On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked David Mathis—executive editor of desiringGod.org, pastor of Cities Church in Minneapolis, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines—about what’s on his nightstand, the books he re-reads, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
Truth be told, I no longer have a nightstand. It was overflowing with so many books that my precious wife replaced it with a dresser to give me more space. Now I have a veritable mini-library right there beside the bed.
But don’t let a bedside library make you think I’m a voluminous reader. I’m a bedtime reader, yes—that accounts for stocking so many titles within arm’s reach. But I’m also a slow reader, and I feel no obligation to finish a book just because I started it. I often read by the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of what most non-fiction books have to offer can be found in about 20 percent of the pages. So without apology, I ransack books for what I can get in the little time I have in this season of life, but that doesn’t mean I speed-read. In fact, I wonder how much speed “reading” really is reading. Retention is one thing; transformation is another. I don’t read simply to retain; I read to be changed for the better.
So I do a lot of dipping in, not a lot of cover-to-cover reading. Right now I couldn’t be more excited about four new titles by colleagues at Desiring God. It started this spring with Tony Reinke’s 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You and John Piper’s Reading the Bible Supernaturally. Tony’s research and insights are remarkable, and John’s new book is one of his most important.
Piper has written many books that are sumptuous biblical feasts for readers. In this book he brings you into the kitchen to see how the food is made. Part 1 is golden, but some readers may find it tough sledding. If you’re spinning your wheels there, don’t leave too early; jump in at Part 2, or even Part 3. Most authors serve their best wine first, but John keeps some of the best for Part 3.
Within the last few months, Marshall Segal’s Not Yet Married [read TGC’s review] has appeared. I join John in this hope: “I predict (and pray!) that this will become the go-to book on dating for Christians for a long time to come.” Finally, Jonathan Parnell’s Never Settle for Normal [read TGC’s review] has just arrived.
In the morning, I read downstairs. On the living-room shelf, I have the one book I’ve spent the most time in, hands down: a 2001 original edition ESV. I still open its worn, 16-year-old pages just about every morning and read (and meditate) in four spots with the Disciple Journal plan. Stacked with that Bible now is Dane Ortlund’s new devotional psalter as well as volume 10 of The Collected Works of John Piper. Volume 10 is the devotional volume with the full content of The Godward Life and Taste and See, totaling 260 meditations. I go here regularly for a three- to five-minute read.
What are your favorite fiction books?
I don’t read much fiction. Just about the only fiction I read before getting married was The Lord of the Rings, which I love and regularly return to. At my wife’s gentle nudging, I read some YA fiction in recent years “just for enjoyment.” The Hunger Games started well, but I was terribly disappointed with its resolution. I found the Divergent trilogy more to my liking and appreciated the author’s Christian faith coming through at points. My favorite fiction, by far, is Lewis and Tolkien. Our twin boys just turned 7, and I’ve loved reading aloud to them from Narnia, and we’re making our second go through The Hobbit.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
I simply haven’t read much biography. I spent a good portion of the summer of 2005 working through Ron Chernow’s big bio on Alexander Hamilton, but I wouldn’t call it influential. Someday I’d like to see the musical it inspired. Other than the Swans Are Not Silent series, most of the Christian biographies I’ve read have been the short mass-market paperbacks, which I don’t disdain.
After growing up in Catholic school, I found Luther especially fascinating for a season in my early 20s. I relished Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand; it encouraged me to do my level best to stand lock-step with what God says, no matter how many people aren’t. This winter I listened to Andrew Pettegree’s new history of Luther’s publishing, Brand Luther. I was amazed by how much Luther cared about the details and nuances of the new media of his day, and that inspired me for the work we’re doing at Desiring God.
Perhaps the single most influential biography I’ve read is Darlene Rose’s Evidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II. If you don’t know Rose’s story, you can find audio of her testimony online (part 1 and part 2). Her stories gave me a compelling glimpse of Christian faith outside of the American dream and the joy of clinging to God in dire circumstances. She pressed my soul toward more radical living.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelf?
I don’t always read sports books, but I when I do they’re about baseball, and most recently, “new baseball.” I’ve been a big baseball fan longer than I can remember. I grew up a Braves fan (the Twins broke my 11-year-old heart with their 1991 World Series win over Atlanta), but I became a Twins fan in the summer of 2010 when my wife and I had twin boys, and it became apparent we were putting down roots in Minneapolis. When in Rome, I thought.
In the last year, the Twins finally got a new-era general manager, and I’ve been getting up to speed on the new generation of baseball. First it was The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, which I did read cover to cover. Now it’s Smart Baseball by Keith Law. On deck is Moneyball, which a friend says (surprise) is even better than the movie.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
It should not go without saying: the Bible. It’s the one book I want to read every day for the rest of my life. How can mere human words compare to what God himself has said by his prophets and apostles? The Bible is emphatically not just another book in my library. God’s Word is the centerpiece and standard by which I measure all other words I read.
Beyond that, more than a decade of editing for John Piper hasn’t been all work. I often come back to sections of Desiring God and The Pleasures of God, and most often of all, Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ. The other books I return to most are by Tolkien and Lewis, along with the ones that shaped me in college and my early 20s. I go here to rekindle the old fires:
- The Cross and Christian Ministry by Don Carson
- The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer
- The Master Plan of Evangelism by Robert Coleman
- Spiritual Leadership by J. Oswald Sanders
- Salvation Belongs to the Lord by John Frame
The one newer book I return to is Keller’s book on prayer. It’s the most personally influential book I’ve read in several years.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
God gave dads broad shoulders, not just physically but emotionally, for a reason. He meant for us to carry a lot, and he meant for us to regularly come to the end of ourselves and lean consciously on him with specific trust.
My wife and I had our fourth child in April. We haven’t yet found the “new normal” that feels sufficiently under control, and I doubt we will for some time (18 years?). It seems this is how God designed it. We parent in our 20s and 30s, hopefully when we’re (almost) mature enough for the task, and when we still have enough youthful energy for the relentless labor. I’m learning to own that this is my season in life—not to write as many words as I can, or preach as many sermons as I can, or disciple as many men as I can, but to be faithful to my sense of ministry calling without losing sight of the more objective and clear callings: husband and father.
Normal parenting of young kids means running on fumes emotionally regularly. But God’s call on me as a daddy isn’t to have enough strength now for next year, next month, next week, or even tomorrow. Just for today. Be faithful today. Don’t check out today. Pour out today. Ask God to provide the emotional energy needed to finish this day well as the head of this home. Sufficient for each day is its own trouble. His mercies will be new tomorrow.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Michael Lindsay • Nathan Finn • Jennifer Marshall • Todd Billings • Greg Thornbury • Greg Forster • Jen Pollock Michel • Sam Storms • Barton Swaim • John Stonestreet • George Marsden • Andrew Wilson • Sally Lloyd-Jones • Darryl Williamson • D. A. Horton • Carl Ellis • Owen Strachan • Thomas Kidd • David Murray • Jarvis Williams • Gracy Olmstead • Matthew Hall • Drew Dyck • Louis Markos • Ray Ortlund • Brett McCracken • Mez McConnell • Erik Raymond • Sandra McCracken • Tim Challies • 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 • Matt Chandler