On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Owen Strachan—systematic theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Center for Public Theology—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?
- Kevin Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity [read TGC’s review]
- Duncan Hamilton’s stunning For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Chamption to Modern Martyr [read TGC’s review]
- Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
- Steven Hayward’s Patriotism Is Not Enough: Harry Jaffa, Walter Berns, and the Arguments that Redefined American Conservatism
- Roger’s Scruton’s The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung
- Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
- Matthew Barrett’s God’s Word Alone [read TGC’s review]
- Mike Ovey’s brilliant Your Will Be Done
- Brian Fisher’s crucial Abortion: The Ultimate Exploitation of Women
- Matthew Harmon’s new Philippians commentary
- Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop’s instructive Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive [read TGC’s review]
What are your favorite fiction books?
The fiction writers who have most influenced me are Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Harrison, and J. R. R. Tolkien. I particularly enjoy Wolfe’s use of language and strange sentence structure, and his keen critical approach to human psychology. Franzen understands the tremendous drama of the human condition surging through even the quietest life. Harrison loves the outdoors, which connects with me as a boy raised in coastal Maine, and he sees through much of the virtue-signaling technosphere that envelops us today.
We don’t always remember how much books read to us in days long past shaped us, but I recall my mother getting me the Redwall books when a boy. The heroism, battle, and vibrant world found in that series definitely left a mark on me. I spent much of my boyhood years in such fantasy books, reading about Narnia, Shannara, Dune, and the like. It is not cool in American public-school life to read such works, particularly as a boy, but my immersion in other lands gave me a rich vocabulary for the real world.
This is where Tolkien, mentioned above, comes in. Even today, as a husband and father, I dwell in Middle-earth, gaining insight and instruction and inspiration to live for Christ here, in a world that is similarly storm-tossed, similarly under constant pressure from evil within and without, and similarly bereft of heroes.
But here’s the thing: you do not need many heroes. You really only need one.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
My favorite book is George Marsden’s magisterial Jonathan Edwards: A Life. There is no book quite like it.
Because of the influence of Al Mohler, I bought The Last Lion trilogy by William Manchester. The books hit me like a thunder-clap (volume 3 is weaker, alas). I believe that men are always searching for leaders, and they will follow them, whether such figures incline to the virtuous or the wicked. Churchill has given me the mold of a public man that I have craved, growing up as I did in the era of the gray-shaded, self-serving anti-hero.
Manchester doesn’t only recount facts and dates, though. He gives you the color of Churchill. He takes you into Churchill’s study and lets you feel the pulsing energy of the place as Churchill simultaneously dictates a masterwork on the Duke of Malborough, receives munitions reports from the Allied front, and plays with his cat. Churchill is for me a kind of secular Paul. He entered into the fray; he rode to the sound of the guns. Volume two—on Churchill’s effective exile from the centers of power due to his courageous confrontation of Hitler’s looming threat—is easily my favorite of the three. In reading The Last Lion, I think, this is the kind of man I can follow, even from afar, even though he has passed into memory.
I also enjoyed Stanley Hauerwas’s autobiography, Eric Miller’s profile of Christopher Lasch, Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Richard John Neuhaus, Richard Fox’s superlative study of Reinhold Niebuhr, Debby Applegate’s work on Henry Ward Beecher, Chuck Colson’s beautiful Born Again, Ron Chernow’s thrilling biography of Alexander Hamilton, Eric Metaxas’s live-action portrait of Bonhoeffer, and James Kaplan’s two volumes on Sinatra. I’ll stop here. (My wife says I am addicted to biography. It is true.)
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
I regularly re-read the works of Jonathan Edwards, because he’s intoxicated with God, and because the God he presents in his work is majestic and untamed. Edwards is my favorite theologian. When I meet him in heaven, I’ll be pleased to inform him that we’re co-authors of multiple works. Praise God that there’s no anger or disappointment in heaven.
I re-read Calvin’s Institutes because they are polished like a diamond, not a word out of turn. To train students in systematic theology at Midwestern Seminary is a fearsome thing, and I need wise guides like Calvin to help me.
I re-read Calvin’s Institutes because they are polished like a diamond, not a word out of turn.
I re-read David Wells’s quintilogy (No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue, Abover All Earthly Pow’rs), and am reminded when I do that there is no other set of books quite like it.
I re-read Carl F. H. Henry and am never disappointed by him, brilliant he is, passionate as he was for Christ. Every time I read him, I can’t help but think of Marsden’s story about how Henry would show up in class at Fuller looking worn-out, even bedraggled. His students initially boggled at his appearance, but then discovered that he stayed out into all hours of the night, witnessing to folks on the streets of Pasadena. What a picture of the Christian theologian, and putting one’s doctrine to work. Truly there is no chasm between doctrine and life; rather, doctrine is meant to catalyze life. So it was for Henry.
Some of the most worthy books on my shelves are commentaries written by top scholars: Beale on Revelation, Carson on Matthew, Motyer on Isaiah, Schreiner on Romans, Köstenberger on John, Block on Judges, Moo on Galatians, and many more. It seems it can be thankless work to write a top-level commentary, but I contend that the most academically fibrous commentaries will stand the test of time. The rising generation of scholars should definitely write for the church, but should also engage the academic realm, and vindicate the truth there, in my limited judgment.
What’s one book you wish every evangelical read this year?
I loved Douglas Sweeney’s Edwards the Exegete [read TGC’s review]. It unveils Edwards in all his homiletical glory. It’ll open the eyes of young preachers to see that they should exposit a discrete passage, yes, but should also feel the strength of 10,000 angels beneath their wings as they work cross-biblically. The pastor as biblical theologian is an underplayed theme in our movement.
I also have enjoyed and profited from Steve Wellum and Brent Parker’s Progressive Covenantalism. Edited volumes get a bad rap, and often unfairly so. They take patience to read sometimes, but Wellum and Parker have produced a book that helps Baptists and interested parties make sense of the covenants, biblical realities that evangelicals often forget about but are tremendously important to Christian faith and practice. To know that Christ is our law, for example, is freeing in the extreme.
The pastor as biblical theologian is an underplayed theme in our movement.
Read Hamilton’s aforementioned For the Glory, and you’ll not be able to get the example of Eric Liddell’s heroic death in China out of your brain. I can’t, anyway.
Also, my friend Erik Raymond recommended The Revenge of Analog, and I’ve thoroughly benefited from it. We heard not long ago that the digitalization of the world would overwhelm the physical book, and physical objects more generally. But David Sax’s well-reported text shows that this is not necessarily the case. We always benefit from a minority report, if we will listen; my education at Bowdoin College in the liberal arts, the humanities, taught me this, and so I regularly make it a practice to read contrarians, those who offer a perspective the mainstream might not welcome.
Plus, vinyl is back! Cool. I need to get Beautiful Eulogy on vinyl this year. But I digress.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
My model for such usage of my study is Charles Hodge, who taught systematic theology at Princeton, and who often worked at home. Hodge was a serious man, the greatest theologian of the 19th century, and yet he loved to have his children visit him in his study. He was a tender-hearted man while working at the highest levels of theology. I’m no Hodge by a long shot, but that is a model I seek to follow.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
With others, I have witnessed the rise and fall of numerous gifted friends in ministry. I don’t know that in this life we ever stop grieving such events. These developments remind me that the work of ministry isn’t centered around talent. Nor gifting. Nor work ethic. Nor connections. Nor ever-increasing platform.
The work of ministry isn’t centered around talent. Nor gifting. Nor work ethic. Nor connections. Nor ever-increasing platform. The work of ministry is centered around God in Christ.
The work of ministry is centered around God in Christ. This means that I must avail myself of the spiritual horsepower given me by the Spirit such that I am more than a conqueror (Rom. 8:37). This in turn means that I must do the basic things I learned years ago from steady believers in small churches in Maine: I must pray. I must read the Word. I must confess and kill sin. When I do these things, I feel God’s strength in me. I need this strength, because much of the grace we’re given in a fallen, wicked world is what you could call withstanding grace—the ability to take hits, to see friends drop off or fall silent, and yet to stand fast in Christ.
God is showing me that he gives not only saving grace, but withstanding grace. Even if it’s only he who stays by my side, that is enough. This world is passing away like shadow on the mountain. Soon, with all the children of God, I’ll see Christ return, and I’ll rise with him in the air.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Jemar Tisby, Thomas Kidd, 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.