I’ve just finished two wonderful books on early Christianity in the Roman Empire: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church
by Alan Kreider [review
] and Defending Constantine
by Peter Leithart [review
]. I’m taking a group of young adults from our church on a trip to Rome in December, and I’m having each of them read these two books, which present contrasting takes on the “Constantine moment” in early Christian history. Should be a fun discussion!
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
One that comes to mind is John Stott’s The Cross of Christ
It’s such a monumental work, so beautifully comprehensive and unapologetic in its analysis of the cruciform center of the Christian faith. Stott just throws it down, page after page. I’ve found Stott’s book, alongside Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship
so helpful in embracing rather than being embarrassed by the uncomfortable aspects of Christianity. These books remind me of the Charles Spurgeon quote:
Hide not the offense of the cross, lest you make it of none effect. The angles and corners of the gospel are its strength: to pare them off is to deprive it of power.
Other shaping books for me include N. T. Wright’s After You Believe
] and Richard Hays’sThe Moral Vision of the New Testament
Both have been critical for me in understanding and articulating the beauty of the salt-and-light mission and ethical vocation of the people of God. I’ve seen holiness and sanctification downplayed in some corners of evangelical culture recently, as I wrote about here
, so books like these are essential.
Finally, the “cultural liturgies
” books by James K. A. Smith, and most recently his You Are What You Love
], have been immensely helpful in my writing and discipleship, particularly to young adults navigating the complexities of contemporary culture.
What three books have helped you the most in your understanding of culture?
C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism
has probably been the single most influential book for me in my approach to culture. His distinction between “using” and “receiving” art has been helpful for me as a critic and lover of culture.
Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film
is a book that has inspired me to think deeply about form and content as relates to religious aesthetics and expression. Is there an aesthetic
of the holy? That’s a provocative question I’ve been mulling since first reading Schrader’s book. If there’s one overarching idea that drives my understanding of culture, it is that form matters.
Marshall McLuhan was right that the medium is the message. Christ’s incarnation is proof of it, too.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
I think it’s more of a memoir than an autobiography, but I really loved N. D. Wilson’s Death by Living
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that was specifically about someone else’s story but connected so deeply with me. I could say similar things about Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
, another memoir that resonated with me in part because of its focus on place.
Both of these books are funny and sincere, theologically visceral and in awe of the spare beauty of flyover country, which is one reason they connect with me (I grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas).
What are your favorite fiction books?
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead
is my favorite contemporary novel. Much like turning to any given scene of a Terrence Malick film, you can turn to any page of Gilead
and just bask in the beauty and catharsis of it. I’ve loved Robinson’s other novels too: Home
], and Lila
I also have a peculiar love for The Great Gatsby
I try to read it once a year, usually in April.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’ve been thinking a lot about limitation and the counterintuitive gift that it is, both in the Christian life and in existence generally. We so want to believe that we can do anything and that our freedom is infinite; that being “boxed-in” by external rules or circumstances is a bad thing. Ours is a culture that understands freedom in terms of total self-definition and lack of restraints. But following Jesus requires us to give up unrestrained autonomy and resist the cultural urge to look within ourselves for identity, hope, and purpose. That’s a gift. In closing off options, in saying no to some desires (both bad and good), in committing to an authority beyond the self, true freedom is found. The practical realities of this as worked out in relationships, jobs, church, and so on have been showing me new aspects of the gospel and how radical God’s unmerited gift of grace actually is.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Mez McConnell, Erik Raymond, Sandra McCracken, Tim Challies, Anthony Moore, Sammy Rhodes, Karen Ellis, Alastair Roberts, Scott Sauls, Karen Swallow Prior, Jackie Hill Perry, Bruce Ashford, Jonathan Leeman, Megan Hill, Marvin Olasky, David Wells, John Frame, Rod Dreher, James K. A. Smith, Randy Alcorn, Tom Schreiner, Trillia Newbell, Jen Wilkin, Joe Carter, Timothy George, Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell, Lauren Chandler, Mike Cosper, Russell Moore, Jared Wilson, Kathy Keller, J. D. Greear, Kevin DeYoung, Kathleen Nielson, Thabiti Anyabwile, Elyse Fitzpatrick, Collin Hansen, Fred Sanders, Rosaria Butterfield, Nancy Guthrie, and Matt Chandler.
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