Gene Veith: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 09, 2014 | Justin Taylor

GEVI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Gene Edward Veith Jr. (PhD, University of Kansas) is the provost and professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk. He is the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity and culture, including Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature and Imagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind (releasing in November). He blogs at Cranach (hosted by Patheos) and can be followed on Twitter at @geneveith.

huck“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” said Ernest Hemingway. “All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

The book, published in 1884, was the first novel written in a distinctly American dialect, featuring an epic journey through the American physical and social landscape, written from a particularly American sensibility, and exploring uniquely American problems.

Unlike some classics, which a contemporary reader approaches out of a sense of duty and reads with great difficulty, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn brings back all the pleasures of reading. Mark Twain combines a tale of suspense, adventure, and melodrama with unforgettable characters, profound themes, and devastating social satire. Twain is not only a great novelist, he is a great humorist. He is one of the few authors who can be serious and funny at the same time. Readers of Huckleberry Finn will find themselves laughing out loud, even as they are moved to tears.

The story is told from the point of view and in the voice of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer’s street urchin friend. It begins as the sequel to Tom Sawyer with more amusing pranks in small town Missouri until the plot gets serious with the arrival of Huck’s murderous father. In escaping from him, Huck finds himself also helping Jim, a slave, escape to freedom. They float down the Mississippi on a raft, encountering adventures and colorful characters along the way, from families engaged in a Hatfield-and-McCoys-type feud to a pair of conmen who claim to be an English Duke and the rightful King of France. The goal is to reach Cairo, Illinois, where they can head north on the Ohio River to freedom for Jim. But they miss their turn and drift deeper and deeper into slave country.

On the Mississippi, Huck learns to see Jim not as a piece of property—which is how he is seen when they go ashore—but as a human being, a friend who is willing to sacrifice himself for Huck. The novel is a profound treatise on the evils of treating other human beings as mere objects to exploit, and it is one of the most moving indictments of slavery and of racism in all of literature.

And yet, nevertheless, in an irony of Mark Twain proportions, Huckleberry Finn is not allowed to be read today in many circles—and particularly in public schools—because it is charged with racism. The book, like the 19th-century Southern vernacular it is written in, uses the “N-word.” Jim, though the moral center of the novel, sometimes comes across as a racial stereotype, with some of Twain’s humor seeming reminiscent of the old racially offensive “minstrel shows.”

Thus, as it so often does, style trumps substance, with seemingly superficial details preventing people from even being able to see the underlying meaning.

But if readers cannot get beyond the “N-word,” I’d recommend holding off on Huckleberry Finn. Irony is reportedly the most difficult figure of speech to master, so if readers see only racism in the novel and not the way Twain is attacking that racism, they aren’t ready for this novel.

We often assume that books about children are for children. That isn’t always the case. There is actually much more than racism in the novel that would make modern parents squirm. Children smoking. Children drinking. Children running away. Children roaming all over town at will, doing dangerous things like swimming in the river and going into caves, and carrying on without constant adult supervision. (My own childhood was much more Huck-Finn like than that of my much-more protected children, who are now even more protective with my grandchildren.) The culture being what it is, let Huckleberry Finn be a book for adults.

But isn’t Mark Twain hostile to Christianity? Well, in his last years, Twain was a bitter man who inveighed against religion, even as he cultivated an almost Catholic veneration of St. Joan of Arc. But in Huckleberry Finn, he satirizes the conflict between what Christianity teaches and the cultural Christianity of the time. Thus, the Grangerford family is warm and kind, full of sincere Christian piety and good works—except that they are engaged in a blood feud with the equally devout Shepherdsons, and they have been killing each other’s children for generations, even though no one can remember how it all started or why they hate each other so much.

The turning point of the novel is when Huck decides to violate his conscience and everything he had been taught in Sunday School by helping Jim attain his freedom. Huck describes how he decided to turn his life around and follow the path of righteousness by turning in Jim to his rightful owners. But then, getting a glimpse of Jim’s humanity, Huck decides to help Jim escape, even though this would be stealing, and even though this crime would surely condemn him eternally. “All right, then,” Huck decides. “I’ll go to Hell.” That line has to make any Christian cringe. But one reason why we cannot be saved by our good works is that when we do them thinking that they will cause us to merit Heaven, that takes away their moral significance. Our sinful nature is such that we can even do good works for a selfish motive. With Huck, the moral universe is so topsy-turvy that a bad work (betraying a friend) is thought to be a good work, and a good work (helping a friend) is construed as a bad work. Instead of doing what is right in return for an eternal reward, Huck does what is right—loving and serving his neighbor—even though he expects it will earn him an eternal punishment. Again, more irony that can put many readers off. But in general, it is good for Christians to endure satires against hypocrisy and their own un-Christian attitudes and behavior. They help keep us in a state of repentance. In the last section of the novel, the poor but virtuous and realistic Huck meets up again with his friend Tom Sawyer with his middle-class status and wildly romantic ideals. Hemingway says that we should skip this last part, which just gets silly and turns the noble Jim into more of a clown. At the very end, Huck decides to do what Americans always used to do (when they could) after running into intractable problems: “light out for the Territory.” Go West, head for the frontier, start a new life. That’s basically what Mark Twain did in leaving the war-torn South for the silver mines of Nevada. The novel reminds the Christian reader that sin goes deep into the human heart and into human society and that it makes us all slaves; and it awakens a desire for freedom that can only come from Christ, who died to set us free. Others may not get that from the story. But Christians will.

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Bonhoeffer on What a Christian Under the Cross Can Offer that a Secular Therapist Cannot

Sep 08, 2014 | Justin Taylor

BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together:

Whoever lives beneath the cross of Jesus, and has discerned in the cross of Jesus the utter ungodliness of all people and of their own hearts, will find there is no sin that can ever be unfamiliar.

Whoever has once been appalled by the horror of their own sin, which nailed Jesus to the cross, will no longer be appalled by even the most serious sin of another Christian; rather they know the human heart from the cross of Jesus.

Such persons know how totally lost is the human heart in sin and weakness, how it goes astray in the ways of sin—and know too that this same heart is accepted in grace and mercy.

Only another Christian who is under the cross can hear my confession. It is not experience with life but experience of the cross that makes one suited to hear confession. The most experienced judge of character knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the cross of Jesus.

The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot comprehend this one thing: what sin is. Psychological wisdom knows what need and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the ugliness of the human being. And so it also does not know that human beings are ruined only by their sin and are healed only by forgiveness. The Christian alone knows this. In the presence of a psychologist I can only be sick; in the presence of another Christian I can be a sinner.

The psychologist must first search my heart, and yet can never probe its innermost recesses. Another Christian recognizes just this: here comes a sinner like myself, a godless person who wants to confess and longs for God’s forgiveness.

The psychologist views me as if there were no God. Another believer views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the cross of Jesus Christ.

When we are so pitiful and incapable of hearing the confession of one another, it is not due to a lack of psychological knowledge, but a lack of love for the crucified Jesus Christ.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 114-16.

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Karen Swallow Prior: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 08, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Prior,-KarenI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, State University of New York at Buffalo) is Professor of English at Liberty University.

Dr. Prior is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and the forthcoming Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (releasing in November).

She is a Research Fellow with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

TomJonesTitleMost of us who read novels today can’t imagine a world without novels and may not realize that the novel is a relatively recent literary invention, a product, in fact, of modernity. While its history is long and complicated, literary critics usually point to two particular works that gave rise to the novel. Samuel Richardson, the author credited as the “father of the novel,” published a series of letters purportedly written by a young servant girl named Pamela (the title of the work) whose virtue overcomes the unscrupulous pursuits of her rich master. Pamela, published in 1740, took the British nation by storm and was so popular that it was the first novel to be published across the pond here in America.

Enter Henry Fielding, a classically-schooled playwright and aristocrat who was scandalized that an upstart middle-class printer took center stage in the world of letters with such a low work. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling is Fielding’s literary rebuttal to Pamela.

Tom Jones is a masterpiece. Like Richardson, Fielding did not use the term “novel.” The sorts of works called “novels” at this time were disreputable tales of illicit love and adventure; no serious author would seek to adopt the label until the nineteenth century. Instead, Fielding modeled Tom Jones after the classical epic: the book is epic in length and structured into volumes, books, and chapters. It tells an expansive tale of a foundling boy who traverses from the English countryside to London and back again in search of his rightful identity and home—and, of course, love, for it’s a comic as well as an epic story.

Tom Jones is also influenced by the allegory of John Bunyan. Tom’s journey is an allegorical one, although not nearly as obviously so as in Pilgrim’s Progress. His adoptive father, Squire Allworthy, for example, is a very worthy man, and serves as a benevolent deity over his estate, named Paradise Hall (from which Tom is expelled for a time). Tom’s main love interest (there are many—this novel is not for the prudish reader!) is named Sophia. As Tom pursues her, he is also pursuing wisdom (the meaning of the Greek word sophia).

In addition to the grandness of the story and the richness of its layers of meaning, Tom Jones offers a veritable crash course in this period of church history. In his latitudinarian Anglicanism, Fielding takes on the rising Methodism (which would birth evangelicalism) of the day (particularly manifested in the pietistic Pamela). In Tom Jones can be seen the seeds of theological liberalism, yet at the same time, the correction it offers to extreme pietism—as well as other extremes such as deism and asceticism—instructs by delighting: Tom is a good-hearted rogue who errs and learns as he encounters countless scoundrels, ladies, less-than-ladies, and lessons on his way.

And this is the most important point: Tom Jones  is a fun novel. The reader has to work a little (actually, a lot) to gain the novel’s rich rewards—the novel is long, erudite, meandering, and of a very different age—but the investment is well worth the effort. I highly recommend the Wesleyan edition for its copious footnotes which will not only assist in the reading but increase understanding so as to produce even more laughter. After you’ve read the novel, treat yourself to the 1963 Oscar-winning film adaptation (which, while very good, does not come close to conveying all that the novel holds).

The History of Tom Jones is the best kind of novel: one that provokes both wisdom and laughter and invites many re-readings.

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Philip Ryken: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 06, 2014 | Justin Taylor

rykenPI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Philip Graham Ryken (DPhil, University of Oxford) is the eighth president of Wheaton College and has served in that capacity since 2010. Prior to his appointment at Wheaton, he served as senior minister at historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.

His newest book is Loving Jesus More (which releases on Monday), and he is the co-author (with Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson) of Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature.

cry-the-beloved-country-paton Cry, the Beloved Country is widely regarded as the definitive novel of the South African experience. Although the book was written more than half a century ago and published before apartheid was established as a system of racial segregation, its hopeful yet honest treatment of social issues has ongoing relevance for South Africa and the world. Alan Paton invited his readers to embrace this global perspective when he described his novel as “a song of love for one’s far distant country . . . the land where you were born.”

To read Cry, the Beloved Country is to become immersed in the tragic complexities of racial conflict that gripped South Africa in the 1940’s and afterwards. Paton vividly evokes the events of that time and place: the political speeches, the rise of the black shanty towns, the mining and transportation strikes, the personal sacrifices that blacks and whites both made in order to serve one another across racial lines.

He also addresses some of the hardest challenges that remain for South Africa, such as the corruption of power, the ever-present danger of criminal violence, and the need for new social structures to rebuild broken families in divided communities.

All of this forms the setting for the dramatic story of loss and forgiveness that Paton tells about one man—a priest named Kumalo—who endures painful suffering in a fallen world and struggles to understand the purposes of God for his life, his family, his church, and his community.

I read Cry, the Beloved Country to renew my hope in what one person can do in response to the world’s heartbreaking need for justice and mercy. Kumalo knows what he is up against: “the house that is broken, and the man that falls apart when the house is broken, these are the tragic things. That is why children break the law, and old white people are robbed and beaten.” At the same time, Kumalo knows that God has called him to bind the wounds of the broken with truth and mercy.

I also read Paton’s novel to renew my sense of calling as a minister of the gospel. Despite his own weakness and sin—including his failings as the father of a prodigal son—Kumalo perseveres in his God-given ministry. In one of the novel’s transformative scenes, the priest goes up the mountain above his village to remember his sins “as well as he could” and to repent of them “as fully as he could,” praying for God’s forgiveness.

His soul renewed by repentance, Kumalo returns to face the challenges of serving his humble, beautiful congregation. Even when he is tempted to believe that there is “nothing in the world but fear and pain,” Kumalo continues to pray, to preach, and to serve his community with the love of Jesus.

Cry, the Beloved Country has similar effects on my own ministry. Paton’s novel captures the tragic beauty of human brokenness in ways that inspire humble repentance, genuine faith, and faithful ministry.

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Wesley Hill: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 05, 2014 | Justin Taylor

WesHI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Welsey Hill (PhD, University of Durham) is assistant professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry (Ambridge, PA).

He is the author of Washed and Waiting and the forthcoming revision of his dissertation, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (you can read an interview about the book here.)

He blogs at Spiritual Friendship, has a commonplace book, and can be followed on Twitter at @wesleyhill.


A few months ago I was sitting in a circle of evangelical Christian academics, all of whom teach at a Christian college. The conversation steered its way through various currents and eddies, disagreements emerging here and there like choppy waters—until we came to the topic of Chaim Potok’s novels. About those we had no disagreement at all, nor even much variation in our reading experiences: We all, at some point in our intellectual pilgrimages, had had strikingly similar encounters with Potok’s work.

From his context in Orthodox Judaism, Potok named something common to us evangelicals who had found ourselves, at first, reading widely, then entering university and graduate school, and then, ultimately, accepting teaching posts at universities or graduate schools ourselves. Potok helped us see and understand our shared situation, our (at times fraught, at times joyful) struggle to maintain allegiance to the faith we were raised in while exploring competing ideas and ways of life in the wider world.

Chaim Potok is best known as a novelist and a rabbi. Born in 1929, he published a litany of books that each, in its own way, delves into the same complex thicket of conflicts. Many of his characters, not least the protagonists of his most acclaimed work The Chosen, are Hasidic Jews who are somehow confronted with the fact that the worlds they are drawn to—the worlds of art, biblical criticism (in The Promise and In the Beginning), and the secular academy, for instance—pose searching challenges to their pre-existing beliefs and patterns of life.

The first Potok novel I read remains my favorite: My Name is Asher Lev. Its plot is elegantly simple, and it builds to a quietly devastating conclusion. We meet Asher Lev in the book’s opening pages as an adult who is known for painting the Brooklyn Crucifixion. As subsequent chapters unfold, we see how he became that artist—and at what cost.

Raised in a strictly observant home in post-war New York, Asher finds that he has a gift for painting. At first he doesn’t recognize it as such, but his parents, friends, and teachers help him take appropriate pride in his eye for beauty and his skill in portraying it.

As he cultivates this gift, Asher enters more and more deeply into the world of the goyim, the world outside synagogue and yeshiva, and finds himself inexorably pulled toward depicting Jesus’ crucifixion. This isn’t, for Asher, about conversion to Christianity; it’s rather about taking the supreme moment of redemptive human suffering and employing it to speak to his people’s own contemporary suffering and beyond. But how can this be, Asher’s family wonder, when the Holocaust is such a recent chapter in the Jewish people’s story? How can Asher take up the religious symbol of the Jewish people’s persecutors? Such an act can only be a betrayal of his Judaism—or might there be some new way of being Jewish that he hasn’t yet fathomed?

My Name is Asher Lev isn’t a heavy-handed apologetic for a more liberal, tolerant form of faith. Nor is it ultimately a confirmation that more conservative forms need no maturation. What Potok offers instead is a lovingly drawn portrait of a modern believer, one who learns the difference between “believing still” and what W. H. Auden has called “believing again.” In addition to all the delights of great literature, there are lessons here for us evangelicals. We too, after all, are a chosen race and faithful exiles in a foreign land (1 Peter 1:2; 2:9).

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How a Christian Is Like a Little Child

Sep 04, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Jonathan Edwards:

The tenderness of the heart of a true Christian, is elegantly signified by our Savior, in his comparing such a one to a little child. . . .

A little child has his heart easily moved, wrought upon and bowed: so is a Christian in spiritual things.

A little child is apt to be affected with sympathy, to weep with them that weep, and can’t well bear to see others in distress: so it is with a Christian (John 11:35, Romans 12:15, I Corinthians 12:26).

A little child is easily won by kindness: so is a Christian.

A little child is easily affected with grief at temporal evils, and has his heart melted, and falls a weeping: thus tender is the heart of a Christian, with regard to the evil of sin.

A little child is easily affrighted at the appearance of outward evils, or anything that threatens its hurt: so is a Christian apt to be alarmed at the appearance of moral evil, and anything that threatens the hurt of the soul.

A little child, when it meets enemies, or fierce beasts, is not apt to trust its own strength, but flies to its parents for refuge: so a saint is not self-confident in engaging spiritual enemies, but flies to Christ.

A little child is apt to be suspicious of evil in places of danger, afraid in the dark, afraid when left alone, or far from home: so is a saint apt to be sensible of his spiritual dangers, jealous of himself, full of fear when he can’t see his way plain before him, afraid to be left alone, and to be at a distance from God; Proverbs 28:14, “Happy is the man that feareth alway; but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief.”

A little child is apt to be afraid of superiors, and to dread their anger, and tremble at their frowns and threatenings: so is a true saint with respect to God; Psalms 119:120, “My flesh trembleth for fear of thee, and I am afraid of thy judgments.” Isaiah 66:2, “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor, and trembleth at my word.” V. 5, “Hear ye the Word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word.” Ezra 9:4, “Then were assembled unto me, everyone that trembled at the works of the God of Israel.” Ch. 10:3, “According to the counsel of my Lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God.” A little child approaches superiors with awe: so do the saints approach God with holy awe and reverence. Job 13:11, “Shall not his excellency make you afraid, and his dread fall upon you.” Holy fear is so much the nature of true godliness, that it is called in Scripture by no other name more frequently, than the fear of God.

Religious Affections, WJE, pp. 360-61.

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Micah Mattix: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 04, 2014 | Justin Taylor

im1.shutterflyI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Micah Mattix (PhD, University of Fribourg in Switzerland) is assistant professor of literature and writing at Houston Baptist University and a senior contributor at The American Conservative, where he edits Prufrock (a daily newsletter on books, art, and ideas; subscribe here to get it in your inbox).

He divides his time between Ashe County in North Carolina and Houston, and he, his wife, and their four children attend Grace Highlands Presbyterian Church in Boone, NC.

You can follow him on Twitter at @micahmattix.

cpThere are lots of reasons to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. The first is that it’s a wonderful piece of art. “At the beginning of July,” the novel opens, “during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S—y Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K—n Bridge.” That “as if indecisively” hangs tantalizingly. It foreshadows one of the novel’s major themes—that of self-delusion—and is a useful shorthand for Dostoevsky’s seemingly messy style. The book is a flurry of decisions and indecisions, outbursts, flashbacks, dreams, and wanderings that plunge us into the mind of Raskolnikov—the young man who walked out to the street “as if indecisively,” and who eventually murders two women in his “madness.”

But it’s also a novel of great risk, subtlety, and truth. As Dostoevsky shows, Raskolnikov is not mad in the clinical sense but the spiritual one. The madness is that of pride and the delusion that he is an autonomous being, capable of directing his life toward the ends he chooses. For him, there is no God, and no such thing as good or evil, only suffering and “Freedom and power, but above all, power!” “Away with mirages,” he tells himself, “away with false fears, away with spectres! . . . Now is the kingdom of reason and light and . . . will and strength. . .” It is this unwavering trust in himself and his ability to determine what is right for himself (and others) that leads him to bludgeon two old women for a handful of coins and trinkets to help the poor, he tells himself at one point. In short, Raskolnikov becomes an anti-Christ, very much in the mold of Milton’s Satan, who instead of establishing a kingdom of resurrection and peace, contributes to one of murder and chaos—all in the name of some supposed common good.

In addition to being a novel about delusion, though, it is also one about the absurdity and offensiveness of the Gospel. It has one of the most moving portraits of the Gospel that I know of in literature in the figure of the drunken Marmeladov, who not only fails to provide for his impoverished family because he is always “in his cups,” but steals money from his prostituted 15-year-old daughter to go on a binge. In a moving scene, early in the novel, Marmeladov tells his ugly story to Raskolnikov in a bar:

So, sir, and now I, her blood father, snatched these thirty kopecks for the hair of the dog! And I’m drinking sir! And I’ve already drunk them up, sir! . . . So who’s going to pity the likes of me? Eh?

No one except Christ. Looking forward to Judgment Day, Marmeladov tells Raskolnikov:

On that day, He will come and ask, “Where is the daughter who gave herself for a wicked and consumptive stepmother, for a stranger’s little children? Where is the daughter who pitied her earthly father, a foul drunkard, not shrinking from his beastliness?” And He will say, “Come! I have already forgiven you once . . . I have already forgiven you once . . . And now, too, your many sins are forgiven.” . . . And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, “You, too, come forth!” He will say. “Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!” . . . And He will say, “Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!”

The response from the bar is derision: “‘Nice reasoning!’ ‘Blather!’ ‘A real official’,” and Raskolnikov, who does not know what to make of Marmeladov, will later express this same sort of disgust. This brief passage doesn’t do the scene justice. If you read the whole thing, it will have you weeping (or extremely angry if you think God saves the good).

The novel also offers a challenge to Christians to mirror the self-sacrificial love of Christ toward the poor, yes, but also towards combative atheists like Raskolnikov. Without giving too much away, Marmeladov’s daughter, Sonya, offers no rational proof of God to Raskolnikov. She breaks down when he calls into question God’s existence and love. What she does do, with great humility and faith, is love Raskolnikov, and it is this love that provokes and silences him. It is a love that he cannot explain or put out of his trouble mind.

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Andrew Peterson: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 03, 2014 | Justin Taylor

API am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter, an award-winning author, and the host of the Rabbit Room, a popular online creative community.

Andrew’s latest book is The Warden and the Wolf King, the fourth and final book in his Wingfeather Saga series.

He and his family belong to Church of the Redeemer in Nashville.

Jayber_CrowSomeone once asked me to name a novel that had changed my life. I’m sure many books have changed my thinking, my opinions, my understanding of God or the world or myself; but my life? I took it to mean, “Name a novel that literally changed the way you spend your days, one that altered the shape of your story in way that you can actually put your finger on.”

For me, that book was Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. The subtitle, The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber of the Port William Membership, as Written by Himself, may not exactly excite you because, let’s face it, who wants to read 384 pages about a barber? A small-town barber, no less?

If you’ve never read anything by Wendell Berry, you should know that he’s highly regarded as an essayist, a poet, and a novelist, and that all of his fiction is about the members of a small Kentucky community called Port William—a town loosely based on Berry’s own town of Port Royal. In the endpapers of some of the books there are maps and family trees of the imaginary township; I happen to know, for example, that after work Jayber would have passed Nathan Coulter’s house and then the Rowanberry farm on his walk down to the River, where he would have turned right to get home to his little river shack called Camp House. After 384 pages it feels like I know (and care) as much about Jayber as I do about anyone I’ve ever met. If you’re still not sure Port William is a place you’d like to visit, let me put it this way: imagine a whole series of stories about hobbits, and Port William is the Shire.

Jayber, an orphan and a bachelor, is a quiet man and a deep thinker, leading a peaceful and quiet life as well as he can as he observes and serves the community around him. Before he becomes the town barber, Jayber attends college and wrestles with some enormous theological questions. In one of the most memorable passages in the book he meets with his New Testament professor, a wise old man nicknamed “Old Grit.” Jayber tells him about his struggles with God, and the old man tells him:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

How many times I have wanted answers, when the only way to know them is to live them out in Grace.

I want to tell you about the tragic love story at the heart of the book, and about the painful and needless destruction of an ancient forest, but I’m out of space. I’ll end by saying this: I finished the book and literally wept on the floor of my office. Years later C. S. Lewis gave me a name for what I felt that day: sehnsucht. Joy, longing, yearning for something more, something unexplainable and terribly beautiful.

That day, after I blew my nose and washed my face, I started looking for land. I began thinking very seriously about community, and the Kingdom, and how best to instill in my children a love for Creation and for the people in our own Port William. We sold our house and moved to a little piece of land we call the Warren, and when people ask me how I got into beekeeping, or gardening, or seeing community as a way to enflesh the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, I hand them one of my copies of Jayber Crow.

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A Christian Approach to “Nature vs. Nurture”

Sep 02, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Christians often times buy into the simplistic categories of “nature vs. nurture.” But if we want to be more biblical, we should recognize that there are more distinctions than this, based on creation, sin, and grace.

In an article from several years ago David Powlison has a helpful footnote where he suggests four categories:

  1. creation nature (our nature as the result of being created in God’s image)
  2. sin nature (our nature as a result of falling into sin)
  3. sin nurture (ways in which rebellion is modeled and encouraged)
  4. grace nurture (ways in which godly behavior is modeled and encouraged).

We could schematize this as follows:

Nature Nurture
Creation creation nature
Sin sin nature sin nurture
Grace grace nurture


Here is why this matters when analyzing our own behavior and in counseling others:

When it comes to explaining anger, biblical Christians don’t cast their vote with either “nature” or “nurture,” or even with “nature and nurture.”

The divide between good and evil runs through everything, so we discern four factors.

In sizing up the effects of “nature,” you can’t understand people without noting both creation-nature and sin-nature. . . .

Similarly, in sizing up the effects of “nurture,” we must pay attention both to sin-nurture and grace-nurture. Patterns of both sin and wisdom may be nurtured (Proverbs 13:20). Neither nature nor nurture are neutral.

This certainly doesn’t solve all of the debates, but I think these are helpful categories to keep in mind as we think about why we do what we do.

Source: David Powlison, “Anger Part 1: Understanding Anger,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 14/1 (Fall 1995): 47 n. 23.


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Alan Noble: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 02, 2014 | Justin Taylor

10336758_643276737495_2075221101213230646_nI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Alan Noble (PhD, Baylor University) is an Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, Managing Editor at Christ and Pop Culture, and a Freelancer for The Atlantic. He and his family attend CityPres in OKC.


In 2006 Cormac McCarthy published one of his finest novels, The Road. It is a masterpiece of prose, at turns moving and terrifying, beautiful and gritty, transcendent and nihilistic. The novel tells the story of the end of the world after some unnamed cataclysmic event which blots out the sun, sets fires across the world, destroys cities, and ends society as we know it. McCarthy asks, what is left for us if we no longer have a culture to give us guidance and meaning?

To answer this, he tells the story of a nameless father and son as they travel south on a road toward warmer weather and the hope of finding other “good guys.” But this hope is irrational; the world they inhabit is violent and evil: bands of cannibals, steal, rape, and eat the weak, there is almost no food to be found, and there is no prospect of the world getting any better. In one pivotal scene, the boy’s mother tells the father that the ethical thing to do in such a world is to kill their young son before some great evil happens to him. And from a strictly secular perspective, she’s absolutely correct. When there is no future imaginable for anyone, why would you risk your son being horribly tortured? Following the logic of her own argument, the mother commits suicide.

Absurdly, the father refuses to murder his son. He retains a belief that his son has been given to him by God as a warrant of God’s existence and goodness. And by faith the father acts as if his son has a future worth living for, worth risking incredible suffering for, and the fantastic and fascinating thing is that McCarthy actually rewards that faith in the novel’s conclusion.

It’s difficult to express how remarkable this novel is. Modern readers expect a hopeless ending, an ironic ending, an ambiguous ending, or at best an ending that praises the human will to persevere in the face of a godless and hostile world, but McCarthy very intentionally validates the faith of his protagonist, a faith that is absurd from a secular perspective (for a lengthy treatment of this absurdity, see here).

One of the points made by Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his great work, A Secular Age, is that while religion remains popular, our society no longer assumes as a basic fact that the supernatural or transcendent is a reality which can affect us. Whether it is miracles in the Bible or God’s preserving common grace today, most modern people find it difficult to conceive of the supernatural. Ours is a largely disenchanted world, one in which we look inward for our hope and significance and direction, rather than outward toward a transcendent reality. And yet here is Cormac McCarthy, perhaps the foremost living American novelist, telling a story that acknowledges the weightiness of the secular vision (in the voice of the mother) and then denies that vision by validating a faith in the transcendent.

For those who can tolerate language, unsettling images of violence and suffering, and the even more unsettling moral questions that accompany those images, The Road is a rewarding and gripping read. And for the modern Christian reader, it is a moving reminder of the tension between secularism and faith that so strongly defines our time.

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Leland Ryken: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Sep 01, 2014 | Justin Taylor

LRI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books—including Dickens’s “Great Expectations” in the Christian Guides to the Classics series and the forthcoming A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible. He also served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version Bible.

Here he commends a novel he has read over thirty times.

GEA magazine editor once invited me to join other contributors in answering the question, What is the best novel originally published in English?  My answer began, The best novel originally published in English is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Great Expectations was recommended to me when I was preparing to go on my first Wheaton in England program.  Through the years I have maintained that this novel is the best possible introduction to the people and places of England.

The Britishness of Great Expectations is related to my first commendation of the novel.  The first thing we want when we sit down to read a novel is to be transported. Great Expectations delivers the goods.  No fiction writer has excelled Dickens in the gift of world making.  The world to which we are transported when we read Great Expectations is quintessential Britain and Victorian England.  It is a world of nature and countryside, the small town, and London.

A second thing that we want when we commit ourselves to reading a novel is to be entertained.  The hedonistic defense of literature (defending literature on the pleasure principle) has always carried primary weight with me.  We read literature in our leisure time, and leisure is meant to be enjoyable. Great Expectations gives us the enjoyment that we want.

It is also a comic masterpiece.  Among English authors, Dickens ranks with Chaucer and Shakespeare as our greatest humorist. His comedy is divided between comedy arising from characters and comedy arising from the situations of plot (“situation comedy”).

Dickens was a stylist and wordsmith of the very highest order, and he never excelled more than in Great Expectations (his last great novel).  Dickens could make moments immortal by how he expressed them.  His sparkling style is self-rewarding.

When I teach Great Expectations, I devote modules to each of the three elements that make up a story—setting, character creation, and plot.  I stand at the board and ask my class to assemble the story qualities that the human race likes best in a story.  By the time I have filled to board, it is obvious that Great Expectations meets all the criteria.

What about the truth of Great Expectations?  One type of truth is truthfulness to human experience.  A fiction writer gets us to stare at life, and the knowledge that emerges is knowledge in the form of right seeing—seeing things accurately.  Virtually everything that Dickens portrays in Great Expectations ”gets it right” in its accurate rendition of human experience.

Where’s the edification?  I myself place literature as a whole on a continuum with three main categories:

  1. Christian literature
  2. the literature of clarification and common humanity
  3. the literature of unbelief

Great Expectations falls into the middle category.  It does not explicitly endorse the Christian faith (though it contains many biblical references), but it is readily congruent with Christianity.  In particular it raises the question of values in a helpful way.  Pip loses his soul (metaphorically speaking) when he bases his life on his “great expectations” of a life of material ease based on inherited money, and he gains his soul (in a moral but not a spiritual sense) when he abandons his great expectations and bases his life on love, personal relations, and contentment with the common life.

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What Would It Have Been Like to Attend a Puritan Worship Service?

Aug 31, 2014 | Justin Taylor


The Old Ship Meetinghouse, built in 1681 (Hingham, Massachusetts). It is the only remaining 17th c. Puritan meetinghouse in the US and the oldest church in continuous ecclesiastical use in the US (now a Unitarian Universalist church).

Princeton historian Horton Davies (1916-2005):

A stranger entering any Puritan meeting-house would first notice the bareness and simplicity of the architecture and of the furnishings.

Probably the only decoration on the walls of the building would be text from the Scriptures.

Apart from the pews, the only other articles of furniture would be the high central pulpit and the Communion-table immediately below it.

On the cushion on the ledger of the pulpit would be seen the Bible. Its dominating, central position was no accident: it testified to the authority of the Bible in the worship, doctrine and government of Puritan Churches.

The impression of unadorned simplicity would be maintained at the worship.

The minister would ascend to the pulpit, dressed in a grave black gown, its somberness relieved only by the white of the Genevan bands he wore.

The service would commence with the call to worship, consisting of sentences selected from the Scriptures.

Then the stranger would kneel or stand, according to the practice of the congregation where he was worshiping, during the prayer of confession.

He would then join in a metrical psalm of praise.

The minister with then read a chapter from the Old Testament, perhaps pausing here and there to explain some obscure verse.

The stranger might then join in another metrical psalm, or he would hear a new testament lection immediately after the previous reading.

If you were in an Independent church he would then hear the minister lead a prayer of intercession. At its conclusion the whole assembly would ascent with a vocal ‘Amen’.

If you were in a Presbyterian church, this item would be postponed until after the sermon, and it would conclude with all saying the Lord’s Prayer aloud.

He would then notice the shuffling of the congregation as they settle down to listen comfortably to a lengthy sermon, while the minister adjusted the hour-glass. The sermon would be an exposition of a text or a longer passage of Scripture. It would begin with a simple exposition of Scripture, it would continue by controverting any errors which the Scripture condemned, it would conclude with the statement of the advantages of the acceptance of this particular doctrine. The preacher would deliver his conclusion with passionate and perhaps even vehement pleading. The stranger’s general impression of the sermon would be that both reason and conscience had been satisfied, and that the preacher had, in the name of God, struck for a decision. The peroration of the sermon would be the climax of the whole service. The service would then end with another metrical psalm and the pronouncing of the Blessing by the minister. . . .

In each service he would clearly have understood that the way of worship was not simply the manner in which the particular assembly of Christians wished to worship God, but rather that it was the kind of worship that God himself demanded in his Word. The lengthy readings from the Scriptures, the Baptismal formula taken from the Scriptures, the words of Institution and of Delivery taken from the Scriptures, the Biblical phraseology of the prayers, the careful way in which the sermon elucidated the Scriptures, and the metrical versions of the psalms used in praise, would all have contributed to produce this impression. In fact, it was the Biblical basis of Puritan worship that accounted for the liturgical agreement amongst the Puritans.

—Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (orig., 1948; reprint: Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 246-47.

See also, “What Did It Looks and Sound Like in Jonathan Edwards’s New England?” by Doug Sweeney. (Davies’s description applies to both England and New England in both the 17th and 18th centuries, while Sweeney is more specifically focused on 18th century New England.)

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Louis Markos: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Aug 31, 2014 | Justin Taylor

Markos-Louis_4I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Louis Markos, professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities.

His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition (W&S), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Moody), and Literature: A Student’s Guide (Crossway).

HTNot all of the novels of Charles Dickens are 800 pages long! In fact, my favorite Dickens novel, Hard Times, comes in just under 300 pages. Its relatively short length likely has to do with its simple, parable-like structure. As the titles of its three books (“Sowing,” “Reaping,” “Garnering”) make clear, Hard Times illustrates and dramatizes the biblical teaching that we reap that which we sow.

Which is not to say that the novel is schematic or overly moralistic. The characters that Dickens creates are flesh-and-blood people who make agonizing decisions, and for whom we come to care deeply. The flawed protagonist, Thomas Gradgrind, is a retired merchant who runs a model school that trains children to think only in terms of facts. Employing the same utilitarian educational system for his eldest son (Tom) and daughter (Louisa), he forbids them to read poetry or fiction and roots out of them all fanciful, romantic, or heroic notions.

Though Gradgrind is neither a bad man nor an uncaring father, his failure to nurture his children’s hearts and souls has disastrous results; both Tom and Louisa grow up to be stunted adults devoid of real human feeling. Lacking not only a moral center but the kinds of feelings that must ever accompany virtuous behavior, Tom, without suffering a stitch of remorse, first manipulates his doting sister and then robs a bank and frames the crime on an innocent worker. When his father asks him why he has done these terrible things, Tom appeals to the law of averages: given so many workers, so many are bound to be dishonest. Sadly, tragically, Gradgrind must see the bitter fruit of his utilitarian ideals.

The true heart of the novel, however, concerns Louisa’s disastrous marriage to a filthy capitalist, Bounderby, who is thirty years her senior. When Gradgrind passes on Bounderby’s proposal to Louisa, she desires to share with her father what is in her heart but neither of them knows how to communicate on an emotional level. Though they both know Louisa does not love Bounderby, Gradgrind brushes this aside, counseling her to make her decision based on facts and statistics. Her marriage is a loveless one, leaving the emotionally immature Louisa prey to an amoral rake, with whom she nearly runs off.

At the last second, she relents (this is, after all, a Victorian novel!), and, instead, runs home to her father’s house. He greets her at the door, only to have her fall, in an insensible heap, at his feet. Although Gradgrind is humbled by the experience and comes to realize that there was something missing in his educational scheme, he proves unable to mend the damage that has been done. Bounderby rejects Gradgrind’s plea to give Louisa some time apart from him and casts her aside for good. Louisa never remarries and lives as a childless, isolated spinster.

The fates of Gradgrind, Tom, and Louisa might suggest that Hard Times is a gloomy novel, but Dickens is careful to contrast their stories with that of a troupe of circus people who, though they lack facts, are rich in love, warmth, and joy. Through them Dickens teaches us that there are aspects of our lives and ours souls that cannot be so easily weighed and measured.

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Lore Ferguson: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Aug 30, 2014 | Justin Taylor

LFI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Offering a recommendation today is Lore Ferguson, a writer and graphic designer living in Dallas, TX. She describes her life as “small, simple, and ever in an ongoing effort to make it more so.”

She writes at and can be followed on Twitter at @loreferguson.


BroKIf you have anything good to say about a particular book, you ought to at least have a few good things to say about its plot as well. Whenever I recommend my favorite particular book, I’m asked: “What is it about?” The words catch—sometimes on the end of my tongue, sometimes in the back of my throat—because the truth is I don’t know.The Brothers K (not to be confused with The Brothers Karamazov, which it will be anyway) is a book about a family, and this is how I recommend it in a singular sentence. It is a book about the family Chance, as told by one of four Chance brothers, Kincaid.

I heard of The Brothers K from an author friend who had named his son after Kincade. I knew then I must have missed the great American novel as an English major while under piles of Gilgamesh and Shakespeare, for which I will never forgive my professors.

Paul says whatever is good and true and pure, to think on these things, and I know he meant it, but sometimes I wonder if that meant we were never to think of the evil, untrue, and defiled things that pass to and fro beneath the front we offer everyone else. The truth is there is evil and defilement in my heart, and I must think on those things to lead me to the kindness of God on the way to repentance. David James Duncan simmers the brokenness of family, heart, war, and world in this 645-page novel, and never boils it over. There is not gratuitous delight in brokenness, but there is neither a turning away of the things that break us all.

The tension holding the book together is the voice of Kincaid, growing into adulthood, processing and reprocessing the life he’s been born into and the life he eventually chooses. But the real tension is that the reader will see himself there in the questions Kincaid asks and the ones that are asked of him, the observations we all make but are afraid to say.

Like many a Christian before them, Mama and the Elder justified their machinations with Christ’s famous sentence: ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ And like many a Christian before them, they completely forgot that the only sword-shaped weapon Jesus ever actually used was the one He died on.

Some might see observations like these as gratuitous jabs against Christianity, and I might agree, but gratuitous jabs are the fully-grown progeny of doubts never voiced. If you read it slowly, and finish it well, you will have grown alongside the Chance family, asking existential questions and mulling on philosophical differences, but you will also have grown to love them. This is why The Brothers K is a book Christians ought to read (though I’m wary of saying must read).

We all have people in our lives who challenge and press on us in uncomfortable ways and places, but it is not by chance they are there. They are, in one very real sense, family. These bipeds we pass in grocery stores and though church doors—more than mere humans taking up space, they carry the weight of abuse, fear, doubt, hope, joy, peace, and death on their shoulders. One of the brothers K says:

I felt free to like all three of these men now, because I’d realized I didn’t have to become them.

Would that we all could say those words.

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David Powlison: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading

Aug 29, 2014 | Justin Taylor

DPI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

David Powlison worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, where he is executive director, and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling. He hold an MDiv from Westminster Theological Seminary and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine (focusing on the history of psychiatry), and has been a counselor for over 30 years.


Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War (1991) is book every reading Christian should consider.

In making this recommendation, I am taking seriously that the verb is “should consider,” not “should read.” This novel is not for everyone. It’s long (almost 800 pages). Helprin’s style (magical realism) won’t appeal to some people. You won’t find Christian theology. This is purely a work of fiction. It tells the story of a very interesting man. It does not present opinions, views, and advice. That’s the disclaimer.

But here’s the draw. A Soldier of the Great War is beautiful. It is thought-provoking.

I know that many readers will find that Helprin’s writing gives the same deep pleasure and rich nourishment that he has given me over the years. I have read SGW four or five times. (Only Fyodor Dostoevsky and Patrick O’Brian have drawn me back so often.) Each time I have been enraptured. My copy of the book is marked up with innumerable underlinings, annotations, and cross-references. I love Helprin’s lyricism and imagination. I love his reflections on and evocations of beauty, love, joy, worship, courage, coming of age, passion, loss, and death.

Beauty, joy, and love—in the face of death—are the core. We Christians are right to take seriously “the true and the good,” those life-or-death questions dealing with epistemological convictions and ethical actions. We are not right to ignore or even deprecate “the beautiful,” those life-or-death questions dealing with aesthetic experience. But worship and God’s glory involve all three.

God is true. He is good. He is beautiful.

Sin corrupts all three; grace redeems all three. Helprin does not write as a Christian. But he awakens things that stream in the direction of whole-souled worship. Not worship abstracted and detached from God’s working in time and place and persons. But worship awakening in the midst of human experience, embedded in creation, history, and relationships. SGW traffics in immediacy, wonder, engagement, joy, attachment, awe, attentiveness, gratitude, alertness, appreciation, longing.

Of course, I love SGW in a different way than I love Scripture. But alongside Scripture, I most love novels and histories. Why? Because you learn about people.

You gain a feel for human experience.

You come to understand riches and nuances that you could never understand just from knowing the circle of people you happen to know.

You come to understand the ways that people differ from each other, and the ways we are all alike—an exceedingly valuable component of wisdom.

You become a bigger person with a wider scope of perception.

All those things you come to know illustrate and amplify the relevance and wisdom of our God. I love fiction and biography for the same reasons that an 18th century pastor would read his Bible and his Shakespeare. SGW is one those stories from which I have loved learning.

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