Recommended Books (Spring 2017)

When the sweet showers of April have pierced

The drought of March, and pierced it to the root,

And every vein is bathed in that moisture

Whose quickening force will engender the flower;

And when the west wind too with its sweet breath

Has given life in every wood and field

To tender shoots, and when the stripling sun

Has run his half-course in Aries, the Ram,

And when small birds are making melodies,

That sleep all the night long with open eyes,

(Nature so prompts them, and encourages);

Then people long to go on pilgrimages.[1]

So begins one of the greatest works of English literature—Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While few of us will likely be journeying to some sacred shrine this spring, we hope you will catch the spirit of the season and set yourself some pleasant challenge. This is a time of growth and challenge as well as rebirth.

For those in ministry (at all levels), much of our time is spent in producing material—Sunday school lessons, Bible studies, sermons, songs, counseling, lectures, and so many other things. We need the sweet showers to pierce to our roots and quicken us to new growth as well. Below are several works we found especially quickening over the past quarter and we think you will too. As always, please share some of your recent reads with us in our comment section.

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Jason K. Allen, Discerning Your Call to Ministry: How to Know for Sure and What to Do About It (Chicago: Moody, 2016), 160 pages.

Many Christians need clarification when facing the question, “Am I called to ministry?” Broadly speaking, the answer is yes for every believer. But in this short, accessible book, Dr. Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Seminary, helps unpack what this question means in the more traditional sense of calling to vocational ministry. As a former pastor and trainer of aspiring pastors, Allen adeptly addresses this crucial topic Biblically and practically.

The body of the book is structured around ten questions about the ministry that are derived from Scripture. Allen handles this topic very carefully, and even some of the thornier issues about qualifications for pastors, and I expect will resonate with most readers. The book concludes with some helpful counsel for those who would finish the book answering either affirmatively (“Yes, I’m called”) or not (“No, I’m not). Ultimately, Allen wants all Christians to embrace their call to serve. His book certainly helps those willing to do so, especially for potential pastors seeking guidance and affirmation about God’s direction for their lives.

Recommended by W. Jackson Watts

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Dean Borgman, Foundations for Youth Ministry: Theological Engagement with Teen Life and Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 320 pages.

Ever since Kenda Creasy Dean and Andrew Root’s book, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, a seismic shift has occurred toward a more theologically informed understanding in the way that we minister to youth. This is a welcomed change. However, the variety of theological perspectives in their work can become overwhelming.

Dean Borgman, a stalwart in the field of youth ministry, has provided a wonderful volume on “thinking” about youth and family ministry.[2] While I don’t agree with everything in the book, Borgman helpfully challenges his readers to think more critically, deeply, and biblically about their practical theology and understanding of the surrounding culture. In doing so, he helps youth ministers build formidable foundations for their ministries. For those youth ministers wrestling to apply the truth of God within their particular context, I recommend Borgman’s book.

Recommended by Christopher Talbot

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Anthony Bradley, Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (Wipf & Stock, 2011), 112 pages.

In a post-Genesis 3 world, humanity is capable of grievous sins. One area where we see this is the way that political elites frame public policy based on a deficient understanding of human nature. The false worldview at play often teaches the only way to gain wealth is to exploit other people.

In his book, Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development, Anthony Bradley faults the decline of American religious life and an imperfect view of human nature for bad public policy. As human beings created in the image of God, we should care about these injustices because we bear the image of the One Whose throne is built upon justice and righteousness (Ps. 89:14). I recommend Black and Tired by Anthony Bradley to anyone interested in the relationship between theology, economics, social ethics, and public policy.

Recommended by Zachery Maloney

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Craig Detweiler, iGods: How Technology Shapes Our Spiritual and Social Lives (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2013), 256 pages.

Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, and Instagram: They’ve all been quickly canonized in the cultural ethos. While we may not interact immediately with all of these electronic technologies, we’re rarely separated from any of them by more than one degree. Our children are tweeting while our parents have taken over “the Facebook.” Yet we may be naive to how these “iGods,” as Craig Detweiler labels them, slowly affect our understanding of spiritual matters.

In a very readable volume, Detweiler walks through these monoliths of the technological age, surveying each for the benefits that they’ve brought, as well as the effect that they may have had on us spiritually. While I may not agree with everything Detweiler proposes in this book, his overall analysis of how technology affects our world and life view is very helpful.

Recommended by Christopher Talbot

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Jon Diefenthaler, The Paradox of Church and World: Selected Writings of H. Richard Niebuhr (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 558 pages.

The American religious mainstream has largely overlooked H. Richard Niebuhr due to the shadow of his better-known brother Reinhold. Yet Richard’s 1951 Christ and Culture is quite likely the most widely read book produced by either brother, especially by the evangelical community.

Now Lutheran pastor-theologian, Jon Diefenthaler, has done us a great service in producing a wide-ranging collection of Richard Niebuhr’s writings. These are especially beneficial for those who have read only Niebuhr’s full-length books, or who have only Christ and Culture as their context for understanding his unique perspective on Christianity and culture.

This collection is divided into three broad sections. The first part covers Niebuhr’s years as a denominational leader in the Evangelical Synod of North America, the second his insights into American culture in the midst of the Great Depression, and the third his reflections on the challenges of war and peace. Embedded into each section are mostly shorter pieces, often from denominational publications and publications of the educational institutions at which Niebuhr served. Readers will find much insight about the wide interface between church and world, Christian thought and intellectual trends, and especially about religious education. I found myself constantly fascinated, even when I disagreed.

Recommended by W. Jackson Watts

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Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper Perennial, 1982), 175 pages.

Annie Dillard has become one of my favorite twentieth-century authors. In college, a friend recommended her in an offhanded comment, and I’m continually grateful for his casual kindness. Dillard’s keen eye for observation provides raw material for her philosophical and theological mind to spin into literary gold.

Teaching a Stone to Talk is a collection of essays, some of which were previously published. One of my favorites is “An Expedition to the Pole.” In this essay, Dillard examines what it means to live in community as a church. Despite our disagreements, little annoyances, and even “the dread [church] hootenanny,” we’re on an expedition to the “pole of great price” together, and we must bear with one another.[3]

Still, we must encourage excellence in all things, especially church; for, as Dillard notes, most Christians seem to have little sense of the God we are actually worshipping. “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.”[4] This collection makes a great read for the beach or wherever your summer vacation takes you.

Recommended by Phillip T. Morgan

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William Golding, The Lord of the Flies (New York: Berkley, 1954), 208 pages.

When first I saw this title, it was on a poster hanging on the wall of my twelfth-grade high school English classroom. The title always intrigued me. I knew that it was about boys on an island, where things go from bad to worse. In addition, as a church kid, I knew that “lord of the flies” is the literal translation of Beelzebub (Mt. 12:24). Beyond that, I knew nothing about it.

Wow! The Lord of the Flies, a dystopian novel, is a magnificent example of human depravity. As one of my youth pastor friends said, it illustrates well why kids need a youth pastor. The premise of the story is about a group of boys stranded on an island. Without instruction, and without help and hope, they degenerate into a group of uncivilized, savage, wicked animals. Author William Golding writes vivid characters, such as Ralph, Jack, and Piggy, and employs memorable symbols, including the conch, Piggy’s glasses, and the lord of the flies.

In many ways, this is a difficult novel with difficult themes, but it’s effective and instructive, and there’s a reason why it’s a modern classic.

Recommended by Matthew Steven Bracey

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Michael A. G. Haykin, Ardent Love for Jesus: Learning from the Eighteenth-century Baptist Revival (Bryntirion, Bridgend, Wales: Bryntirion, 2013), 160 pages.

The First Great Awakening rippled throughout America, England, and the British Isles in the 1700s through the ministries of George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Isaac Watts, and a host of others. One of the more fascinating aspects of Baptist history, however, is that the British Particular Baptists (Calvinists) remained almost entirely untouched by the Awakening. John Gill and John Brine, leaders of the English Particular Baptists, had stifled any Particular Baptist emphasis on missions.

Haykin’s Ardent Love for Jesus details the influential role of six men and one woman who God used by God to spark the modern missions movement among the Particular Baptists. What I find so fascinating about Haykin’s work is not merely the historical detail but also the deep sense of piety displayed by the subjects of his research. The reader learns about the history of this Baptist missions movement, as well as how God delights in using the faithful prayers and diligent work of His saints.

Recommended by Jesse Owens

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Eric Metaxas, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 283 pages.

In this highly engaging biography, Metaxas masterfully shares the story of William Wilberforce, the British Member of Parliament who was instrumental in ending the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce serves as an excellent example of Christian faithfulness in the political sphere through his diligent crusade for justice and human dignity.

Metaxas’s writing style is both delightful and inspiring as he highlights Wilberforce’s courage and commitment to truth even in vastly adverse circumstances. As we witness similar injustice in our society (in abortion and human trafficking, for example), we can learn much from Wilberforce’s character, determination, and trust in the just nature of our sovereign God.

Recommended by Christa Hill

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Ben C. Mitchell, Ethics and Moral Reasoning: A Student’s Guide (Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 112 pages.

Authored by my ethics professor during a January-term at Beeson Divinity School, Ben Mitchell’s Ethics and Moral Reasoning is a short, accessible introduction to Christian ethics.

It contains six chapters: chapter one addresses challenges of a relativistic world, chapters two and three offer a history of moral reasoning, chapters four and five consider the Enlightenment and Evangelical ethics respectively, and chapter six offers principles for using the Bible in moral decision making. In addition, the book contains very helpful, user-friendly questions for reflection, as well as an ethics timeline, glossary, resources for further study, and a general and Scripture index.

Ethics and Moral Reasoning is a helpful introduction to Christian ethics.

Recommended by Matthew Steven Bracey

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Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man: The Crisis of Revealed Truth in Contemporary Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1982), 137 pages.

Nash’s classic work The Word of God and the Mind of Man is one of the most influential books in my life. The book is short, challenging, and remarkably fruitful. Nash presents a historical, biblical, and philosophical defense of propositional revelation. Put simply, the Bible really is God’s Word. It’s intelligible to us because God has created us in His image. He has also sent the Word Incarnate, His Son, Who then sent the Spirit Who resides within us and enables us to understand God’s Word.

Yet the Bible is not a dead text in the sense that it was God’s Word to God’s people at some time in the past that we still read today. As the maxim goes, God continues to speak to us through that which He has already spoken. To use Nash’s words, “Revelation is not a static thing that belongs exclusively to the past. God’s revelation must become alive and dynamic in the present experience of the believer, through the action of the Holy Spirit.”[5] Furthermore, because all of these things are true (God has spoken. We are created in the image of God. Christ did become man. And the Holy Spirit does work in us) we’re able to use language to speak about God in an intelligible way.

Nash’s work is a full-frontal assault on Protestant Liberal and Neo-Orthodox views of revelation. This short work will take the reader’s full attention and careful thought, but it is most certainly a worthy read.

Recommended by Jesse Owens

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H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1956), 256 pages.

How are Christians to engage the surrounding culture? What exactly does it look like to be in the world but not of it? These are important questions and areas for Christians to think critically about as we’re all called to be “witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In his book, Christ and Culture, Richard Niebuhr proposes five models for how we relate to the surrounding culture. These models are (1) Christ against culture (2) Christ of culture (3) Christ above culture (4) Christ and culture in paradox, and (5) Christ the transformer of culture.

God is the rightful owner of this world. Our duty as believers is to bring everything in our lives under the Lordship of Christ. God intends to redeem forms and expressions of culture all around us that are marred by sin. This gives Christians reasons to engage the world. Niebuhr argues for the Christ the transformer of culture model, saying, “The Christian must carry on cultural work in obedience to the Lord.”[6] I recommend Christ and Culture by Richard Niebuhr to anyone interested in models for understanding Christianity and culture.

Recommended by Zachery Maloney

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Calvin R. Stapert, My Only Comfort: Death, Deliverance, and Discipline in the Music of Bach, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 259 pages.

Calvin Stapert is a music professor at Calvin College, who has written several works addressing the intersection of theology and music. While many works on Johann Sebastian Bach focus on musical analysis or the composer’s biography, Stapert shows there is much more for us to study in Bach’s music.

In My Only Comfort, he argues that Bach has suffered from the success of Enlightenment aesthetics. In an effort to abandon the “superstitious” religious elements of music, musicians have tended to privilege Bach’s instrumental works over his myriad cantatas (over 200) and other sacred choral works.

Stapert has done a masterful job of beginning to rectify the excesses of Enlightenment musicians. In this work, he presents small devotions based on several of Bach’s works. Each piece is analyzed for both content and form and interpreted in light of its theological underpinnings. While this makes Stapert’s book unique, it is also extremely insightful and spiritually nourishing.

Recommended by Phillip T. Morgan

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Phil Vischer, Me, Myself, and Bob: a Grown-Up Book About God, Dreams, and Talking Vegetables (Nashville: Nelson, 2007), 260 pages.

Like many Evangelical children raised in late 1990s and early 2000s, I was quite the VeggieTales fan. Bob, Larry, Junior, and the rest of the VeggieTales cast were always brightened my day with humor that was both fun for children and clever enough for adults.

In this his memoir, Phil Vischer shares his experiences with VeggieTales and Big Idea, the Christian entertainment company that he founded. His writing is warm, witty, and refreshingly honest as he recounts his early dreams of using entertainment to teach viewers about God, his conception of VeggieTales, the founding and meteoric rise of Big Idea Productions, and the eventual bankruptcy of the company. He traces God’s hand through both his great successes and his crushing defeats, offering readers a powerful reminder of the need to follow Christ’s leading and to lean on His sufficiency even in difficult and confusing life circumstances.

Recommended by Christa Hill

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[1] Geoffery Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, trans. David Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 1.

[2] Dean Borgman, Foundations for Youth Ministry: Theological Engagement with Teen Life and Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), xi.

[3] Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper Perennial, 1982), 31, 45.

[4] Ibid., 52.

[5] Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man: The Crisis of Revealed Truth in Contemporary Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1982), 41.

[6] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1956), 191.

Author: The Helwys Society

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