On My Shelf is a feature designed to help you get to know various people through providing a behind-the-scences glimpse into their lives as readers.
I corresponded with Fred Sanders, associate professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute of Biola University, about what’s currently on his nightstand, books he re-reads, his favorite biographies, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
My main reading project right now is consuming commentaries on 1 John, a book I’ll be teaching at Los Angeles Bible Training School next term. I’ll be assigning students John Stott’s commentary as we go through the course, and as I prepare my lectures I’m using the standard, responsible studies like those of Colin Kruse and I. Howard Marshall. But what I’m most excited about, both for my teaching and also for my spiritual life, is the chance to dip into some neglected oldies: commentaries by Augustus Neander (1852), John Ebrard (1860), Robert Candlish (1870), and Erich Haupt (1879). These spiritually powerful 19th-century commentators found a stunning amount of things to say about each word in 1 John. Older still, and much better known, is John Calvin, whose commentary on this book is typically sagacious and uncharacteristically brief. Finally, John Wesley, who gave 1 John a special prominence in his thought, offers good guidelines for what should be preached from the text in his Notes Upon the New Testament.
I’m also reading a lot of new trinitarian theology, keeping up to date in my area of specialty and getting ready for upcoming writing projects. Kendall Soulen’s The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity is one of the most stimulating theological projects I’ve seen in recent years.
There are a couple of multi-volume histories I’m co-reading with my family. With my wife I’m reading Kevin Starr’s Californians and the American Dreams, starting with the volume called Material Dreams: Southern California in the 1920s. My wife finished this volume well before I did, and now I have to catch up with her (“this explains everything about Los Angeles,” she raved upon completion). With my son I’m reading aloud Winston Churchill’s series The Second World War, and we’re on the first volume, The Gathering Storm. In both cases, we’re in no hurry to finish the series. They’re entertaining and informative, and it’s kind of nice to know we’re in no immediate danger of running out of pages.
For fun, I just finished the comic novella Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith (highly recommended) and Jack Handey’s first novel The Stench of Honolulu, which features the most despicable narrator ever, and a very high laughs-per-page rate.
A book I picked up on a whim and am learning a great deal from this month is The Day-Star of Liberty: William Hazlitt’s Radical Style by Tom Paulin. Hazlitt (d. 1830) was one of the great masters of English prose, and this book scrutinizes his style, his remarkable literary-journalistic voice. Through a series of close readings of passages from Hazlitt, Paulin shows how a great writer’s style emerges from underlying philosophical commitments: epistemology and metaphysics are the twin engines of prose. I still find Hazlitt’s views and temperament abhorrent (he idolized Napoleon!), but I want to understand the sources of his word-magic.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I’m learning that following Jesus is simultaneously a matter of living in his grace and of obeying his law. I don’t want to describe it as balancing them, because that would suggest that we need only a certain amount of grace and a certain amount of obedience, which would be nonsense. Somehow life in Christ is all grace, yet not to the exclusion of obedience.
I think this is the place the Bible is always speaking to us from, and I hope I’ve learned it from reading Galatians in light of Matthew, each as guides to the correct understanding of the Old Testament. But I’ve also found a lot of help from books like Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification and, more recently, Ernest Kevan’s The Grace of Law.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
I re-read books for a living. As a professor in Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, I get to tutor groups of students through about a hundred classics, year after year. So a lot of the books I’d normally re-read anyway come around on my annual teaching schedule: Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, Gregory of Nazianzus’s Five Theological Orations, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, the Heidelberg Catechism, and so on.
On a lower plane than those “great books” are the “really really good books,” among which I place J. I. Packer’s classic Knowing God and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. In their distinctive ways, each is a model of clear and concise communication. When I revisit passages from either book, I find myself actually counting words and saying things like: “How’d he explain this whole doctrine in 47 words, mostly very common, and all non-technical?”
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
It takes holiness to see holiness, or at least to understand what you’re seeing. So the best Christian biographies are the ones whose authors are nearly as strikingly Christlike as their subjects. One that stands out is the life of Charles Simeon by H. C. G. Moule, in which one elderly saint (Moule) tells the story of another. Norman Grubb’s life of C. T. Studd has something of the same atmosphere but on an appropriately lower level. The same dynamic is at work in Through Gates of Splendor, where Elisabeth Elliot tells the story of Jim Elliot and the other martyrs with unique insight and empathy. Older examples include Jonathan Edwards’s Life of David Brainerd and Athanasius’s Life of Antony. These “saints watching saints” books have helped me not to focus too much on the task of imitating the exemplary lives portrayed. By putting readers in the position of spectators to holiness, biographies like this invite us to join the movement of praise and wonder at the Savior who does remarkable things through these lives.