Tag Archives: Reading

“Good Reading” by D.A. Carson

“’Exegesis’ is the word often used for careful reading. Exegesis answers the questions, What does this text actually say? and, What did the author mean by what he said? We discover this by applying sound principles of interpretation to the Bible.

Fundamental to reading the Bible well is good reading. Good readers pay careful attention to words and their meanings and to the ways sentences, paragraphs, and longer units are put together.

They observe that the Bible is a book that includes many different styles of literature—stories, laws, proverbs, poetry, prophecy, history, parables, letters, apocalyptic, and much more. Good readers follow the flow of texts.

For example, while it is always worth meditating on individual words and phrases, the most important factor in determining what a word means is how the author uses that word in a specific context.

One of the best signs of good exegesis is asking thoughtful questions that drive us to ‘listen’ attentively to what the Bible says.

As we read the text again and again, these questions are progressively honed, sharpened, corrected, or discarded.”

–D.A. Carson, “The Bible and Theology,” NIV Zondervan Study Bible (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2015), 2633. 

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“There is another kind of reading” by John Piper

“The Bible is a book. Jesus came in the flesh and was called the Word of God. He taught many things, and He did many things. He died for sins, and He rose again. He founded the church and poured out the Holy Spirit.

All that foundational speaking and doing is preserved in a book. My ninth point is this: reading a substantial book well is hard mental work.

You learned your native language when you were very young– before you were five years old. You didn’t know you were working when you did it. And so most of us assume that reading just comes naturally.

But there is more than one kind of reading. One kind of reading is passive and involves very little aggressive effort to understand. We just take what comes and let it happen to us.

But there is another kind of reading that is very active, and digs down into the author’s mind, and wants to understand everything it sees. It may sound strange to say it, but one of the most scholarly things I ever learned was that many parts of the Bible (like Paul’s letters and Jesus’s sermons) are less like a string of pearls and more like chains of steel.

That is, the authors don’t just give a sequence of spiritual gems; they forge a chain of logical argumentation. Their statements hang together. They are linked. One connects to another, and those two connect to another, and those three to another, and so on as the unbreakable argument of glorious truth extends through a passage.

And, when the Holy Spirit enlightens our minds, this chain of argumentation is on fire.

Rigorous reading– scholarly reading– traces these kinds of argumentation. Each proposition begins with a logical connector (‘for,’ ‘that is,’ ‘as,’ ‘because,’ ‘ever since,’ ‘and,’ ‘therefore,’ etc.). These small words are among the most important in the Bible. They tell us how the statements are related to each other…

On and on the chain of argumentation grows. Words become statements, and statements are linked to form larger units. And these larger units are linked to build whole books.

The point here is simply: since much of the Bible is written this way, pastors are called to trace these arguments with active, careful, rigorous reading, and explain statements and the connections and the larger units to their people, and then apply them to their lives. This kind of reading is exceedingly demanding.

All this is involved in the fact that God revealed Himself to the church through the centuries in a book. He did not have to give the church a book. He could have done it in another way. He could have just given daily dreams to His people. He could have caused dramatizations to appear in the sky.

He could have communicated to a select few with secret knowledge and made them memorize everything and pass it on to another select few in each generation. He could have communicated to us any way He wanted to. And He did it in a book.

This is one reason that everywhere the Christian church has spread, there have been not only churches and hospitals, but also schools– places of rudimentary and then advanced scholarship. It’s because we’re dependent on a book. Since our faith is rooted in the understanding of a book, we want people to learn to read, and then to have the Bible in their language, and to learn how to think carefully and doctrinally about the book.

So the very existence of the Bible as a book signals that the pastor is called to read carefully and accurately and thoroughly and honestly.”

–John Piper and D.A. Carson, The Pastor As Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 64-66.

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The Best Books I Read This Year (2015)

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These are my favorite books that I read in 2015:

1. Newton on the Christian Life / Tony Reinke
John Newton was dramatically converted to Christ after a thunderstorm on the high seas. He then faithfully pastored two congregations for 43 years. J.I. Packer called Newton the “friendliest, wisest, humblest” evangelical leader of his day, and he was “perhaps the greatest pastoral letter-writer of all time.” (25) Tim Keller claims that Newton is “the best pastor I’ve ever seen in my life.” (23) The former slave trader encouraged William Wilberforce in his efforts to help end the slave trade in England. And he also penned the most well-known hymn in the English language. I think it’s safe to say that we can learn much from John Newton about living for Christ in this world.

To that end, Tony Reinke has written the best book in what is a wonderful collection of books, Crossway’s Theologians On the Christian Life series. “Think of this book,” Reinke says, “as a field guide meant to get dirty, dog-eared, and faded in the clenched hands of a Christian pilgrim.” (32) This “field guide” is glorious. It’s a delight from beginning to end and brimming with golden selections from Newton:

“All shall work together for good: everything is needful that He sends; nothing can be needful that He withholds.” (195)

“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” (49)

“Have we not a Saviour, a Shepherd full of compassion and tenderness? If we wish for love in a friend, He has shewn love unspeakable; —He left His glory, assumed our nature, and submitted to shame, poverty, and death, even the death of the cross, that He might save us from sin and misery, and open the kingdom of heaven to us, who were once His enemies. For He saw and pitied us, when we knew not how to pity ourselves. If we need a powerful friend, Jesus is almighty: our help is in Him who made heaven and earth, who raises the dead, and hushes the tempest and raging waves into a calm with a word. If we need a present friend, a help at hand in the hour of trouble, Jesus is always near, about our path by day, and our bed by night; nearer than the light by which we see, or the air we breathe; nearer than we are to ourselves; so that not a thought, a sigh, or a tear, escapes His notice. Since then His love and His wisdom are infinite, and He has already done so much for us, shall we not trust Him to the end? His mercies are countless as the sands, and hereafter we shall see cause to count our trials among our chief mercies.” (17)

Newton and Reinke served me this year by calling me again and again to fix my eyes on Christ. For that, I am grateful.

2. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God / Tim Keller
Prayer is crucial. Keller writes: “Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and to be in life.” (18) He spends the next 300 pages helping his readers understand what prayer is and how to do it. Along the way Keller relies on choice lessons that he’s learned from Augustine (“Letter 130”), Martin Luther (“A Simple Way to Pray”), John Calvin, John Owen, and several others. My only beef with Prayer is with the publisher: I think we all can agree that Dutton’s decision to use endnotes in Tim Keller’s books is barbaric. So, Dutton, please do us all a favor, give the people what we want, and start using footnotes instead. Thank you.

3. Enjoy Your Prayer Life / Michael Reeves
This helpful book is brief, convicting, and life-giving. Reeves writes:

“The Son has brought us with Him– in Him– before His Father. That’s what we enjoy in prayer.” (35)

“It is the word of God, the gracious message of Christ, that awakens faith and so prayer – and so that must be the basic shape of our everyday communion with God. We need to set Christ before ourselves. That is, we hear the word of Christ in Scripture, in song, through each other and by reminding ourselves as we praise him. We should long that our eyes might be opened to see the beauty of the Lord and that we might be drawn afresh to want him – and then prayer is simply the articulation of our heart’s response. To summarise what we have discovered so far, prayer is the chief exercise of faith. Naturally we’re rubbish at prayer because we’re sinners. Yet the solution – what will give us the true life of real communion with God – is the gospel of Christ that awakens faith.” (19)

4. A Way to Pray / Matthew Henry
Henry is known for his whole-Bible commentary. But he also wrote this excellent primer on how to pray scripturally. This volume, edited by O. Palmer Robertson, is sort of like The Valley of Vision meets D.A. Carson’s A Call to Spiritual Reformation a.k.a Praying Like Paul. Henry is helping me to grow in praying according to God’s will. (1 John 5:14) Consider this simple prayer before a meal (373):

“Gracious God, You are the Protector and Preserver of the whole creation. You have nourished us throughout our lives up to the present day with sufficient food, though we are evil and unthankful. Forgive all our sins, for by them we have forfeited Your mercies. Restore our right standing with you in Christ Jesus. Enable us to taste covenant love in commonplace mercies. Give us the grace to use these mercies and all the comforts of Your creation to the glory of Christ, our great Benefactor and Redeemer. Amen.”

5. Edwards on the Christian Life / Dane Ortlund
What is the role of beauty in the Christian life? Ortlund’s answer: “To become a Christian is to become alive to beauty… Sinners are beautified as they behold the beauty of God in Jesus Christ.” (23, 24) This book is an accessible way to introduce others to the beautiful, God-entranced vision of Jonathan Edwards.

6. The Greatest Fight in the World / Charles Spurgeon
Spurgeon’s final address to his beloved students in his Pastors College is as timely now as it was back in 1891:

“On his knees a believer is invincible.” (31)
“We need nothing more than God has seen fit to reveal.” (40)
“God’s Word is our ultimatum.” (41)
“The very root of holiness lies in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (50)
“We are ourselves trophies of the power of the sword of the Spirit.” (54)
“A good textuary is a good theologian.” (60)
“Believers in verbal inspiration should be studiously careful to be verbally correct.” (61)
“The gospel has the singular faculty of creating a taste for itself.” (63)
“There is no arguing after we find that ‘It is written.’” (64)

7. The Ministry Medical / Jonathan Griffiths
Griffiths walks through 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul’s last letter, and asks 36 textual questions to help diagnose the spiritual health of your ministry. I’m eager to read this volume again with my fellow elders.

8. Who is Jesus? and Why Trust the Bible? / Greg Gilbert
9Marks and Crossway continue to crank out wonderfully helpful books, especially books that busy pastors can give away to bless their church members. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these volumes by Gilbert and plan to get a bunch of copies to give away throughout the year.

9. Knowing Christ / Mark Jones
Following Jesus means growing in our knowledge of Jesus. This book helps us know Christ better. My favorite chapter in Knowing Christ was “Chapter 26 — Christ’s Names”:

“All that God has revealed to us concerning His Son, Jesus Christ, and the various names attributed to him, leave us in little doubt that His names ought to be exceedingly precious to His people. What more can be said? He is the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), Almighty (Rev. 1:8), Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8), Amen (Rev. 3:14), Arm of the Lord (Isa. 51:9), Pioneer of our faith (Heb. 12:2), Ruler of God’s creation (Rev. 3:14), beloved Son (Matt. 12:18), Branch (Isa. 4:2), Bread of life (John 6:32), Cornerstone (Ps. 118:22), Counsellor (Isa. 9:6), Faithful witness (Rev. 1:5), God (Rom. 9:5), Ruler (Matt. 2:6), Holy One (Acts 3:14), Horn of Salvation (Luke 1:69), I Am (John 8:58), Immanuel (Isa. 7:14), Righteous One (Acts 7:52), King (Zech. 9:9), King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15), Lamb of God (John 1:29), Life (John 14:6), Light of the world (John 8:12), Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5), Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8), the Lord our righteousness (Jer. 23:6), Man of sorrows (Isa. 53:3), Messenger (Mal. 3:1), Mighty God (Isa. 9:6), Morning star (Rev. 22:16), Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:7), Prince of life (Acts 3:15), Prince of peace (Isa. 9:6), Redeemer (Job 19:25), Resurrection and the life (John 11:25), Rock (1 Cor. 10:4), Root of David (Rev. 22:16), Rose of Sharon (Song of Sol. 2:1), Overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25), Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2), True vine (John 15:1), and Witness (Isa. 55:4). Perhaps we now have some glimpse into why Isaiah said: ‘and his name shall be called Wonderful…’ (Isa. 9:6). What is it to know Christ? It is to know his names and all that they mean. For this reason, we shall spend eternity worshipping the One whose names are past finding out.” (217-218)

10. Stuff Matters / Mark Miodownik
Materials are marvelous. That’s the lesson I learned from Stuff Matters. It’s the #1 bestseller in the Inorganic Chemistry section of Amazon.com for good reason. The book begins with a lackluster photograph of a man relaxing on his outdoor deck. The man in the photo is Mark Miodownik, a professor of materials at University College London. Captured in the picture are also ten common materials that we see and use everyday without really stopping and marveling. When is the last time you were amazed by paper, concrete, glass, graphite, plastic, steel, and chocolate? Chesterton was right when we wrote: “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” This booked helped me wonder. The chapter on chocolate is worth the price of the book:

“Take a piece of dark chocolate and pop it in your mouth. For a few minutes you will feel its hard corners against your palate and tongue but taste little in the way of flavor. It is almost impossible to resist the urge to give it a good bite, but try very hard not to, so that you can experience what happens next: the lump becoming suddenly limp as it absorbs the heat from your tongue. As it becomes liquid, you will notice your tongue feels cooler, and then a combination of sweet and bitter flavors floods your mouth. These are followed by fruity and nutty sensations, and finally an earthy, muddy taste down the back of your throat. For one blissful moment you will be in thrall to the most deliciously engineered material on earth. Chocolate is designed to transform into a liquid as soon as it hits your mouth. This trick is the culmination of hundreds of years of culinary and engineering effort, aimed initially at creating a popular drink that could hold its own against tea and coffee. That effort failed miserably until chocolate manufacturers realized that making hot chocolate in the mouth instead of a saucepan was much more delightful, much more modern, and far more widely liked. In effect they created a solid drink, made possible by their understanding and control crystals– specifically, cocoa butter crystals. The chocolate industry has never looked back.” (73-74)

11. Do More Better / Tim Challies
There are lots of productivity books out there. I found this one by Challies to be concise and clear and practical. He writes: “Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.” (16) Amen.

12. The Ology / Marty Machowski
We read The Ology during our family worship in the morning and the Roark kids loved it. Deep truths, beautifully communicated and illustrated.

13. The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered / Rosaria Butterfield
I was fascinated by both of these books by Butterfield. If you’re only able to read one of them, I’d encourage you to read Openness Unhindered because of her extended treatment on sexual identity and union with Christ. Secret Thoughts begins in this way:

“When I was 28 years old, I boldly declared myself lesbian. I was at the finish of a PhD in English Literature and Cultural Studies. I was a teaching associate in one of the first and strongest women’s studies departments in the nation. I was being recruited by universities to take on faculty and administrative roles in advancing radical leftist ideologies. I genuinely believed that I was helping to make the world a better place. At the age of 36, I was one of the few tenured women at a large research university, a rising administrator, and a community activist. I had become one of the ‘tenured radicals.’ By all standards, I had made it. That same year, Christ claimed me for himself and the life that I had known and loved came to a humiliating end.” (ix)

14. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena / Anthony Marra
The best story I read in 2015 was this beautiful and brutal debut novel about a surgeon in war-torn Chechnya. Marra was asked about the book’s title and he replied:

“One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a surprisingly poetic entry: ‘A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.’ As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.”

These characters stay with you. In a variety of ways, Constellation reminded me of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. I’m not ashamed to say that I wept like a baby when I got to the last page. Just a beautiful, heartrending story of loss and hope and “immense, spinning joy.” (379)

While were are on fiction, let me briefly mention two other novels that I loved.

15. Crossing to Safety / Wallace Stegner
Last year was a season of transition for me, for my family, and for several of our dearest friends in ministry. So I’m thankful to have read this wise and tender novel that follows the lives of two couples, the Morgans and the Langs, along with their joys and losses. When I think of Crossing to Safety, I’ll think of our family’s life on Capitol Hill: “There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness had its headquarters.” (6)

16. The Other / Thomas Tryon
This might not be your cup of tea but I couldn’t put The Other down. It’s bizarre, beautifully written, and by far the spookiest book that I’ve ever read. And the ending… wow. Tryon’s story has the power to makes an apple cellar on a bucolic New England farm seem menacing:

“I’ve told Miss DeGroot all kinds of stories about the apple cellar. She says it’s a spooky place; she’s right. Buried deep in the heart of the barn, with thick walls of New England traprock, and no electrical illumination, the room was a marvelously clandestine place. For six months of the year, October to March, the bushel baskets stood in rows, brimful with apples; onions dug out of the kitchen garden swagged from the rafters, and garlands of dried peppers, and along the shelves lay bunches of beets, parsnips, and turnips. But during the remaining months, its store of provender spent, the apple cellar served for other, more devious, employment. Shut away from the light, free from intrusion, you felt it was such a place as could be peopled by a boy’s imagination with all the creatures of his fancy, with kings, courtiers, and criminals—whatever; stage, temple, prison, down there seeds were sown, to grow magically overnight, like mushrooms. A place whose walls could be made to recede into airy spaciousness, the ceiling and floor into a limitless void, wood and stone and mortar dissolved at will. But in June, with the whole of the summer stretching endlessly before you, the apple cellar was forbidden and you had to be close and cunning not to get caught. You had matches hidden in a Prince Albert tobacco tin and a candle butt stuck in a Coca-Cola bottle for light. All was dead secret; you listened carefully, one ear cocked, fearful of discovery; you envisioned every sound a Betrayer, a Giant, a Walking Horror…” (9-10)

Did I mention the ending?

17. Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln / Richard Brookhiser
I try to spend time every year with masters of English prose. In 2014, I spent the year with Winston Churchill. In 2015, I lived with Abraham Lincoln. I thoroughly enjoyed Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you want a brief biography of Lincoln, check out Abraham Lincoln by James McPherson. As I slowly worked my way through Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, I stumbled across one of my favorite passages, Lincoln’s consoling letter to Mrs. Bixley, who had lost five sons in the Civil War:

November 21, 1864

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

Abraham Lincoln

As enjoyable as his speeches and letters were, the Lincoln book that will stay with me, and the one that I’ll return to again, is Richard Brookhiser’s Founder’s Son. Brookhiser shows how Lincoln’s “greatest curiosity was about the great things.” (301) I loved this book and I learned a bunch.

18. The Warmth of Other Suns / Isabel Wilkerson
In early 2015, a friend and dear brother in the Lord gave a sweet and challenging meditation on 1 Peter 3:8. One of his applications was, “Diversity with sympathy is key to unity. Diversity without sympathy is assimilation.” That got me thinking and I was provoked to spend more time reading books that might help me grow in understanding, tender-heartedness, sympathy, and brotherly love, especially for those who have experienced (and continue to endure) racism in all its manifold ugliness. No book served me more than The Warmth of Other Suns, a riveting history of the Great Migration told through the lives of four individuals who experienced the horrors of life in the Jim Crow South:

“Younger blacks could see the contradictions in their world—that, sixty, seventy, eighty years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, they still had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, were banished to jobs nobody else wanted no matter their skill or ambition, couldn’t vote, but could be hanged on suspicion of the pettiest infraction. These were the facts of their lives: There were days when whites could go to the amusement park and a day when blacks could go, if they were permitted at all. There were white elevators and colored elevators (meaning the freight elevators in back); white train platforms and colored train platforms. There were white ambulances and colored ambulances to ferry the sick, and white hearses and colored hearses for those who didn’t survive whatever was wrong with them. There were white waiting rooms and colored waiting rooms in any conceivable place where a person might have to wait for something, from the bus depot to the doctor’s office. A total of four restrooms had to be constructed and maintained at significant expense in any public establishment that bothered to provide any for colored people: one for white men, one for white women, one for colored men, and one for colored women… There was a colored window at the post office in Pensacola, Florida, and there were white and colored telephone booths in Oklahoma. White and colored went to separate windows to get their license plates in Indianola, Mississippi, and to separate tellers to make their deposits at the First National Bank of Atlanta. There were taxicabs for colored people and taxicabs for white people in Jacksonville, Birmingham, Atlanta, and the entire state of Mississippi. Colored people had to be off the streets and out of the city limits by 8 P.M. in Palm Beach and Miami Beach. Throughout the South, the conventional rules of the road did not apply when a colored motorist was behind the wheel. If he reached an intersection first, he had to let the white motorist go ahead of him. He could not pass a white motorist on the road no matter how slowly the white motorist was going and had to take extreme caution to avoid an accident because he would likely be blamed no matter who was at fault. In everyday interactions, a black person could not contradict a white person or speak unless spoken to first. A black person could not be the first to offer to shake a white person’s hand. A handshake could occur only if a white person so gestured, leaving many people having never shaken hands with a person of the other race. The consequences for the slightest misstep were swift and brutal. Two whites beat a black tenant farmer in Louise, Mississippi, in 1948, wrote the historian James C. Cobb, because the man ‘asked for a receipt after paying his water bill.’ It was against the law for a colored person and a white person to play checkers together in Birmingham. White and colored gamblers had to place their bets at separate windows and sit in separate aisles at racetracks in Arkansas. At saloons in Atlanta, the bars were segregated: Whites drank on stools at one end of the bar and blacks on stools at the other end, until the city outlawed even that, resulting in white-only and colored-only saloons. There were white parking spaces and colored parking spaces in the town square in Calhoun City, Mississippi. In one North Carolina courthouse, there was a white Bible and a black Bible to swear to tell the truth on.” (44-45)

To think that all of this happened in this country just a few decades ago. Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates were all unforgettable reads for me. The most poignant paragraph from these books was the one below from Jesmyn Ward, who tragically lost her brother, Joshua, in October 2000:

“Every year on the day he died, I wake up to the dread of another year passing. I lock myself in my room, wherever I am living, and I cry until my eyes swell shut. And at the edge of the longing, the terror that I will forget who he was and forget our lives together immobilizes me, pulls me down further, until I am like someone in those cartoons from our youth, stuck in a quagmire of quicksand, mired in the cold, liquid crush, and then: drowning. After Joshua died, my father stopped working, lived on Top Ramen and hot dogs by working odd jobs, and watched television on two different sets at the same time for hours a day. My mother cleans my brother’s grave every few weeks, picking stray grass, brushing the sand to an even smoothness. Every death anniversary, she takes to her room, closes her blinds, wraps herself in silence and darkness. Every year on his birthday, she buys mums for his grave and cleans the small ceramic figures of angels and teddy bears she’s placed around it, while Nerissa and Charine attach balloons, one for every birthday year, this year thirty-three, to his headstone. ‘I only dream of him as a child,’ my mother says. ‘He’s always my little boy.’ This is grief.” (242-243)

19. Spying in America / Michael Sulick
Can you keep a secret? The United States government clearly cannot. In this book, Michael Sulick, former head of the CIA’s clandestine service, details thirty fascinating espionage cases from the American Revolution to the Cold War. Imagine if David McCullough wrote a history of espionage. That’s what Spying in America is like. (And, while we’re on spying, if you’re looking for some fun spy novels, check out Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books. I liked this The English Spy, The Prince of Fire, and The Messenger).

20. The Boys in the Boat / Daniel James Brown
I enjoyed several nonfiction books abouts boats this year. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick is the harrowing true story of the whale ship Essex that was attacked by a huge whale that later inspired Moby Dick. Erik Larson’s Dead Wake (I follow the simple rule of reading everything Larson writes.) tells the story of the sinking of the luxury ocean liner Lusitania by the Nazi U-boat in 1915 during the first year of WWII. But my favorite book about boats in 2015 was definitely The Boys in the Boat. It’s about the quest for rowing gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I was inspired by the story.

21. Beowulf: A New Translation / Translated by Seamus Heaney
One of my favorite reads from last year was N.D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur, which is a kind of modern re-telling of Beowulf with swamps and sugarcane fields and the Everglades and high school football. So I decided to reread the original Beowulf, an epic that I hadn’t read since college. I’ll probably tackle Tolkien’s translation in 2016, but for 2015 I chose the award-winning translation by Seamus Heaney, one of the best poets in the world. It did not disappoint. Even though it’s abridged, also consider checking out Heaney’s audiobook version.

22. Thirst: Poems / Mary Oliver
A few years ago, I was in a bookshop with my wife in Cape Cod and stumbled across Thirst, a collection by a poet who lived just up the road a bit, in Provincetown, MA. I’ve enjoyed Oliver’s poems ever since. (Check out: Blue Iris, Evidence, Swan, A Thousand Mornings, Blue Horses, and Felicity). Poets are shepherds of words. They can teach us to see and to say. Oliver has mainly helped me to marvel more at the beauty of God’s creation. “Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still learning to be astonished.” (“Messenger,” Thirst, p. 1). If you are looking for some wonderful poetry about the incarnation of our Lord, it’s hard to beat Accompanied by Angels by Luci Shaw.

23. The Wingfeather Saga / Andrew Peterson
I spent nearly all of 2015 traveling with my three children through the magical world of Aerwiar alongside the three amazing Wingfeather children. Peterson is a talented singer and songwriter (Dear Andrew, please bring the Behold the Lamb of God tour back to the DC area! We missed you this year). So I wasn’t surprised when we loved all four books in this bittersweet series:

My kiddos gave the following reviews:

Emmaline (6): “I like the characters. They all have creative names.”
Hudson (8): “I like the stories because they’re about a different world with interesting creatures.”
Elijah (9): “I like the Wingfeather books because they’re adventurous.”

Daddy likes how Peterson weaves the redemptive power of self-sacrificial love throughout the saga from beginning to end. “Blood was shed that you three might breathe the good air of life.” (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, 17)

The Warden and the Wolf King concludes with the following poem (516-517):

The world is whispering–listen child!–
The world is telling a tale.
When the seafoam froths in the water wild
Or the fendril flies in the gale,
When the sky is mad with the swirling storm
And thunder shakes the hall,
Child, keep watch for the passing form
Of the one who made it all.
Listen, child to the Hollish wind,
To the hush of heather down,
To the voice of the brook at the stony bend
And the bells of Rysentown.
The dark of the heart is a darkness deep
And the sweep of the night is wide
And the pain of the heart when the people weep
Is an overwhelming tide–
And yet! and yet! when the tide runs low
As the tide will always do
And the heavy sky where the bellows blow
Is bright at last, and blue
And the sun ascends in the quiet morn
And the sorrow sinks away,
When the veil of death and dark is torn
Asunder by the day,
Then the light of love is the flame of spring
And the flow of the river strong
And the hope of the heart as the people sing
Is an everlasting song.
The winter is whispering, “green and gold,”
And the heart is whispering, too–
It’s a story the Maker has always told
And the story, my child, is true.

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

p.s. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Tolle Lege. If you like this blog, consider leaving a comment below with your favorite books of 2015. I’d enjoy learning what books you enjoyed.

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“His whole library was swept away from him” by William Symington

“To a person of these studious habits it may easily be conceived what distress it must have occasioned to have his library swept away from him. In that dreadful misfortune which befell the metropolis in 1666, ever since known as ‘the fire of London,’ the whole of Charnock’s books were destroyed.

The amount of calamity involved in such an occurrence can be estimated aright only by those who know from experience the strength and sacredness of that endearment with which the real student regards those silent but instructive friends which he has drawn around him by slow degrees, with which he has cultivated a long and intimate acquaintance, which are ever at hand with their valuable assistance, counsel and consolation, when these are needed, which, unlike some less judicious companions, never intrude upon him against his will, and with whose very looks and positions, as they repose in their places around him, he has become so familiarized, that it is no difficult thing for him to call up their appearance when absent, or to go directly to them in the dark without the risk of a mistake.

Some may be disposed to smile at this love of books. But where is the scholar who will do so? Where is the man of letters who, for a single moment, would place the stately mansions and large estates of the ‘sons of earth’ in comparison with his own well-loaded shelves?

Where is the student who, on looking round upon the walls of his study, is not conscious of a satisfaction greater and better far than landed proprietor ever felt on surveying his fields and lawns—a satisfaction which almost unconsciously seeks vent in the exclamation, ‘My library! A dukedom large enough!’

Such, and such only, can judge what must have been Charnock’s feelings, when he found that his much cherished volumes had become a heap of smouldering ashes.

The sympathetic regret is only rendered the more intense, when it is thought that, in all probability, much valuable manuscript perished in the conflagration.”

–William Symington, as quoted in Stephen Charnock, “Life and Character of Charnock” in The Existence and Attributes of God, Vol.1 (Robert Carter & Brothers, 1853), 14.

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“Get good books” by Thomas Watson

“Get good books in your houses. When you have not the spring near to you, then get water into your cistern; so when you have not that wholesome preaching that you desire, good books are cisterns that hold the waters of life in them to refresh you.

When David’s natural heat was taken away, they covered him with warm clothes (1 Kings 1:1); so when you find a chillness upon your souls and your former heat begins to abate, ply yourselves with warm clothes, get those good books that may acquaint you with such truths as may warm and affect your hearts.”

–Thomas Watson, “Parting Counsels” in Sermons of the Great Ejection (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1662/2012), 166.

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“A piece of advice” by C.S. Lewis

“Oh–I’d nearly forgotten–I have one other piece of advice. Remember that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do.

(1) Things we ought to do

(2) Things we’ve got to do

(3) Things we like doing.

I say this because some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them.

Things you ought to do are things like doing one’s school work or being nice to people. Things one has got to do are things like dressing and undressing, or household shopping.

Things one likes doing–but of course I don’t know what you like. Perhaps you’ll write and tell me one day.

Of course I always mention you in my prayers and will most especially on Saturday. Do the same for me.

Your affectionate godfather,

C.S. Lewis

Magdalen College
Oxford
April 3, 1949″

–C.S. Lewis, “To Sarah” in C.S. Lewis: Letters to Children, (New York: Touchstone, 1985), 27.

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The Best Books I Read This Year (2014)

tl-books2014-1These are my fourteen favorite books that I read in 2014:

1. One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation / Marcus Peter Johnson
To be saved is to be united to the Savior because Jesus is in Himself the blessings He provides. John Murray once noted that nothing is more basic than a believer’s union with Christ. My favorite book of the year helped me see that few things are more beautiful. For example, Johnson writes:

“The Son’s relationship to His Father is everything to Him, for He has existed eternally in the intimate love of His Father. The love of the Father for His Son is the source of all love and the ground of all life. It is a love so extravagant that it overflowed into the creation of the world— God the Father created all things through and for His Son (Col. 1:16). In joining Himself to us, the Son of God has signaled the recreation of all things by opening up to us the love the Father has for Him. He became one with us to make known the love the Father has for Him. But let us be perfectly clear—Jesus came to do more than preach about the Father’s love for us; He came to make this love known in us. (John 17:25-26) To be joined to Jesus Christ is to participate in the love the Father has for the Son. It means we now belong to God as His children, and the Father now loves us no less than He loves His only begotten. It is difficult to conceive of a greater benefit than this because it impossible to conceive of a love deeper than this. How incredible, then, is the doxology that pours forth from John’s pen: ‘See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are’ (1 John 3:1). Jesus Christ is our salvation because in Him, and only in Him, we share in the love that alone can be called eternal life.” (pp. 167-168)

Isn’t that glorious? Get this book and read it slowly. You won’t regret it.

2. Expositional Preaching / David Helm
I’ve been blessed through the writing ministry of David Helm. I often use One to One Bible Reading in my discipling relationships and my daughter loves the Big Picture Story Bible. His latest book is on preaching and it’s excellent. He offers wise and practical instruction to help preachers to both faithfully get the text right and get the text across. The folks at 9Marks cranked out a bunch of jewels this year, but this one was my favorite.

3. Stoner / John Williams
The first novel I read in 2014 was the best I’ve read in a while. And it’s haunted me ever since. C.S. Lewis once reviewed a book by his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, and wrote the following: “Such a book has of course its predestined readers, even now more numerous and more critical than is always realised. To them a review need say little, except that here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart. They will know that this is good news, good beyond hope.” That’s pretty much how I feel about Stoner.

4. From the Mouth of God / Sinclair Ferguson
Imagine if you got coffee with a godly, wise, and seasoned minister of God’s Word and you asked him to share the greatest lessons he’s gleaned from his many decades of trusting, reading, and applying the Bible. That’s what it feels like reading this book. I read several excellent works on Scripture this year (like this one, this onethis one, and this one). But it was this one by Sinclair Ferguson that affected me the most.

5. Music At Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert / John Drury
If you love Herbert’s poetry, then you won’t want to miss this beautiful biography. Illuminating and moving throughout. 

6. American Spies / Michael Sulick
I live in a city with a higher concentration of spies than any other location in the world. Michael Sulick, a retired intelligence operations officer who was director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and chief of CIA counterintelligence, has written a fascinating study on espionage against the United States from the Cold War to the present that helps answer this question: What motivates people to sell their country’s most precious secrets?

7. Justification Reconsidered / Stephen Westerholm
This brief book is one of the most lucid and elegant treatments of justification that I’ve ever read. In a span of 100 pages, Westerholm helpfully, humbly, and critically interacts with recent proposals from New Perspectivists. Westerholm argues convincingly from the biblical text that “Justification through the gospel of Jesus Christ represents one way in which Paul can respond to the question inevitably provoked by a message of pending eschatological doom: ‘How can I find a gracious God?'” (p. 9)

8. Christ Our Life / Michael Reeves
Sometimes you know a book is gonna be good from the opening paragraph. Such is the case with Christ Our Life. Take it away Mr. Reeves:

“Jesus Christ, God’s perfect Son, is the Beloved of the Father, the Song of the angels, the Logic of creation, the great Mystery of godliness, the bottomless Spring of life, comfort and joy. We were made to find our satisfaction, our heart’s rest, in Him. Quite simply, this book will be about enjoying Him, revelling in His all-sufficiency for us, and considering all that He is: how He reveals such an unexpectedly kind God, how He makes, defines– how He is– the good news, and how He not only gives shape to but is Himself the shape of the Christian life.” (p. ix)

NOTE: This book will be published soon in America under the title Rejoicing In Christ.

9. The Gospel Story Bible / Marty Machowski
We used this book as part of our family worship in the mornings and absolutely loved it. Check out this sample and see for yourself.

10. With the Old Breed / E.B. Sledge
This book is a first-hand account of the experiences in training and combat of E.B. Sledge with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division during the Peleliu and Okinawa campaigns in World War II. Sledge and his comrades were swept into an abyss of war and brutality that often beggars belief. He kept copious battle notes on slips of paper in his copy of the New Testament. Years later, he wrote about his war experiences to explain them to his family.

 “War is brutish, inglorious , and a terrible waste. Combat leaves an indelible mark on those who are forced to endure it. The only redeeming factors were my comrades’ incredible bravery and their devotion to each other. Marine Corps training taught us to kill efficiently and to try to survive. But it also taught us loyalty to each other— and love. That esprit de corps sustained us.” (p. 316)

11. Master and Commander / Patrick O’Brian
I finally got around to reading the first volume in the Aubrey and Maturin series. It was just as good as advertised. The fun thing is knowing that the remaining 20 volumes (!) are really just one long and wonderfully told story of life and war and adventure on the high seas.

12. The Gospel at Work / Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert
John Piper once wrote, “Books don’t change people; paragraphs do. Sometimes even sentences.” One of the best sentences in The Gospel at Work is one that could transform your entire outlook on your job: “Who you work for is more important than what you do.” (p. 16) The writers do a fine job showing how working for King Jesus gives purpose and meaning to the work we do everyday.

13. The Painted Word / Philip Cousineau
If you’re in love with the English language and fascinated by words, then you should pick up a copy of The Painted Word which is billed as “A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their Origins.” That’s exactly what it is. I promise you’ll learn something interesting. Check out these two examples of things near and dear to my heart, books and coffee:

BOOK
A collection of words printed on paper and bound by covers. Tracing the roots of such an elemental word reminds me of what art critic Bernard Berenson called “the aesthetic moment,” which he defined as “that flitting instant so brief as to be timeless, when the spectator is at one with the work of art.” That’s what happened when I discovered that book comes from the Anglo-Saxon boc, the bark of a beech tree, traditionally believed to have emerged into German as buch, from Buche, beech. The page turns, and we’re into Old English boc, book, any written document. The notion is of beech-wood tablets on which runes were inscribed, but the word may come from the tree itself. (People still carve initials in them.) Latin and Sanskrit also have words for “writing” that are based on tree names (birch and ash, respectively). Book, meaning “libretto of an opera,” dates from 1768. The self-taught Cherokee scholar Tecumseh described books as “talking leaves.” The irrepressible Groucho Marx said, “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns on a set I go into the other room and read a book.” The first essayist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote, “Books give not wisdome where none was there. But where there is, reading makes it before.” My father was fond of the bookmarks handed out by his favorite bookstore in Dearborn, Michigan, which featured the words of Thomas Carlyle: “Blessings upon Cadmus or the Phoenicians or whoever it was that invented books.” The tea cookie inspired Marcel Proust to write, in In Search of Lost Time, “It seemed to be that they would not be my readers, but readers of their own selves, my book being merely a magnifying glass.” The ultimate mythologization of books is Jorge Luis Borges’s The Library of Babel: “On some shelf, in some hexagon, it was argued, there must be a book that is a cipher and a compendium of all other books.” Companion words include book as a verb, “to enter for a seat or place, issue tickets,” from 1841; betting book, from 1856; bookmaker, 1862. A bookkeeper was originally someone who never returns a borrowed book. (p. 43)

COFFEE
A tree, a beverage, a way of life. A beverage and a word that seems to have been around forever, but dates back only to 1598, when it appeared on the doorsteps of Europe as the Turkish kalve, from Arabic qalwa, and eventually Italian caffè. The crop grows in the tropics; the beverage is made in a café by percolation, infusion, or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of any of several Old World tropical plants (genus Coffea, especially C. arabica and C. canephora). Its storied roots lie in the hills of Ethiopia, where, it is said, a goatherd noticed his flock capering about one afternoon. Wondering what had made them so capricious, goatlike, he watched them chewing a red berry from a bush. The roots of the word coffee probably come from the soil of Dutch koffie, from Turkish kaveh, and earlier from Arabia, where it was considered a kind of wine. Coffee entered the Western world during the Siege of Vienna, in 1529, when the marauding Turkish soldiers left their sacks of coffee beans behind when they were repelled at the gates of the city. The next day the victorious Austrians celebrated with croissants, as a tribute to the crescent moon that shone above the city the night of the attack. Coffeehouse, in merry old England, was vulgar slang for a woman who was taken advantage of, suggestive of “coming and going and spending nothing.” (p. 75)

See what I mean?

14. Boys of Blur / N.D. Wilson
Only a writer as talented as N.D. Wilson could take swamps and sugarcane fields and the Everglades and high school football and Beowulf and turn it into an amazing story. My two boys kept asking me to read and re-read the opening line of the book. They told me that hearing it read aloud was just fun. “When the sugarcane’s burning and the rabbits are running, look for the boys who are quicker than flame.” (p. 2).

As always, happy reading and Happy New Year!

–Nick Roark

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