TBR Challenge Complete!

Over the last month I finished the last three books for the Official TBR Pile Challenge, so here are the reviews (I ended up using my two alternate titles to reach 12 books, but I may still get back to the two that I skipped):

Title: Fear and Trembling
Author: Søren Kierkegaard
Translator: Alastair Hannay
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 160
Rating: 3 out of 5

In this classic, Kierkegaard ponders the nature of faith by considering the account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22). Themes include the relationship and relative merits of faith and reason, the necessity of resignation before faith can occur, belief in “the absurd” (that which is humanly impossible), and more.

I found some of it hard to follow as Kierkegaard is largely interacting with Hegel and I’m not really up on Hegelian philosophy. On top of that, he is writing as the pseudonym/character “Johannes de silentio” whose thoughts do not necessarily fully reflect Kierkegaard’s own (he’s an odd writer/thinker). This is my second time reading Kierkegaard and I don’t know if I’ll dip into his writings again…I think I prefer my theology/philosophy a bit less convoluted.

Title: The 1980 Annual World’s Best SF
Editor: Donald A. Wollheim (Ed.)
Genre: Sci-fi Short Story Anthology
Pages: 284
Rating: 2.5 of 5

It has been quite a while since I read this sort of anthology, though I read them all the time as a teen. It gave me a sense of nostalgia when I started, but that eventually gave way to annoyance. The stories are well-written and memorable (I actually remember reading one of them in a different collection 20+ years ago) but almost all of them were some variation of “let’s imagine a world in which Christianity and/or sexuality and/or the nuclear family has evolved away from the pathetically narrow-minded present.” I don’t know if that was the prevailing theme of late-70’s/early-80’s sci-fi or just the editor’s pet theme. After a while it just kind of felt preachy.

Title: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine 
Author: Gail Honeyman
Genre: Some sort of Psychological Fiction?
Pages: 352
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This isn’t my usual kind of read, and I don’t remember how it originally ended up on my TBR, but I’m glad that I read it. I’m not sure how much I can say about it without spoilers as gradually getting to know Eleanor (a social awkward loner who repeatedly assures us that her life is fine) and seeing her personal development is the whole point of the story. I don’t know that someone with so little self-awareness and understanding of the real world (to say nothing of other issues) would really be as independent as Eleanor is, but her struggles, tragedies, and triumphs provide a moving tale of humor, heartbreak, and hope.

A Corrupt Translation?

Title: NRSV, The C. S. Lewis Bible: For Reading, Reflection, and Inspiration
Genre: Study Bible (English Bible translation + Commentary)
Pages: 1312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

I love C. S. Lewis, so I was pretty excited when I discovered that there was a C. S. Lewis study Bible. Then, I was a bit disappointed to find that it only came in the NRSV translation. I am all for accurate modern-language translations of the Bible (See: this review), but in my circles the New Revised Standard Version has a reputation for being a translation that is untrustworthy, biased, and corrupted by the liberal theology of its translators. Nevertheless, I know that cries of “it’s a corrupt translation!” are usually nitpicking and overblown so I decided to read and evaluate it for myself, both in terms of the NRSV translation and the C. S. Lewis excerpts used as commentary.

The Translation:
Admittedly, I went into this biased by what I had heard in the past, but I don’t think the concerns are completely unfounded (though they are a bit overblown). The translators offer a huge number of notations that provide alternate readings or say, “exact meaning is uncertain.” By itself that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there are minor differences between ancient manuscripts (see this post) and any attempt at translation reveals the ambiguity in language.

However, the ways that many these alternate readings and ambiguities of language are handled by the NRSV seem questionable. For example:

  • Some supposed ambiguities are left nearly nonsensical rather than making a good-faith effort to provide a meaningful translation.
  • Some alternate readings are completely conjectural, amending the underlying text without any ancient manuscript evidence
  • Unlikely alternate readings are often given as much weight as well-attested ones
  • More subjectively, there does appear to be some theological bias in deciding which variant to put in the main text and which to put in the footnote (especially in sections relating to prophecy and the Holy Spirit).

Overall, I wouldn’t call this an unusably corrupt translation, but it certainly wouldn’t be in my top 5 recommended English Bible translations. Other modern English translations (e.g. ESV & NIV) are more helpful in their handling of ambiguous phrases and less likely to include alternate readings that are clearly secondary or conjectural in nature.

C. S. Lewis Notes:
For me, the editorial choices regarding C. S. Lewis excerpts were a mixed bag. Most of them were insightful and moving (because Lewis is amazing), but some of them (especially in the Old Testament) seemed barely related to the passage in which the footnote occurred.

Additionally, there seemed to be an inordinate number of quotes from Reflections on the Psalms in which Lewis questions the historicity and/or goodness of certain parts of the Bible. Lewis was definitely influenced by the “higher criticism” of liberal theology, and even though he rarely mentions it in his writings, the editors seem intent on highlighting this (including in a concluding essay). That said, they do include Lewis’s insights on the veracity of Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and bodily resurrection, all of which are frequently denied in liberal theology.

Overall Impression:
Fusing the NRSV translation with a selection of explanatory/inspirational C. S. Lewis quotes isn’t the worst thing ever, but I think you would be a lot better off just reading Lewis on his own and reading a different modern-English translation.

Conference Book Haul!

My wife and I just got back from the Together for the Gospel conference, and in addition to hearing a lot of good speakers (John Piper, Shai Linne, Sinclair Ferguson, David Platt, etc.), we acquired a ton of good books…not quite literally, but I did just about injure myself trying to get the book suitcase into and out of the car (yes, we took an empty suitcase to bring back books).

I tried to take a picture of the conference bookstore, but with thousands of pastors, theology nerds, and related bibliophiles wandering around a conference center ballroom with about a dozen publisher tables, multiple kiosks, and scattered piles of heavily discounted books it was impossible. Plus there were palettes of 2-3 free books per attendee before each session.

Here are the ones that are immediately going onto my TBR (two are from a used bookstore we hit up after leaving the conference…shouldn’t be too hard to pick them out):

The TBR just keeps growing

…and here are the ones my wife is adding to her list and collection of teaching resources:

Plus plenty of other freebies, duplicates, church resources, and more:

No such thing as too many books!

Best conference ever!

Best & Worst of 2021

This year I read 139 books with a total page count of 47,713 (~343 pages/book). I now present you with my sixth 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; & 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 Divine Comedy: Paradise by Danté (Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers): Between the constant reference to contemporary Italian politics and what I consider to be idolatrous reliance on Mary and the Saints, I found this hard to get through.
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier: If you like melodramatic Harlequin-esque “historical romance,” this is for you…but that’s not my genre at all.
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac: drugs, sex, jazz, blah blah blah…aren’t I deep!
  • Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith: a disappointing sequel to the interesting Talented Mr. Ripley. The complete non-ending was the worst.
  • The Tinfoil Dossier Trilogy by Caitlin R. Kiernan: A mashup of Cthulhu and black helicopter style conspiracies is a cool idea, but the execution was trippy to the point of incomprehensible and just plain gross (in both the splattery and moral senses).

Best Fiction

  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens: If you like Dickens, be sure to read this one. However, this isn’t a good place to start if you’ve never read him before.
  • Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez: This is pretty silly and episodic. Not great literature, but a lot of fun as the author plays with classic supervillain tropes.
  • The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: This series (5 novellas and a novel so far) is top-tier sci-fi with an AI protagonist/narrator that any introvert can appreciate.
  • The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones: I don’t usually enjoy revenge slasher horror, but this “literary horror” worked surprisingly well.
  • Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir: Another masterpiece from Andy Weir for those who like a lot of science in their science fiction.

Best Non-fiction

  • Gentle & Lowly by Dane Ortlund: A thoughtful reminder that “Yes, Jesus loves me,” and biblical Christianity is not based on “Try harder to be better.”
  • God Against the Revolution by Gregg L. Frazer: In a departure from the “fan fiction” version of American history, Frazer examines the anti-revolution arguments of loyalist clergymen in colonial America.
  • Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton: This examination of various eventually-abandoned-due-to-stupidity military and espionage plans is equal parts funny and frightening.
  • The Secular Creed by Rebecca McLaughlin: One of my new favorite authors interacts biblically with the kinds of statements that appear on yard signs beginning with “In this house we believe…”
  • Stephen Fry’s Greek Myths Trilogy (Mythos, Heroes, Troy) by Stephen Fry: I’m not sure if this exploration and retelling of the Greek myths counts as fantasy or non-fiction, but either way it’s a lot of fun.

That’s it for 2021. My reading goal for 2022 is my usual standby of “at least 100 books with an average page count of 300+.” Postings to this blog will probably continue to be sporadic unless work become unexpectedly less hectic, but we’ll see what happens. Happy New Year!

Misc. Mini Reviews

It’s that time of year when blogging takes a back seat to holiday family fun and a busy church calendar, but today I have enough time for a few mini-reviews.

Emperor Mollusk versus The Sinister Brain by [A. Lee Martinez]

Title: Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain
Author: A. Lee Martinez
Genre: Humorous Sci-fi
Pages: 320
Rating: 4.5 of 5

This reminds me of several comedic movies that feature a “genius supervillain” as the protagonist (Megamind, Despicable Me, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-along Blog). The main difference is that Emperor Mollusk is actually (almost) as smart and competent as he thinks he is (having once actually conquered the earth, though he is now semi-retired). The plot is a bit episodic and silly, but the oversize egos, snappy repartee, tongue-in-cheek sci-fi tropes, etc., make this a lot of fun if you like that sort of humor.

Silverview: A Novel by [John le Carré]

Title: Silverview
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage “Thriller”
Pages: 224
Rating: 3 of 5

John LeCarré’s final (posthumous) book doesn’t add much to his body of work. It features the usual brooding disillusionment of “was all this spy stuff worth it?” “do I really believe in anything” and his newer books’ recurring theme of “modern government ideology is incoherent.” Most of the story follows the point of view of a minor secondary player who is largely in the dark, providing some “what is going on here?” interest (but not much). If you’re really into LeCarré, give it a shot, but don’t expect much of anything new.

Title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Author: James Hogg
Genre: Classic Gothic Novel
Pages: 265
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Who knew that you could write a Gothic novel based on some sort of warped hyper-Calvinist theology? The author weaves a dark tale of the depths to which someone can sink if they misapply the doctrines of divine election and justification (“God has declared me eternally righteous, so everything I do must be his will…”). The story is told first as a third-person report of murderous events and then largely retold in the first person by the self-righteous cause of it all (urged on by a Mephistophelian “friend”). Read it an interesting exploration of religious mania or just a quirky Gothic novel. Either way, it’s worth a read.

None Dare Call It Treason

Title: God Against the Revolution:
The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against the American Revolution
Author: Gregg L. Frazer
Genre: History (plus Theology & Philosophy)
Pages: 280
Rating: 5 of 5

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” – John Harrington

This book helped fill a gap in my understanding of US history. In school (kindergarten through master’s degree), I remember only one teacher who (rather tentatively) expressed any serious doubt over whether the American Revolution was morally justifiable. After all, if you’re a red-blooded American, you know that the patriots were absolutely justified in their rebellion against English tyranny. We won against all odds, so that must prove that God was on our side.

If such a facile argument doesn’t work for you, this book provides interesting historical (and theological/philosophical) information that should be integrated into your understanding of the American Revolution. Gregg Frazer dares to stir the waters by presenting the arguments and life circumstances of colonists who stayed loyal to their king.

Because most writings by such people were repressed and destroyed (so much for freedom of speech and of the press), he is limited in his sources to the writings of five or six loyalist clergymen. He presents their arguments largely without direct comment on whether or not he finds them convincing (though he is clearly sympathetic to some of them). The arguments are divided into categories: biblical, theoretical on the nature of government, legal, rational regarding the American situation, and rational based on colonial actions.

Personally, I was most interested in the biblical arguments since I views the principles and commands of Scripture as my basis for morality. As I suspected, most arguments revolved around Romans 13:1-7 & 1 Peter 2:13-17 which both command Christians to be law-abiding citizens/subjects who honor, obey, and pay taxes to the existing authorities (with the exception that laws commanding a Christian to directly disobey God must be disobeyed with a willingness to accept the consequences -e.g. Acts 5:29, Daniel 3:15-18). The point was well-argued, and I myself have preached/taught these passages in a similar way (to similar, though less violent, pushback from “patriotic Americans”)…there truly is nothing new under the sun!

Overall, this is a fascinating book. If you are at all interested in the American Revolution and/or the nature of a Christian’s responsibility toward human government, I challenge you to read it. Don’t settle for the “fan fiction” version of American history. You may or may not agree with the loyalist clergy view of “God against the revolution,” but for the sake of intellectual integrity, it is good to hear out both sides in a complex issue. And of course, examining the triumphs and failures (military, cultural, moral, etc.) of the past helps us make wiser decisions in the present.

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.