Him?” (Works, 2: 34) Few books helped me feast more with Christ this year than this meditation on the Savior’s beautiful heart towards sinners. Most books are cul-de-sacs; few are express lanes. This book is the latter. Packer’s Knowing God steered me to Spurgeon, Sproul’s The Holiness of God led me to Luther, and Piper’s The Pleasures of God plunged me into Edwards. I hope Gentle and Lowly serves others as an express lane to the glories of Christ in the writings of Thomas Goodwin, John Bunyan, and Richard Sibbes.
“Meek. Humble. Gentle. Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to Him is not a pointed finger but open arms.” (19)
“We cannot present a reason for Christ to finally close off His heart to His own sheep. No such reason exists. Every human friend has a limit. If we offend enough, if a relationship gets damaged enough, if we betray enough times, we are cast out. The walls go up. With Christ, our sins and weaknesses are the very resumé items that qualify us to approach Him. Nothing but coming to Him is required.” (64)
“For those united to Him, the heart of Jesus is not a rental; it is your new permanent residence. You are not a tenant; you are a child. His heart is not a ticking time bomb; His heart is the green pastures and still waters of endless reassurances of His presence and comfort, whatever our present spiritual accomplishments. It is who He is.” (66)
“The sins of those who belong to God open the floodgates of his heart of compassion for us. The dam breaks. It is not our loveliness that wins his love. It is our unloveliness.” (75)
“Repent of your small thoughts of God’s heart.” (170)
“Jesus does not love like us. We love until we are betrayed. Jesus continued to the cross despite betrayal. We love until we are forsaken. Jesus loved through forsakenness. We love up to a limit. Jesus loves to the end.” (198)
Chances are Joel Beeke published another book while you were reading this post. He’s at over 100 books now! This introductory volume of his systematic theology lectures is his best project yet. It’s exegetical, theological, confessional, doxological, pastoral, practical, and full of spicy quotes from the Fathers, the Reformers, and the Puritans. I’m eager to dive into Volume 2 on the doctrines of anthropology and Christology in 2021.
“God’s call for men to repent of idolatry is not the death knell of human happiness, but the beginning of real life. God commands us to turn from broken cisterns and drink from the Fountain of living waters. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit say, ‘Come, eat and drink.’ The feast to which they summon us is nothing less than fellowship with the One true and living God.” (1: 602-603)
Trueman discerns our own errors and those of this evil age. The subtitle says it all: “Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.” He explains how so many have come to understand sexual difference as a matter of psychological choice. This brilliant volume serves as a faithful guide to understanding our confusing times, and as a clarion call for the church to be courageous:
“This book is not a lament for a lost golden age or even for the parlous state of culture as we now face it… As for the notion of some lost golden age, it is truly very hard for any competent historian to be nostalgic. What past times were better than the present? An era before antibiotics when childbirth or even minor cuts might lead to septicemia and death? The great days of the nineteenth century when the church was culturally powerful and marriage was between one man and one woman for life but little children worked in factories and swept chimneys? Perhaps the Great Depression? The Second World War? The era of Vietnam? Every age has had its darkness and its dangers. The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately to them.” (29-30)
I judge books by their covers. “The book cover functions simultaneously as an invitation to potential readers,” Peter Mendelsund notes. “Come, it says, join the party– or at least save the date.” (2) I love the cover of Craig Carter’s book on the glories of the Great Tradition and premodern exegesis, and I’m glad I accepted his invitation to join the rip-roaring party found inside. The picture on the cover is “Simeon’s Song of Praise,” painted by Rembrandt in 1631:
“It depicts an aged Simeon quoting Isaiah 52:10 as he prophesies that this baby Jesus is ‘the Lord’s Christ’ (Luke 2:26). A faithful and skilled reader of Scripture, Simeon sees the messianic thrust of the Old Testament as pointing toward the coming of the Suffering Servant. The text stresses that he understood this by the Holy Spirit. My book is about how to read like Simeon, Anna, and other faithful people of God, who discerned the Christological meaning of the Holy Scriptures by the illumination of the Spirit, symbolized in the painting by the bright light shining down on the child and Simeon’s face.” (xx-xxi)
The doctrine of Christ’s descent is a derelict doctrine. Emerson remedies this deficiency by clearing away many misunderstandings, and by retrieving this comforting truth: “He descended to the dead.” Christ experienced the fullness of human death; He also defeated it. He entered the realm of death itself, our mighty enemy, and came away with his keys. The keys of Death and Hades are now held in our Savior’s nail-pierced hands. (Rev. 1:18) Emerson illuminates the good news of Good Friday, and the ecstasy of Easter Sunday, with the hope of Holy Saturday.
“There is something more immediate than Christ’s second coming and believers’ resurrection to eternal life that we can preach to those grieving but not without hope. The hope that is more immediate, and one that is descriptive of our departed love ones’ eternal state right now, not just some distant day, is that Christ, too, has experienced death. He did not just experience dying only to rise again moments later, but He actually remained dead in the grave. He did not simply have his breath expire and then immediately rise to glory, but His body was buried and His soul departed to the place of the dead. And because He is God in the flesh, He defeated the place of the dead and the grave by descending into them and then rising again on the third day. In the Christian tradition, this hope is known as the the doctrine of Christ’s descensus— His descent to the dead.” (xi)
This is the best concise introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity I’ve ever read. The Bible is central. The writing is clear. The chapter on divine simplicity is pure gold. The critique of ERAS/EFS is correct. The tone is worshipful. Even the glossary led me to praise.
“Christians praise God the Trinity because He is supremely worthy of our praise. The blessed Trinity is supreme in being, beauty, and beatitude.” (15)
“No topic of study is more rewarding, or more challenging, than the doctrine of the Trinity. Nor is any topic of study fraught with greater possibility of error. Nevertheless, we may enter our study with confidence because the triune God has revealed Himself in His Word. It is God’s good pleasure that we would know Him, that we would receive Him, and that our souls would find rest in Him (Matt. 11:25–30).” (22)
“Christians praise the triune God because that is how God presents Himself to us in Holy Scripture: as one God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is the primary discourse of Trinitarian theology. Fluently, almost effortlessly, the prophets and apostles narrate, bless, pray, and sing the name of the triune God.” (25)
“The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit has reached out through the Son and by the Spirit to embrace us as sons and daughters to the end that we may call God our Father in the Spirit of the Son.” (26)
“God is not composed of parts. God is pure God, and nothing but God is God.” (54)
“The Bible’s basic Trinitarian grammar affirms the oneness of God, identifies the three persons of the Trinity with the one God, and distinguishes the three persons of the Trinity by their relations of origin.” (59)
“God plus the world is not more sufficient, more glorious, or more blessed than God minus the world.” (127)
“The heart of the blessed Trinity is to benefit us by giving Himself to us. This is the love of the Father. This is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14).” (127-128)
“The triune God alone is the ultimate end of all His works, the supreme benefit He gives, the supreme benefit that can be received.” (132)
This book helped me read my Bible better. Renihan explains typology, expounds the mystery of Christ, and exegetes the biblical covenants from a 1689 Federalist perspective. If you want a solid primer on covenant theology from a confessional Baptist, start here.
“Studying the covenant theology of the Bible magnifies the majesty of the triune God’s plan of redemption.” (7)
“All of Scripture, and thus all redemptive history, is driving towards the arrival of the promised Seed of the woman.” (31)
“The purpose of the Old Covenant was to produce the New Covenant because the purpose of the Old Covenant was to provide the Messiah, the Christ, the Mediator of the New Covenant.” (135)
“The New Covenant of grace, established in the blood of Christ, founded in the Covenant of Redemption, and preached to the world in the gospel, is God’s master plan.” (178)
“The study of the mystery of Christ, His covenant, and His kingdom is a devotional experience. It is a way of wonderment, a path of praise. It is a balm, a salve, a nepenthe, a panacea, a cordial, a precious remedy, a sweet medicine, ‘a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul’ (Hebrews 6:19). The mystery is free everlasting salvation in Christ, and it is for everyone. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Rom. 10:11-13)” (209)
I’ve imbibed a lot of Bavinck’s writings, but I knew little of his life. I didn’t know about his lonely years as a pastor. I didn’t know he was a Bible translator. I didn’t know he wrote a book on raising teenagers. I didn’t know about his political career. I didn’t know his children and grandchildren were heroes and martyrs in the anti-Nazi resistance movement. I didn’t know about his trips to America. I didn’t know he hung out with Teddy Roosevelt at the White House. This is the best biography I’ve read about one of my theological heroes since Marsden’s life of Jonathan Edwards.
“Why does Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), a prolific theologian who worked within the Dutch neo-Calvinist movement, deserve a biography? In his own era, the answer to that question would have been fairly obvious: in the early twentieth-century Netherlands, Herman Bavinck was a household name. To his contemporaries, he was known not only as a brilliant theologian. To them, he was also—among other things—a pioneer in psychology, a pedagogical reformer, a champion for girls’ education and advocate of women’s voting rights, a parliamentarian, and a journalist. He was, and in some circles today remains, a person of international signifi- cance. In 1908, for example, Bavinck gave the prestigious Stone Lectures in Princeton, before which President Theodore Roosevelt received him and his wife at the White House. Bavinck was the kind of Dutchman whose foreign travels were chronicled in the national press and who would then return to give sold-out lectures across the country on his impressions and experiences overseas. A century later, a growing international audience reads his works in a host of languages.” (xvii)
More people would read dissertations if they were this well-written. Treat unites what should never have been torn apart: the cross of Christ and the kingdom of God (Rev. 5:9-10). God’s reign and redemption both arise from the cross of our crucified Lord. “His main message was the kingdom and His main mission was to go to Golgotha.” (17) Treat helped grow my love for the King who came into the world to be the propitiation for our sins (penal substitution), and to destroy the works of the devil (Christus Victor). (1 John 4:10; 3:8)
“The thief on the cross looked at the man from Nazareth being crucified next to him and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Luke 23:42). Somehow this man conceived of the crucified Jesus as ruling over a kingdom. While the title on Christ’s cross—’The King of the Jews’—makes explicit that there is a connection between the kingdom and the cross, perhaps the crown of thorns provides the best image for explaining how they relate. This is not, after all, the first time that thorns have shown up in the story. Adam was to be a servant-king in the garden, but because he did not exercise dominion over the ground and the animals, the serpent ruled over him and the ground was cursed by God. Thorns first appear as a direct result and manifestation of the curse (Gen 3:17–18). Jesus comes as the last Adam, the faithful servant-king who not only fulfills Adam’s commission of ruling over the earth but removes the curse by taking it onto Himself. As Jesus wore the crown of thorns, He bore the curse of God. He is the ‘[seed] of a woman’ who crushed Satan with a bruised heel (Gen 3:15). He is the seed of Abraham who ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles’ (Gal 3:13–14). The thorns, which were a sign of the curse and defeat of Adam, are paradoxically transformed into a sign of the kingship and victory of Jesus. Jesus is the king who reigns by bearing the curse of the people whom He so loves. The connection between the cross and the curse, however, does reveal that the title given to Jesus during his crucifixion—’The King of the Jews’—was only partially correct. Inasmuch as the task of the Jews was to bring God’s blessing to all the earth (Gen 12:3) and thereby reverse the curse of sin in Genesis 3–11, Jesus—the Jewish Messiah—was claiming His throne not only over Israel but over all the earth. God accomplished His mission of restoring His creation through Jesus as He was enthroned as king on the cross. The kingdom of God comes in power, but the power of the gospel is Christ crucified.” (252-253)
What a wondrous privilege it is to belong to the family of God! In a year when so many have been distanced from the local church, this is a winsome and worthy read. “If push comes to shove, Christ and His people come first.” (5) The chapters on the centrality of the Bible and the priority of prayer in the life of the local church are worth the price of the book.
“In some countries the Bible is a banned book. Government agents hunt Bibles down and confiscate them. Imagine for a moment that this happened to your favourite Bible—and in order to prosecute you your Bible was handed over to a CSI Unit (‘Crime Scene Investigation’)—the kind of law enforcement unit you have probably seen on TV–Would there be enough recent fingerprint and DNA evidence on your Bible to bring charges against you of being a Christian? And would there be enough evidence of a transformed life to secure a conviction against you?” (98)
Most pastors serve in relative obscurity. Unknown beyond their own flock, they labor in the vineyard of the Lord for a season, and then are soon forgotten. I’d never heard of William Hamilton Burns (1779-1859). He was an ordinary pastor of a small rural congregation in Scotland for over 60 years. He held no prestigious pulpit, founded no institution, and published no books. But he was a faithful shepherd who ministered God’s Word to God’s people for decades. I wept while reading this memoir written by a son who described his father as a man of God, unnoticed by the world, who sought to live under the eye and smile of the Lord all his days.
“The simple annals of a country pastor’s daily life are uniform and uneventful, and afford little scope for the biographer’s pencil. Interesting and precious as any work done on earth in Heaven’s eyes, it is the obscurest possible in the world’s regard. Angels look down upon it; busy, eager, bustling men heed it not. A calm routine of lowly, though sacred duties, a constant unvaried ministry of love, it flows on in a still and quiet stream, arresting no attention by its noise, and known alone to the lowly homes it visits on its way, and the flowers and the fields it waters. The young pastor of Dun was no exception to this.
He preached the Word. He dispensed the sacred Supper. He warned the careless. He comforted the sorrowing. He baptized little children. He blessed the union of young and loving hearts. He visited the sick and the dying. He buried the dead. He pressed the hand, and whispered words of peace into the ear of mourners. He carried to the poor widow and friendless orphan the charity of the Church and his own. He slipped in softly into some happy home and gently broke the sad news of the sudden disaster far away. He lifted up the fallen one from the ground. And he pointed to Him who receiveth the publicans and the sinners. These things and such as these, he did in that little home-walk for twenty successive years day by day; but that was all.
There is much here for the records of the sky, but nothing, or next to nothing, for the noisy annals of time. Such as the work was, however, he did it, as all who knew him witnessed, faithfully and well, with a calm, serious, conscientious, cheerful, loving diligence that was the fruit of faith and prayer; always at his work, and always happy in it, and desiring nothing better or higher on earth.” (43-44)
There is nothing flashy here; only faithfulness over the long haul. I thank God for faithful, ordinary pastors, who lead ordinary lives, and minister God’s ordinary means of grace. Your labors in the Lord are not in vain.
The best novel I read in 2020 was this Pulitzer Prize-winning Odyssey of the Wild West. There’s plenty of action, along with a bunch of cowboys, cattle, sagebrush, horse stealing, Comanche raids, kidnapping, murders, boredom, loneliness, gambling, whiskey-drinking, bar fights, prostitutes, river crossings, water moccasins, coarse humor, broken hearts, shootouts, and homesickness. But what makes this book so captivating are the many great scenes in which nothing happens except that W. F. Call and Gus McCrae talk. And these two former Texas Rangers talk so well you never want them to stop:
“My main skills are talking and cooking biscuits,” Augustus said. “And getting drunk on the porch. I’ve probably slipped a little on the biscuits in the last few days, and I’ve lost the porch, but I can still talk with the best of them.” (405)
“Captain, what’ll we do?” he asked. “Live through it,” Call said. “That’s all we can do.” (566)
“Yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back.” (505)
“I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live,” Augustus said. (389)
“It’s like I told you last night, son,” Captain Call said. “The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.” (628)
McMurtry also knows how to paint a scene:
“Evening took a long time getting to Lonesome Dove, but when it came it was a comfort. For most of the hours of the day— and most of the months of the year— the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chaparral flats, a heaven for snakes and horned toads, roadrunners and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans. There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices— if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched-up corrals offices— of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.” (3-4)
“The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew. It was tribute enough to sunup that it could make even chaparral bushes look beautiful, Augustus thought, and he watched the process happily, knowing it would only last a few minutes. The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral, as if independent of its source. Then the sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dust dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air. It was good reading light by then, so Augustus applied himself for a few minutes to the Prophets. He was not overly religious, but he did consider himself a fair prophet and liked to study the styles of his predecessors.” (50)
During this difficult year, I relished the company of Gus and Call. “It’s a fine world,” Augustus said, “though rich in hardships at times.” (873) At the end of their long trek north to Montana, no riches await these old Rangers. But their journey and friendship are riches enough.
Between 2016 and 2017, the number of adolescent girls seeking gender transition surgery quadrupled in the United States. In Great Britain, the increase for the last decade was an astounding 4,400%. In this valiant, humane, well-written, and well-researched book, Wall Street Journal reporter Abigail Shrier investigates why.
“Gender dysphoria– formerly known as ‘gender identity disorder’– is characterized by a severe and persistent discomfort in one’s biological sex. It typically begins in early childhood– ages two to four– though it may grow more severe in adolescence. But in most cases– nearly 70 percent– childhood gender dysphoria resolves. Historically, it afflicted a tiny sliver of the population (roughly .01 percent) and almost exclusively boys. Before 2012, in fact, there was no scientific literature on girls ages eleven to twenty-one ever having developed gender dysphoria at all.
In the last decade that has changed, and dramatically. The Western world has seen a sudden surge of adolescents claiming to have gender dysphoria and self-identifying as ‘transgender.’ For the first time in medical history, natal girls are not only present among those so identifying– they constitute the majority.
Why? What happened? How did an age group that had always been the minority of those afflicted (adolescents) come to form the majority? Perhaps more significantly– why did the sex ratio flip: from overwhelmingly boys, to majority girls?” (xxi)
Most of the mainstream media have boycotted this book, labeling it as transphobic. That’s a real shame because Shrier makes her aim crystal clear throughout the book: she wants to protect the vulnerable.
“I have nothing but respect for the transgender adults I’ve interviewed. They were among the most sober, thoughtful, and decent people I had come to know in the course of writing this book. But I was concerned about another population, too, one I considered more vulnerable. A population we seem to have abandoned in pursuit of identity politics and progressive bona fides. A group that should, by right, be making us awfully proud, but instead seems to be teetering on the edge of disaster, the brink of despair– teenage girls. They hold the very possibility for our future. If only they weren’t tearing themselves apart.” (219)
Shrier concludes with some practical instructions to parents of young girls:
Don’t get your kid a smartphone.
Don’t relinquish your authority as the parent.
Don’t support gender ideology in your child’s education.
Reintroduce privacy into the home.
Consider big steps to separate your daughter from harm.
Stop pathologizing girlhood.
Don’t be afraid to admit: it’s wonderful to be a girl.
“Remember to tell your daughter that a woman’s most unique capacity– childbirth– is perhaps life’s greatest blessing. But whatever else you teach your daughter, remember to include something more. Tell her because the culture so often denies it. Tell her because people will try to make a victim of her. Tell her because it’s natural to doubt. Most of all, tell her because it’s true. She’s lucky. She’s special. She was born a girl. And being a woman is a gift, containing far too many joys to pass up.” (218)
This novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Clarke asks the reader to ponder many astonishing what ifs: What if there were a house so large it contained an entire ocean? What if the house was so vast it made it impossible to say how large it was because no one had ever seen all of it? What if one person set out to explore it? That one person is called Piranesi. “It is my belief,” he assures us, “that the World (or, if you will, the House, since the two are for all practical purposes identical) wishes an Inhabitant for Itself to be a witness to its Beauty and the recipient of its Mercies.” (11-12)
The House is quite beautiful. It’s a three-story labyrinth, a limitless white marble temple. Its colossal halls are linked by unending staircases, doorways, and vestibules. Each room is adorned with classical columns and filled with spectacular statues. The bottom floor encompasses an ocean. Waves come crashing up the stairs of the Drowned Halls, causing sudden floods when the tides converge. The top floor contains the clouds and their rainfall. Above the House, Piranesi can see a boundless sky with sun, moon, and stars. Only the ground floor is habitable. That’s where Piranesi lives, explores, and journals what he sees.
This story is weird, haunting, and mesmerizing. It’s the stuff of half-remembered dreams. I read it in one sitting. Clarke loves the Inklings, especially Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis. Narnian allusions abound. (A faun adorns the cover!) Saying anything more about the plot risks spoiling the tale. When I look back on this year, and the feelings of prolonged isolation, this is the story I’ll call to mind. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable,” Piranesi says, “its Kindness infinite.” (245)
The Talmud says: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” Since World War II, Israel has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western World. This book tells the origin and secret history of Israel’s targeted assassinations.
“Of all the means that democracies use to protect their security, there is none more fraught and controversial than ‘killing the driver’– assassination. Some, euphemistically, call it ‘liquidation.’ The American intelligence community calls it, for legal reasons, ‘targeted killings.’ In practice, these terms amount to the same thing: killing a specific individual in order to achieve a specific goal– saving the lives of people the target intends to kill, averting a dangerous act that he is about to perpetrate, and sometimes removing a leader in order to change the course of history. The use of assassinations by a state touches two very different dilemmas. First, is it effective? Can the elimination of an individual, or a number of individuals, make the world a safer place? Second, it is morally and legally justifiable? Is it legitimate, both ethically and judicially, for a country to employ the gravest of all crimes in any code of ethics or law– the premeditated taking of a human life– in order to protect its own citizens? This book deals mainly with the assassinations and targeted killings carried out by the Mossad and by the other arms of the Israeli government, in both peacetime and wartime– as well as, in the early chapters, by the underground militias in the pre-state era, organizations that were to become the army and intelligence services of the state, once it was established… The Mossad and Israel’s other intelligence arms have down away with individuals who were identified as direct threats to national security, and killing them also sent a bigger message: If you are an enemy of Israel, we will find and kill you, wherever you are. This message has indeed been heard around the world.” (xxi-xxiii)
After watching the HBO Miniseries Chernobyl, I read this riveting reconstruction of the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world. On the night of April 26, 1986, what began as a standard safety test plunged into a full-scale meltdown of Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4. The radioactive release from the giant explosion was 400 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
“Radiation is invisible and has neither taste nor smell. Although it’s yet to be proved that exposure to any level of radiation is entirely safe, it becomes manifestly dangerous when the particles and waves it gives off are powerful enough to transform or break apart the atoms that make up the tissues of living organisms. This high-energy radiance is ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation takes three principal forms: alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays… Gamma rays—high-frequency electromagnetic waves traveling at the speed of light—are the most energetic of all. They can traverse large distances, penetrate anything short of thick pieces of concrete or lead, and destroy electronics. Gamma rays pass straight through a human being without slowing down, smashing through cells like a fusillade of microscopic bullets. Severe exposure to all ionizing radiation results in acute radiation syndrome (ARS), in which the fabric of the human body is unpicked, rearranged, and destroyed at the most minute levels. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, hemorrhaging, and hair loss, followed by a collapse of the immune system, exhaustion of bone marrow, disintegration of internal organs, and, finally, death.” (27-28)
In The Right Stuff, the late Tom Wolfe answered this question: What is it that makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle, such as a Redstone, Atlas, Titan, or Saturn rocket, and wait for someone to light the fuse? Charles Murray and Catherine Cox answer a different, but no less fascinating, set of questions:
Who were the brilliant engineers and designers and programmers who made the Apollo space program happen? Who built the five F-1 engines on the Saturn V that generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust? Who got our astronauts all the way to the moon and back in a command and lunar module that used far less computing capacity than what’s in a single iPhone? Who were the 45 people in the Space Task Group who began the US space program from scratch on November 5, 1958, with no launch vehicle, no spacecraft, no launch facilities, no experience with manned space flight— and landed the first human on the moon on July 20, 1969, only 10 years and 9 months later?
I found their answers enthralling. If you enjoy engineering and design, if you’re intrigued by Elon Musk’s Space-X efforts, if you like books about Skunk Works, if you’ve ever wondered what happens when rocket boosters ignite, then you’ll love this epic story of the Apollo space program.
“As soon as the sensors within the combustion chambers of the F-1s determined that the igniters were lit, the main LOX valves opened, releasing liquid oxygen into each combustion chamber where it combined with a fuel-rich combustion gas, an exhaust product from the turbine. The gas was comparatively cool—only 800 degrees Fahrenheit—and would help cool the nozzle during flight; now, it prepared the interior of the chamber for the thermal shock to come. This process took three seconds. The combustion of the exhaust gas produced a thick orange smoke. At T–5.3 seconds, as sensors within each combustion chamber determined that the pressure at the face of the injector had reached 20 pounds per square inch, the main fuel valves opened and a torrent of kerosene burst through the painstakingly sized and angled orifices of the injection plate, past and through the copper baffles that had been redesigned so often. The streams of kerosene (a ton per second per engine) and liquid oxygen (two tons per second per engine) then impinged, formed their fans, and, mingling, ignited. At T–8.9 seconds, the people in the bleachers could see an eruption of orange smoke pushing down and bouncing off the flame deflector under the launcher, then bursting out at either side. Then, a few seconds later, the flame directly under the engines turned to an incandescent white as the orange smoke billowed outward and upward, beginning to envelop the rocket. Still 501 didn’t move. The noise of the preparatory burn that had created the orange cloud was inaudible across the four miles separating the viewers from the launch site. Even as the engines went to mainstage and they saw the incandescent white flame, the sound had yet to reach them. As the Saturn V moved off the pad, the sound finally reached across the marsh and slammed into the viewing area. It came first through the ground, tremors that shook the viewing stand and rattled its corrugated iron roof. Then came the noise, 120 decibels of it, in staccato bursts. People who were there would recall it not as a sound, but as a physical force. In the C.B.S. broadcast booth, the plate-glass window began to shake so violently that Walter Cronkite had to hold it in place with his hands as he tried to continue his commentary. At the beginning, it seemed more a levitation than a liftoff—the Saturn rose so ponderously that it took more than ten seconds for it to clear the top of the umbilical tower. Then, as the Saturn got farther from the ground, the scale of the F-1’s inferno became more fully apparent. And then the rocket climbed.” (199-202)
This second volume of a magisterial biography of Adolph Hitler begins at the height of his power in the summer of 1939. Ulrich records the Führer’s fatal descent, showing how one man terrorized a whole continent, fueled the murder of over 6 million Jews, and challenged the entire civilized world. By early January 1945, a depressed Hitler admitted, “I know the war is lost. Our enemies’ superiority is too great. We will not surrender, never ever. We may go down, but we will take a world with us.” (535)
“Hitler’s tyranny lasted only twelve years, but it fundamentally changed the face of the world– albeit in a way completely different from what the dictator had intended. Hitler had wanted to lead the Third Reich from hegemony in Europe to global domination. In the end, the Reich lay in ruins, and the German national state Bismarck had forged in three wars in the nineteenth century perished in an orgy of violence and criminal atrocities. The moral trauma Hitler left behind lasted far longer than Germany’s temporal loss of its status as a sovereign nation… We are not and we cannot be done with confronting Adolf Hitler. In a certain sense, we will be bound to him for all eternity. Hitler will remain a cautionary example for all time. If his life and career teaches us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be priced from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilizing forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.” (630, 632)
In a few short lines, a poet can cleave your heart. I spent the year revisiting the Great War Poets: Brooke, Owen, Graves, and Rosenberg. But I found Sassoon’s piercing words on war, “the hell where youth and laughter go,” to be unforgettable.
Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare. But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game… Have you forgotten yet?… Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?… Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
Tolkien lamented in one of his letters, “Many reviewers seem to assume that Middle-Earth is another planet!” (283) In this gorgeous book, Garth explores the earthly places that inspired Middle-Earth. I knew Tolkien’s visit to the Swiss valley of Lauterbrunnen became the imaginative foundation for Rivendell. But I didn’t grasp how much his battle-zone experiences in the Great War shaped his writings. Tolkien’s life in the trenches at the brutal Battle of the Somme shaped many locales in The Lord of the Rings, from Hobbit holes to the Dead Marshes.
“Tolkien knew personally how a hole can mean comfort and security, a place to try and shut out all dangers. Officers’ dugouts were meticulously positioned, engineered for safety, built and maintained by each unit’s dedicated carpenters, blacksmiths, bricklayers and miners. An amazingly efficient supply network supplied their needs, from food to post. The Somme chalk made them both solid and bright. A British officers’ dugout could be an enviable snug, as well furnished as a student room at Oxford– a place of camaraderie, humour, civilized conversation.
It hardly needs saying that this cosiness is only part of the picture. The world of the trenches was also a place of suffocating squalor, exhaustion, boredom and terror. To reflect this dichotomy, Tolkien used a favourite technique– creating contrasting opposites. The plucky, home-loving Hobbits are ranged against the even more subterranean Orcs, who have no life except soldiering. These goblins know their way through the labyrinthine tunnels of the Misty Mountains as well as soldiers knew the maze of trenches.
The underground world often shows touches of the Somme. The battlefield was transformed by war and weather. When Tolkien said the Dead Marshes ‘owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme,’ he meant the autumn rains had turned the chalky clay to claggy mud and slime. In the Marshes, we are in a world unlike anything else in Middle-Earth, but remarkably like the battlefield Tolkien knew, with its desolations, its smoke and gas barrages, and its deadly observers in the sky and to the east. Mists curl upward from the pools and the air is filled with a perpetual reek. The travelers cower from flying Ringwraiths and, for the first time, Frodo stoops to avoid the unseen Eye of Sauron. They tread with extreme caution lest they ‘go down to join the Dead ones’– a real hazard for Somme soldiers if they slipped criss-crossing the waste. Gollum explains that the Dead Marshes have grown and ‘swallowed up the graves’ from the ancient battle. So it was on the Somme, where the swollen Ancre inundated the makeshift cemeteries around it, and rain filled the hellholes where soldiers had crawled to die. In trench memoirs, it is the faces of the dead that horrify most. ” (163-166)
I revisit Middle-Earth every year. When I walk with Frodo and Sam through the Dead Marshes in 2021, it will be the Battle of the Somme, not Dagorlad, that’s fixed in my mind’s eye:
“Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light. They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter in and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak.” (631-632)
Turgenev doesn’t disappoint. His lush descriptions of nineteenth-century Russia, the inhabitants of the steppe and the vast forests, are beautiful beyond all conveyance:
“I was sitting in a birch-wood one autumn, about the middle of September. Ever since morning a fine drizzle had been falling, giving way now and again to warm sunshine: it was fluky weather. One moment the sky would be all overcast with puffy white clouds, at another it would suddenly clear in places for a moment, and, through the rift, the azure would appear, clear and smiling, like the glance of a brilliant eye. I sat and looked about me and listened. The leaves were whispering faintly over my head: you could have told the time of year from their whisper alone. It was not the gay, laughing shiver of spring, nor the soft murmur, the long discourse of summer, nor the cold, frightened rustling of late autumn, but a scarcely perceptible, drowsy converse. A little breeze was just stirring among the treetops. The interior of the wood, drenched with rain, kept changing its appearance as the sun shone out or went in behind the clouds: sometimes it was all ablaze, as if everything there was smiling. The slender boles of the scattered birches suddenly took on the fresh brilliance of white silk, the tiny leaves on the ground gleamed and blazed with purple and gold, and the handsome stems of the tall, curly bracken, already tinged with their autumn hue, the hue of overripe grapes, stood out luminously before me in an infinite, criss-crossed maze. Then suddenly the whole scene took on a faint shade of blue: in an instant, the bright colors went out, the birches stood blankly white as new-fallen snow, not yet touched by the cold light of the winter sun; and furtively, slyly, the finest of drizzles began to spray and whisper through the wood. The leaves of birches were almost all of them still green, though of a marked pallor; only here and there stood a single young one, quite red or quite gold, and it was a sight to see how brightly it flared up when the sun’s rays suddenly found their way to it, slipping and dappling through the thick net of fine branches, all newly washed in sparkling rain. There was not a sound from the birds: they were all snuggled down and keeping quiet.” (261-262)
What do Robinson Crusoe, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn, and Of Mice and Men have in common? They’re all cancelled classics. Alan Jacobs tells why: “This neatly sums up a common current attitude: all history hitherto is at best a sewer of racism, sexism, homophobia, and general social injustice, at worst an abattoir which no reasonable person would even want to peek at.” (11) Jacobs argues that paying attention to old books from strange times (even those with ideas we find loathsome!) can help us lead loving lives in the present.
“Ideas and ambitions aren’t worth much unless they are transformed into a settled disposition, a habit of mind. And what I’m talking about, and indeed have been talking about throughout this book, is a need for a disposition to love; to love the too-often-neglected voices from our past, from the world’s past. I counsel to give the dead the blood of our attention for our own sake, to enrich and strengthen our identities, to make ourselves more solid and less tenuous. There’s an important sense in which we cannot use the past to love ourselves unless we also learn to love our ancestors. We must see them not as others but as neighbors— and then, ultimately as kin, as members our (very) extended family. These writers who help us to encounter our ancestors not as anthropological curiosities whom we observe from a critical distance, but as those with whom we can, and should, break bread.
When we own our kinship to those people, they may come alive for us not just as exemplars of narrowness and wickedness that we have to overcome, but as neighbors and even as teachers. When we acknowledge that even when they go far astray they do so in ways that we surely would have, had we been formed as they were, we extend them not just attention but love, the very love that we hope our descendants will extend to us. The argument that I have made here for the cultivation of personal density is also an argument for serving as links in the living chain that extends into the distant past and also into the distant future. It is an argument for a genealogy of love.” (150-151)
“Breaking bread with the dead is not a scholarly task to be completed but a permanent banquet, to which all who hunger are invited.” (80)
After my beloved Braves blew a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers in the NLCS, I sought solace in this spellbinding history of the national pastime as told through the craft of pitching. Kepner devotes each chapter to a different pitch. Each page brims with stats from archival research, saber-metrics (exit velo, spin rate, launch angle, etc.), and stories from over 300 interviews with Hall of Fame and superstar players.
“The pitches are the DNA of baseball, the fundamental coding of the game. The sport could easily be called ‘pitching,’ because the pitcher controls everything. He is the most influential player on the field, by far, but he can’t play every day. That factor, more than any other, makes baseball so interesting. A major league pitcher is part boxer and part magician; if he’s not punching you in the face, he’s swiping a quarter from behind your ear. If you ever square him up, you’d better savor it. Even in batting practice, the world’s best hitters tap harmless grounders and punch lazy fly balls. In the heat of competition, every hit is an exquisite anomaly.” (xiii)
Other books do a better job explaining the science of baseball. (See Off Speed by Terry McDermott). But no book I’ve ever read surpasses Kepner’s seamless narrative on the miracle of baseball. Walt Whitman wrote the truth in The Brooklyn Eagle on July 23, 1846:
“Let us enjoy life a little. Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms, and taste some of the good things Providence has scattered around so liberally. The game of ball is glorious.”
There’s much to love in Peterson’s latest book. His rifts on the mystery of making are magical.
On making a stone wall and a Roman arch:
“You wouldn’t believe how much unwanted stone is just lying around in Tennessee. The next time I walked around our woods I noticed a ton (literally) of rocks scattered about the property, so I loaded them into a wheelbarrow and heaved them up to the front yard. The kids had a list of daily chores anyway, so I added the assignment of walking the woods each morning and bringing two rocks each day to the pile. Then, satisfied that I had enough to get started, I watched hours of YouTube videos about dry stack walls. During a warm snap in January I walked outside with a shovel and dug the first footer for the foundation. I figured we had enough rocks piled up to make some real progress, but after fussing with it for a few chilly hours I had gone through all our rocks and had completed about six feet of two-foot-high wall. Just 94 feet to go. I thought about Roy Scheider in Jaws and said to myself, “We’re gonna need more rocks.” My obsessive nature kicked in, and I spent weeks scouring the Nashville area for more stones. I pilfered construction sites, walked the woods around our house for hours, searched the shoulders of highways—and discovered treasure troves of discarded stones, which I surreptitiously hauled away in my old truck. Years later, I still can’t help but notice orphaned stones beside the road, and my kids still make fun of me. Slowly but surely, the wall took shape. My arms did, too, to Jamie’s delight. At some point I got it into my head that the wall needed an archway—as in, a bona fide Roman Arch, suspended by nothing but a keystone and this thing called gravity. Once again, YouTube provided all I really needed to know. I built up the sides of an opening, then measured and built a wooden frame with a round top. By now my older brother decided he needed to come over and inform me in classic older-brother fashion that it would never work—which, of course, was all the motivation I needed to carry through. I stacked the stones on top of the frame, set the keystone, and used a hammer to tighten it all with little shims of flinder. When all was ready, with the whole family watching, I nervously removed the legs from the frame. The round wooden support fell away, and—lo, and behold!—the thing held. My brother grunted something congratulatory and went home as I high-fived Jamie and the kids. It took another few weeks to complete the other arm of the wall, and before long the footpaths were dug, some plants were in the ground, and we had an actual enclosed cottage garden, complete with a stone archway, right here at The Warren.” (54-55)
On making a sonnet:
“I finished the wall that spring around Easter, and one morning I woke at dawn, just as the sun broke over the hill and shot a ray of new light across the property. Because the earth had been slowly tilting its way toward summer, that light landed in a new place, illuminating the stone arch. I peeked through the blinds and gasped, because the arch, suspended by gravity looked like the mouth of the empty tomb. Those rocks, repurposed and reborn, were crying out praise.
Lenten Sonnet March 8, 2017
This morning I woke and opened the shade,
Saw frost in the shadows, dew in the light,
Steam hovering up through each gleaming blade
Of grass. The stone arch caught the sun.
The sight Of it all, first thing in the morning, wakes
A contentment with the world. I feel young
Knowing the slow turn of the planet rakes
A bright edge of infant light, a tune sung
As long as the world has spun: new again,
New again, the mercies of God are new
Each morning, and morning moves with the spin
Of the old earth and greets each eye on cue—
Mercy, speeding west from here to the plain
To the peaks, to the sea, then back again.” (55)
On making a home:
“I love this place. I love it because I have loved it with my labor, with sweat and blood and a persistent longing to belong to it. My name is on the deed, which means I own it, inasmuch as a human can own a part of the earth. It belongs to me more than any place I’ve ever known—but in a deeper, truer way, I belong to it. In the honey from my bees and the bounty from the berry bushes I have literally tasted the fruit of my co-laboring with this corner of creation, and it is profoundly sweet. It speaks to me of its Maker. And my Maker speaks to me through it. I love to watch people taste my honey. They always close their eyes and breathe deep, and they always proclaim it better by far than whatever they buy at the grocery store. I’m not sure it tastes all that different, but their enjoyment is heightened by the knowledge that it came from the flowers underfoot and the long labor of the bees’ sweet alchemy. I think it reminds them of Eden. The world that is whispers of the world to come, just as Julie’s thirty-year plan invites me into the long struggle of begetting something new and beautiful made out of Tennessee stones as old as Everest. The Kingdom is coming, but the Kingdom is here. That’s why we’re homesick, and it’s also why we might as well get busy planting.” (56)
This brief book from the great Greek Father displays the whole content of the apostolic preaching. What’s so striking is how much this preaching is derived from the Old Testament. But this isn’t surprising. In his youth Irenaeus (A.D. 130-202) often heard the aged Polycarp preach. Polycarp was discipled by the Apostle John. So when you read Irenaeus, you’re reading a guy who was discipled by the guy, who was discipled by John, who was discipled by Jesus. And Jesus said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me.” (John 5:46) Irenaeus helped me to praise the Lord that “the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree.” (33)
Does God experience emotional change? Is He subject to mood swings like His creatures? And does God suffer like we do? Throughout church history, most Christians have answered with an emphatic “No!” But much of 20th century theology has answered “Yes!” Weinandy spent his teaching career expounding the classical understanding of God’s immutabilty and impassibility. Since God is immutable, He must also be impassible. Weinandy responds to those who advocate a passible God by rooting impassibility in Scripture and in the Christological tradition inherited from the Fathers. As a Protestant, I don’t agree with all that Weinandy writes, but this book, and his book on divine immutability, Does God Change?, are both exceptional.
This is an excellent and accessible book on the incommunicable attributes of God. God is not like us. And that’s good news. “When we fear God rightly, we recognize Him for who He truly is: a God of no limits, and therefore, utterly unlike anyone or anything we know. This is the start of becoming wise.” (13) Wilkin makes this wise observation:
“Human beings created to bear the image of God instead aspire to become like God. Designed to reflect His glory, we choose instead to rival it. We do so by reaching for those attributes that are true only of God, those suited only to a limitless being. Rather than worship and trust in the omniscience of God, we desire to be all-knowing ourselves. Rather than celebrate and revere His omnipotence, we seek ultimate power in our own spheres of influence. Rather than rest in the immutability of God, we point to our own calcified sin patterns and declare ourselves unchanging and unchangeable. Like our father Adam and our mother Eve, we long for that which is intended only for God, rejecting our God-given limits and craving the limitlessness we foolishly believe we are capable of wielding and entitled to possess. Even as the redeemed, we crave the forbidden fruit of rivalry.” (23-24)
In June 793, a boat filled with warriors reached the island monastery of Lindisfarne on the coast of Northumbria. A brutal attack followed, the first recorded Viking raid in Britain. “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain,” wrote the English cleric Alcuin. “Behold, the church of St. Cuthbert was spattered with the blood of the priests of God, and despoiled of all its ornaments.” This was only the beginning.
In this brilliant new book, the leading expert on Vikings tells the history of a people notorious for violence, but who also ice-skated, skied, left beautiful runic inscriptions, and built some of the greatest seagoing vessels in history. Behind the bloodshed and pillaging was an allegiance to cruel gods, and a vision of the afterlife that held no link between how a life was lived and the dead person’s ultimate fate. Theology always fuels actions, and eschatology always shapes ethics.
Did you know the Vikings fought their way into Ireland and France? Did you know they populated Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and even reached continental America? Did you know that a Viking fleet sailed south into the Mediterranean, attacked Morocco, then went even further east and reached Egypt? Did you know that in 1013, the Vikings launched a full-scale invasion of Britain, conquered the city of London, and Svein Forkbeard became the first Viking king of England? If you’re as hooked as I am on Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series, then you’ll enjoy this fascinating deep-dive on the ruthless and renowned men of the North, the children of Ash and Elm.
Baroness James of Holland Park is best known for her superb Inspector Dalgliesh novels. I reread this dystopian story set in 2021, cherishing it more than ever before. It’s the most overtly Christian book James ever wrote. A mysterious disease causes global infertility. No child has been born anywhere in the world since 1995. Society unravels when it becomes clear no cure will be found. Nothing exposes idolatry like a pandemic.
“We are outraged and demoralized less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, than by our failure to discover the cause. Western science and Western medicine haven’t prepared us for the magnitude and humiliation of this ultimate failure. There have been many diseases which have been difficult to diagnose or cure and one which almost depopulated two continents before it spent itself. But we have always in the end been able to explain why. We have given names to the viruses and germs which, even today, take possession of us, much to our chagrin since it seems a personal affront that they should still assail us, like old enemies who keep up the skirmish and bring down the occasional victim when their victory is assured. Western science has been our god. In the variety of its power it has preserved, comforted, healed, warmed, fed and entertained us and we have felt free to criticize and occasionally reject it as men have always rejected their gods, but in the knowledge that, despite our apostasy, this deity, our creature and our slave, would still provide for us; the anesthetic for the pain, the spare heart, the new lung, the antibiotic, the moving wheels and the moving pictures. The light will always come on when we press the switch and if it doesn’t we can find out why. Science was never a subject I was at home with. I understood little of it at school and I understand little more now that I’m fifty. Yet it has been my god too, even if its achievements are incomprehensible to me, and I share the universal disillusionment of those whose god has died. It is twenty-five years now since a human being was born and in our hearts few of us believe that the cry of a new-born child will ever be heard again on our planet. ” (5-7)
And yet in this bleakness, hope abounds. A child is born, a son is given, and the yoke of an oppressor is broken.
Not every Grisham novel is worth reading, but most are. Especially this one, his 33rd! It’s like a legal thriller version of Bryan Stevenson’s unforgettable Just Mercy. The main character, Cullen Post, is loosely based on James McCloskey, the founder of Centurion Ministries. The wrongful convictions of 63 men and women on death row were overturned because of the efforts of McCloskey and his team. Grisham’s page-turner reminded me that to do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.
The most amusing book I read this year is an illustrated handbook for the aspiring felon. The owner and operator of @CrimeADay on Twitter documents the countless ways you can become a federal criminal. For example, removing a bald eagle from your home without a permit is a felony offense according to Title 50, Section 21.12(d). When you visit a National Park, please remember 36 C.F.R. § 2.1 (a)(3) prohibits “tossing, throwing or rolling rocks or other items inside caves or caverns, into valleys, canyons, or caverns, and down hillsides or mountainsides.” Keep in mind that (182) Title 18, Section 1716(c) of the U.S. Code permits the mailing of live scorpions provided the scorpions are packaged in a box clearly marked “Live Scorpions.” However, another statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1716D, makes it a federal crime to send a live mongoose in the mail. Mongoose mailers are subject to as much as one year in federal prison. “For the aspiring offender, Washington D.C. is Graceland. It’s a Mecca. It’s the only place where a person can become a three-time federal offender by abandoning a fish in the National Arboretum, taking a nap at the Smithsonian, and posting an unauthorized flyer on a bulletin board at the Government Accountability Office– all before lunch.” (208) What’s the main lesson of this book? Of the making of many laws, there is no end.
S.A. Cosby’s crime novel is Amazon’s #1 Mystery and Thriller of the Year. I imagine it’ll be made into a movie soon. Cosby grew up in Mathews County, Virginia, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where he worked as a bouncer, a forklift driver, a retail manager, a landscaper, a construction worker, and a mortuary attendant, all while writing crime stories on the side. He can now add full-time writer to his résumé. This book isn’t for everyone. It’s a gritty tale, a kind of eclectic mashup of the classic “one last job” heist story, several Fast and Furious car-chase scenes, a huge dose of Southern rural noir, and a glimpse of what it’s like being a black father living below the Mason Dixon line. Here’s a sampling of when the main character drove his getaway car off an overpass:
“Beauregard slammed on the brakes and yanked the steering wheel to the left. The Buick did a 180 as a gray cloud of smoke engulfed them. Without a second of hesitation he slammed the car in reverse and stomped on the gas. The wooden pickets that had surrounded the median had been replaced with orange snow fencing. Ronnie was screaming in his ear. No words, just one long nonsensical wail. They were doing 60, hurtling toward an unfinished section of road. Backwards. The police were closing in like wolves chasing a deer. Then the deer sprouted wings. Beauregard didn’t say hold on. He didn’t say watch out. But in his mind, he heard his father’s voice. ‘She flying now, Bug!’ The Buick sailed off the overpass. It plummeted twenty-five feet like a stone. The trunk slammed into the pile of dirt, but the dirt helped to cushion their fall. The edge of the overpass rapidly receded from Beauregard’s vision as they fell. He braced himself by gripping the steering wheel and leaning back in his seat as hard as he could. The rear bumper took some of the force. The load-leveling shocks he had installed took the rest. He could feel every inch of the steel plating he welded to the chassis stretch to its tensile limit. The cop car that had been closest to them had slammed on the brakes. The cop car behind hadn’t. It crashed into the first one and sent it careening off the edge. It landed nose first into the asphalt. Steam and engine coolant burst from the crumpled hood even as the car fell forward on its roof. Beauregard jerked on the gearshift, dropped the car into drive and extricated himself from the dry dirt pile. Red clay flew fifty feet into the air as the rear tires strained for purchase. Finally, after what seemed like ten years Beauregard felt the rubber meet the road. He slipped by the upside-down cop car and crashed through the traffic cones. He took the road back to Route 314 and turned right.” (119-120)
Time is slippery. How you spend your days is how you spend your life. Every day matters. But Crowe understands true productivity is more than just getting things done. It’s about being a faithful steward in the sight of the Lord. “Being productive does not mean seeking first our own interests. Biblical productivity must be guided by two great commands: loving God and loving our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). Loving God and doing what He commands means we must be faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us.” (5) Crowe grounds his approach in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, highlighting the benefits and limitations of diligent work. His chapter on Paul’s grace-driven effort is super. This is the perfect book to (re)read at the dawn of 2021.
“Each day is a gift from God, and those things you do on a daily basis add up. Aim to make small improvements each day. Strive to get a little bit closer to your goals each day. The ultimate goal is not personal promotion, but serving Christ and His kingdom. Remember, every day matters. If every day matters, then today must be the day to get started.” (129)
Back in 2007, I read an awe-inspiring book by Gerrit Scott Dawson entitled Jesus Ascended. (You can read a bunch of the best quotes here.) Dawson led me to contemplate Christ’s ascension and His continuing incarnation. But given its price ($60!) and academic style, it’s not a book I would ever give away to my flock. So I was thrilled to read Patrick Schreiner’s wonderful little book on this neglected doctrine. It balances deep theology and lucid brevity. Much what happened in 2020 tempted me to look down. But this book summoned me to look up. With uplifted head we look to our ascended Savior and King, who holds both the scepter of the universe and all of our concerns in His wise and gracious hands. Weary saint, look up and remember the Day is fast approaching when “all God’s people will ascend, follow their forerunner, and be with God forever.” (116)
This collection of prayers, blessings, liturgies, and laments was a close companion for the Roark family in 2020. We said goodbye to friends who moved away. We prayed for medical providers. We feasted together on the Lord’s Day. We pondered our consumption of media. We celebrated the winter’s first snowfall. We comforted one another during illness. We marked the first hearth-fire of the season. We did all these things together using the words of this book, giving voice to prayers we didn’t know we needed to pray. “There are no unsacred moments; there are only sacred moments and moments we have forgotten are sacred.” (xvii) Every Moment Holywill help you reclaim the sacredness of all of life.
Lament Upon the Finishing of a Beloved Book
“I am stirred and saddened, O Lord,
in coming to this tale’s end,
to bid farewell and return now
from my sojourn in that storied place
where longings for something
more than the life I lead
It is in the receding glow of that small,
bright sorrow that I now linger.
Let it do its work in me,
inviting me to dig beneath these
fresh-stirred longings, to see
that their roots are not at last a longing
for the places depicted in these pages;
but are, in truth,
profound and holy wounds,
yearnings for a lost garden and a more
perfect city, where justice and righteousness
are restored, and harms are healed, and losses
redeemed, and love proved true,
and earth and heaven reconciled.
What I feel is, at its heart, a homesick hope
for a place of unbroken communion
with my Creator, and with His people,
and with all of His creation.
What I most desire
is to open my eyes and find that,
for the first time in my life,
I am home and breathing
the wild winds of my native land.
So of course my heart aches
each time I receive these beautiful, distant
rumors of that far country!
Of course I do not want such a story to end,
for it has wedged open for me
a way like a window,
through which I have glimpsed
a vision of things more as they will one day be
than as they now are in these hard
and sorrowing lands of our exile.
Thank you, O my God,
for loving me enough
that you would rouse
my deepest desires again through story,
appointing these longings as true signposts
planted in a war-torn and cratered landscape,
reminding me that all of history
is leading at last
to a King and a kingdom,
and pointing me ever onward toward.
His righteous and eternal city.
May I return now
from the world of this book
to the daily details of my own life
with truer vision and fiercer hope,
trailing with me
remnants of that coming glory
I have glimpsed again
in story. Amen.” (95-98)
Now may the God of peace grant you perfect peace, and living hope, and glorious grace, and steadfast love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
“As to your opponent, I wish, that, before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord’s teaching and blessing.
This practice will have a direct tendency to conciliate your heart to love and pity him; and such a disposition will have a good influence upon every page you write. If you account him a believer, though greatly mistaken in the subject of debate between you, the words of David to Joab, concerning Absalom, are very applicable: “Deal gently with him for my sake.” (2 Sam. 18:5)
The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly. The Lord bears with you likewise, and expects that you should shew tenderness to others, from a sense of the much forgiveness you need yourself.
In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now. Anticipate that period in your thoughts; and though you may find it necessary to oppose his errors, view him personally as a kindred soul, with whom you are to be happy in Christ forever.
But if you look upon him as an unconverted person, in a state of enmity against God and his grace, (a supposition which, without good evidence, you should be very unwilling to admit,) he is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! “he knows not what he does.”
But you know who has made you to differ. If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defence of the Gospel. You were both equally blind by nature. If you attend to this, you will not reproach or hate him, because the Lord has been pleased to open your eyes, and not his.
Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistence be offended at their obstinacy.
But if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose, “if peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth.” (2 Tim. 2:25)
If you write with a desire of being an instrument of correcting mistakes, you will of course be cautious of laying stumbling-blocks in the way of the blind, or of using any expressions that may exasperate their passions, confirm them in their prejudices, and thereby make their conviction, humanly speaking, more impracticable.”
“There is no substitute for reading,” a wise woman once wrote. “A book is a door and on the other side is somewhere else.” (111) I stepped through several literary doors to somewhere else in 2019 and these were my favorite destinations. There are 36 selections and I thoroughly enjoyed every last one of them.
The best book I read in 2019 is this worshipful biblical-theological feast. Morales unpacks the glories of Leviticus and shows that the central hope of the Pentateuch is fixed upon the Last Adam who ushers His people into the holy presence of God through His perfect atoning sacrifice. Here’s a taste:
“The tabernacle was not merely the earthly house of God, but the way to God– the way of YHWH. Now, keeping in mind the parallels between the garden of Eden and the tabernacle, one may discern readily how the entrance into the holy of holies, ‘the archetypal priestly act,’ comprised a liturgical drama: the annual re-entry into the garden of Eden.
On the Day of Atonement Adam’s eastward expulsion from the garden of Eden was reversed as the high priest, a cultic Adam, ascended westward through the cherubim-woven veil and into the summit of the cultic mountain of God.
At the heart of the Pentateuch, we find an answer to the question Who shall ascend into the mountain of YHWH? The one able to ascend is the Adam-like high priest, with blood, on the Day of Atonement. This is the way YHWH has opened for humanity to dwell in His Presence.” (177)
What is more precious or paramount than justification? Martin Luther wrote that “justification by itself creates true theologians and therefore it is indispensable in the church and so we must frequently work on it.” (Works, 34: 157) Michael Horton has worked hard to give students of Scripture a true gift in his two volumes on justification. He models how to carefully present and graciously interact with opposing viewpoints, and over the span of nearly 900 pages he positively articulates the glorious truth that sinners are declared right with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone. Horton is also a swell writer:
“Justification is a particular gift that we have in Christ alone, received through faith alone. It is a legal decision but not a legal fiction. Unlike the arbitrary decree of the nominalist deity, this justification is the most real event imaginable. Its ground is the covenantal obedience, faithfulness, and merits of God incarnate. This righteousness—the Messiah’s faithfulness—is really imputed or credited to real sinners. We are no longer in the ambit of created substances but of an exchange between persons: rags for a robe, debts for an inheritance, curse for blessing, death for life, condemnation for justification. Everything that we had in Adam, which included our own debts, is transferred to Christ, and everything that He possesses is transferred to His people. Even the faith to embrace Christ comes with, and is strengthened by, the gift of Christ Himself as He is delivered through His word and sacraments.” (1: 268)
Imagine being a young and relatively inexperienced Baptist pastor, only to become theological penpals with one of the wisest and godliest ministers in all of England. That’s precisely what happened to John Ryland Jr. when he began his decades-long correspondence with the great Anglican divine John Newton. These letters are brimming with heavenly wisdom and reading them made my heart sing.
“That monster Self has as many heads as Hydra, as many lives as a cat. It’s more than 25 years since I hoped it was fast nailed to the cross, but alas it’s alive still mixing with and spoiling everything I do.” (70)
“I advise you to take a lodging as near as you can to Gethsemane, and to walk daily to Mount Golgotha.” (100)
“We may be very orthodox, skilled in defense of the five points, satisfied that our constitution of church order is the very best in the world, and yet be lamentably cold and formal in the feelings of our hearts towards Him.” (128)
“I am admitted to a throne of grace. I have an Advocate with the Father. And such is the power, care, and compassion of my great Shepherd that, prone as I am to wander, He keeps me from wandering quite away.” (170)
“Accept this hasty line as a token my sympathy. May the Lord bless you both. And may we all so weep as becomes those who expect, ere long, to have all our tears wiped away.” (187)
“The older I grow, the more I am drawn to preach much concerning the person of the Saviour, the atonement of the Saviour, the glory of the Saviour, and the influences of the Holy Spirit.” (232)
“I am a striking proof that the atoning blood of Jesus can cleanse from the most enormous sins, that His grace can soften the hardest heart, subdue the most obstinate habits of evil, and that He is able to save to the uttermost.” (396)
“My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” (401)
I don’t read to “have read.” I read to survive. This book helped me to survive as a preacher.
“God loves a cheerful preacher. Our ever-blessed, ever-joyful God wants to be proclaimed by those who are brimful of the joy of His grace in Christ brings. He calls us to delight in Him and, out of that joy, to call others to the feast. Preacher and sermon must be filled with gospel joy. ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation’ (Isaiah 12:3). Preachers who taste, teach, and share the joy of the gospel are truly fulfilling their calling as they serve those who listen.” (31)
“Worship the Lord when no one notices you and when the work is unexciting. Remember in those times that God loves you. He sees you and honors all your labors. Remember that in due season you will receive your reward if you don’t give up (Galatians 6:9). Self-pity is as much out of place in Christian ministry as self-promotion is. Worship Him because of who He is, the Lord of heaven and earth. You’re preaching for God. You’re preaching because He has been pleased to call and equip you to preach, and He is pleased as you preach.” (49)
“The Ten Commandments as we’ve been discussing them round our dinner table read like this:
1. Put nothing in the place of Jesus. 2. Make nothing which gets in the way of your love for Jesus. 3. Honour Jesus’ Name in all you do. 4. Seek your soul’s rest in Jesus. 5. Honour your parents, as a love-expression for Jesus. 6. Do not murder, as Jesus brings life, never death. 7. Keep sexually pure, because Jesus has won your body, as well as your heart. 8. Do not steal, because Jesus is enough. 9. Do not lie, because Jesus is the truth, and loves the truth. 10. Don’t set your heart on anything, because Jesus really is enough.” (116)
The Puritan pastor-theologian Stephen Charnock issued a timely warning in 1681: “Though we cannot comprehend God as He is, we must be careful not to fancy Him to be what He is not.” (Works, 1: 276) Matthew Barrett helps believers to heed this counsel, alerting us to be on guard against vainly imagining God as a being who is just like us, only bigger and better: “There is none greater than God, not because He is merely a greater version of ourselves but because He is nothing like ourselves.” (xvi) This book is a stupendous introduction to the classical understanding of the doctrine of God and it’s chock full of quotes about the divine attributes from the theological “A-Team” (Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas). Barrett is a sure-footed guide to helping you grasp God’s ungraspable greatness. (Psalm 145:3)
Why would you want to read a collection of excerpts written hundreds of years ago by theologians with names like “Wolfgang Musculus,” all of which advocate for the doctrine of divine impassibility? Here’s an insightful answer from Carl Trueman:
“It is arguably the doctrine of God, rather than that of Scripture, which has historically been the place where assaults on orthodoxy have typically started within the church, at least prior to the rise of Higher Criticism. When someone starts to tinker with the doctrine of Scripture, many Christians instinctively feel that something nefarious is being done. But when someone starts to tinker with the doctrine of God, many simply assume that very clever people are engaged in improving the tradition.” (15-16)
“A man is not so inclined to give up when he sees in panoramas,” writes Robert Kurson. (9) No book in 2019 outside of Scripture did more to give me a panoramic vision of God than these beautiful volumes published by Reformation Heritage Books. Van Mastricht begins every chapter with exegesis and ends every chapter in application. It’s all theological gold.
“The infinite greatness of God supplies an argument for us to make Him great with infinite praises (Luke 1:46). For He is (1) great, and therefore, greatly to be praised. Indeed, He is (2) most great, infinitely great: ‘and His greatness is unsearchable.’ (Ps. 145:3) And also (3) He is the only One who is such (Isa. 40:12; 15, 17). Indeed, (4) great in so many ways; great, in fact, in all ways: in His essence, His presence, His duration, His wisdom, His strength and power, His grace and mercy (Ps. 147:5). And in this greatness He is (5) above the gods, whether earthly, such as kings and magistrates, or heavenly (at lease in the opinion of the pagans), the false gods; and above all gods (2 Chron. 2:5; Ps. 135:5).
For if, then we celebrate the sun for its great greatness, and the heavens for their greater greatness, why would we not celebrate God for His greatest greatness, for His infinite greatness?
Let us therefore make Him great (1) in our heart (Ps. 103:1; Luke 1:46), by always thinking of Him great things, indeed the greatest of things, for He is the One who is infinitely greater than all our thoughts (Eph. 3:20); by esteeming as great, indeed, as most great, both Him and all that is His– His presence, favor, promises, worship– in such a way that we approach Him and all things of His with an infinite (that is, an insatiable) appetite and desire (Ps. 84:1-2).
(2) In our mouth, that with a great voice, in the presence of others, we celebrate Him who is infinitely great (Ps. 103:8), indeed that we call others to celebrate Him with us (Ps. 103:20-22).
Finally, (3) in our work, that we do it (a) with profound reverence for the infinite deity, and with fear of offending Him, even in the least things, because He is the most great King (Mal. 1:14; Deut. 10:17; Neh. 1:5; Dan. 9:4). (b) By a careful zeal for obeying and pleasing Him (2 Cor. 5:9). (c) By an infinite desire or concern for possessing and enjoying Him (Ps. 73:25).” (2: 190)
In the summer of 2016, an evangelical donnybrook erupted online over the doctrine of the Trinity, particularly relating to what is called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) or “eternal relational authority-submission” (ERAS) or “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS). In this wise book, Butner calmly clarifies the arguments on both sides, analyzes key texts like 1 Corinthians 15:28, demonstrates the doctrinal implications of EFS/ERAS/ESS, and nimbly expounds pro-Nicene teaching, inseparable operations, and dyothelite Christology. He concludes:
“The claim that the Son eternally submits to the Father is not explicitly taught in the Bible, and its acceptance offers an inferior second-order explanation of scriptural patterns, undermines rational explanations of Christology, Soteriology, and the doctrine of God, deviates from tradition, and provides little conceptual clarity. Simply put, theologians ought to stop claiming that the Son eternally submits to the Father.” (196)
Man does not live on polemics alone. And so I’m thankful that Chester penned this richly devotional meditation on the Triune God. He shows how to enjoy God in the messiness of life in a fallen world. It’s like John Owen’s Communion with God, but for dummies. It’s tremendous.
“Each day reflect on how God is being kind to you. And think of Jesus as the Father’s kindness in person. ‘But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared,’ says Paul in Titus 3:4-5, ‘He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy.’ The Father’s kindness ‘appeared’ and it looks like Jesus. If you want to see the kindness of God, then look at the life and death of Jesus. This is the measure of God’s kindness. This is divine kindness clothed in human flesh. This is His kindness to you.” (64)
2019 was a spectacular year for Bavinck devotees. This, and this, and this (!!!!) all came hot off the press. But after reading a ton of Herman this year, I loved this one most of all. The book takes its title from Hebrews 13:15 and focuses on the Christian’s delightful and daunting duty of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord before God and the world. For me, Chapter 9 on the “Opposition to Confession” was worth the price of the book:
“Christ was not ashamed of us at His incarnation. To be sure, He had many reasons to be. He Himself was the firstborn of the Father, the radiance of the Father’s glory and the exact image of His being– who thought it not robbery to be equal with God (John 3:16; 10:30; 17:5; Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; Phil. 2:6).
We were laden with guilt, unclean from head to toe, and subject to decay (Ps. 38:4; Rom. 8:20-21), yet He was not ashamed to call us His brothers (Heb. 2:11). He was not ashamed of us before God or before the holy angels (Mark 8:38).
He took on our flesh and blood, assumed our nature, and became like us in everything apart from sin. In Christ, even God was not ashamed to be called our God (Heb. 11:16).
Therefore, He will likewise not be ashamed of us in the day of His future. To be sure, at that time He will come again not as a servant but as Lord, not to suffer but to be glorified, not to a cross but with a crown (Rev. 6:2; 19:16).
Nevertheless, He will not be ashamed of us, for the One who ascended far above the heavens is the same One who descended to the lowest parts of the earth. The One who judges is the Son of Man who once came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
Our Judge is our Savior; He never forgets nor forsakes His people (Deut. 31:6; Isa. 33:22). ‘So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 10:32).
In full view of the whole world so that all of creation may hear it, He will publicly stand up for His faithful confessors. However despised they may have been in this world, Christ will take their name upon His lips and proclaim it to every ear that they are His– the ones whom He has bought with His own blood and of whom no power in the world or in Hell will be able to rob Him (Rom. 8:38-39).
As Christ says, so it will be. His judgment will apply to the whole of creation. His confession will concern all creation. No one will be able to criticize it. No one will dare to oppose it. His judgment will be exalted above all criticism and will stand high above the judgment of all men and devils. The heavens and the earth and Hell and all creation will eternally submit to it.
Of greater importance than all of this is that the Father will rest in this work of His Son (Heb. 4:9-10). Just as after creation God saw all that He had made and, behold, it was very good, in that way at the end of days He will look down with divine pleasure upon the great work of redemption that Christ accomplished (Gen. 1:31).
When the church without spot or wrinkle is set before Him, and the perfected kingdom has been given to Him, then the Father will adopt all of the redeemed of the Son as His children, inviting them to participate in His communion and enjoy His presence (Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 21:2, 7).
The public confession on behalf of believers by Christ before His Father, who is in heaven, will be the guarantee of their eternal salvation and glory (Matt. 10:32).” (80-81)
The Gospel according to Matthew was the first book of the Bible I ever read as a non-Christian and then as a new Christian. So Matthew is and will always be the First Gospel for me. In his latest book, Dr. Schreiner helped me see more of the glory and grace of the Savior as He is revealed in the First Gospel. I am certain he will help you too.
“The magi have come to worship Jesus, but Jerusalem, the scribes, and Herod the king are troubled when they hear that a new king has appeared on the scene. As Matthew indicated in the genealogy, Jesus is not only the King of the Jews but now also the King of the whole world. Jesus both fulfills the old covenant and inaugurates the new. The star is in the east because the King has come to welcome those ‘east of Eden’ who were cast out so long ago (cf. Gen. 3:24; 4:16).” (80)
Envy, that green-eyed monster, is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own. Tilly Dillehay has written an excellent book on what envy is, what envy has to do with glory, how envy robs your joy, and how to put envy to death by the Spirit.
“There’s nothing more natural than envy: it belongs to the debased mind of a natural man, not to a mind that has been transformed supernaturally by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:28-31; James 3:14-16).” (18)
“Envy is more interested in getting rid of the other person’s advantage than in acquiring it for itself. In a complete demonic reverse of logic, the envious person believes that it would be better for no one to have it than for another person to have it while he himself goes without.” (41)
“Compared to what’s coming, this present age is breathtakingly short. It’s an eye-blink’s worth of prosperity (cf. 1 Peter 1:4). Envying your neighbor’s lifestyle is an extreme form of tunnel vision.” (105)
The best commentary I read this year was Harmon’s on Philippians. It has everything you’d want: Exegetical precision, doxological theology, pastoral application, and lucid brevity. And it’s also Christ-centered through and through: “God calls us in Christ, and to Christ. As our life begins in Him (1 Cor. 1:30), it continues in and because of Him (John 15:1) and will be consummated in Him (Col. 1:28). The Christian life is a Christ-centered, Christ-focused, Christ-enabled life.” (359)
I first encountered Morrison’s searching novels in college. When she passed away in August, I decided it was time to reread Beloved. Hearing her read this haunting story in her own voice was an experience I’ll never forget.
The Anglican Church in North America published a new edition of the BCP. You can read it all online here for free. I picked up the leather edition and it’s outstanding. If you’re unfamiliar with the BCP, Thomas Cranmer’s collects are the best place to start:
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
O heavenly Father, you have filled the world with beauty: Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Almighty God, you sit on your throne giving righteous judgment: We humbly ask you to bless all courts of justice and all magistrates in this land; give them a spirit of wisdom and understanding, that fearing no power but yours alone, they may discern the truth and impartially administer the law; through him who shall come to be our Judge, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
O God, almighty and merciful, you heal the broken-hearted, and turn the sadness of the sorrowful to joy, Let your fatherly goodness be upon all whom you have made. Remember in pity all those who are this day destitute, homeless, elderly, infirm, or forgotten. Bless the multitude of your poor. Lift up those who are cast down. Mightily befriend innocent sufferers, and sanctify to them the endurance of their wrongs. Cheer with hope all who are discouraged and downcast, and by your heavenly grace preserve from falling those whose poverty tempts them to sin. Though they be troubled on every side, suffer them not to be distressed; though they are perplexed, save them from despair. Grant this, O Lord, for the love of him who for our sakes became poor, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
O God, grant that we may desire you, and desiring you seek you, and seeking you find you, and finding you be satisfied in you for ever. Amen.
No year is complete for me without spending time with Bertie and Jeeves. Wodehouse is a wordsmith and he never disappoints.
“Right from the first day Jeeves came to me, I have looked on him as a sort of guide, philosopher, and friend.” (10) “You were always a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?” (12) “I’ve always said, and I always shall say, that for sheer brains, Jeeves, you stand alone. All the other great thinkers of the age are simply in the crowd, watching you go by.” (22) “At that moment, the gong sounded, and the genial host came tumbling downstairs like the delivery of a ton of coals.” (25) “I came upon on young Bingo dancing like an untamed gazelle.” (31) “The manager was a whiskered cove who looked like a bandit.” (34) “I don’t pretend to be Sherlock Holmes or anything of that order, but the moment I looked at her I said to myself, ‘The girl plays the organ in a village church!'” (36) “I turned round and Jeeves shied like a startled mustang.” (36) “Dash it, a fellow must call his soul his own. You can’t be a serf to your valet.” (37) “Relief was surging over me in great chunks by now.” (47)
A few years ago, Andy Crouch wrote a short piece that I’ve returned to again and again because we both share a love for the writings of Mark Helprin: “I know no other writer who can craft such moving sentences in such simple words. Helprin’s language rarely calls attention to itself, but it never fails to make you pay deeper attention to the world and your own life.” I feel the same way about Helprin’s latest novel about an old man named Jules who hears music everywhere, whether he is walking down a busy Parisian street, or sitting aboard a commercial airliner awaiting liftoff.
“Music even of this kind was everywhere the bearer of messages from an unreachable but always beckoning place out of which perfection spilled easily and without limit. In his deepest despair — when his wife died, when his only grandchild was diagnosed with leukemia (the reason he had come to America) — Jules Lacour might still hear music arising from unexpected quarters: from the rhythms of steel wheels on train tracks, though this was now rare in France after the joints in the rails had been bridged by welds; from the clickings of elevators moving in their shafts; the unpredictable harmonies of traffic; wind in the trees; the workings of machines; and water flowing, falling, or surging in waves. Even in desperation, music would sound as if from nothing, and wake him to life. He was a cellist, and could never have been anything else. The world had courage, faith, beauty, and love, and it had music, which, although not merely an abstraction, was equal to the greatest abstractions and principles— its power to lift, clarify, and carry the soul forever unmatched.” (15-16)
“We’ve become addicted to praise. At an early age we look not to the music but to the teacher’s approval, and later to the applause of the audience, the reviewer’s sentence or two, or perhaps, eventually, to the world tour, posters in front of the concert hall, the wide-eyes of hotel clerks and managers as fame knocks them back like a wave. And as you seek approval, praise, position, wealth, and fame, the music becomes the means rather than the end… Grocery clerks, railroad workers, farmers, private soldiers, and street cleaners expect neither praise nor fame. Their reward comes quietly as they pass through life unrecognized. Learn to live like them. The music is all you need.” (348-349)
There are beauties here which pierce like swords and burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. Some readers will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.
I only vaguely recall some of those mandatory summer reading books I breezed through back in high school. So I reread this classic by Bradbury that was published in 1953. And guess what? It sounds just like 2019.
“Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I’ll think I’m responding to the play, when it’s only a tactile reaction to vibration. But I don’t care. I just like solid entertainment. I must be going. Lecture’s over. I hope I’ve clarified things. The important thing for you to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dyke. Hold steady. Don’t let the torrent of melancholy and drear philosophy drown our world. We depend on you.” (80-81)
This nerve-wracking read wins the coveted “most-likely-book-to-soon-be-made-into-a-movie-or-miniseries-on-Netflix Award.” If you like Cold War international intrigue and spy fiction, you will totally dig this true and nerve-wracking Cold War espionage story.
Special grace is encircled by common grace. There’s a ton we can learn from others who are made in God’s image but who don’t share a Christian view of reality. Few living writers help me to see more wonder in this God-spoke world than Robert Macfarlane. Even the way he describes a simple stroll through the woods can take your breath away. Imagine being able to write a paragraph like this:
“We almost pass it by. Late afternoon, late summer: harvest time in the mountains to the north of the Carso. Smell of woodsmoke, meadow. Wooden cabins with steep eaves speaking of heavy winter snowfall. An old man sitting in a chair drawn up to a western gable end, eyes closed, catching the last of the sun. Long-handled scythes leaning against walls, cut grass on the blades. Cyclamens in the shade, purple fungi poking through leaf litter under the beeches. Apple trees here and there, hit by small yellow fruit. The land’s surface dimpled with grassed-in sinkholes. It is one of the most peaceful landscapes through which I have ever walked. Then we follow, because we are curious as to where it leads, a side path that turns away from the open ground of meadows and cabins, curving gently through beech and oak, and then angling up, the trees thinning in number but growing in height, poplars now, their leaves hissing in the wind. We walk the path in innocence because we do not know what is at its end, and through the poplars we can see golden reefs of cloud massing out over the sea, black on their undersides. The sun is warm on our faces, the rich smell of the meadow grass is thickening to rank — and then there is the first of the marks, cut deeply into the pale bark, and there is the edge of the chasm.” (213)
Macfarlane beckons you to pause and pay attention to what you can see in all that surrounds you. And in the glorious second chapter of Underland, he summons you to stare in amazement at that which you cannot see (or hear!): dark matter, neutrinos, and WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles).
“Dark matter is fundamental to everything in the universe; it anchors all structures together. Without dark matter, super-clusters, galaxies, planets, humans, fleas and bacilli would not exist. Presently, the particle thought most likely to be the constituent of dark matter is known wryly as a WIMP —a weakly interacting massive particle. What we know of WIMPs suggests that they are heavy (up to more than a thousand times the weight of a proton), and that they were created in sufficiently vast quantities in the seconds after the birth of the universe to account for the missing mass. WIMPs — like neutrinos, nicknamed ‘ghost particles’ — have scant regard for the world of baryonic matter.
WIMPs traverse our livers, skulls and guts in their trillions each second. Neutrinos fly through the Earth’s crust, mantle and solid iron-nickel core without touching a single atom as they go. To these subatomic particles, we are the ghosts and ours the shadow-world, made at most of a diaphanous webwork. The great challenge faced by physicists has been how to compel such elusive particles to interact with experiments; how to weave a net that might catch these quick fish. One of the solutions has been to go underground.
Subterranean laboratories have been established around the world, dedicated to the detection of evidence that a WIMP or a neutrino has briefly interacted with baryonic matter. The experiments under way in these deep-sunk laboratories are all forms of ghost hunting, and they are located far underground because the surrounding rock shields the experiments from what physicists call ‘noise’.
Noise is the trundle of everyday particles through the air, the din of the ordinary atomic world going about its business. Radioactivity is deafening noise. Cosmic-ray muons are noise. If you wish to listen for sounds so faint they may not exist at all, you can’t have someone playing the drums in your ear. To hear the breath of the birth of the universe, you must come below ground to what are, experimentally speaking, among the quietest places in the universe.” (57, 58-59)
For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things (including dark matter and WIMPS) were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things (including neutrinos) hold together. I’m glad I read this book. I’m thankful I didn’t pass it by.
“As we age, we lose our sense of the intimate otherness of things; we allow habit to displace awe, inevitability to banish delight; we grow into adulthood and put away childish things.”(88)
One book that helped reinvigorate my awe at the wonder of the human body is the latest book by Bill Bryson. Here are some of the mind-blowing factoids I discovered:
“That is unquestionably the most astounding thing about us– that we are just a collection of inert components, the same stuff you would find in a pile of dirt.” (4)
“You blink fourteen thousand times a day– so much that your eyes are shut for twenty-tree minutes of every waking day. Yet you never have to think about it, because every second of every day your body undertakes a literally unquantifiable number of tasks– a quadrillion, a nonillion, a quindecillion, a vigintillion (these are actual measures), at all events some number vastly beyond imagining– without requiring an instant of your attention.” (4-5)
“In the second of so since you started this sentence, your body has made a million red blood cells.” (5)
“Altogether it takes 7 billion billion billion (that’s 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or 7 octillion) atoms to make you.” (5)
“Unpacked, you are positively enormous. Your lungs, smoothed out, would cover a tennis court, and the airways within them would stretch nearly from coast to coast. The length of all your blood vessels would take you two and a half times around Earth.” (5)
“You have a meter of DNA packed into every cell, and so many cells that if you formed all the DNA in your body into a single strand, it would stretch ten billion miles, to beyond Pluto. Think of it: there is enough of you to leave the solar system.” (5)
“You would need twenty billion strands of DNA laid side by side to make the width of the finest human hair.”
“All humans share 99.9 percent of their DNA, and yet no two humans are alike. My DNA and your DNA will differ in three to four million places, which is a small proportion of the total but enough to make a lot of difference between us.” (7)
“The body is often likened to a machine, but it is so much more than that. It works twenty-four hears a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze. How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder. But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm.” (8)
“The skin consists of an inner layer called the dermis and an outer epidermis. The outermost surface of the epidermis, called the stratum corneum, is made up entirely of dead cells. It is an arresting thought that all that makes you lovely is deceased. Where body meets air, we are all cadavers. These outer skin cells are replaced every month. We shed skin copiously, almost carelessly: some twenty-five thousand flakes a minute, over a million pieces every hour. Run a finger along a dusty shelf, and you are in large part clearing a path through fragments of your former self. Silently and remorselessly we turn to dust.” (11-12)
I could keep going but, alas, my fingers are tired of typing. There are chapters on the brain, the heart and blood, the immune system, the lungs, the skeleton, skin and hair, nerves and pain, and conception and birth. I found it interesting that while the author writes from a secular evolutionary perspective, he repeatedly uses the same word over and over to describe human beings: “miracle.” (4, 9, 84, 113, 194, 206, 249, 293, 299)
Fallen man apes to be like God. We long for omniscience and omnipresence. We yearn to know all and see all. And technology is the means to this end. C.S. Lewis wisely replied in a letter to Arthur C. Clarke on Dec. 7, 1943: “A race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the universe.” (Letters, 2: 594) Consider, for instance, both the security benefits and the ethical concerns involved in wide-area drone surveillance. “In one exercise off the Scottish coast in 2016, a solitary albatross-sized catapult-launched surveillance drone equipped with a wide-area camera was able to peruse every square inch of an area the size of Wales in just 55 hours.” (91) Before reading this bracing book, I tended to think of drone surveillance as something that happened “over there.”
But Holland Michel makes clear that it’s already happening “over here.” It’s not just some Will Smith conspiracy movie. WAMI (Wide Angle Motion Imagery) and Gorgon Stare allow for something like “closed-circuit television on steroids” across city-sized areas. Earlier versions of this technology had 1,854,296,064 pixels, enough imaging power to spot an object six inches wide from an altitude of 25,000 feet in a frame twice the width of Manhattan.
As astounding as this is, the surveillance capabilities have dramatically improved. But here is the most disturbing Orwellian factoid from this book: the airspace over the United States of America falls into the same legal category as other public spaces like sidewalks, roads, parks, and beaches. Therefore, just as it isn’t illegal to take photographs of private property, or private citizens, from public space, in the same way, we have no expectation of privacy from above.
This may be the best novel I’ve ever read about the American West. Spectacularly written by an author who died as a literary nobody but who is now considered by many to be one of the greatest writers of the last 100 years.
I’m a latecomer to the “Dark is Rising” series. Apparently they’ve been hugely popular for decades. I’d never even heard of these stories prior to their re-release earlier this year. The opening tale is wonderful. English children, on holiday in Cornwall, discover an ancient treasure map in a secret room hidden behind a wardrobe. Mysterious enemies lurk about, waiting to steal what the three Drew children are seeking: clues from the map that could lead them to King Arthur’s grail.
This story has it all: a glorious setting, a frightening villain, a strong emphasis on the good triumphing over the evil through sacrifice, prophecy and mystery, pain and loss, boys acting bravely, girls acting brilliantly, adventure galore, and old manuscripts written in Latin translated below by an Indiana Jones-like Uncle:
“The darkness draws toward Cornwall, and the long ships creep to our shore, and the battle is near which must lead to final defeat and the end of all that we have known. No guardian for the grail is left. And to save my life, and the secret of the grail that only its guardian knows, I must flee even as Bedwin the strange knight fled. But in all the land of Logres no haven remains, so that I must cross the sea to the land where, they say, Cornishmen have fled whenever terror comes. But the grail may not leave this land, but must wait the Pendragon, till the day comes. So therefore, I trust it to this land, over sea and under stone, and I mark here the signs by which the proper man in the proper place, may know where it lies: the signs that wax and wane but do not die. The secret of its charge I may not write, but carry unspoken to my grave. Yet the man who finds the grail and has other words from me will know, by both, the secret for himself. And for him is the charge, the promise and the proof, and in his day the Pendragon shall come again. And that day shall see a new Logres, with evil cast out; when the old world shall appear no more than a dream.” (63)
I’m planning on reading the entire series aloud to the Roark kiddos in 2020.
This book is intense. It’s got guns, and bullets, and Dispensational eschatology, and more guns, and the most spectacular bank robbery in American history. If that sounds like your bag, then have at it.
Last year I devoured Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses. This year I read this collection of shorter pieces covering his approach to research, his writing process, and his interview tricks of the trade. Caro is a real gem. He’s 84 years old and he’s spent his entire adult life producing incredibly well-written biographies of two powerful, larger-than-life men: Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s won a Pulitzer Prize and he’s published millions of words. How does he do it?
“When I decided to write a book, I determined to do something to slow myself down, to not write until I had thought things through. That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand, slowest of the various means of committing thoughts to paper, before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter; that is why I still do my first few drafts in longhand today; that is why, even now that typewriters have been replaced by computers, I still stick to my Smith-Corona Electra 210. And yet, even thus slowed down, I still, when I’m writing, set myself the goal of a minimum of a thousand words a day, and, as a chart I keep on my closet door attests, most days meet it.” (xii)
I love his advice about interviewing others:
“Silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it– as long as the person isn’t you, the interviewer. Two of fiction’s greatest interviewers– Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret and John le Carre’s George Smiley– have little devices they use to keep themselves from talking, and let silence do its work. Maigret cleans his ever-present pipe, tapping it gently on his desk and then scraping it out until the witness breaks down and talks. Smiley takes off his eyeglsses and polishes them with the thick end of his necktie. As for myself, I have less class. When I’m waiting for the person I’m interviewing to break a silence by giving me a piece of information I want, I write ‘SU’ (for Shut Up!) in my notebook. If anyone were ever to look through my notebooks, he would find a lot of ‘SUs’ there.” (137)
I was helped a bunch by Newport’s previous book Deep Work. It caused me to reevaluate how I structure my work week. As the title indicates, the main thrust of Newport’s newest book is this: the key to thriving in our high-tech world is to spend much less time using technology. “Less can be more in our relationship with digital tools.” (xv) Newport helped me reconsider how I use my iPhone. As a result my smartphone has been kind of a dumbphone for quite a while. No Internet, no social media. I use my phone the following activities: calls, texts, maps, and audio (music/podcasts/books). “Declaring freedom from your smartphone is probably the most serious step you can take toward embracing the attention resistance. This follows because smartphones are the preferred Trojan horse of the digital attention economy.” (246) This would be a fantastic book to pick up and read in January and prayerfully consider how 2020 might be a different kind of year, with more time spent with people and enjoying God’s creation, and less time staring at screens.
I preached through Exodus this year and we spent several weeks working through the Ten Commandments as a church. Thomas Watson was at my side all the way. I’ve said before that Watson is by far the most Tweetable of all the Puritans. His comments on the Ten Words didn’t disappoint. Here’s a snippet of his thoughts on the prologue to the Decalogue (Ex. 20:1-2):
“Great was the work of creation, but greater was the work of redemption. Great wisdom was seen in making us,—but more miraculous wisdom in saving us. Great power was seen in bringing us out of nothing,—but greater power in helping us when we were worse than nothing. It cost more to redeem us than to create us. In the creation there was but ‘speaking a word,’ (Ps. 148:5). In the redeeming us, there was shedding of blood (1 Pet. 1:19). The creation was the work of God’s fingers (Ps. 8:3); redemption was the work of His arm (Luke 1:5). In the creation, God gave us ourselves; in the redemption, He gave us Himself. By creation, we have a life in Adam; by redemption, we have a life in Christ (Col. 3:3). By creation, we had a right to an earthly paradise; by redemption, we have a title to an heavenly kingdom.” (96)
I’ll revisit this book again and again. Clear explains how habits form, how to kill bad habits, and how to cultivate good ones.
“All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.” (22)
Reading this book will help you read the Book. I’ve recently given away dozens of copies of this jewel to members of our church as a way of encouraging prayerful, faithful, careful, and joyful Bible reading in 2020.
“Until Jesus splits the skies in blazing glory and our faith becomes sight, we must live in the age of the ear as we await the age of the eye. So ‘for now,’ Augustine said sixteen centuries ago, ‘treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.’ And as Spurgeon put it, ‘To me the Bible is not God, but it is God’s voice, and I do not hear it without awe.’ Your Bible is a bottomless treasure chest of beauty and wonder, strength and joy. May you approach it for the rest of your days as if that’s true, because it is.” (79)
I was taught the ACTS model of prayer as a new believer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered how much of the Bible, especially the Psalms, speaks in the language of lament. One-third of the prayers in the Psalms are prayers of lament. After the loss of a stillborn daughter, Mark Vroegop and his wife found solace in these Scriptures. “The Bible gave voice to my pain and I discovered a minor-key language for my suffering: lament.” (17) Vroegop walks through several Psalms of lament (77, 10, 22, and 13) and provides examples of pastoral prayers of lament that serve as models for corporate prayer.
“Lament stands in the gap between pain and promise.” (26) “Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” (28)“Pain has a way of awakening us to our need for God’s help.” (60) “Hope springs from truth rehearsed.” (119) “Lament helps us interpret pain through the lens of God’s character and his ultimate mercy. The power of lament is the opportunity to express our sorrow we feel while also anchoring our hearts in the truth we believe.” (119) “Lament is the language of a people who know the whole story—the gospel story” (150).
This book is a helpful guide to voice our laments to the Lord until that glorious day comes when sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
One of the reasons to lament is because of the pervasiveness of child abuse in this fallen world. In The Creaking on the Stairs, Mez shares not only about the abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his own mother but he also powerfully shares the good news of Jesus Christ.
“I am conflicted even further when I think about my own family today, almost three decades after she beat me for the last time. My wife of 20 years lies next to me soundly sleeping. My teenage girls are in their rooms. Because of the scars of my childhood, they have never known violence in our home. Because of the horrors of my pain, they have never known cigarette burns on pale, skinny arms. Because of the nightmare of systematic abuse I faced, they have never spent endless lonely nights in locked cupboards without food and clothing. Because of my shame, they have never known the horrors of being stripped and mocked in front of drunken strangers. Because of my humiliations, they have never known hunger so deep they’ve been forced to eat their own faeces. Because of the extreme violence of my upbringing, they’ve never been beaten with poles and sticks. Because of the trauma of my childhood, they’ve never been knocked unconscious for failing to wash a dish properly. Ironically, because of ‘her’, my own children have never known the horrors of deeply psychological and traumatic abuse. Of course, there is another reason they have never known and experienced these things. They’ve never known these things because I know Jesus.”
Rosaria Butterfield puts it well: “This is the most disturbing book that I have ever read. And I cannot recommend it highly enough.”
No novel troubled me more in 2019 than this one. It’s a tragic story that is beyond sad. Lehane writes in the minor key but he makes it all sound so beautiful.
“When Garret Anderson blooped a dying sigh of a single into shallow right and ended Pedro’s bid for a no-hitter, any excitement that had been left in the 8-0 game floated out past the bleachers, and Dave found himself paying more attention to the lights and the fans and Anaheim Stadium itself than to the actual game. He watched the faces in the bleachers most—the disgust and defeated fatigue, the fans looking like they were taking the loss more personally than the guys in the dugout. And maybe they were. For some of them, Dave figured, this was the only game they’d attend this year. They’d brought the kids, the wife, walked out of their homes into the early California evening with coolers for the tailgate party and five thirty-dollar tickets so they could sit in the cheap seats and put twenty-five-dollar caps on their kids’ heads, eat six-dollar rat burgers and $4.50 hot dogs, watered-down Pepsi and sticky ice cream bars that melted into the hairs of their wrists. They came to be elated and uplifted, Dave knew, raised up out of their lives by the rare spectacle of victory. That’s why arenas and ballparks felt like cathedrals—buzzing with light and murmured prayers and forty thousand hearts all beating the drum of the same collective hope. Win for me. Win for my kids. Win for my marriage so I can carry your winning back to the car with me and sit in the glow of it with my family as we drive back toward our otherwise winless lives. Win for me. Win. Win. Win. But when the team lost, that collective hope crumbled into shards and any illusion of unity you’d felt with your fellow parishioners went with it. Your team had failed you and served only to remind you that usually when you tried, you lost. When you hoped, hope died. And you sat there in the debris of cellophane wrappers and popcorn and soft, soggy drink cups, dumped back into the numb wreckage of your life, facing a long dark walk back through a long dark parking lot with hordes of drunk, angry strangers, a silent wife tallying up your latest failure, and three cranky kids. All so you could get in your car and drive back to your home, the very place from which this cathedral had promised to transport you.” (50-51)
This book isn’t for the faint of heart. But Lehane shows in vivid relief more than any novel I’ve ever read the haunting and lasting effects of the abuse of authority, especially the abuse of a child.
“I will come home to you, Celeste. We will make that good life. We will. And then, I promise, no more lies. No more secrets. But I think I need to tell this one last lie, the worst lie of my lying life, because I can’t tell the worst truth of my life.” (365)
This was not only the best children’s book I read all year; it’s one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. How do you teach your children about the goodness of God when you walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death? You show them that just as the moon is always round, our God is always good. What a truth to believe and to pass along to our children.
I imagine most of the folks in our congregations, especially our young people, wouldn’t have a clue how to articulate the dangers of docetism, liberalism, modalism, Arianism, adoptionism, Apollinarianism, or Eutychianism. In fact, most pastors I know couldn’t explain all of these aberrant teachings and ancient Christological heresies. But I bet lots of us could say a thing or two about Superman, Batman, Ant-Man, Thor, Green Lantern, Hulk, and Spider-Man.
Enter Todd Miles. He used to be a nuclear scientist, but now he’s a theology professor at Western Seminary in Portland. He loves Jesus and His Word and he’s had a lifelong passion for comic books. In this book, he takes the superheroes that we know and uses them as a way of explaining false understandings of who Jesus is. It’s brilliant. It’s like Chalcedon meets Marvel.
“We all need and want a Savior– a hero who will deliver us. I believe this is why the superhero comics, movies, and television shows are so popular. There is something inside each one of us that years for a champion to rise up and deliver us.
Jesus is only able to do all the things that the Bible says He does because He is everything that the Bible says He is. The Bible testifies to the full humanity and full deity of Jesus. Jesus had to possess true and authentic human and divine natures in order to fulfill biblical prophecy, save a people for God, and then see that people through to the new heavens and new earth. No run-of-the-mill savior could do all that—not the greatest of real human heroes, not even the best creations of our most imaginative comic writers.
Unlike Superman, Jesus, the Son of God, did not just seem to be human. Jesus actually is human in every respect that it takes to be authentically human.
Unlike Batman, Jesus, the Son of Man, is more than a remarkable human. He is in fact fully God, sharing the divine essence equally and eternally with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Unlike Hank Pym, and his alter egos, Ant-Man, GiantMan, and Yellowjacket, God exists simultaneously as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the three coequal and coeternal members of the Trinity. Jesus could and did interact with both the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Unlike Thor, a god but inferior to his father, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not just a god. He is fully equal to God the Father. All that it takes to be God is found in the person of Jesus Christ.
Unlike Green Lantern, a mere man empowered by a ring, Jesus Christ is not a mere man empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus depended on the Holy Spirit throughout His life and ministry, but it was not because of anything He lacked in and of Himself. The Son possesses all the attributes of deity, fully and completely; He always has and always will.
Unlike Bruce Banner, who is overwhelmed by the Hulk upon transformation, Jesus Christ at all times possesses all that it takes to make Him authentically human, and His divine nature does not overwhelm or trivialize any of those essential human attributes.
And unlike Spider-Man, who is a bizarre combination of human and spider, Jesus Christ has a divine nature and a human nature, not a weird hybrid of the two. His humanity is not mixed into His deity.
Because Jesus Christ is all these things, we have found that He is able to reign as: King of kings, save us from sin, pioneer our resurrection, serve as our example and help in temptation, be our great High Priest, establish us as his coheirs, and much, much more.” (176-178)
Crouch seems unable to write a boring tale. His previous book was a mind-bender. His latest is a rip-roaring, sci-fi, time travel story. It’s a fun beach-read kind of a book and for me it was unputdownable.
The final novel I read in 2019 was one of the best. It reminded me of a short story by Stephen King entitled “The Body.” There are many unforgettable scenes, but my favorite took place at a funeral:
My father drove the Packard to the cemetery which was set on a hill on the east side of town. The hole was already dug and Gus was waiting and Sheriff Gregor was there though I didn’t know why and moments after we arrived Mr. van der Waal drove up in the hearse and my father and Gus and the sheriff and the mortician slid the coffin from the back. It was a simple box of pine planed and sanded smooth and it had no handles. The men lifted and carried it on their shoulders to the grave. They laid it on wooden two-by-fours that Gus had arranged across the opening along with canvas straps for the eventual lowering into the earth. Then the men stood back and I with them and my father opened his Bible.
It seemed to me a good day to be dead and by that I mean that if the dead cared no more about the worries they’d shouldered in life and could lie back and enjoy the best of what God had created it was a day for exactly such. The air was warm and still and the grass of the cemetery which Gus kept watered and clipped was soft green and the river that reflected the sky was a long ribbon of blue silk and I thought that when I died this was the place exactly I would want to lie and this was the scene that forever I would want to look upon. And I thought that it was strange that a resting place so kingly had been given to a man who had nothing and about whom we knew so little that even his name was a mystery. And though I didn’t know at all and still do not the truth of the arrangement, I suspected that it was somehow my father’s doing. My father and his great embracing heart.
He read the Twenty-Third Psalm and then he read from Romans ending with: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
He closed the book and said, “We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.”
My father led us in the Lord’s Prayer and we stood in silence for a few moments staring down at the simple coffin which was pale yellow against the black of the hole beneath. And then my father said something that amazed me. He said, “It’s a good day to be dead.” Which were almost the exact words I’d been thinking. And he said, “Let this man in this place of beauty rest forever in peace.” Which was also very nearly what I’d been thinking. (70-71)
James Thomson (1700–1748) has become one of my favorite poets but I’ve only read one of his poems. I spent the whole year, season by season, meandering slowly but surely through the 5,500 lines (!) of his epic poem about the seasons creatively entitled, “The Seasons.” It’s incredible. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Below you’ll find Thomson’s wonderful description of the One who is the Author of all seasons, the One who is the Lord of the summer, the One who is light Himself:
Now may the God of peace grant you perfect peace, and living hope, and glorious grace, and steadfast love with faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
“There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only shewing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.
I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from, and are nourished by, the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse was always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind.
I think I have known some Arminians—that is, persons who, for want of clearer light, have been afraid of receiving the doctrines of free grace—who yet have given evidence that their hearts were in a degree humbled before the Lord.
And I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility that they are willing in words to debase the creature, and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of.
Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit.
Self-righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace.
Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments.
Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress this wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify.
I hope your performance will savour of a spirit of true humility, and be a means of promoting it in others.”
“Although I know full well and hear every day that many people think little of me and say that I only write little pamphlets and sermons in German for the uneducated laity, I do not let that stop me. Would to God that in my lifetime I had, to my fullest ability, helped one layman to be better!
I would be quite satisfied, thank God, and quite willing then to let all my little books perish. Whether the making of many large books is an art and of benefit to Christendom, I leave for others to judge.
If we cannot all be writers, then we all want to be critics! I will most gladly leave to anybody else the glory of greater things. I will not be ashamed in the slightest to preach to the uneducated layman and write for him in German.
Although I may have little skill at it myself, it seems to me that if we had hitherto busied ourselves in this very task and were of a mind to do more of it in the future, Christendom would have reaped no small advantage and would have been more benefitted by this than by those heavy, weighty tomes which are only handled in the schools among learned schoolmen.
Furthermore, I have never forced anyone or begged him to listen to me or read my sermons. I have served the church unstintingly with that which God gave me. This is my duty.
If anybody so chooses, he is free to read others and listen to them. If people do not want to read my books or hear my sermons, that does not matter very much.
As far as I am concerned it is quite enough, really more than enough, that some laymen—and those the most distinguished—are humble enough to read my sermons. And if nothing else motivated me, this would be more than sufficient.”
The best book I read in 2018 is this brilliant cornucopia of essays covering theological topics, historical figures, and spiritual issues. Imagine if you could take a course on pastoral ministry from Sinclair Ferguson. The substance of that class would be the bulk of this book. Ferguson issues a challenge to busy pastors right at the outset:
“Many—probably most—of these chapters were written in the context of busy pastoral ministry, either in Scotland or in the United States—preaching, teaching, pastoral visiting, personal meetings, crises in the lives of individuals and sometimes the whole church, administrative responsibilities, and the wide and wonderful variety of activities that make up the average ministers life. And since virtually all the essays were written by request, their writing has been squeezed into, or out of, an occasional hiatus in the sheer busy-ness of ministry life and the constant preparation involved in preaching anywhere between three and six times in the week.” (xii-xiii)
I am eternally grateful that Sinclair Ferguson took the time to write such edifying material for others. Over the years, I may have read and reread “The Preacher’s Decalogue” (chapter 39) twenty-five times or so. He calls these chapters “some of the leftovers from the abundance of good food the Lord has given us in His Word,” (xv). I call them a feast for the hungry soul.
This book is a worshipfully written, biblical-theological, gold mine of Christology that will help you treasure more dearly God’s own dear Son:
“Because our plight is so desperate, due to sin, the only person who can save us is God’s own dear Son. It is only as the Son incarnate that our Lord can represent us; it is only as the Son incarnate that He can put away our sin, stand in our place, and turn away God’s wrath by bearing our sin. Only Jesus can satisfy God’s own righteous requirements, because He is one with the Lord as God the Son; only Jesus can do this for us because He is truly a man and can represent us.” (442-443)
Gibson and Earngey retrieve Protestant liturgies from the past for their use in the present. This volume includes entire orders of service from Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Knox, Ursinus, the Puritans, and others. Gibson pens an incredible opening chapter entitled “Worship: On Earth as It Is in Heaven“:
“Worship is the right, fitting, and delightful response of moral beings—angelic and human—to God the Creator, Redeemer, and Consummator, for who He is as one eternal God in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— and for what He has done in creation and redemption, and for what He will do in the coming consummation, to whom be all praise and glory, now and forever, world without end. Amen.” (2)
If you are responsible for planning the corporate worship services of your local church, you will be greatly served by mining the treasures of this book.
Reading great works of literature can cultivate a desire for the good life, a life of virtue and excellence, because “reading literature, more than informing, forms us” (22). Here’s what I wrote in my TGC review:
“On Reading Well is exquisitely written and will appeal immediately to a certain kind of reader: the kind who reads a book review about a book about the virtues embodied in reading books; the kind of reader who finds it impossible to pass by a used bookstore without slipping inside in search of a story that will stir a homesick hope within; the kind of reader who, like David Copperfield, reads “as if for life” itself (59); the kind of reader who joyfully affirms with C. S. Lewis, “My own eyes are not enough for me; I will see through those of others” (140).
But even if you’re not yet that kind of reader, Prior beckons you to become one. You won’t find a scolding tone or any long list of books you simply must read before you die. Instead, acting as the English professor we all wish we had in school, she humbly kindles a desire in you to leave her own book behind and reach for that daunting work of literature you’ve never quite finished and was never quite finished with you. I suspect this was one of Prior’s goals all along.”
We were plunged into the abyss of sin by the disobedience of the first Adam. Our salvation rests upon the obedience of the last Adam, who humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. “Jesus never erred in any way, remaining faithful throughout His life, demonstrating His faithfulness all the way to Jerusalem and His enthronement upon a Roman cross.” (207) This careful study helped me marvel at how Jesus lived for us and for our great salvation.
I did more funerals than weddings this year, and so I’ve been thinking a lot about death recently. Matt McCullough is a godly pastor and an outstanding writer. He shepherds his readers through a topic most of us try desperately to avoid. But as he puts it: “So long as death remains someone else’s problem, Jesus will remain someone else’s Savior.” (59) McCullough’s sober meditation cultivated a “death-awareness” in me and helped me see how “facing up to the truth about death can lead us to a deeper hope in life.” (173)
Speaking of death, Ecclesiastes tells us “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” (3:1-2) Gibson has written an outstanding exploration of this challenging OT book. Here’s the key paragraph:
“Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain—our death—and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end. It is the destination that makes sense of the journey. If we know for sure where we are heading, then we can know for sure what we need to do before we get there. Ecclesiastes invites us to let the end sculpt our priorities and goals, our greatest ambitions and our strongest desires. I want to persuade you that only if you prepare to die can you really learn how to live.” (12)
This book is Charles SpurgeonplusMichael Reeves. Honestly, that’s really all you need to know. I’m unsure if Reeves has read all 18 million words that Spurgeon published in his lifetime. But I do know that he accomplishes his expressed aim in this book: “I generally find reading Spurgeon himself like breathing in great lungfuls of mountain air: he is bracing, refreshing, and rousing. I want, therefore, to try to make myself scarce and let Spurgeon leap at readers himself.” (17) The Prince of Preachers indeed leaps off every page, and that’s a fabulous thing.
This monograph is one of the most edifying and God-glorifying works I read this entire year. There are wonderful systematic and biblical-theological insights found throughout. The author’s aim is “to explore and develop a theology of beauty based on God’s plan in Christ. Thus the nature of beauty, as defined by the divine economy of redemption, which sums all things up in Jesus Christ (Eph 1:10), is pursued in a specifically biblical and systematic way from beginning to end.” (1)
King makes a compelling case both from biblical evidence and theological warrant that beauty properly should be considered a perfection of the divine nature. The author draws together bright threads of beauty from Scripture and from the writings of Irenaeus, Augustine, Calvin, Balthasar, Bavinck, Edwards, and others, to fashion a glorious “theodramatic” tapestry of redemption. If you read this book carefully and prayerfully, I trust that your eyes too will ‘behold the King in His beauty.’ I’m looking forward to reading King’s next book project, provocatively titled God’s Oikosystem: The Roles that Holy Angels and Fallen Angels Play in God’s Eternal Plan for Humans.
I know of no finer biography of the great Bishop of Liverpool than this one. It’s what I’ve come to expect from Murray: clearly written, theologically astute, and resolutely wise. I’m writing this from my home study where my bookshelves are brimming with works published by the Banner of Truth. I’m forever grateful to the Lord for providentially using Murray to co-found the Banner on July 22, 1957, while he served as an assistant to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel in London. I actually got the idea to begin this blog in 2003 from an offhand comment Murray made during an interview with Mark Dever in 2002.
Chilling with Iain and Jean at Cracker Barrel
After his funeral, J.C. Ryle’s successor referred to him as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” (213) That also seems to me to be an apt description of Iain H. Murray.
John Calvin observed an unbreakable link between prayer and the gospel: “Just as faith is born from the gospel, so through it our hearts are trained to call upon God’s name.” (Institutes, 3.20.1-3) This connection between prayer and gospel is explored in this outstanding NSBT volume. Millar argues convincingly that “calling on the name of the Lord” is to be primarily understood throughout the Scriptures as asking God to come through on what He has already promised:
“I can find five prayers in the New Testament encourages us to believe God will always come through on: He will always answer our prayers when we ask Him to do His new covenant work through His Word by the Spirit. And what does that look like? Here is a summary of the ‘no brainer’ prayers we should pray for as individuals and communities, because God has already guaranteed to answer:
-when we pray for forgiveness (1 John 5:19);
-when we pray to know God better (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:18-19);
-when we pray for wisdom (James 1:5-6);
-when we pray for strength to obey/love/live for God (Eph. 1:15-22; 3:14-15);
-when we pray for the spread of the gospel (Luke 10:2; Acts 5; Col. 4)” (239)
This wonderful little book, written by a dear brother, is packed full of glorious wisdom for making prayer central to the life of your church:
“It’s so much easier to read about prayer than to actually pray.” (16)
“Prayer is oxygen for the Christian. It sustains us. It is to the church what it is to individuals—breathing. Yet many of our gatherings could be likened to people coming together merely to hold their collective breath. This would explain why people seem to have so little energy for actually living out the Christian life.” (23)
“The local church is the best way to define the ‘us’ in our prayers.” (62)
“Jesus stared death square in the face, knowing his fate was inescapable. How did he face it? On his knees in prayer.” (70)
“We’ll always lack peace when we judge God’s love for us by how many of our prayers are answered with a ‘yes.’ False hope is the most fertile soil for a crop of discontentment.” (72)
“Jesus’s faithfulness to do God’s task is directly tied to his prayer. The disciples’ faithlessness is directly tied to their prayerlessness.” (75)
“A church that practices prayer is more than a church that learns; it’s also a church that leans. We learn dependence by leaning on God together.” (92)
“Let the temptation to worry serve as the divine alarm clock reminding you it’s time to pray.” (125)
“The power of our prayers isn’t found in the number of people praying, but the willingness of the One to whom we’re praying.” (126)
Lemuel Haynes (1753-1833) was the first African-American ordained by any religious body in America. He was a veteran of the American Revolution and was a powerful preacher, influenced greatly by the works of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Unfortunately, his collected writings remain difficult to find. I was only able to access them via InterLibrary Loan. Here’s a taste:
“The godly preacher will not be ambitious of saying fine things to win applause, but of saying useful things to win souls. He will consider that he has the weak as well as the strong, children as well as adults to speak to, and that he must be accountable for the blood of their souls if they perish through his neglect. This will influence him to study plainness more than politeness.
Such a preacher will not come into the pulpit as an actor comes to the stage to display his talents, but as one who feels the weight of eternal things. Oh! With what zeal and fervor will he speak! How will death, judgment, and eternity appear as it were in every feature, and every word!
Out of the abundance of his heart, his mouth will speak. He will study and preach with reference to a judgment to come, and deliver every sermon in some respects, as if it were his last, not knowing when his Lord will call him or his hearers to account.” (50-51)
One can really never read too much Wodehouse. So it’s a good thing there are 99 volumes in his collected works. Here’s a sampling from the rip-roaring volume, Very Good, Jeeves!:
“When it is a question of a pal being in the soup, we Woosters no longer think of self; and that poor old Bingo was knee-deep in the bisque was made plain by his mere appearance– which was that of a cat which has just been struck by a half-brick and is expecting another shortly.” (22-23)
“Bingo uttered a stricken woofle like a bull-dog that has been refused cake.” (25)
“Young Bingo, you see, is one of those fellows who, once their fingers close over the handle of a tennis racket, fall into a sort of trance in which nothing outside the radius of the lawn exists for them. If you came up to Bingo in the middle of a set and told him that panthers were devouring his best friend in the kitchen garden, he would look at you and say, ‘Oh, ah?’ or words to that effect.” (26)
“Never give in. Perseverance brings home the gravy.” (59)
“As Shakespeare says, if you’re going to do a thing you might just as well pop right at it and get it over.” (63)
“Tuppy has one of those high, squeaky voices that sound like the tenor of the village choir failing to hit a high note. This voice, however, was something in between the last Trumpet and a tiger calling for breakfast after being on a diet for a day or two.” (76)
“His eyebrows seemed to pierce me like a knife.” (78)
“Reason was beginning to do a bit of tottering on its throne.” (111)
“You know, whatever you may say against old Jeeves– you’ve got to admit that the man can plan a campaign. Naopoleon could have taken his correspondence course.” (126-127)
“The voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number.” (160)
My favorite novel of the year tells the heart-wrenching tale of an eleven-year-old slave named Washington Black. “Wash” escapes from a Barbados sugar plantation with the help of Titch, his master’s brother, who also happens to be a naturalist, explorer, inventor, and abolitionist. Their worldwide adventures begin with a frightful flight and daring getaway in an experimental hot-air balloon. Edugyan is quite the wordsmith. Here’s proof:
A wind was blowing; the Cloud-cutter roared, creaked, leaning into its ropes. The wind was warm, unpleasant, with the scent of iron and rain in it. I watched Titch’s dark figure move to adjust the canister of gas in the blackness, grunting and cursing softly. The canopy hung high above me, a scorch against the lighter sky.
Titch called to me urgently, and I clambered into the wicker-and-wood gondola, its oars stretching like antennae into the sky, its four odd wings creaking like rudders in the wind. How terrifying it all looked, in the dark; a great hot fear of death went through me. As Titch was double-checking the bolts and knots, he paused to give me a strange, quiet look. But I said nothing, and he said nothing, an in silence he turned back to his preparations.
“Well, Wash,” he said at last.
“Well,” I said, terrified.
Then, without another word, he adjusted the canister. A higher column of fire surged upwards into the canopy, and the fabric began to shudder and shake. The shaking was terrible. My teeth rattled in my skull. I stared in fascinated terror at the broad black mouth sucking up fire.
The air stank of char and smoke, of burning oil. Finally Titch leaned over and severed each rope in its turn. All around me I could hear the hissing of the grass as the wicker basket was dragged across it– a vicious, final sound.
In the half-light I could just make out the hollows of Titch’s face, his eyes blacked out, only the white shards of his teeth distinct and visible. I felt a give in my belly; I clutched at the oars of the Cloud-cutter in dread. The air around us began to howl; the sky rushed towards us. We were rising.
I can barely describe the sight of it. I saw the threatening sky below, a great red crack of light, like a monstrous eye just opening. The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.
What did I feel? What would anyone feel, in such a place? My chest ached with anguish and wonder, an astonishment that went on and on, and I could not catch my breath. The Cloud-cutter spun, turned gradually faster, rising ever higher. I began to cry– deep, silent, racking sobs, my face turned away from Titch, staring out onto the boundlessness of the world. The air grew colder, crept in webs across my skin. All was shadow, red light, storm-fire and frenzy. And up we went into the eye of it, untouched, miraculous. (130-131)
This is a charming story about a Russian count sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal to spend the rest of his life in Moscow’s Metropolis Hotel. The Count loses much of his earthly possessions, and yet this doesn’t rob him of his irrepressible joy. A life without luxury can be the richest of all. I was reminded that even something like a simple breakfast and freshly brewed coffee should cause me to pause and give thanks to the Lord, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy:
“Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov stirred at half past eight to the sound of rain on the eaves. With a half-opened eye, he pulled back his covers and climbed from bed. He donned his robe and slipped on his slippers. He took up the tin from the bureau, spooned a spoonful of beans into the apparatus, and began to crank the crank.
Even as he turned the little handle round and round, the room remained under the tenuous authority of sleep. As yet unchallenged, somnolence continued to cast its shadow over sights and sensations, over forms and formulations, over what has been said and what must be done, lending each the insubstantiality of its domain. But when the Count opened the small wooden drawer of the grinder, the world and all it contained were transformed by that envy of the alchemists—the aroma of freshly ground coffee.
In that instant, darkness was separated from light, the waters from the lands, and the heavens from the earth. The trees bore fruit and the woods rustled with the movement of birds and beasts and all manner of creeping things. While closer at hand, a patient pigeon scuffed its feet on the flashing.
Easing the little drawer from the apparatus, the Count poured its contents into the pot (which he had mindfully primed with water the night before). He lit the burner and shook out the match. As he waited for the coffee to brew, he did thirty squats and thirty stretches and took thirty deep breaths. From the little cupboard in the corner, he took a small pitcher of cream, a pair of English biscuits, and a piece of fruit (today an apple). Then having poured the coffee, he began to enjoy the morning’s sensations to their fullest:
The crisp tartness of the apple, the hot bitterness of the coffee, the savory sweetness of the biscuit with its hint of butter… So perfect was the combination that upon finishing, the Count was tempted to crank the crank, quarter the apple, dole out the biscuits, and enjoy his breakfast all over again.” (171-172)
Murat Halstead, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial, penned the following scathing indictment of Ulysses S. Grant: “He is a poor drunken imbecile and hopelessly foolish.” Grant did indeed battle alcohol abuse much of his life. But Ron Chernow’s magisterial biography reveals many commendable and inspiring aspects of the man who rose from Union General to the nation’s Commander in Chief. One of my favorite scenes occurred as Grant marched triumphantly towards Vicksburg:
“In less than three weeks, Grant had traversed 130 miles on foot and handily won five consecutive battles in a bravura campaign that would be enshrined in military textbooks. He had shown true virtuosity in spontaneously coordinating many moving parts and adapting to shifting enemy positions. With the Army of the Tennessee, he had created the mobile, lightning-quick army for which Lincoln yearned in contrast to the hidebound eastern forces. As Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay exclaimed, ‘The praise of our western soldiers is on every lip, Illinois valor particularly receiving as it properly should, large honor.’ Contrary to his image of securing victories at heavy cost, Grant had sacrificed 4,300 men versus 7,200 for the Confederates, even though he had tackled a combined Confederate force at Vicksburg, Grand Gulf, and Jackson of more than 60,000 men, much larger than the 43,000 he transferred across the Mississippi. ‘Grant is now deservedly the hero,’ Sherman proclaimed. ‘He is now belabored with praise by those who a month ago accused him of all the sins in the calendar.’ One journalist traveling with Grant’s army summed up his new stature: ‘Nothing like this campaign has occurred during this war. It stamps Gen. Grant as a man of uncommon military ability—proves him the foremost one in the west; if not in the nation.’ The New York Times, noting that Grant had captured fifty guns and six thousand prisoners, stressed that this whirlwind operation had been accomplished ‘in a foreign climate, under a tropical sun ablaze with the white heat of summer, with only such supplies as could be gleaned from the country.’ As Grant’s columns strode confidently toward Vicksburg, scenes of ecstatic jubilation greeted them as they passed abandoned plantations and were applauded by former slaves. One ex-slave, seated on a lawn, rocking back and forth in joy, kept shouting, ‘Glory, hallelujah, glory, hallelujah… Bless God, bless God. I never spected to see dis day.'” (266-267)
In the book’s last chapter, we encounter Grant spending his final days dying of cancer. Having been swindled by a family friend, Grant was desperate to provide for his family. Despite being racked with excruciating pain, Grant persevered and penned what is widely viewed as a masterpiece, the foremost military memoir in the English language. It was an immediate best-seller. After his death, Grant’s widow received $450,000 in royalties. In his final battle, General Grant once again emerged victorious.
I’d never read anything about Stalin but after watching this lecture by Kotkin, I decided to take the plunge. I learned a bunch. Who was Joseph Stalin? He was a human being, a revolutionary, a dictator, a fearsome contriver of class warfare, a creator of great power, a magnetic leader, and a destroyer of tens of millions of lives.
“Murderous and mendacious do not begin to describe the person readers will encounter in this volume. At the same time, Stalin galvanized millions. His colossal authority was rooted in a dedicated faction, which he forged, a formidable apparatus, which he built, and Marxist-Leninist ideology, which he helped synthesize. But his power was magnified many times over by ordinary people, who projected onto him their soaring ambitions for justice, peace, and abundance, as well as national greatness. (8)
During Stalin’s 30-year rule, the most terrible crimes became morally imperative acts in the name of creating paradise on earth. Kotkin’s section covering the Great Terror, the purge led by Stalin, was horrifying.
“Throughout 1937 and 1938, there were on average nearly 2,200 arrests and more than 1,000 executions per day.” (437)
I’m looking forward to Kotkin’s third volume on Stalin that will pick up the story in 1942.
Have you ever heard of Robert Moses? I had not. But Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Moses makes plain just how he became America’s greatest builder and the single most powerful man of our age in the City and in the State of New York. But more than an enthralling biography, Caro also eloquently explores the dangers, the temptations, and the acquisition of absolute power.
Power can be abused at a national level (see Joseph Stalin), and at a city/state level (see Robert Moses). But power can also be tragically abused in a single home, in one family. Tara Westover tells her heart-breaking story of overcoming the lasting effects of growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.” (199) Many parts of this book were hard to read, but I was thankful I made it to the end.
Faith, unbelief, God, atheism, love, lust, hatred, desire, life, and death. This riveting novel has it all. I couldn’t put it down. I read it twice. Then I came across this audiobook recording by Colin Firth, and I spent six hours listening to this story again. Searching and superb.
A lush and lyrical story that blends together elements of the creation and fall narratives of Genesis, paganism, pantheism, a Greek tragedy, a tree of life, and, of course, California. This is a strange and haunting book and I was mesmerized by it.
“When his eyes cleared from the lantern light he saw that the night was sharper. The mountain flanks, rounded and flesh-like, stood out softly in shallow perspective and a deep purple essence hung on their outlines. All of the night, the hills, the black hummocks of the trees were as soft and friendly as an embrace. But straight ahead, the black arrow-headed pines cut into the sky. The night was ageing toward dawn, the leaves and grasses whispered and sighed under the fresh morning wind. Whistle of ducks’ wings sounded overhead, where an invisible squadron started over-early for the south. And the great owls swung restlessly through the air at the last of the night’s hunting. The wind brought a pine smell down from the hills, and the penetrating odour of and the pleasant bouquet of a skunk’s anger, smelling, since it was far away, like azaleas. Joseph nearly forgot his mission, for the hills reached out tender arms to him and the mountains were as gentle and insistent as a loving woman who is half asleep. The sharp pines lengthened and pierced higher and higher into the sky.” (88-89)
In 2013, I read a crazy story in National Geographic about a legendary storm chaser named Tim Samaras, and the infamous El Reno tornado, the widest tornado in recorded history. I remember thinking, “Someone should write a book about that guy.” Brantley Hargrove has not only written a poignant tribute to Samaras, but he’s also penned an unputdownable classic. (And this is Hargrove’s debut book!) If you liked Into Thin Air or The Perfect Storm, you’ll dig this book.
The subtitle of this book says it all: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Here’s my best attempt at a run-on sentence blurb: A 20-year-old American dude who plays the flute at London’s Royal Academy of Music and who is obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying, rides a train to the Tring museum, breaks in, and proceeds to steal thousands of priceless rare bird feathers, and then escapes into the darkness. What could possibly go wrong? A rip-roaring story.
My Dad introduced me to the stories of Tom Clancy. I read most of the Jack Ryan books 20 years ago but hadn’t picked one up again until this year. I was digging through the fiction shelves at a used bookstore near Capitol Hill, and I saw an inexpensive hardback first edition of The Hunt of Red October. It’s hard to believe that a book written in 1984 featuring nuclear submarine warfare would still hold up to rereading decades later. But it does, with flying colors. I agree with the Gipper. “It’s my kind of yarn.”
John McPhee has written a variety of fascinating long-form stories for The New Yorker over the years. Several of these have been made into books, two of which I read this year. One tells the story of Ted Taylor, a theoretical physicist, who conceived and designed the largest-yield fission bomb ever exploded by any nation in the world. The other McPhee book I devoured was a book about oranges. That’s right. An entire book about oranges! I enjoy eating oranges and find orange juice delicious but I’d never thought much about the history of oranges. McPhee has a forensic eye for detail and this book didn’t disappoint:
“The custom of drinking orange juice with breakfast is not very widespread, taking the world as a whole, and it is thought by many peoples to be a distinctly American habit. But many Danes drink it regularly with breakfast, and so do Hondurans, Filipinos, Jamaicans, and the wealthier citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. The day is started with orange juice in the Colombian Andes, and, to some extent, in Kuwait. Bolivians don’t touch it at breakfast time, but they drink it steadily for the rest of the day. The ‘play lunch’, or morning tea, that Australian children carry with them to school is usually an orange, peeled spirally halfway down, with the peel replaced around the fruit. The child unwinds the peel and holds the orange as if it were an ice-cream cone. People in Nepal almost never peel oranges, preferring to eat them in cut quarters, the way American athletes do. The sour oranges of Afghanistan customarily appear as seasoning agents on Afghan dinner tables. Squeezed over Afghan food, they cut the grease. The Shamouti Orange, of Israel, is seedless and sweet, has a thick skin, and grows in Hadera, Gaza, Tiberias, Jericho, the Jordan Valley, and Jaffa; it is exported from Jaffa, and for that reason is known universally beyond Israel as the Jaffa Orange. The Jaffa Orange is a variety that British people consider superior others, possibly because Richard the Lionhearted spent the winter of 1191-92 in the citrus groves of Jaffa. Citrus trees are spread across the North African coast from Alexandria to Tangier, the city whose name was given to tangerines. Oranges tend to become less tart the closer they are grown to the equator, and in Brazil there is one kind of orange that has virtually no acid in it at all. In the principal towns of Trinidad and Tobago, oranges are sold on street corners. The vender cuts them in half and sprinkles salt on them. In Jamaica, people halve oranges, get down on their hands and knees, and clean floors with one half in each hand. Jamaican mechanics use oranges to clear away grease and oil. The blood orange of Spain, its flesh streaked with red, is prized throughout Europe. Blood oranges grow well in Florida, but they frighten American women. Spain has about thirty-five million orange trees, grows six billion oranges a year, and exports more oranges than any other country, including the United States. A Frenchman sits at the dinner table, as the finishing flourish of the meal, slowly and gently disrobes an orange. In France, peeling the fruit is not yet considered an inconvenience. French preferences run to the blood oranges and the Thomson Navels of Spain, and to the thick-skinned, bland Maltaises, which the French import not from Malta but from Tunisia. Sometimes, Europeans eat oranges with knives and forks. On occasion, they serve a dessert orange that has previously been peeled with such extraordinary care that strips of the peel arc outward like the petals of a flower from the separated and reassembled segments in the centre. The Swiss sometimes serve oranges under a smothering of sugar and whipped cream; on a hot day in a Swiss garden, orange juice with ice is a luxurious drink. Norwegian children like to remove the top of an orange, make a little hole, push a lump of sugar into it, and then suck out the juice. English children make orange-peel teeth and wedge them over their gums on Halloween. Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and at the people on the screen. In Reykjavik, Iceland, in greenhouses that are heated by volcanic springs, orange trees yearly bear fruit. In the New York Botanical Garden, six mature orange trees are growing in the soil of the Bronx. Their trunks are six inches in diameter, and they bear well every year. The oranges are for viewing and are not supposed to be picked. When people walk past them, however, they sometimes find them irresistible.” (3-5)
I found this book irresistible and I’ll never look at an orange the same way again.
Every month I spend time reading from my personal Canon of Theologians. In July, I always hang out with Jonathan Edwards. This year I slowly reread his exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, where he scatters jewels throughout. In his sermon on “Love does not envy,” (13:4) Edwards writes:
“The gospel scheme, all of it from beginning to end, tends to the contrary of this spirit of envy. For there we are taught how far God was from grudging us the most exceeding honor and blessedness, and how He has grudged us nothing as too much to be done for us, and nothing as too great and too good to be given us.
He hath not grudged us His only begotten Son, that which was most precious and most dear of all to Himself. For what was dearer to God than His only begotten, dearly beloved Son? He hath not grudged us the highest honor and blessedness in union with Him.
The doctrines of the gospel teach us how far Jesus Christ was from grudging us anything which He could do for or give to us. He did not grudge us a life spent in labor and suffering. He did not grudge us His own precious blood.
He hath not grudged us a sitting with Him on His throne in heaven, and being partakers with Him of that heavenly kingdom and glory which the Father hath given Him, and sitting with Him on thrones judging the world.” (224)
This is an excellent introduction to Biblical theology that will help you see how the full story of Scripture reveals the full glory of Christ. “As the radiance of God’s glory, Jesus is our great prophet. As the purification for our sins, He is our Great High Priest. As the one who sat down at God’s right hand, He is our King.” (211) Amen.
The latest book from Rosaria Butterfield unpacks “radically ordinary hospitality.” I found it to be both encouragingly hopeful and devastatingly convicting. But don’t just take my word for it. Read the first twenty pages for yourself.
“Jesus dined with sinners, but He didn’t sin with sinners. Jesus lived in the world, but He didn’t live like the world. This is the Jesus paradox. And it defines those who are willing to suffer with others for the sake of gospel sharing and gospel living, those who care more for integrity than appearances. Engaging in radically ordinary hospitality means we provide the time necessary to build strong relationships with people who think differently than we do as well as build strong relationships from within the family of God. It means we know that only hypocrites and cowards let their words be stronger than their relationships, making sneaky raids into culture on social media or behaving like moralizing social prigs in the neighborhood. Radically ordinary hospitality shows this skeptical, post-Christian world what authentic Christianity looks like. Radically ordinary hospitality gives evidence of faith in Jesus’s power to save. It doesn’t get dug in over politics or culture or where someone stands on current events. It knows what conversion means, what identity in Christ does, and what repentance creates. It knows that sin is deceptive. To be deceived means to be taken captive by an evil force to do its bidding. It knows that people need to be rescued from their sin, not to be given pep talks about good choice making. It remembers that Jesus rescues people from their sin. Jesus rescued us. Jesus lives and reigns.” (13)
If you ever get the hankering to read this classic epic, you’ll want to read Emily Wilson’s exquisite translation. “Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home… Tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” (105) My favorite line in the book: “My life is thin with weakness.” (195)
Two years ago I listened to a fascinating interview on NPR with Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Terry Gross asked Walker, “What are we losing when we deprive ourselves of sleep?” I still remember his six-word response: “Short sleep predicts a shorter life.” Walker argues that “our lack of sleep is a slow form of self-euthanasia.” (324) Yikes! Did you know that caffeine is the second most-traded commodity on the planet after oil? I didn’t. I found the really fascinating stuff in this book to be chapters 9, 10, and 11, on how and why human beings dream. Reading this book made me thankful for the gift of sleep and eager to trust the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps.
Michelle McNamara was a true crime journalist who spent years in a tireless quest to unmask the identity of a notoriously violent predator, the “Golden State Killer.” Tragically, she died in 2016 before she could complete the final edits to her book. But what’s even more incredible is what happened in April 2018. Detectives, using DNA evidence, believe they have finally solved the case. You can listen to how investigators chased down the clues in a recent audiobook,Evil Has A Name.The diligent pursuit of justice displayed by McNamara and the detectives is awe-inspiring.
How can you not devour a book that starts like this?
“Three astronauts are strapped into a small spacecraft thirty-six stories in the air, awaiting the final moments of countdown. They sit atop the most powerful machine ever built. The Saturn V rocket is a jewel of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a vehicle that will generate the energy of a small atomic bomb. But it has never flown with men aboard, and it has had just two tests, the most recent of which failed catastrophically just eight months earlier. The three astronauts are going not merely into Earth orbit, or even beyond the world altitude record of 853 miles. They intend to go a quarter of a million miles away, to a place no man has ever gone. They intend to go to the Moon. Beneath them, the United States is fracturing. The year 1968 has seen killing, war, protest, and political unrest unlike any in the country’s history, from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy to the unraveling of Vietnam to the riots in Chicago. Already, Time magazine has named THE DISSENTER its Man of the Year. As the countdown begins, there are engineers and scientists at NASA who question whether the crew will ever return. Even the astronauts are realistic about their chances of surviving the flight, an operation riskier than anything the American space agency has ever attempted. One of them has recorded a final goodbye to his wife, to be played in the event he doesn’t return. In August, this mission did not exist. Nearly everything that has gone into its planning—the training, analysis, calculations, even the politics—has been rushed to the launchpad in a fraction of the time ordinarily required. If anything goes wrong, public opinion—and the will of the United States government—might turn against NASA. The fate of the entire space program hangs on the crew’s safe return. As the moment of launch draws near, one of the astronauts spots a mud dauber wasp building a nest on the outside of one of the spacecraft’s tiny windows. Back and forth the insect moves, grabbing mud and adding to its new home. The astronaut thinks, ‘You are in for a surprise.’ Vapors begin to spew from around the base of the giant rocket. Less than a minute remains before lift-off. When the five first-stage engines ignite, they will deliver a combined 160 million horsepower. In the final few seconds, a typhoon of flames unfurls to either side. Beneath the astronauts, it is not just the launchpad that begins to shake, but the entire world.” (3-4)
In 1756, Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped from his home in Nigeria and sold into slavery. Years later, after many dangers, toils, and snares, Olaudah would write these amazing words, as a free man, a man set free from his sins by amazing grace:
“In the evening of October 6th, as I was reading and meditating on the fourth chapter of Acts, the twelfth verse, I had solemn apprehensions of eternity. But the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with His bright beams of heavenly light. And in an instant, He removed the veil, and I saw clearly with the eye of faith the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross: the Scriptures became an unsealed book. I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law of God, but I also saw the Lord Jesus Christ in His humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, my sin, and my shame. Christ was revealed to my soul as the chiefest among ten thousand. I felt an astonishing change; the burden of sin, the gaping jaws of hell, and the fears of death, that weighed me down before, now lost their horror. Every providential circumstance that happened to me, from the day I was taken from my parents to that hour, was then in my view. I was sensible of the invisible hand of God, which guided and protected me when I didn’t know the truth. Still the Lord pursued me and His mercy melted me down. I was finally enabled to praise and glorify God’s most holy name. There is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, but Jesus Christ.’ What a Saviour I have! What a great debtor I am to sovereign free grace.” (310-311)
Masaji Ishikawa was born in 1947. His father was a Korean national residing in Japan. His mother was Japanese. In 1960, when he was thirteen years old, his family moved to the “promised land” of North Korea. In 1996, he made a desperate bid to escape. In this book, he tells his unforgettable story.
“What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever. But I’ll tell you what I do recall. It’s drizzling. But soon the drizzle turns to torrential rain. Sheets of rain so heavy, I’m soaked to the skin. I collapse under the shelter of a bush, utterly incapable of measuring the passage of time. I am weary to the core. My legs have sunk into the mud, but somehow I crawl out from under the bush. Between the branches, I can see the Yalu River in front of me. But it’s changed—now totally unrecognizable. This morning, kids were wading in what was little more than a stream. But the cascading downpour has turned it into an impassable torrent. Across the river, about thirty yards away, I can make out China, shrouded in mist. Thirty yards—the distance between life and death. I shiver. I know that countless North Koreans have stood here before me, gazing across at China under the cover of darkness, memories of the people they’ve just left behind swirling through their minds. Those people, like the ones I’ve left, were starving. What else could they do? I stare into the torrent and wonder how many of them succeeded. Then again, what difference does it make? If I remain in North Korea, I’ll die of starvation. It’s as simple as that.” (1-2)
Macfarlane is a Cambridge literature professor who loves to walk. He’s also an amazing writer. Here’s what it’s like to stroll through Cambridge on a wintry, moon-lit evening:
“Two days short of the winter solstice; the turn of the year’s tide. All that cold day, the city and the countryside around felt halted, paused. Five degrees below freezing and the earth battened down. Clouds held snow that would not fall. Out in the suburbs the schools were closed, people homebound, the pavements rinky and the roads black-iced. The sun ran a shallow arc across the sky. Then just before dusk the snow came — dropping straight for five hours and settling at a steady inch an hour.
I was at my desk that evening, trying to work but distracted by the weather. I kept stopping, standing, looking out of the window. The snow was sinking through the orange cone cast by a street light, the fat flakes showing like furnace sparks.
Around eight o’clock the snow ceased. An hour later I went for a walk with a flask of whisky to keep me warm. I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out. A few undrawn curtains: family evenings underway, the flicker and burble of television sets. The cold like a wire in the nose. A slew of stars, the moon flooding everything with silver.
At the southerly fringe of the suburb, a last lamp post stands by a hawthorn hedge, and next to it is a hole in the hedge which leads down to a modest field path.
I followed the field path east-south-east towards a long chalk hilltop, visible as a whaleback in the darkness. Northwards was the glow of the city, and the red blip of aircraft warning lights from towers and cranes. Dry snow squeaked underfoot. A fox crossed the field to my west at a trot. The moonlight was so bright that everything cast a crisp moon-shadow: black on white, stark as woodcut. Wands of dogwood made zebra-hide of the path; hawthorn threw a lattice. The trees were frilled with snow, which lay to the depth of an inch or more on branches and twigs. The snow caused everything to exceed itself and the moonlight caused everything to double itself.
This is the path I’ve probably walked more often than any other in my life. It’s a young way; maybe fifty years old, no more. Its easterly hedge is mostly hawthorn and around eight feet high; its westerly hedge is a younger mix of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel and dogwood. It is not normally a beautiful place, but there’s a feeling of secrecy to it that I appreciate, hedged in as it is on both sides, and running discreetly as it does between field and road. In summer I’ve seen small rolling clouds of goldfinches rising from teasel-heads and then curling ahead to settle again, retreating in the measure that I approach them.
That evening the path was a grey snow alley, and I followed it up to the hanger of beech trees that tops the whaleback hill, passing off the clay and onto the chalk proper. At the back brink of the beechwood I ducked through an ivy-trailed gap, and was into the forty-acre field that lies beyond.
At first sight the field seemed flawless; floe country. Then I set out across it and started to see the signs. The snow was densely printed with the tracks of birds and animals — archives of the hundreds of journeys made since the snow had stopped. There were neat deer slots, partridge prints like arrowheads pointing the way, and the pads of rabbits. Lines of tracks curved away from me across the field, disappearing into shadow or hedge. The moonlight, falling at a slant, deepened the dark in the nearer tracks so that they appeared full as inkwells. To all these marks I added my own.” (5-7)
This volume gets the award for the most beautiful book of 2018. It’s chock-full of delightful, imaginary maps from Pilgrim’s Progress, Middle Earth, Treasure Island, the world of Harry Potter, and more. We all learned at a young age that if you find a map at the start of a book, then an adventure and a journey is about to begin. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Western Woods, building up to the mountains of Ettinsmoor, and then Cair Paravel rising to the east, all because C.S. Lewis included a map at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Maps don’t just speak to our soles; they speak to our souls.
My favorite book of poetry this year was this excellent collection that includes 150 choice poems with insightful comments by Leland Ryken. I close with the words of the great George Herbert, from his poem, “The Elixir”:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee. (101)
“Blessed be God! Amidst all my changes I find the foundation stands sure. And I am seldom or never left to doubt either of the Lord’s love to me, or the reality of the desires He has given me towards Himself.
Though when I measure my love by the degree of its exercise, or the fruits it produceth, I have reason to sit down ashamed as the chief of sinners and the least of all saints. But in Him I have righteousness and peace, and in Him I must and will rejoice.
I would willingly fill up my sheet, but feel a straitness in my spirit, and know not what further to say.
O for a ray of Divine light to set me at liberty, that I might write a few lines worth reading, something that might warm my heart and comfort yours!
Then the subject must be Jesus. But of Him what can I say that you do not know? Well, though you know Him, you are glad to hear of Him again and again.
Come then, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.
Let us adore Him for His love, that love which has a height, and depth, and length, and breadth, beyond the grasp of our poor conceptions;
a love that moved Him to empty Himself, to take on Him the form of a servant, and to be obedient unto death, even the death of the cross;
a love that pitied us in our lost estate, that found us when we sought Him not, that spoke peace to our souls in the day of our distress;
a love that bears with all our present weakness, mistakes, backslidings, and shortcomings;
a love that is always watchful, always ready to guide, to comfort, and to heal;
a love that will not be wearied, cannot be conquered, and is incapable of changes;
a love that will, in the end, prevail over all opposition, will perfect that which concerns us, and will not leave us till it has brought us perfect in holiness and happiness, to rejoice in His presence in glory.
The love of Christ: it is the wonder, the joy, the song of angels. And the sense of it shed abroad in our hearts makes life pleasant and death welcome.
Alas! What a heart have I that I love Him no better! But I hope He has given me a desire to make Him my all in all, and to account everything loss and dross that dares to stand in competition with Him.”