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.

Micro Reviews

Recently, by the time I get done preparing my weekly sermons, Bible studies, counseling, fire-dousing, etc. my writing and creative ability is sapped for the day. I am definitely in need of the vacation that I have coming up in a few weeks. That said, I don’t want to completely neglect this blog or leave too many books unreviewed, so here are a handful of one to three sentence reviews (none of the usual formatting…I’m weary):

The First World War by John Keegan – I don’t find WW1 especially interesting, but wanted to get a good overview of it. This book provided just that: a solid surface-level overview in a rather dry, businesslike style. (Rating: 4.5 of 5)

The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin – In this short book, McLaughlin interacts with many of the slogans found on the kind of yard signs that begin “In this house we believe…”. Using a blend of social science data and Scripture she shows if (and how) each one fits into a biblical worldview. After reading this and Confronting Christianity, McLaughlin is one of my new favorite authors. (Rating: 5 out of 5)

Tinfoil Dossier Series (Agents of Dreamland, Black Helicopters, & The Tindalos Asset) by Caitlin R. Kiernan – Blending modern paranoid conspiracy theory thinking with Lovecraftian elements is a pretty cool idea for a series of novellas. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the execution at all as it was trippy to the point of being nearly incomprehensible and laced with massive amounts of profanity and perversion (e.g. incest). (Rating: 2 out of 5)

Jack Aubrey & Stephen Maturin Series (Master & Commander, etc.) by Patrick O’Brian – Historical fiction isn’t usually my thing, but these books are a lot of fun so far. Three books in, I’m definitely enjoying the Napoleonic Wars era exploits of the the blustering Captain Jack Aubrey & his friend the somewhat eccentric Dr. Stephen Maturin (both at sea and on shore in polite society). (Rating: 4 out of 5)

Single & Single by John LeCarré – This story dives into the world of high-level money laundering and all its attendant corruption. As usual with LeCarré, the book was interesting without really providing any likeable characters. Also, somewhere after his George Smiley books LeCarré seems to have lost the ability/will to write a dénouement, as the last three books I have read by him have ended abruptly with a ton of loose ends. (Rating 3 out of 5)

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by [Dane C. Ortlund]

Title: Gentle and Lowly:
The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Author: Dane C. Ortlund
Genre: Beautiful Theology
Pages: 190 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

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.” They live under constant pressure to earn God’s love and approval with a constant sinking feeling of failing to do so (even while professing a belief in his mercy and grace). This book destroys such a disapproving, aloof image of our Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ.

Jesus described himself as “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and in 23 short chapters Ortlund (with the help of various Puritan theologians) explores many facets of his compassionate character. We are reminded what it means when we say that Jesus “loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). These pages offer a beautiful, soul-refreshing description of the believer’s loving relationship with the One who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). This is not lightweight downplaying of God’s other attributes so we can focus on his love drivel, but biblically grounded praise of the One who is perfectly just and righteous and whose heart is characterized by mercy, grace, and compassion.

My only quibble with the book is that (like a lot of things that come out of The Gospel Coalition) it is a bit hero-worshippy toward the Puritan theologians. However, the quotes by these men that pervade the book demonstrate why this admiration is not wholly misplaced.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I wouldn’t recommend blasting straight through it as moving too quickly may make some of it sound repetitive. Rather, savor a chapter or two at a time to appreciate all the different strands he is pulling together. There might not be anything particularly new here, but it eloquently remind us that “Yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.”

The Serpent Slayer

Title: The Serpent & the Serpent Slayer
Author: Andy Naselli
Genre: Biblical Theology
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/3/2020 – Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.

Who doesn’t love a tale of dragon-slaying? This book traces the theme of serpent/dragon-slaying through the Bible from the first promise of a Savior who would “crush the head” of the serpent (Genesis 3:14-15) to the final defeat of “the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the devil” in the book of Revelation. Along the way, the author also draws comparisons to other serpent/dragon-slaying stories, both mythical and popular fantasy.

I love the idea of this book, and the theme is definitely there in Scripture and in popular stories. Naselli does a decent job of tracing the thread, quoting extended passages from the Bible throughout the book. However, I do think that some of his examples are a bit of stretch, particularly in the passages pulled from the eras of judges and kings (and points made from The Lord of the Rings which does not in fact feature any dragons or serpents even though it has a strong biblical good overcoming evil vibe).

In areas related to the fulfillment of prophecy and the role of national Israel, the author’s theology is quite a bit different from my own. While these aren’t issues over which we should call each other “heretic,” they do significantly affect how we understand some of the passages he highlights. Someone who is a bit more amillennialist, preterist, and/or supersessionist than I am will probably have a greater appreciation for certain parts of the book than I do.

Overall, this is a pretty cool little biblical theology book. It speaks to me as a theology nerd, fantasy geek, and follower of Jesus Christ who is the ultimate dragon-slayer.

Read This First

Before You Vote: Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask by [David Platt]

Title: Before You Vote:
Seven Questions Every Christian Should Ask
Author: David Platt
Genre: Theology/Politics
Pages: 120
Rating: 5 of 5

If you are Christian who claims to live by the principles of God’s Word, you need to read this book. All too often, professing Christians act as if certain biblical principles are somehow suspended during election season. Getting “the right candidate” elected takes on a higher priority than love for our neighbor, unity in the church, or the pursuit of holiness. This should not be!

In this short book, David Platt uses seven questions to help Christians keep a proper focus and God-honoring mindset while deciding how to vote and while interacting with those who decide differently. This is a non-partisan book, and not like the “non-partisan voting guides” that carefully curate their questions to push you toward a certain candidate or party. Platt recognizes that different Christians who have the same commitment to biblical truth may weigh issues differently and arrive at different decisions on who they should vote for in good conscience. He interacts with biblical principles, not party platforms. His seven questions are:

  1. Does God call me to vote?
  2. Who has my heart?
  3. What does my neighbor need?
  4. What is the Christian position?
  5. How do I weigh the issues?
  6. Am I eager to maintain unity in the church?
  7. So how do I vote?

Question seven is kind of the odd one out. Rather than focusing on a biblical principle, it fleshes out Platt’s personal system for weighing issues (using two hypothetical examples rather than his own personal position). This provides a method for organizing thoughts prompted by questions 1-6, but is not necessarily the only way to do so.

My one (very) minor quibble with the book is an omission that I found surprising. When Platt discusses voting options, he speaks of the three options for “stewarding your vote” as: voting for the Democratic candidate, voting for the Republican candidate, or “convictional inaction” (choosing to deliberately refrain from voting in a specific race if you cannot in good conscience vote for either major party candidate). Missing is the option of voting for a “third party” candidate. While very similar to “convictional inaction,” it is different enough (you are expressing your conviction in a way that will be tabulated) that I think it should have been mentioned.

Overall, this is one of the best books I have read on Christian engagement with the political process (see also How the Nations Rage by Jonathan Leeman). It is a much needed reminder that we may disagree on issues of conscience, but such disagreement should not cause us to lay aside love for our neighbors and unity of the body of Christ. To borrow a few phrases from Romans 14 (where varying convictions about food have become a divisive issue in the church): Let us each be “fully convinced in his own mind” because “everything that does not come from faith is sin,” and “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” or, in this case, votes.

A Rebuke of Blatant Hypocrisy

The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values by [Ben Howe]

Title: The Immoral Majority:
Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power Over Christian Values
Author: Ben Howe
Genre: Politics/Theology
Pages: 265 (plus indices, citations, etcs.)
Rating: 4 of 5

How could so many Evangelical Christians go from howls of “Character matters! He must resign!” during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to declaring “we’re electing a president not a pastor” and “it’s just locker room talk” in defense of the flagrant immorality of Donald Trump? How can they not see this blatant testimony-destroying hypocrisy? How can we speak with any kind of moral authority when the majority of self-identified Evangelicals unreservedly applaud and defend the every action of a man who in his personal conduct is the antithesis of our Lord and Savior? If nothing else, this book has let me know that there are at least a few other conservative Christians out there who share these grave concerns.

Ben Howe, a self-identified Christian and political conservative, takes a hard look at the “Trump Evangelicals.” He traces the steps that led from “not my first choice, but…” to full-fledged defense, support, or even celebration, of behavior that should appall a follower of Jesus Christ. He tries to uncover and understand the underlying motives (concluding mostly self-interest & retribution after years of feeling like they were being unfairly mischaracterized), and shows how any “gains” made through policy are essentially “gaining the world but losing your soul.” He ends on a call to return to trusting God’s to accomplish his will as we consistently obey him rather than trying to help God out with an ends-justify-the-means plunge into hypocrisy.

As far as weak points: His definition of Evangelical was incredibly imprecise, some of his attribution of motives may have been overly cynical, and he seemed to go back and forth on whether it was a problem to support Trump at all or just a problem to support/defend his flagrantly immoral behavior. In spite of these imprecisions, I would still highly recommend this book as food for thought and a biblically solid rebuke of the ends-justify-the-means thinking that far too many Christians have adopted in the arena of politics.

I leave you with this quote: “Our job is to ensure our devotion to Christ’s teachings in the means. Our trust is to believe in God’s will as it relates to the ends.” (p. 229)

Music from Narnia

I haven’t finished any books worth reviewing in the last week, so I decided to do something a little different and review a (book-related) music album. Like my other favorite group, The Gray Havens, this artist is heavily influenced by my favorite author, C. S. Lewis.

Into the Lantern Waste

Title: Into the Lantern Waste
Artist: Sarah Sparks
Genre: Folk
Length: 36 minutes (10 songs)
Rating: 5 of 5

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favorite series of all time, second only to Lord of the Rings (see my full review of Narnia here). It works as both a set of charming fantasy stories and a theologically rich exploration of the person and work of Jesus Christ. C. S. Lewis viewed these books as a “supposition” of what it would look like for Jesus to appear in another world.

This album picks up on many of the theological themes that Lewis wove into his stories. Songs center around major characters and events from Narnia as well as parallel thoughts from Lewis’s other writings (e.g. Mere Christianity) and the Bible. I was pleased to notice that the song order matches the books’ original publication order rather than the chronological order that prevails in newer editions…it’s a small, nitpicky thing, but it made me happy.

The folksy/ballad style and jazzy vocals lend the perfect contemplative air to the album. The haunting Blood for Blood about the redemption of Edmund is especially effective. Occasionally, the vocals may be a bit too soft compared to the music, but overall I highly recommend this to any fans of Narnia and Lewis!

Back with Some Mini Reviews

I’m back! I think that this has been my longest stretch without a post since starting this blog. Pastoring during a pandemic with a major hotspot 45 minutes up the road is no joke, and I was starting to feel pretty burned out. Thankfully, I was able to take almost a week off, including a few days’ getaway with my wife for our 18th anniversary, and I’m feeling a little less stressed. No promises, but maybe I’ll return to my pre-COVID “approximately once per week” schedule. To that end, here are a handful of mini reviews (presented in order read):

Title: “He Descended to the Dead”
An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday
Author: Matthew Y. Emerson
Genre: Theology
Pages: 225 (plus indices etc.)
Rating: 3.5 of 5

The Apostles Creed contains a poorly understood line, variously translated, that says Jesus “descended to hell” or “descended to the dead.” The author takes this as his starting point to examine what the Bible (and Christian tradition as guided by Scripture) says about what happened between Jesus’ death and resurrection. I don’t agree with all of his lines of reasoning (or his condescending tone toward less “creedal” denominations), but overall his discussion was helpful and his conclusions seem biblical.

If you don’t want to wade through all 225 pages, here’s his concise explanation: “Christ, in remaining dead for three days, experienced death as all humans do: his body remained in the grave, and his soul remained in the place of the dead. He did not suffer there, but, remaining the incarnate Son, proclaimed victory procured by his penal substitutionary death to all those in the place of the dead – fallen angels, the unrighteous dead, and the OT saints. Christ’s descent [to the dead / hades] is thus primarily the beginning of his exaltation, not a continuation of his humiliation”

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by [Dan Jones]Title: The Wars of the Roses
The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors
Author: Dan Jones
Genre: Medieval British History
Pages: 416
Rating: 4 of 5

Dan Jones knows how to write an interesting history book! He writes on a more-or-less popular level, but not in a way that feels like he is sensationalizing events or dumbing things down. In this book, he engages with the complex series of conflicts commonly lumped together as “the Wars of the Roses.” I’m not sure how his interpretation of events stacks up against other histories since my only other reading on this time period is R. L. Stevenson’s heavily romanticized Robin-Hood-inspired The Black Arrow. Whatever the case, I’d highly recommend this for those interested in Medieval British history.

David Copperfield by [Charles Dickens]Title: David Copperfield
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic
Pages: 856
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This is one of my favorite Dickens books (second only to A Christmas Carol). It is home to the perfectly loving Mr. Peggotty, eccentric but good-hearted Aunt Betsey Trotwood, completely loathsome Uriah Heep, and so many other unforgettable characters. I must admit that the childish Dora really grated on my nerves this time through, but it’s still Dickens in top form.

Title: Operation Mincemeat
How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
Genre: WWII Espionage History
Author: Ben Macintyre
Pages: 325
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The first “real spy book” that I remember reading is The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu. It tells the story of a corpse given a fictitious identity and floated ashore to sow disinformation in the Nazi war machine. It is a triumphant self-congratulatory book, written by one of the men involved in the plot. It is a fascinating look at how “all war is deception” and how British intelligence was the master of deception. It is also a load of of half-truths and misinformation.

This is the de-propagandized version of that story. Ben Macintyre digs into recently declassified documents and pieces together what really happened, including the actual identify of the corpse and just how touch and go the operation was. This is another highly recommended true spy tale by one of my favorite authors of the last few years.

Title: The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 273
Rating: 4 of 5

This fictional memoir of the Vietnam War reminded me of All Quiet on the Western Front. It is a series of loosely connected stories/vignettes  depicting the everyday horrors of war. Diehard “don’t ever criticize Vietnam vets or the Vietnam War” types will not like it at all.

The author blurs the line between fact and fiction by making himself one of the characters and dedicating the book to the men of the (fictional) Alpha Company. Overall, it is a brutal, difficult read but provides a balance to the macho “rah rah war is glorious and the US military can do no wrong” sort of war story.

The Word

Keeping my “flock” encouraged (and law-abiding) and coordinating all the other usual pastor-y things from home continues to take up a lot of my time and creativity. However, I don’t want to fall completely behind on reviewing, so here are two short reviews of a couple short but excellent biblical studies books.

Taking God At His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by [Kevin DeYoung]Title: Taking God at His Word:
Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough and What That Means for You and Me
Author: Kevin DeYoung
Genre: Theology (Applied Bibliology)
Pages: 129 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

The subtitle pretty much covers what the book is about. This is an excellent little primer on a conservative Protestant (I would say Evangelical, but that title is freighted with so much political baggage anymore that I hesitate to use it) understanding of the Bible as God’s authoritative Word.

Kevin DeYoung’s passionate, occasionally humorous, pastoral style keeps this from being a dry systematic theology book. It sparkles with a love for God’s Word and contains practical wisdom on taking advantage of God’s gift of “everything needed for life and godliness.”

The book is directed primarily toward Christians who already accept the Bible as God’s self-revelation. However, I would also recommend it to those with other convictions as a means of getting a basic non-caricatured overview of what we believe.

Title: Can We Trust the Gospels?
Author: Peter J. Williams
Genre: Theology (Bibliology)
Pages: 140 (plus indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5

The earliest written sources that we have on the life of Jesus Christ are the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Peter J. Williams argues from a variety of external sources and internal characteristics that it is reasonable to trust their veracity. Along the way he also looks (unfavorably) at the so called Gnostic Gospels.

The overall tone of the book is scholarly rather than pastoral, but it does not require prior knowledge of the topic or use unexplained academic jargon. The author provides a basic overview of the various lines of evidence and offers a wealth of scholarly resources for those who want to dig deeper. I appreciate that he is confident and articulate in his arguments, but humble and reasonable enough to know that he cannot conclusively prove his case. At a certain point it comes down to faith, but it is a reasonable faith.

I would highly recommend this book as a counterbalance to those in the “historical Jesus” field who treat the Gospels as distorted legends that developed over time.

Encouraging Lament

When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent (Foreword by Mark Dever): Finding Hope in the Psalms by [Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever]Title: When Pain Is Real and God Seems Silent:
Finding Hope in the Psalms
Author: Ligon Duncan
Genre: Theology/Biblical Studies/Poetry
Pages: 58 (big type, widely spaced)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

The book of Psalms contains some brutally honest poetry in which the psalmist records his suffering and accompanying feelings of abandonment and despair. In this little book, Ligon Duncan shows how these laments can be a source of encouragement. He focuses on Psalms 88 (probably the bleakest of the Psalms) and 89.

I had one very minor quibble with his theology where he dips into the Reformed idea of the “covenant of grace” (a concept not directly taught in Scripture) rather than simply talking about the faithfulness and grace of God. That aside, this is a very encouraging read. It serves as a reminder that God’s children do not have to wear an “I’m a happy little Christian” mask all the time, but neither do we have to despair in painful circumstances. Highly recommended!