On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Matt Emerson—associate professor of religion at Oklahoma Baptist University and author of “He Descended to the Dead”: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday—about what’s on his nightstand, favorite fiction, books on theology, and more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
I tend to have an eclectic assortment at any given time. Right now, I’m reading:
- Fiction: The Fellowship of the Ring (I try to read The Lord of the Rings between Christmas and Easter each year)
- Theology: Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, and a few volumes on the doctrine of creation for class prep (Ian McFarland’s From Nothing, Matthew Levering’s The Doctrine of Creation, and Jonathan Wilson’s God’s Good World)
- Education/pedagogy: two new volumes on the liberal arts—Trivium and Quadrivium
- Early church: Catechetical Discourse by Gregory of Nyssa (most recent SVS Press Popular Patristics volume)
- Audio: I just finished listening to Dune for the first time, and recently finished Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses Grant.
What are your favorite works of fiction?
I grew up reading the Narnia and The Lord of the Rings (and Harry Potter) over and over, so those have to be atop the list. But to be honest I often wish evangelicals would also read some other literature in addition to those great works. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Graham Greene’s novels (especially The Power and the Glory), and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov are favorites. All of them draw on biblical themes and language in order to capture the peculiarities of human experience in unique ways.
With respect to both novels and poems, as well as other genres, I think evangelicals would be well served to fuel their imaginations with the great works of literature both inside and outside the Western canon. Reading great literature helps us grasp—intellectually, but also emotionally and aesthetically—the plight of humanity, the variegated but common nature of human experience, and our shared longing for redemption.
What theology books have most shaped you as a theologian and how?
G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission (IVP Academic) and A New Testament Biblical Theology (Baker Academic)—these two books helped me put Scripture together in a way that I hadn’t previously been taught, or at least that I hadn’t fully understood, both in terms of intertextuality and canonical shape. They’re foundational for anything I do in biblical theology.
Craig Bartholomew, series editor, The Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (Zondervan Academic)—these eight volumes showed me what it is like to read Scripture with the church in an exegetically serious manner and with philosophical and dogmatic questions in mind. I don’t agree with everything in any of them, of course, but the kind of holistic hermeneutic promoted by and used in these volumes, and by SAHS more generally, is what I try to emulate as a theologian and hermeneutician.
R. R. Reno and John O’Keefe, Sanctified Vision (Johns Hopkins University Press)—again, I don’t agree with everything in this book, but it opened up a way for me to understand and appreciate an entire millennium of Christian theological reflection that I had previously consigned to the dustbin of history. Early Christian interpretation and theology are gaining popularity among evangelicals, but this is still an area of inquiry in which many of us are woefully underread and undertrained. I didn’t know what I’d been missing until I read this book, along with a few others on patristic thought, and then started diving into primary sources.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
I’m not a big re-reader, but The Lord of the Rings, Narnia, the Gilead trilogy, and other fiction favorites make their way back onto my nightstand regularly. Most of the time I’m trying to catch up or keep up with academic reading, and so fiction—and sometimes poetry—is a way to refresh and recharge my mind and soul.
What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?
John Piper was very influential for me early on in my Christian walk, and so here I’d probably point to both Desiring God and Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Regarding the former, I had no concept of what discipleship meant until I randomly picked up Piper’s signature book in a LifeWay store in Auburn, Alabama. That book helped me reorient my life and my walk with Jesus around God, rather than around myself. With respect to Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, I read that early in my ministry training and I believe it made a lasting impression on me regarding the work of the pastor. It specifically ingrained in me the idea that my vocation is not about me or my success, but about shepherding the flock of God.
What’s one book you wish every pastor read?
The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. I’ve never read a book that can humble you, encourage you, equip you, and train you in the basics of the classical Christian doctrine of God at the same time. This book is an absolute must-read for every pastor. Eswine intertwines a deep and profound understanding of theological concepts like God’s eternity, omnipresence, and omnipotence with the practicalities of pastoral ministry. The fundamental point, which every pastor needs to understand deep in our souls, is that we aren’t God—only God is God. We can’t be everywhere, all the time, for everyone. We’re not who people need the most; God is who people need the most. And our job is to point them to him, not to ourselves.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I think God has to teach us the same thing over and over—we can’t do anything on our own. God has to work in our hearts through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We learn that early in conversion, but the rest of the Christian life is essentially the same lesson in every aspect of our lives. Over the last few years I’ve learned it as a parent, and right now I’m learning that about my job—I can’t put it all on my back. I need the Spirit of Christ to glorify the Father in what I do.