On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked David Murray—professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction, his favorite biographies, the role of reading, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
I’ve been slowly working my way through Puritanism and the Pursuit of Happiness by Bryn Roberts. It focuses on the ministry and theology of Ralph Venning. For lighter reading I turn to Thomas Friedman’s new bestseller, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations [read TGC’s review]. The next one in line is The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, which tells the story about how two Israeli psychologists won the Nobel Prize for their work that upended assumptions about how we make decisions and created the field of behavioral economics.
What are your favorite fiction books?
I must confess I’ve never been a great reader of fiction. That’s partly because of pressure of time, but mainly because I just don’t enjoy it. I know that’s heresy for some, but I’m being honest. I’ve tried novels from time to time, but I really struggle to motivate myself. I’ve been told repeatedly it would make me a better writer—and that’s probably true. So, I recently resolved (again) to consume more fiction. I finished The Alchemist (I still have no idea what the all buzz and 10,000 Amazon reviews is about), and I’m just starting A Man Called Ove.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
Biographies and autobiographies have been hugely influential in my life, probably more so than any other genre of literature. I’ve read hundreds, both of Christians and non-Christians. From the moment I was converted I started devouring biographies of Christians: Spurgeon’s autobiographies, Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labors, Life and Diary of David Brainerd, Andrew A. Bonar: Diary and Life, and Bonar’s Life of Robert Murray M’cheyne. My wife and I read through Iain Murray’s two-volume biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the beginning of our marriage. As these books were the “milk” of my early Christian life, they penetrated deeply into my soul and set the tone and direction for my life and ministry.
When I go on vacation, I usually take a couple of biographies from the bestseller’s lists. I try to pick one historical figure, like a president or general, and one modern subject, like a business leader or athlete. I find lots of sermon illustrations in these books, as well as just relaxing entertainment.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
As my great aim in life is to preach Christ, the books that help me do this rise to the top of the list. I’d never grasped the point of the Old Testament until I read Christ of the Covenants by O. P. Robertson. When I read it, the lights went on—or should I say, the shadows went on. Calvin’s Institutes (especially Book 2, chapters 9 to 11) advanced the revolution in my understanding of the relation between the Testaments. Then came Jonathan Edwards’s History of the Work of Redemption to show me how to put all this together and preach Christ from the Old Testament.
The Glory of Christ by John Owen and The Fountain of Life by John Flavel soar above all other Puritan works I’ve read for advancing my knowledge of and love for Christ. George Smeaton is perhaps the greatest New Testament exegete I’ve come across. His two volumes Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement and The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement provide rare insight into the length, depth, breadth, and height of our suffering Savior’s life and death. You cannot but preach Christ crucified after reading them.
The Pleasures of God by John Piper revolutionized my view of God, and my understanding of God’s view of his people. A number of years ago, a long period of controversy had worn me down and infected me with a strain of negativity that was influencing my preaching. This book brought me back to the glorious gospel of the ever-happy God and his delight in himself, his gospel, his people, and his salvation.
Three books profoundly changed my view of depression and how to counsel depressed people: I’m Not Supposed to Feel Like This by Chris Williams and others, and Overcoming Spiritual Depression by Arie Elshout gave me quantum leap insight into depression at a critical time in my family’s life. Broken Minds by Steve and Robyn Bloem broke my heart and gave me much-needed compassion for people suffering with depression.
What’s the best book you’ve recently read?
I have three competitors for this coveted spot: the biographical cancer memoir When Breath Becomes Air [read TGC’s review], the business/leadership book Why Simple Wins: Escape the Complexity Trap and Get to Work that Matters, and Sinclair Ferguson’s Devoted to God [read TGC’s review]. If I had to award a gold medal, it would go to Sinclair for his exegetical and warmhearted approach to the often-controversial subject of sanctification.
You’ve recently written about “living a grace-paced life in a burnout culture” and the need for digital detox. What role does reading books have in this discussion?
In my forthcoming book, Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, I talk a lot about the need for a digital detox, part of which involves turning away from digital devices and picking up real books again. All the research shows significant psychological benefit results from reading real paper books as opposed to just surfing and clicking around the web, and even compared to reading books on an eReader. This has proven true in my experience since I decided to buy paper books again—unless I need the book for work purposes where copying and pasting Kindle highlights is often helpful.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
The biggest lesson I’m learning is to do less and to slow down in order to free up time, space, and silence for meditation, prayer, and regular communion with God throughout the day. It’s the hardest and best thing I’ve done for years.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Jarvis Williams, Gracy Olmstead, Matthew Hall, Drew Dyck, Louis Markos, Ray Ortlund, Brett McCracken, 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.