Jonathan Pennington, Jesus the Great Philosopher: Rediscovering the Wisdom Needed for the Good Life
We don’t often think of Jesus as a philosopher, but Pennington argues that as one who teaches us how to experience the ‘fulness of our humanity,’ that is precisely how we should think of him. I found this book very helpful in encouraging me to think of Jesus and his teaching from a fresh angle.
We don’t often think of Jesus as a philosopher, but Pennington argues that is precisely how we should think of him.
Humans today, especially in the West, live in a psychological space where the old structures, both pagan and Christian, have been broken down and replaced with a scientific understanding of the world. This enables us to send a probe to Saturn but find it difficult to live meaningful lives. While most people walking around aren’t committed nihilists—this is more often the felt experience of artists and philosophers—they struggle to find a comprehensive worldview that makes life meaningful. It is hard to be happy. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have 577,000 mental health professionals, 15 million people suffering from depression, and a $10 billion industry in bibliotherapy (self-help books). This is just the United States alone. (p.190)
Michael A Graham, Cheer Up! The Life and Ministry of Jack Miller
This biography deals with the life of a man not well known outside of certain Christian circles in the US. However, C. John ‘Jack’ Miller had a profound influence on a number of evangelical leaders, including Tim Keller (‘he taught me how to preach grace’). Graham presents Miller as a complex figure who makes some serious mistakes, but who served Christ in a number of contexts (seminary, pastorate and mission field) with an integrity that left me challenged.
Through the struggles with strangers in our own home […] we learned a great deal about human corruption. Along with [another ministry family], we learned to endure as a daily sacrifice the depressions, the laziness, the ingratitude, and sometimes the slander of those we welcomed into our lives. But in the conflict, I found that I grew as a pastor in an amazing way, partly because my own heart was often revealed in all its ugliness and insincerity’. (p.89)
Stephen Nichols, R.C. Sproul: A Life
R.C. Sproul is more well known than Miller and has had a more wide-reaching influence through his books. This was a helpful overview and insight into Sproul’s life. It is not as revealing as the Miller biography (we are not shown many of Sproul’s faults), but it contains some fascinating stories including the falling out between Sproul and Packer when the latter signed the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ statement.
Of all the students who came to the study centre, Harvey stood out in R.C.’s memory. He had cerebral palsy, and he came to the study centre over a few summers and a few January terms. Back at his college, a group of charismatic students had tried to heal Harvey. When their efforts didn’t work, they told Harvey that he wasn’t healed because he lacked faith and that, likely, he wasn’t even a Christian. The next time he came to the study centre, he told R.C. what had happened. R.C. assured him that he did not lack faith and that he was a Christian. And they prayed together. Somewhere in the middle, R.C. prayed this line: ‘Lord, please help this man understand that he is fully justified in your sight and is clothed with the righteousness of Christ.’ When they finished, R.C. noticed tears streaming down Harvey’s face. R.C. asked what was wrong, and Harvey replied, ‘That was the first time in my life that anybody ever called me a man.’ (p.103)
Russell Moore, A Courage to Stand
Russell Moore has been at the centre of a number of controversies recently – his opposition to President Trump and his departure from the Southern Baptist Convention. This book is his reflection on the cost it takes to stand for the truth. It is not a triumphalist book but a profound mediation of what it means to follow a crucified messiah.
That’s why North American Christianity is sick and weak and doesn’t even know it. We are bored by what the Bible reveals as mysterious and glorious, and red-in-the-face about what hardly matters in the broad sweep of eternity. And why? We clamour for the kind of power the world can recognise, while ignoring the very power of God that comes through Christ and him crucified. We trade away the Sermon on the Mount for influence and access because the Sermon on the Mount seems weak and surrendering. And through it all we demonstrate what we really care about—the same power and self-leverage this age already values. We think if only we were more aggressive and dominant and powerful then we might not be victimised. We might win, like Thor, instead of lose, like Jesus. But power is not found in the way of domination but in the way of crucifixion. That claim is breathtaking in its audacity. The crucifixion—the execution of a criminal, thought to be a shame to the community, a defeated foe of the state, and under the curse of God—was the last thing a religious movement seeking an audience in the first-century Roman Empire would emphasise. As a matter of fact, even acknowledging it would seem to be conceding the argument to ‘the other side.
Leif Enger, Virgil Wander
Set in the American Midwest, this novel tells the story of the owner of a movie-house rebuilding his life following a car crash. The prose is elegant and the story deals with profound questions as the following extract shows. Here Wander recounts, as a young man at Bible college, his search for answers regarding the death of his missionary parents in a train crash. Having approached two professors who have him glib answers:
The third was a man with white hair and renowned decorum, a man you might see in a crowd of thousands and know for a theologian—the gravitas, the gaunt suit and ascetic nose. He saw me coming and became elusive, but I caught him and stuck. He finally revealed that it took a long time to develop ‘the eternal perspective,’ from which things like this made sense or were in any way acceptable. I cautiously remarked that the eternal perspective was much to ask of creatures temporary as ourselves. Snapping turtles live longer. The professor looked at his watch and wrote down the names of three books I should read. He spoke reverently of the books. He promised they would guide me correctly. At the library, I discovered he had written all three. (p.129)
Matt Haig, How to Stop Time
A very easy read about a man who ages at a much slower rate than (most) other people. Although he looks to be in his early 40s, he is centuries old. Although a fun novel, it also contains moments of profound insight:
I see, through a window, a row of people running on treadmills. They are all staring up at what I assume is a row of TV screens above their heads. Some of them are plugged into headphones. One is checking her iPhone as she runs. Places don’t matter to people anymore. Places aren’t the point. People are only ever half present where they are these days. They always have at least one foot in the great digital nowhere.
Dominic Sandbrook, Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979–1982
One of Dominic Sandbrook’s series of books on recent British history. If you have listened to The Rest is History podcast, you will not be surprised that this is a witty, engaging and informative book. As someone who grew up in Britain in the 80’s I loved it! Not surprisingly much of the book deals with the premiership of Margaret Thatcher:
[Mrs Thatcher’s] bodyguard, Barry Strevens, recalled that on Christmas Eve his special Branch partner was summoned home because his child had fallen ill. Mrs Thatcher, just back from Northern Ireland, told Strevens to drive him home, because ‘family must always come first.’ When Strevens got back to the outbuilding they used as their Chequers base, he was astonished to find ‘Christmas decorations up, a log fire blazing, a tin of biscuits on the table alongside a flask of coffee and a mini bottle of whisky’. On the mantlepiece was a Christmas card, with a handwritten message from Mrs Thatcher herself. ‘I stood there incredibly touched by what this lady—the Prime Minister—had just done for me on Christmas Eve, knowing I was away from my wife and children because my job meant I had to be there for instead,’ he later told the Sun. ‘It was at that moment I knew I would stand in the way of a bullet for Margaret Thatcher without hesitation. And that I would remain utterly loyal to her for the rest of my life’ (p.113)
Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking with Destiny
Roberts’ biography of Churchill is both inspiring and enlightening, showing Churchill to be a more complex person than I had assumed.
Words are the only things that last forever. The most tremendous monuments or prodigies of engineering crumble under the hand of time. The Pyramids moulder, the bridges rust, the canals fill up, grass covers the railway track; but words spoken two or three thousand years ago remain with us now, not as mere relics of the past, but with all their pristine vital force.
The most tremendous monuments or prodigies of engineering crumble under the hand of time … Words are the only things that last forever.
James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones
This productivity book is full of helpful tips. Like any productivity book, it promises a lot, but unlike other similar volumes, it contains a high proportion of genuinely helpful insights.
When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, ‘disciplined’ people are better at structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.
Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for Mortals
Oliver Burkeman is not a Christian but he has written a time management book (really an anti-time management book!) that highlights a number of Christian themes (as well as a number of pagan ones). I found his repeated emphasis on our mortality and fallibility resonated with so much of the Bible’s teaching. A very refreshing and liberating book.
Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.’ The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.
Andrzej Stasiuk, On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe
And finally, an extremely niche volume that will only appeal if you are interested in post-Communist Eastern Europe! This is a difficult book that jumps around chronologically as it narrates the authors travels in the forgotten parts of Europe, but it contains some engaging prose:
A cart waiting at an intersection, hitched to a donkey. Nothing in the vicinity. It was only farther on and lower, where the cornfield ended, that the cement village appeared, grey. A woman got off the bus, pulling a cage thing on two wheels. A small bag was attached to it. Cage and bag were both home-made. A girl was waiting for her. They hugged, as if after a long separation. Then they climbed onto the cart. The two bigger, together, than the entire vehicle. The brown donkey made for the village. It seemed a game, because woman and girl hardly fitted on what looked like something stolen from a child’s merry-go-round. (p 112)
This documentary (available on SBS on Demand at the time of writing) tells the story of the terrible fire in a Bucharest nightclub in 2016 when 27 people died. In the weeks that followed 37 more victims died because of poor hospital treatment. It turns out that a pharmaceutical company had been supplying hospitals across Romania with diluted disinfectant that was utterly ineffective in preventing infection. The tragedy of the corruption in the story is balanced by the integrity and doggedness of the journalist who exposed the story.
An incredibly sobering podcast that recounts the stories of survivors of the Srebrenica genocide of 1995 when 8372 Bosnian Muslims were killed. I found this very difficult to listen to in places as it described some truly horrific events. This is a timely podcast given that Bosnia seems to be very unstable again with the president of the Republika Srpska (the Serbian controlled part of Bosnia) recently threatening to secede from Bosnia, thus breaking the Dayton Agreement that has held the country together for the last 25 years.