On My Shelf: Life and Books with J. Todd Billings

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked J. Todd Billings—professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary and author of several books including Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ [read TGC’s review]—about what’s on his nightstand, recommended books on union with Christ, books that have shaped his understanding of serving and leading, and more.


What books are currently on your nightstand? 

I call these books my “pleasure reading” books—books I don’t read for research as a professor. It’s always a large, eclectic list. My health problems have made me curious about the history and culture of medicine, so I’ve been reading doctors such as Atul Gawande and Siddhartha Mukherjee, most recently in The Gene: An Intimate History.

I’ve found Jonathan Haidt’s work helpful in illuminating the cultural landscape of our polarized Western moment in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and History.

I’m always reading fiction, sometimes following the drama of mysteries (P. D. James’s Shroud for a Nightingale) and then other times moving in a dystopian direction (Don DeLillo’s Zero K).

I’ve also been drawn to certain books as I try to make sense of my role as a parent in this cultural moment, including Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Adam Alter’s Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, and John Elder Robinson’s Look Me in the Eye.

In addition, while I don’t consider systematic theology books as “pleasure reading” (since I read them for my job), I still have quite a few nightstand books with theological themes—usually from a different disciplinary standpoint. Recently, I’ve been enthralled with Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel [read TGC’s review]. She gives a careful description of this troubling movement, and by avoiding caricatures, she shows how the prosperity movement is actually much more widespread than most people realize. I’ve also been giving a careful, slow reading to Ernst Becker’s extremely powerful psychological-social-theological synthesis in The Denial of Death.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

If I had to narrow it down, it would be these, which are shaping my views on the person and work of the Spirit, how the Triune God speaks a transforming Word through Scripture, and the utter centrality of Christ’s cross to Christian theology:

How does a diagnosis of incurable cancer change your perspective on reading and writing? Does the life of the mind have more or less urgency with the awareness of your own mortality?

That’s a fascinating question. The diagnosis has definitely brought more urgency to some of the questions I pursue through reading and writing, and less urgency to others. When considering a writing project, I need to honestly consider: If I have five years left to work and read and write, is this a book I would bother with? Is this how God is calling me to speak now? That makes some possibilities wither on the branch, and gives life to others.

With the life of the mind, that’s a hard question. One of the central side effects of my chemotherapy, that I’m on all the time, is mental fatigue. This forces me to be selective in how I use my “high mental energy” time. Sometimes that means spending it with family or friends. Sometimes that means pursuing a theological or pastoral question related to my work as a professor. Certainly, some academic pursuits seem silly to me now, in light of my lifespan prospects, but some other academic and theological pursuits seem urgent. How do we distinguish genuine resurrection hope from false alternatives, such as trusting the progress of medicine to somehow “solve” the problem of death? Questions like these are urgent to me now.

What three books on believers’ union with Christ do you recommend most?

Wow, that’s a hard question. It depends on what questions one is asking.

  1. For a profound and classic treatment of the union with Christ—with a strong emphasis upon the Spirit’s work—I would have to recommend John Calvin’s Institutes, Books 3 and 4.
  2. For a helpful overview in terms of biblical studies, Constantine Campbell does a great job in Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study.
  3. For those interested in a contemporary theological account that engages with a wide range of voices from a Reformed perspective, Michael Horton’s Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ is excellent.

What’s the last great book you read?

Kate Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Doctrine of God. It’s like no other book I’ve ever read. Captivating and beautiful, it leads the reader into worship of the one true Lord. From a scholarly perspective, it’s one of the few “systematic theologies” written today that (I suspect) people will be reading 50 years from now. Do I always agree? No. But her project is stunning, and it weaves together biblical exegesis, prayerful doxology, and philosophical sophistication in a breathtaking way.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I’m learning, in new ways, that our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). Both inside and outside the Christian community, we have tremendous pressure to make our lives into a visible success. Many of the cancer patients I know have died, in what often looks like a visible failure. They “lost the fight” against cancer. Their accomplishments and résumés don’t seem to matter anymore. Their relationships with family and friends matter, but to be honest, while their loss will always be a sting to the loved ones, their family and friends will also move on.

But we can trust that God’s promise in Christ—which is now hidden—will be made visible one day: “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4). I’m incredibly grateful for life and breath now, but I’m also getting more and more expectant for the age to come—to see Christ face to face, and to be made like him, with the whole church, in ways I can only faintly imagine now.


Also in the On My Shelf series: Sam Storms • Greg Thornbury • 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

Browse dozens of book recommendations from The Gospel Coalition’s leaders and sign up your church at Hubworthy.

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