I don’t know who asked me to jump on this top 10 books list, but I’ve finally gotten round to it. Here goes:
- Emma, by Jane Austin. It’s a long story, but this is how I decided I was looking for love in all the wrong places. I had a long discussion with the girl who became my wife, shortly after reading this book
- The Way the World Works, by June Wannasiki. I don’t know that this is the best economics book. Wannasiki is kind of like Algernon – he doesn’t necessarily write accurately, but he writes with wonderful expression. Anyway, this book opened my eyes to the sort of political shenanigans that are being done in the name of bad economics.
- Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, by Mark DeverI had been looking for what exactly was going wrong in the sort of churches I was going to. Even in the prosperous, well-populated churches, there was something rotten about their state. 9Marks pointed me in the right direction. Incidentally, I gave my copy to somebody, so if you’d like to help me replenish my library…
- Humility: True Greatness, by CJ Mahaney. It was a toss-up between this and The Cross-Centered Life. Either way, what I really appreciate about Mahaney’s little books is their practicality: “XYZ is true. Here are some habits you can build into your life so it will have an practical effect.” Want to be humble? Start by thanking God that you get tired at night.
- The Bruised Reed, by Richard Sibbes. Just… Wow. I used to want to be Dennis Jernigan when I grew up. Now I want to be Richard Sibbes. So incredibly helpful to see how exactly the Spirit of God works in actual broken hearts. As a happy side effect: the sweetest, most reassuring teaching of God’s selection in salvation you have ever heard.
- Surprised by Joy, by CS Lewis. This is a cheat. It stands in for “The Complete Works of,” which I understand is against the rules. I might have been CS Lewis, if my middle class lawyer dad had just sent me to a private tutor for my entire high school, where I studied classics in Latin and Greek for 12 hours a day. Surprised by Joy is less biography and more a spiritual memoir in the style of Augustin’s Confession. The picture he give of his conversion still sticks with me: a lobster in a corset on a bus, I think. Strangely, he falls on the side of free will in salvation, while describing a perfectly Calvinist conversion.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. I wrote a paper on Gustave Flaubert my junior year in college. It kind of revolutionized my view on the world. I got an A-. My hard drive crashed, and now I have only the vaguest recollection of what my conclusions were. Flaubert was set to be a fantasy author. He had this blockbuster story he wrote about Saint Anthony in the tombs. It was a colossal flop. His friends urged him to quit writing about “Chimeras,” that is fantastical ideas, and to focus on realism. So he wrote a story about a girl who wanted to have a truly great romance and ruined her life chasing it while ignoring the perfectly good romance right in her lap. I was totally unable to relate to this concept.
- Institutes of Christianity, by John Calvin. This is kind of a cheat, since I never actually finished the book. But he really knew how to pack ‘em in there. The one that comes up the most is his explanation of faith – not just confidence, but confidence in a person’s word in the face of very good reasons to doubt. We’ll skip past how much Calvin talks about the Spirit, and how I totally avoided him the first time I heard of him, because I knew he had nothing to say to me due to his ignorance of the Holy Spirit.
- Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. More specifically, The Franklin’s Tale, which taught me about the complex overlay of loyalties that we would now call “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” As a bonus, reading journal articles on The Franklin’s Tale taught me that Feminism is bunk, specifically because it can’t see those loyalties as anything other than systematic oppression
- On the Cessation of the Charismata, by John Ruthven. Specifically, the footnotes to the first chapter, which gave me references to a whirlwind tour of early church thought on spiritual gifts, and the supernatural. I used it as the bibliographical launching point for a church history paper, and it inspired me for the thesis for my PhD, which I will probably never get to write.
(Yes, Tolkien is lovely, but he didn’t change my life. I’m very fond of Luther, but I haven’t actually read any books by him. Paradise lost did nothing for me, other than give me some perspective when reading Middlemarch. Inferno was extremely interesting, but Purgatorio was distressingly Catholic. Robinson Crusoe was a waste of time.)
There’s a strange lack of fiction titles in this list. I went through a major theological shift about 15 years ago, so my top 10 list changed accordingly. The books above are the ones that got me going in my current direction. It just so happened that when I was grasping, very few of the branches that held were fiction.
It looks like my blogging is going to go way down for a while, since my new job doesn’t involve sitting much at a desk, where I might type up a few thoughts now and then as I work. However, I did have this little nugget to share:
As I was talking to one of my new coworkers, I noticed that he had a copy of Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God sitting on his shelf. I made some comment on it, since it was probably given to him by a Sovereign Gracer (which it had been – another coworker). But the guy had a strange response – he said he wasn’t very happy about it, and it sounded like the book brought down his opinion of CJ Mahaney (the book’s editor). The issue was the title: Sex, Romance, and the Glory of God. After a little discussion, I made out that his problem was related to the likelihood of dishonoring the glory of God by associating it with things like sex and romance. He understood, he said, that the goal of the books contributors was to explore how things like sex and romance could be related to the glory of God, but that Christians need to be aware of what a title like that might imply, namely that sex and romance could somehow be put on the same level as the glory of God.
I’m really not quite sure what to make of such a position.
I am beginning to think that the solution to this sort of problem is an increase in the general sort of piety that we are usually to cynical to stand. If the Gospel, particularly my own awareness of my own sin and my own need for a redeemer, happens to get mentioned in most every conversation, everything that follows in the way of evangelism is completely natural. CJ Mahaney, for instance, manages to lay the whole thing open simply by answering “Better than I deserve” whenever somebody asks how he’s doing.
One of the blessings we’ve had of late has been to be a part of a home group whose leader truly cares pastorally for his little flock. He’s also a reader, which has been to my advantage, because there are a lot of books in the tradition of my church that I’ve never read before and right now I don’t have the cash to buy them, or the room to store them if I did. And so my deacon has become my librarian.
Recently he had lent me his copy of CJ Mahaney’s book Humility: True Greatness (which I highly recommend to everybody) and was asking me if I could share any thoughts on what I had read with our group. I sent him a few notes on what I might say to the group, but there was one thing that I didn’t find convenient to mention there, so I thought I might share it here:
In reading CJ’s book, it occurred to me that much of what I practice in the name of humility isn’t really humility at all, but self-effacement, which is not the same thing. I still think of myself more highly than I ought – in fact, more highly of myself than of you. But I hide my pride, and glory in the fact that I may have impressed you simultaneously with how humble I appear to be.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a mystic. But I’ve discovered that word makes some people, particularly non-charismatic evangelicals, nervous, so let me explain. By “mystic” I mean a person whose devotional life is characterized by intensely affecting spiritual experiences. These experiences may be in the realm of simple theological insight, or they may take more literary forms. At times they may cross over into the realm of prophecy; that is, dreams, visions, words, and phrases laden with theological context.
From a natural perspective, mysticism can come from two sources. It can be personal, or social: On the social spectrum, mysticism can be presented as something to aspire to. Some Christian traditions – the Pentecostals, the Orthodox, some revivalist traditions – present mysticism in such a way that it seems to be the only way to have a properly Christian devotional life. At the other extreme, some traditions, particularly the Reformed and Protestants as a whole, seem to perceive mysticism at best as something useless, at worst as something suspiciously unchristian, smacking of Papism, adding to scripture, even beckoning the demonic. On the personal spectrum, a person could be naturally predisposed to have certain kinds of experiences, or they could find themselves completely unable to do so, or they could be somewhere in between. (Please note that, for the sake of simplicity, I’m lumping what a person thinks about these things in with the social scale.)
The difficulty, of course, comes when a person’s natural predisposition doesn’t align very well with the tradition they find themselves in. Continue reading “Mystic”