Top 10 Christian Book Recommendations

After an exhausting week of Vacation Bible School, I don’t feel inspired to write any fresh reviews. However, it’s been too long since I posted anything here, so I’m going to do something a little bit different today. I have compiled a list of the 10 Christian books that I most frequently recommend to friends. Some are an introduction to (or exposition of) what Christians believe, and some are more on the order of “how should we then live?”. I hope you find something useful here (presented in alphabetical order with title linked to a full review if I wrote one):

Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by [Mark Ward]

Title: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible
Author: Mark Ward
Pages: 144

This is probably the most niche book on the list, addressing a concern that only crops up in certain conservative churches. However, if you grew up in “King James Only/Superiority” circles, you should read this balanced defense of modern English Bible translations.

Can We Trust the Gospels? by [Peter J. Williams]

Title: Can We Trust the Gospels
Author: Peter J. Williams
Pages: 162

This author demonstrates why it is reasonable to believe that the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are accurate accounts of the life of Jesus. This is one of the more scholarly books on the list, but the author does not assume prior knowledge or use unexplained academic jargon.

Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion by [Rebecca McLaughlin]

Title: Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion
Author: Rebecca McLaughlin
Pages: 242

Topics addressed in this insightful book include religious violence, homophobia (she herself has been same sex attracted throughout her life), misogyny, slavery, theodicy (existence of evil/suffering), and much more.

Title: Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ
Authors: Andrew David Naselli & Claton Butcher
Pages: 160

Way too many conflicts that occur between Christians are over issues that the Bible has left up to our individual consciences. This book helps Christians think through Christian love that does not cause unnecessary offense or try to bind others to our own merely cultural preferences.

Title: Gentle & Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Pages: 224

Sometimes we need to be reminded “Yes, Jesus loves me.” People who grew up in a certain kind of church soaked in the message of “Try harder to do better because God might have deigned to save you, but he doesn’t really like you that much.” This thoughtful book brings out what the Scriptures say about Jesus’ love and compassion.

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel: How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi W. Hinn
Pages: 224

The “Prosperity Gospel” of guaranteed health and wealth that is peddled by smarmy televangelists makes me sick. Costi Hinn (nephew of televangelist Benny Hinn) demonstrates how destructive and unbiblical this corrupt teaching is. (for the short version, check out Shai Linne’s hip-hop masterpiece Fal$e Teacher$).

Title: Heaven: A Comprehensive Guide to Everything the Bible Says about Our Eternal Home
Author: Randy Alcorn
Pages: 560

This is by far the longest book on the list, but it is well worth your time to read it. It sweeps away misconceptions of heaven as a stuffy, boring place and digs into what the Bible actually says about the afterlife.

Title: How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil
Author: D. A. Carson
Pages: 240

One of the biggest difficulties for Christianity is “the problem of evil.” If God is perfectly good and all-powerful why is there evil in the world? D. A. Carson provides an excellent biblical framework for understanding this issue. (For a much more difficult in depth treatment check out The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil by John S. Feinberg)

How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age by [Jonathan Leeman]

Title: How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age
Author: Jonathan Leeman
Pages: 252

This is a book that every American Evangelical Christian needs to read! It gives biblical guidance on how and why followers of Jesus should participate in the political process rather than being a poorly disguised partisan guide about who and what to vote for. (See also Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by David Platt).

Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) by [C. S. Lewis, Kathleen Norris]

Title: Mere Christianity
Author: C. S. Lewis
Pages: 227

I had to put at least one book on here from my all time favorite author. I don’t 100% agree with everything Lewis says (e.g. sacraments as a means of applying grace, or the possibility of thwarting God’s will for your life), but this is an excellent introduction to the general beliefs of historical Christianity. Even if you’ve been a devoted Christian your whole life, Lewis comes at things from a different angle that will help you see your faith with fresh eyes.

All the Herods (& Some Nonsense About Jesus)

Title: The Herods:
Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession
Author: Bruce Chilton
Genre: History
Pages: 346 (plus bibliology & indices)
Rating: 3.5 of 5
(Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through Edelweiss+. This in no way affects the content of my review)

If you are acquainted with the Gospels & Acts, you probably remember multiple members of the Herod dynasty putting in less than flattering appearances (starting with Herod the Great’s attempt to murder the infant Jesus in Matthew 2). In this book, Bruce Chilton tells the full story of the Herodian dynasty’s rule over Israel. It is a convoluted tale of political & religious maneuvering, egomania, paranoia, sexcapades, and violence.

Chilton portrayal of the Herods seems fairly balanced. He frequently gives them credit for savvy political moves but does not downplay the cruelty, hubris, and mania that characterized this ruling family. I appreciated getting the full picture of who these people were and how they (and Israel) fit into the broader history of the Roman Empire. If that is what you are interested in, I would definitely recommend this book (especially if you don’t want to wade through Josephus’s Antiquities and Jewish War on your own).

However, I would not recommend coming to this book to learn about the Herods’ interaction with John the Baptist, Jesus, and the early church leaders. The author’s views in this regard are steeped in higher criticism, the “historical Jesus” movement, and all the related academic jargon. He treats the Bible (especially the Gospels and Acts) as distorted legends and propaganda to be sifted through for tiny grains of truth. Jesus is recast to suit a purely naturalistic/sociological/political understanding of religion devoid of true divine revelation. Call me unenlightened, but the “historical Jesus” is a pathetic, unconvincing substitute for the Son of God.

As a follower of Jesus who takes the Gospels as divinely-inspired Scripture, I am probably not the intended audience for this book. Nevertheless, it did increase my overall understanding of these people and their time period, and I am glad that I read it (even if the “historical Jesus” parts made me cringe).

Vacation Finds (and Frank the Bear)

I’m finally on vacation! The phone is set to “do not disturb” for everyone but immediate family, my friend Rabbi Glenn is filling the pulpit for me this Sunday (he’s promised to “introduce subtle heresies” to give me a challenge when I get back), and my wife and I just got back from a trip “up North” to celebrate our anniversary. My brain is in low power mode, so I’m not going to write a review right now. However, to keep this blog at least slightly active, here are my book finds from our anniversary trip…a blend of classics, pulp SF&F, a history book, etc. found at several different antique/junk/book shops:

And, as a bonus, here’s a picture of Frank the bear who accompanies us on our trips up North:

How Long, O Lord?

How long, O Lord, will covid continue to ravage and divide our world?
              Tens of thousands suffer and die.
              Each human contact must be weighed against unknown risks.
              Those who seek to help are branded fools, cowards, or conspirators.

How long, O Lord, will violence and injustice prevail on the earth?
              Each day brings news of further atrocities
              Justice measures with weighted scales.
              Deceit, slander, and malice fill our communications.

How long, O Lord, will your own people live with divided loyalty?
              We have subordinated the Golden Rule to the pursuit of “my rights.”
              The fruit of the Spirit withers as we embrace outrage and self-justification.
              We value the opinions of politicians and talk show hosts more highly than your revealed Word.

Arise, O Lord! Let your power and righteousness shine forth!
              Our Father, deliver us from distress.
              Holy Spirit, convict us of hypocrisy and empower us to live in love and holiness.
              Oh, Son, Our Redeemer and King, may you return quickly to make all things new.
              In you alone I hope and trust!

The Hero of Our Souls

Who has not heard   of the Hero of our souls?
Our almighty Maker   a man became.
Gladly foregoing   the glory he had,
In love, as a lamb,   came the Lion of Judah

To jealous judges   was Jesus betrayed.
His followers fled then;   in fear they scattered.
Submitting to malice,   no mercy was shown him.
In courage he quaffed   the cup of all woe

Thorned crown, fell cross   the Christ endured.
Cruel spikes, spear thrust   spilled his guiltless blood.
Man’s vilest vicious act   victory ensured.
The tempter trembled;   the triumph was not his.

God’s Son was slain;   savagely tortured.
His broken body   buried and guarded.
This hellish horror   our hope secured.
From wrath we were rescued;   our ransom he paid.

On Sunday the Son rose,   the Savior victorious.
Soon death will die;   done is his reign.
Freely by faith   our fellowship mended:
The glory of God   in grace revealed.

Classic Weirdness & Satire

The Back to the Classics Challenge is a fun incentive/excuse to mix some classics into your reading for the year (and there’s a chance to win $30 in books, so win-win!). It’s not too late to sign up if you’re interested…just click the graphic to the left. Anyway, I’ve finished two more books for the challenge, so time for a pair of reviews!

Through the Looking-Glass (AmazonClassics Edition) by [Lewis Carroll]

Title: Through the Looking Glass
Author: Lewis Carroll
Genre: Children’s Classic
Pages: 151
Rating: 4 of 5

A few years ago I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was unimpressed. I found it obnoxious and shrill as the whole thing consists of Alice being rushed about and berated for being confused by the nonsensical world of Wonderland. The random nonsense level in Through the Looking Glass was about the same, but I enjoyed it a lot more. Alice’s imagining to herself was charming, the wordplay was a lot of fun, and who doesn’t love the poem Jaberwocky (to say nothing of the classic illustrations)? This classic weirdness is well worth reading.

The Way We Live Now by [Anthony Trollope]

Title: The Way We Live Now
Author: Anthony Trollope
Genre: Classic Satire
Pages: 800
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In this satirical novel, Trollope skewers late 19th century British high society. The sprawling story was originally published as a serial, and I think that Trollope couldn’t quite decide (or changed his mind partway through) about which character or plot thread was primary.

No matter which character of plot thread you follow, the overarching concern seems to be the manipulation of other people…usually for money, matrimony, or both. Trollope casts a cynical eye on mercenary marriages, feckless young men, and financial scandals.

None of the characters are pure as the driven snow (except for a couple of the young women who act like complete ninnies for most of the book). Few of the characters are sympathetic, but some of them are interesting. One character particularly caught my attention due to some similarities to a certain orange individual who shall remain nameless: a businessman much fawned upon because of his reputed wealth (despite rumors of past failed businesses and shady dealings) who enters politics as a conservative though having few real personal convictions.

Like a lot of satirical novels, the overall effect of the story arouses disgust more than amusement. Trollope doesn’t often demonstrate the witty turn of phrase that some satirists use to at least elicit a snort of derisive laughter. This makes parts of the book a bit of a slog, but overall it’s readable and insightful as long as you don’t mind a cast almost entirely void of sympathetic characters.

Best & Worst of 2020

This year I read 116 books with a total page count of 44,163 (~381 pages/book). I now present you with my fifth annual best and worst reads of the year lists (titles linked to my full review if I wrote one; excludes re-reads; presented in groups of five unranked with an additional honorable/dishonorable mention; & starting with the “worst of” list so we can end on a positive note…no purchase necessary; void where prohibited):

Worst of the Year

  • The Comedians by Graham Greene – Our selfish creep of a narrator pursues his sordid little affair amidst the horror of Papa Doc’s Haiti. The secondary characters and setting were interesting, but being in that jerk’s head the whole time was depressing and gross.
  • The Beetle by Richard Marsh – An ambiguously-gendered were-beetle isn’t a strong enough antagonist to make this book worth the boring Victorian nonsense in the middle and abrupt deus ex machina ending.
  • The Necromancers by Robert Hugh Benson – The author seems more interested in warning you against spiritualism than in actually writing a scary story.
  • The Last Ritual by S. A. Sidor – I set the bar for tabletop-game-inspired books pretty low, but this one still failed to clear it with watered-down Lovecraft in a flimsy 1920’s setting.
  • The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier – With this wholly unbelievable tale, DuMaurier becomes the second author ever to appear on both the “best” and “worst” lists in the same year (John LeCarré achieved the same feat last year).
  • Dishonorable Mention: Gwendy’s Magic Feather by Richard Chizmar – The author tried to do way too much in this disappointing sequel to the excellent Gwendy’s Button Box.

Best Non-Fiction

  • Before You Vote by David Platt – This is the rarest of finds: a Christian book about participating in elections that truly places godly principles above partisan agenda!
  • The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark – The author makes a valiant (largely successful?) attempt at describing the complex events and motivations that led to World War 1.
  • Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre – Ben Macintyre makes the list three years running with another excellent true espionage tale: how a corpse sowed disinformation in the Nazi war machine.
  • The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart – This book cleverly stretches out the classic ethical dilemma of “the trolley problem” to provide a whirlwind introduction to various ethical theories and theorists
  • Can We Trust the Gospels by Peter J. Williams – The author ably argues from a variety of external sources and internal characteristics that it is reasonable to trust the veracity of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).
  • Honorable Mention: Linguistics and New Testament Greek edited by David Alan Black & Benjamin Merkle – This was like a step back into seminary with my favorite professor (who passed away before this book was written, but is mentioned in it several times)

Best Fiction

  • Reimagining Lovecraft by Victor LaValle, Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Kaitlin R. Kiernan – An excellent collection of four novellas that self-consciously riff on Lovecraft while subverting his bigotry. (I would also highly recommend Cassandra Khaw’s followup novella A Song for Quiet)
  • Reggiecide by Chris Dolley – The Reeves & Worcester series is a hilarious pitch-perfect steampunk sendup of P. G. Wodehouse (& golden age detective stories), and this novella is my favorite of the lot.
  • Scythe by Neal Shusterman – I liked each book in this trilogy less than the one before it, but I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding and this first book in the series has it in spades.
  • The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – This seeming “murder at the manor house” kind of mystery evolves into some sort of sinister Groundhog Day.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier – Is she a murderer and manipulator or a misunderstood and maligned widow? DuMaurier shows her genius for creating tension and ambiguity.
  • Honorable Mention: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe – Any other year this horrific but (extremely) dry fictionalized account of the 1665 Black Plague pandemic in London would have seemed boring, but it was fascinating to see the parallels in human thought and behavior to our current situation.

And that does it for reading in 2020. My reading goal for 2021 is my old standby of 100 books with an average of at least 300 pages/book. It’s a goal that I usually pass without a lot of effort, but I see no reason to pressure myself and turn enjoyable reading into a high-pressure duty. My Goodreads TBR currently has 100 books on it (at around 38,000 total pages) and I’d like to do most of my reading from there (or at least from books that I already own). Given my usual reading habits, I have my doubts whether that will actually happen. Anyway, it’s way past my bed time so, Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas!

The “classic” Gospel passages for the Christmas story are Matthew 1 & Luke 1-2, but my favorite is John 1. It’s short on details, but John speaks poetically of its cosmic significance:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

Merry Christmas!

Back to the Classics Signup

I’ve been having computer problems for the last week, so it’s been a little longer than usual between posts. I now have a fully functioning laptop again, so here we go. As I was going over my TBR list for next year, I realized that it has a lot of classics on it. So, I decided to see if Karen @ Books and Chocolate was running her excellent Back to the Classics challenge again this year, and she is!

The challenge involves completing classic books (50+ years old) in as many of the 12 sub-categories as possible for entries in a prize drawing (Click the picture I lifted from her page to go there, see full details, and sign up). For me, it’s mostly a fun incentive to include some “serious literature” in my reading and an opportunity to see what classics others have enjoyed.

You don’t have to choose which books you will be reading at the start of the year, but I like to start with a list of possibilities. This year I actually have two possibilities for each category… we’ll see how it goes. Without further ado, the list:

  1. A 19th century classic –
    The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Tr. Rosemary Edmonds)
  2. A 20th century classic
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
    On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  3. A classic by a woman author –
    Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
    Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
  4. A classic in translation –
    The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Tr. David McDuff)
    The Divine Comedy by Danté Alighieri (Tr. Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. A classic by BIPOC author –
    Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley & Malcolm X
    Chaka by Thomas Mofolo (Tr. Daniel P. Kunene)
  6. A classic by a new-to-you author –
    Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (Tr. Burton Raffel)
    Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
  7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author –
    Bleak House by Charles Dickens
    The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
  8. A classic about an animal or with an animal in the title –
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
    The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
  9. A children’s classic –
    The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
    Through the Looking Glass
    by Lewis Carroll
  10. A humorous or satirical classic –
    The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
    A Tale of a Tub & Other Works by Jonathan Swift
  11. A travel or adventure classic –
    The Travels by Marco Polo (Tr. Nigel Cliff)
    The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett
  12. A Classic Play –
    The Miser by Jean-Baptiste Molière (Tr. John Wood)
    The Pot of Gold by Plautus (Tr. E. F. Watling)

“Did God really say…”

Earlier this week, I said I would probably follow up on my post about reading through the Greek New Testament and looking at all the listed variants. Well, here you go!

If you listen to certain skeptics, they will tell you that there are thousands upon thousands of differences between ancient New Testament manuscripts and that this means we have little to no idea of what the original text actually says. While they might be technically right about the thousands of variant readings, the vast majority of those differences are simply variations in spelling that have no impact on how a given passage is understood or translated (think: honor vs. honour or night vs. nite). These and similarly insignificant variants do not appear in the apparatus of the edition I read, but the more significant ones that were listed (and there are still hundreds of them) are still not of a nature that calls into question the message of Scripture. As I read through them, almost all fell into one of these broad categories:

  • Which title(s) of Jesus or God are used in the passage and in which order do they occur? (e.g. Lord vs. God / Jesus Christ vs. Christ Jesus vs. Lord Jesus Christ)
  • Does the writer use the first person or second person plural? (i.e. we vs. you – which are one letter off and sound virtually identical in later dialects of Koine Greek)
  • Is the wording in parallel passages (e.g. in the synoptic Gospels) identical or merely similar (but virtually identical in meaning)?
  • Which conjunction or preposition (most of which are very flexible and heavily overlap in meaning) is used to connect clauses?
  • Is the subject or object implied or explicitly stated? (e.g. He said vs. Jesus said vs. Jesus said to him)
  • A little more rarely, but a bit more impactful: Which verb tense/voice/mood (or noun case/number/gender) is used? (e.g. we have peace with God vs. let us have peace with God)

In many instances, it is easy to determine which reading is original with a high degree of certainty (based on age, character, and geographic distribution of manuscripts as well as an understanding of scribal practices). However, even when this is not the case, the nature of these variants is not such that it radically alters or calls into question the meaning of the text.

There are a few variants that are a verse long, and two that are longer than a verse (the longer ending of Mark and the story of the woman caught in adultery). Most of these are easily resolved by looking at the textual evidence, and none of them contain a teaching whose presence or absence changes a teaching of the faith (unless you are “snake-handler,” but that practice is a gross misapplication of those verses anyway).

This is kind of “pet topic” of mine, so I’m trying to refrain from babbling on or going into a lot of technical jargon. Short version: personally looking at all the variants listed in the UBS5 Greek New Testament confirmed/increased my confidence that we do indeed have a highly reliable, absurdly well-preserved New Testament.