Book in a Nutshell: Forgotten in the midst of MLK’s service and speeches, one September week in New York City could have altered the history of the Civil Rights Movement. Visiting Harlem to promote his first book, King deals with tribalism among other black leaders, attempts to take advantage of the fall’s election season to garner support for his cause, and lands in the operating room after a shocking attack.
Reaction: In only 144 pages, this book exposes many events and issues surrounding Martin Luther King, Jr. and the broader civil rights movement that are underrepresented in many other works. The initial chapters that reveal King’s struggles in his own ministry as a public figure provide a number of helpful lessons for those in leadership and ministry today. Pearson also provides just enough context regarding the various camps of black leadership, the political contests in New York City, and America’s ongoing fascination and fear with Russian Communism to enable the reader to grasp how the attack on King’s life could take place in the way that it did.
While already a short a read, the book seems to lose it’s steady rhythm in the twelfth chapter as Pearson gets bogged down in discussing the backgrounds of the medical staff at Harlem Hospital. This focus on medicine does present a unique window into the everyday racial discrimination in the late 1950’s, but this section feels alien to the rest of the book. All of the other chapters are of similar length and offer a helpful amount of context while keeping an enjoyable pace. But when the hospital staff emerges the pace shuts down. This lack of uniformity and the cumbersome interruption of the book’s swift movement keeps me from giving it a higher ranking.
Quote: “Had he sneezed violently enough, there’s a good chance he would have drowned in his own blood.”
Book in a Nutshell: In 1959, author John Howard Griffin, with the help of a second-guessing dermatologist, transforms his skin color so that he can discover what it is like to live in the Deep South as a black man. For about six weeks, Griffin struggles to keep his basic needs met, hears things from other men unlike anything he’s ever heard, and wrestles with an internal, psychological turmoil he doesn’t quite anticipate. This book details these experiences and includes some of his conclusions and reflections about the race “question” in America.
Reaction: Howard’s work from nearly 60 years ago produced some complex responses from me, both emotionally and philosophically.
As a sociology major in undergrad, I relished the idea of someone literally trying to live in another person’s shoes. It is a little mind-blowing that this experiment even worked and that Howard wasn’t caught by more people. Because of the nature of his experiment much of the book reads like a thriller as the reader constantly wonders what is John going to face next.
At one level, even as he writes to push for social justice and peace, Howard’s observations can come across as offensive. He makes some fairly broad assertions about how African-Americans feel about certain issues, and he often uses the “we” pronoun as he does it. I kept saying to myself, “Umm, John, you’re still white. How do you really know?” I am sure Howard learned a great ordeal in his experiment, but he seems condescending at times even towards the people he is trying to understand and defend. Using more direct quotes from some of his friends in the black community might have fixed this; however, I do understand that at the time of his writing this, Howard’s goal was for a white audience to receive the message and doing so might have hindered his success there.
On another level, Howard’s experience often provoked me to consider just how much of this has not changed at all. Blatant attacks seem to be on the rise lately and need to be confronted, but I was convicted by some of the more subtle expressions of racism that Howard’s book brings to light. One of these expressions is the tendency of the white man to loosen his tongue and talk more freely around men of color. Whereas we might tighten up our language around white company to maintain a level of decency, whites can knowingly or unknowingly settle into a rougher vernacular that can give the impression that the person talking to us is not worth the same conversational dignity. Because of this helpful observation, I believe I will have more awareness not just in what I say but how I say it.
What resonates the loudest even today are Howard’s calls to the white community to do three things: Be Informed, Listen, and Relate. The whites in Howard’s day and often in ours do not truly know about life as a black man. To bridge the gap and build a more equal and just community, people of all races, but especially the white community, should seek to be learners. They should be better listeners. And they should build authentic, mutual relationships with people from other races. The book may have been written in 1960, but these lessons are timeless; and they are needed in America right now.
Quote: “I was the same man, whether white or black.”
Book in a Nutshell: A political prisoner, Count Rostov, is sentenced not to a term in the Siberian gulags but to a life of confinement in the Metropolitan Hotel just steps away from the Kremlin in Moscow as Russia changes before his eyes under the Communist Revolution. Not unlike Tom Hanks stranded on an island with a volleyball, Rostov masters his surroundings and circumstances in the Hotel by claiming abandoned treasures found in the basement, memorizing the menus at both eating establishments, and developing life-giving relationships that make the only building he can know seem to house its own universe.
Reaction:A Gentleman in Moscow shines. The writing is excellent and poetic. The author is attached to alliteration but not in a way that annoyingly draws attention away from the action (see what I did there?). The characters keep you reading even when the story itself lulls.
What left me in deep thought throughout were the themes of time, culture, and change. Russia is changing and Rostov is expected to change with it. One can find many parallels in the Communist Revolution with our own experience in the early 21st Century as culture changes not at its usual, glacial rate but at blinding speed. Like good comrades, citizens face the demand to bend the knee and join the right side of history. Many of us will bend, but Rostov shows us true life might be found even in a caged life of confinement if one holds on to what really matters.
Quote: “I can’t help suspecting that grand things persist.”
Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1: Proper Theology by Geerhardus Vos
Book Review and Takeaways
Daddy, do you know what Cat in the Hat said?
Thus began my breakfast one morning between Christmas and New Years.
Lowering my coffee, I replied, “No, what did the Cat in the Hat say?”
Explorers never stop exploring.
Thanks to Dr. Seuss via my attentive daughter, Daddy’s breakfast was served with life lessons that morning.
In one of my favorite reads last year, The Lost City of Z, explorer Percy Fawcett gives his life for the sake of traversing the dark, Amazonian rainforest. Time after time, he returns to South America in hopes of finding an ancient city of riches and wonder.
Fawcett leaves his British home for the Amazon on behalf of the Royal Geographic Society. The President of the Society during Fawcett’s missions once proclaimed this:
There [is] not a square foot of the planet’s surface to which the Fellows of this Society should not at least try to go.
Not a square foot.
There’s still more to see, more to find, and more to learn.
Whether on morning cartoons or in real-life cross-Atlantic missions, the truth remains.
Explorers never stop exploring.
With this mantra firmly centered in my mind as I prepared for a new year, I resolved to explore. To explore new things, new authors, new ideas, new countries, new hobbies.
But as Fawcett shows us, this commitment to exploration drives you to return to the familiar and explore again. Old jungles and old paths. Old things, old authors, and old ideas.
So in 2017, I am exploring the new. You might hear about it this year; that is, if my return to the old blog, obtains new steadfastness.
But in 2017, I am also exploring the old. One way in which this has already happened is a return to the study of systematic theology.
Book in a Nutshell: This head-spinning work presents Vos’ teachings on the doctrines of God (His names, being, attributes), the Trinity, God’s decrees, predestination, creation, and providence. Based on lectures given at Calvin Theological Seminary in the 1890’s, this text is delivered in a question-answer format rather than a more typical paragraph format.
Reaction: I have studied this type of material often in the past, but I found this quest back into the jungle of systematic theology refreshing. Sections of the book can be overwhelming as Vos demonstrates his mastery over weighty topics, but he has a knack for distilling his position in crisp summary statements. I enjoyed the format as it enables easy start-stop reading. One of the greatest strengths is the set of indexes in the back of the book that will make returning to it for further study and teaching all the more profitable. If you have never read a book like this before, it might be more helpful to first explore a more accessible venture like Wayne Grudem’s work.
GoodReads Ranking: 5 out of 5 stars
On my exploration, I discovered a few treasures I couldn’t hoard all to myself.
1. God’s Infinity and Our Imagination – God in his perfection has no limits and no restrictions however impossible it is for our limited minds to grasp it.
“We cannot make a concept of the infinite with our thinking… However far we proceed in our imagination, we know that we have not arrived at the end, that we could still take one more step.”
2. Rest – Vos asserts that in God’s rest on the seventh day, there are two aspects. Negatively, rest means “ceasing from creating”. Positively, rest involves “taking pleasure in the finished work”.
True rest is both stopping work and enjoying the fruits.
Think about how we rest. Do we do both? Or do we merely cease from work and forget to enjoy? Maybe, a lot of us feel like we never rest because we only go half way. Maybe, we have to move past stopping and start enjoying.
3. A God Who Governs – Back in 2008, during the national championship game, I prayed that God would let the Memphis Tigers win. I really did. Sadly, God said no.
A lot of people, Christians included, might think this silly. Surely, we think, God doesn’t care about something so meaningless. Vos has my back, however. He writes, “Scripture teaches us that nothing (emphasis mine) is excluded from God’s governing, be it small or large, free or necessary, good or evil (win or lose?).”
Reformed Christians have long taught that the providence of God is exhaustive (in case you missed it, exhaustive includes basketball). Greek philosophers like Aristotle believed the gods only concerned themselves with important matters, but the God of the Bible is no mere Zeus. When we think the same way as Aristotle, we are thinking about God’s heavenly reign as king in an earthly way.
So the current application here is simple: For whatever reason, God didn’t want Nick Saban and Alabama to win again. Bama Christians will have to recite Romans 8:28 to themselves until next year.
4. Straight Talk – When you read a systematic theology work, you will be confronted with controversial issues. There’s no way around that. Geerhardus Vos doesn’t pull punches.
ON THE TRINITY – “Is the Son God in the sense that one can speak of only one God?… Everyone must take sides [Vos argues Yes!]. No one can be saved from it with vague answers.”
ON FREE WILL – “The decree of God also embraces the free acts of men… it is completely absurd and impossible that what is most important… in world history would be beyond the control of God.”
ON GOD’S JUSTICE – “One does not convince such people, one stops their mouth.”
My trek through the Dutch-Reformed Amazon delivered more than enough plunder to make the effort worthwhile. I am glad I made the journey.
But with Dr. Seuss still in mind, the journey continues. I have already begun the initial leg of Vos’ second volume on Anthropology and I have other jungles, caves, and rivers to explore this year as well. Most of them are Russian.
What are you exploring right now? Maybe it is a new author or artist or hobby. Feel free to share some your plans below.
Maybe you don’t have an answer. Whether its an old Dutch professor, a classic novel that has sat on your nightstand for months, or a foreign language waiting to be learned and spoken, let the Cat in the Hat keep you on your toes and push you down a path, any path.
2016 was a year of reading for me. Great books. Dumb books. Long books. Short books.
Thanks in part to a 2016 Christian Reading Challenge by Tim Challies as well as some ongoing accountability from my wife, I read more books in 2016 than I have ever read in a single year. Dropping cable for a few months didn’t hurt either!
As 2017 has started, a few people have asked me about my favorite reads or for some reading recommendations.
Below, I have listed 16 books that tell the story of my 2016.
Please note: This list is not my top 16 books. When I reflect on 2016, these are the books that come to mind for one reason or the other. You will find five fiction books, six nonfiction books, and five Christian books (with a silly bonus since it’s 2017).
With each book, I have written a brief summary, my reaction, a quote from the book, and my GoodReads ranking for each book. I gave only 7 of the 70 books I read last year a full 5 out of 5 possible stars last year. All seven are listed below. I ranked 11 books 4 out of 5 stars; seven are included in the list below as well. So if you pay attention to my rankings, you have a good gauge at how my top book list would look.
Book in a Nutshell: All-time classic from one of Russia’s greatest authors featuring three brothers: one hedonist, one atheist, and one faithful. Love triangles, murder, courtroom drama, and existential philosophy rolled into one.
Reaction: Dostoevsky resonates with me every time. I spent a day in wonder when I finished the last page. It might be my favorite book of all time – absolutely my number 1 book in 2016. 800-plus pages will scare some away, but the journey is worth it. For a taste of Dostoevsky at a more friendly 552 pages, try his Crime and Punishment.
Quote: He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour”…
Book in a Nutshell: Based on a real-life heirloom, Hawke writes as an Anglo-Saxon father who is preparing to leave his children for battle and fears his probable death. Each brief chapter offers the father’s wisdom on virtue and character. Think Sword in the Stone meets Second Timothy.
Reaction: After hearing my senior pastor rave about this one, I read the book in one sitting and underlined half the book. I will be tempted to quote this book almost any time I teach.
Quote: On Solitude – Just as it is impossible to see your reflection in troubled water, so too is it with the soul.
Book in a Nutshell: More than 40 years before Orwell, Chesterton predicts what England will look like in 1984. A king is chosen to rule at random, and absurd chaos ensues.
Reaction: Chesterton may not have intended this, but the book hauntingly and hilariously mirrored much of the 2016 presidential election. In the Trump era, this book feels like a current script for a SNL-type movie.
Quote: The men who lounged and wondered behind him followed partly with an astonishment at his brilliant uniform, that is to say, partly because of that instinct which makes us all follow one who looks like a madman, but far more because of that instinct which makes all men follow (and worship) one who chooses to behave like a king.
Book in a Nutshell: If you don’t know by now, you probably don’t care.
Reaction: I read this series to have some fun conversations with some high school students. As a whole the series is good, but not to the level I was expecting. There’s more epic action than Narnia, especially in the later books, but less grand redemptive truths and themes.
Quote: Not a week has passed since I became headmaster of this school when I haven’t had at least one owl complaining about the way I run it. But what should I do? Barricade myself in my study and refuse to talk to anybody? – Albus Dumbledore
Book in a Nutshell: A down-to-earth Wyoming Game Warden begins his adventures in this book as he tries to protect not only an endangered species but his young family as well.
Reaction: Joe Pickett was my 2016 guilty pleasure. The Game Warden angle breathes some fresh air into the mystery genre. The series consistently presents intriguing stories and endearing family dynamics, but readers should know there are brief mature episodes and some adult language in the books. Concerned parents and weak consciences might not enjoy the books for this reason.
Quote: Things are about to get real western.
GoodReads Ranking: Open Season: 4 of 5 stars. Other books in the series: 2-4 stars.
Book in a Nutshell: Focusing on one team member, Joe Rantz, this historical book tells the story of the Washington University rowing team that represented the United States in the Olympics in Hitler’s Germany in 1936.
Reaction: Reading the book felt like rowing the boat with the team. Some parts felt like you really have to put effort into getting to the finish line; at other times you hardly noticed how easily you are coasting through the book. By the end, this was one of my favorites in 2016.
Quote: It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.
Book in a Nutshell: This book covers the events and foreign policy mistakes that led to the emergence of the infamous terrorist group.
Reaction: I needed this book. Middle Eastern history and politics are hard for me to follow. Reading this equipped me to understand how we got to this point and to make some sense of the current events in Iraq and Syria. At times, this book reads like an intense thriller.
Quote: In each case, the Islamists promised freedom from tyrannical regimes and the creation of a just society, ordered according to godly principles. What they delivered instead was an armed dictatorship defined by corruption, cruelty, and death.
Book in a Nutshell: A medical professional finds out he only has a little while left to live. This book offers the needed perspective that death is certain for us all, and the last few pages of the book will make you cry ugly.
Reaction: This one probably makes the top 5 for the year, but I don’t see myself ever reading this again.
Quote: Most lives are lived with passivity toward death — it’s something that happens to you and those around you.
Book in a Nutshell: This is a true story about one of the last great explorers, Percy Fawcett. Intertwined with Fawcett’s adventure is the author’s own journey to the Amazon.
Reaction: I could not put this book down at all. Everything that captures your imagination when you watch Indiana Jones grabs you here except this story actually happened. I am carefully anticipating the upcoming movie release.
Book in a Nutshell: An African-American father writes to his son about what it means to grow up as a black man in our country and world today.
Reaction: As a white man, there were truths I needed to hear and feelings I needed to understand. Whether it is this book or another like it, I would recommend all my white friends to read something like this in order to get a better understanding of what life is like in someone else’s shoes. For me, Coates’ atheistic worldview undermined some of the ethical arguments he proposed.
Quote: But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
Book in a Nutshell: Half of the book is dedicated to the raging surge of legal and illegal use of opiates across our country. The other half unveils the rise of a Mexican beach community that produces a majority of the heroin on our streets today.
Reaction: As I now live in the middle of the opiate epicenter, I might not have read another book that spoke more to my own community and context. The content was better than the delivery at times, but I learned a lot reading this one.
Quote: “We can talk morality all day long, but if you’re drawing five hundred dollars a month and you have a Medicaid card that allows you to get a monthly supply of pills worth several thousand dollars, you’re going to sell your pills.”
Book in a Nutshell: A short and practical guide to preaching. It covers a myriad of topics including sermon calendars, preaching without notes, being a guest preacher, and finding your own preaching style.
Reaction: One of my favorite preachers hits a home-run with this book. It has helped me grow as much as any other preaching book I have read. If you teach or preach and you do not own this book, get it soon.
Quote: Our preaching is not the reason the Word works. The Word is the reason our preaching works.
Book in a Nutshell: This book seeks to help guide parents in a number of important topics regarding college. Each chapter includes good discussion starters to equip parents to shepherd students during this transitional season of life.
Reaction: This book will benefit parents as much as they let it. Helpful truths abound and the conversation starters will greatly serve any family that takes the time to try them.
Book in a Nutshell: This first-time author explains what Union with Christ is and means, traces the doctrine through Scripture and church history, and demonstrates how this doctrine impacts everyday life.
Reaction: I recently preached on a text that addressed this doctrine, and Wilbourne’s book helped me immensely. Any Christian would benefit from studying this overlooked doctrine.
Quote: Union with Christ is not an idea to be understood, but a new reality to be lived, through faith.
Book in a Nutshell: Croft and Butler address the oversight and administration duties of an elder and pastor. This helpful book covers several topics (ex: medical emergencies, security issues) I cannot remember encountering in other pastoral ministry books.
Reaction: I read this book alongside the other elders in my church. When we met to discuss the book during our elder meetings, we enjoyed many helpful discussions in seeking to apply the book’s lessons to our own congregation. Each chapter is brief but offers plenty of material to digest and discuss with other leaders.
Book in a Nutshell: These two authors present the biblical understanding of sexuality in a winsome manner. Included in this short book is an important discussion on the Bible’s teaching regarding sexual thoughts, desires, and inclinations.
Reaction: If you’re a conservative Christian, this will help clarify the Bible’s teachings and equip you to have truthful and loving conversations. If you are open-minded or even if you disagree, this book will present to you the biblical position with conviction, clarity, and compassion.
Quote: We are not merely the sum total of our fallen sexual desires.
Book in a Nutshell: This book is a father-centric parody of the best-selling What to Expect When You are Expecting. Over the course of the book, one father offers sarcastic advice to other fathers-to-be for each phase of the nine-month pregnancy.
Reaction: We welcomed our third child in 2016 so I tried this book out one lazy Saturday morning. Things start off strong as the introduction claims that men are the ones who really suffer during a pregnancy. I read all nine-months in one sitting so some of it might have been funnier if I had read it over the nine-month period.
Quote: (Note to the wife) Understanding what your husband is going through is the most important thing you can do. And don’t forget that pregnancy can be just as challenging, rewarding, and involving for a woman as it is for a man.
GoodReads Ranking: 2 of 5 stars
Setting a goal, pursuing some diversity in reading, and having an accountability partner all helped make 2016 my best reading year ever. My wife and I are once again participating in the Challies Reading Challenge in 2017.
This year, I am pursuing a smaller total of books only because I am hoping to knock out a handful of looooong books (including the 1200-plus page classic War and Peace).
I’d love to hear from you. What books made your 2016? I still have several open slots for books to read this year so feel free to let me know some books you think I should consider reading in 2017!
Not just on a day like today, but on, oh, so many days in the past tumultuous year, we speak our mind.
We have a comment and opinion on every news item that crosses our feed. Everything is shaded in hues of left and right. Everything is spun and spat with webs of liberal or conservative fears and prophesies. We speak so much we stop saying anything of any true substance at all.
And often times, we speak out of turn. We speak our defenses when the court is lending its ear to the prosecution. We speak our minors in the presence of things truly major.
We speak. And speak. And speak.
And we miss the sign written all around us. “This is a time to listen.”
Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.”
If Facebook and Twitter are any indication, we have a lot of folly and shame to deal with. And when I say “we” here, I am really talking about my white brothers and sisters. Every one of us on this planet can take heed from Solomon on this one, but in many regards, it is the white tribe to which I belong that should weigh the King’s words in this tumultuous season.
A lot of issues that we wrestle with, events that we click, share, post, and comment on in blinding speed, are more complex than people on both sides would care to admit. Complexity demands good listening – not the quick-fire, defensive back-and-forths that define so much of our social media conversations.
As national events like we have seen in Ferguson and New York have transpired, I have watched African-American brothers in Christ honestly struggle in the open as the details emerge. To say I absolutely, fundamentally understand the struggle would be to diminish their unique personhood and the creativity of a God who wove their unique stories. But I do know they struggled.
The most loving thing one could do at that moment, especially as a white brother in Christ, would be to listen. Really, truly, actually, actively listen.
Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even dare to be silent with you. – Henry Nouwen
But this form of loving one another is so antithetical to the attitude we embrace when we share and comment on social media in particular.
This has been grossly evident in the comment sections of some of the raw, gut-wrenching posts from my African-American brothers in Christ. In moments of pure turmoil when they deal with the ugliness and the worldly brokenness of dead bodies, blood on the streets, and true injustice, the ugliness gets uglier when their white brothers in Christ do not act like their Savior, who according to Philippians 2 thought of others as more important than himself. We do not love with the 1 Corinthians 13 love that hopes all things and believes all things as we do not give one another the benefit of the doubt. We do not remain slow to speak or anger and quick to listen, as we, within seconds, hit “Enter” to post a comment that destroys the humanity of the original poster.
The loving thing to do would be to allow our brother to air his struggle. That is the essence of Christian fellowship: vulnerability and freedom to handle the ugliness of the world out in the open in light of the hope and grace found in the cross and resurrection.
The loving thing to do would be to read our brother’s comment with ears intent to hear the man’s heart – not to assume his agenda.
And often the loving thing to do would be to close our mouths or, in the cyber realm, get our fingers away from the keyboard.
Pastors and leaders have rightly argued in recent days that in light of current events it is “A Time to Speak”.
But if it is a time for some to speak, then that must mean that for others it must be a time to listen.
Are we listening?
It is a time to listen in more ways than one.
Today, in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., here are some of the things I am listening to: