This time I want to put up books I have found helpful over the last 10-12 years or so. My first set was books from the formative years when I was between 16 and 26, and I want to first explain why I divided these lists at the age of 26. The main reason for this is that I this was a particularly significant age in my life. Following university I had worked for 3 years as an actuarial assistant (actuarial work, no exams), done a year on a course in understanding and teaching the bible and then worked for a year as a lay assistant in a church on the Essex/London border. That year marked the boundary in several key ways.
By the end of that year as a lay assistant I had decided that it was not the right time to go into “full time” paid Christian ministry, and after applying for lots of different jobs and getting nowhere I was rather disappointedly heading back to Guildford. One week at the church I grew up, and had attended before the move to London confirmed that I wanted to move churches, away from parents, and towards somewhere smaller. I drew up a list of churches to visit, and the crucial visit was to one just round the corner from my parents, Guildford Park. I knew of it, I knew that one of the town centre churches that I tried out had sent a team to restart it a few years before, and so I thought that I ought to try out the nearest gospel believing, bible preaching church.
I was very impressed. A good solid sermon and an invite to lunch. The inability to get out of the door without being engaged in conversation by the pastor (and several church members), the warmth, the singing of good quality hymns and songs. The remarkable range of age, family background and nationality in such a small group (around 70 or so on a Sunday morning). I fairly quickly made it my home, and after a year or so to wrap my head around the concept of membership (a new thing as my previous churches were all Anglican), became a member. That first term I went the pastor was preaching through 1 Samuel on a Sunday evening, and had reached David’s life. I was in a state of some confusion, doing a “temporary” job in the civil service, looking for other jobs, not really wanting to be in Guildford and not knowing what the next step should be. David’s life in 1 Samuel on the run from Saul and escaping from Philistines with its confusion and absence of direct divine intervention was actually the perfect reassurance about God’s sovereignty and hidden purposes that I needed at that point.
I was also impressed by how quickly I was drawn into the life of the church. I was quickly on the rota for setting out chairs, and also preaching once a term or so. On a Thursday evening on a fortnightly basis I went to the church prayer meeting – often somewhat reluctantly, but always ending up glad I had gone, sensing that the Lord had been with us as we prayed. The relation of all this to books is the simple observation that a switch occurred in my Christian life. Previously I had been a faithful attender and participant in church life, but it was never my main fuel for the Christian life – that had always been books, but at this point, in this new departure church became my main fuel. Books were still vital – just slightly less so, and in a healthier context of real life relationships.
Joshua – 2 Kings (commentaries on each, published by cfp) – Dale Ralph Davies
Don’t judge a book by its cover, these are not the most excitingly presented, but if you only read 1 commentary on these books then I think these are the ones to read – they explain and show the implications of the text really well. I know too, that they were an important resource for the Samuel sermon series – providing many good illustrations for our pastor to use – definitely good material for preachers to plunder! (Side note: if you are a preacher plundering I think it’s fine to use other people’s illustrations as long as you don’t start claiming experiences you never had…)
Wild at Heart – John Eldredge
This is probably one of the more controversial of the well known books on here. I know I’m supposed to hate it. I’ve never been hunting, shooting or fishing. My only hiking has been done in the UK, where I know I’m not going to meet any predator I can’t squash with my walking boots. I’m not into sports, with the possible exception of watching England collapse in the latest Test humiliation. However, I did read the book and love its challenge. I loved the thoughts it provoked, and the way it made me look at some critical events and relationships in my life and evaluate the impact others had on me, and I had on others. I know I’m not a “typical” man (whatever that is), and that is fine – but I didn’t actually think Eldridge was telling me I had to be – the outdoors, physical, fighting language all seemed to work really well for me as metaphor. Maybe I read the books in a “spiritualising” way, but I didn’t find myself objecting in the way that many people I know do to these books.
Reframing Paul – Mark Strom
This is a really good read on reading Paul in the cultural background of the Roman Empire, with some thought provoking chapters of practical application at the end about how to create grace-filled conversation in our churches. Well worth the hard thinking required at points.
Fruit that Last – Tim Hawkins
The best “how to book” ever! I don’t usually like reading “how to” books, but this (and its sequel – Leaders that Last) is a really good book to read if you are wondering what the next step for your youth group might be. The author is a youth pastor in Australia (so I was suspicious from an early stage) and writes from a long experience of youth work – he places himself in the “parent” age group as he writes. Part of the reason I loved it was his insistence that the ultimate mission and vision for youth work is found in the Bible – to glorify God and make disciples, rather than the mission and vision being things we need to dream up, or seek special revelation on. Another aspect I loved was that he has a chapter on different stages of youth ministry which emphasises how all age groups are needed in youth ministry – it isn’t the preserve of the young. I think this is good in general terms because it nails the lie that youth ministry is a stepping stone to bigger (adult) things in the church. It was also a really good reinforcement for my own role in Guilford Crusaders at the time. When I went back to Guildford I determined to get fully involved in Crusaders, and placed Friday night small group (Keenites) at the heart of my priorities. As I did this I realised that my lack of “coolness” was actually not a barrier to effective ministry – I realised I could be myself, and through my unique personality reach particular lads and bring a particular contribution to the group.
Eat this Book – Eugene Peterson.
Try not to take this literally. A great book, where Eugene Peterson gets excited about the Bible. Worth reading and pondering. Probably my favourite book in his “spirituality” series, although Christ Plays in 10,000 places is also good too.
Long Wandering Prayer – David Hansen
I loved this book, I read it when I was looking for something a bit different about prayer, having found it on sale in Exeter Wesley Owen’s discount book room on the way down to Cornwall. In the book he is essentially encouraging people to take long walks with God as a way of praying for a long time – I like this, as I’ve essentially done something similar for a number of years, taking time to walk and pray as a I walk. Hansen’s really good point is that in this process we shouldn’t worry about the times our thoughts wander, but instead bring those wandering thoughts to God too. I’d recommend this as a good read to refresh your prayer life.
Glory Days- Julian Hardyman and Heaven is not my home – Paul Marshall.
I loved both these books as really refreshing reminders of the importance of all of life to God’s mission. The Christian life, and Christian mission are about so much more than just evangelism, important though that is. There is real significance and importance to the whole of life. Julian Hardyman’s book is a great place to start on this theme – it is short, but packed with helpful teaching and refreshing insight into how all of life matters and has meaning in God’s mission.
The Mission of God – Chris Wright.
This is a big book – and one which sets the ideas of the above two books on a solid biblical foundation. I read it when I broke my foot one Whitsun Camp, and it was probably worth breaking my foot to get the uninterrupted reading time it deserves. I would say this was well worth the time it takes to read it. Wright seeks to read the whole bible as the product of God’s mission, and telling the story of God’s mission to redeem his world – a mission that encompasses evangelism, working for justice, creation care and all of our lives as image bearers in God’s world. One quote that sums up his perspective is this:
“Mission is not ours; mission is God’s. Certainly, the mission of God is the prior reality out of which flows any mission that we get involved in. Or, as has been nicely put, it is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission—God’s mission.”
It is also worth it just for the time he takes on establishing the Old Testament basis of this – if you think that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different to the God we see in Jesus, somehow more primitive, more bloodthirsty and less loving you should read some Wright to get this idea destroyed.
If you want a concise summary of Chris Wright’s understanding, as well as really helpful discussions of tough questions Christians struggle with then “The God I don’t understand” is a really good book to begin with (discusses suffering, atonement, the brutal wars of the OT and the new creation). Also really good is his trilogy on Knowing Father, Son and Holy Spirit through the OT (the original is Knowing Jesus through the OT) – and his BST commentary on Ezekiel is great too. I not only love the content of what Wright writes, but I love the way he writes too – rooted in Scripture, gracious towards others, and clear and positive about what he thinks. His work on OT ethics (which he was a pioneer in) is really important too, and it helped to inform groups like the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge.
Confessions – Augustine
I read this first inspired by a Sunday summer evening series on the Psalms which also had a meditation drawn from the confessions on the service sheet. I re-read it as part of one of my courses at Regent. It is well worth reading to get an insight into the mind of one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived. It should be engaged critically – Augustine was brilliant, but also with several massive blind spots – and both his brilliance and blind spots have stayed with the church ever since. His blind spots however are not the same as the blind spots of our age, while his brilliance can bear down on our blind spots and correct them. The first 9 chapters are autobiography and then he switches into more general meditations, including some fascinating thoughts sparked by Genesis 1. It is well worth having a go at reading some of the classics – and Augustine is so foundational to both Catholic and Reformed Protestant thinking (he’s one of the most frequent – non-biblical authors – quoted by Calvin) that it is really useful to start to understand where so many ideas come from.
Also short and worth reading for any involved in teaching/preaching is On Christian Teaching, which is a kind of 5th century preaching handbook. Worth playing “spot the difference” between this and our “how-to” books on preaching – one of the main differences being that he lays the ground work for the context of our exegesis and hermeneutics for preaching in the commandments to love God and neighbour rather more thoroughly than we would. The other is that difficult sections in the Bible seem to be a challenge to his ingenuity rather than problems for his faith – which can sometimes be a good thing, and other times just lead to some rather bizarre exegesis…
Jonathan Edwards – George Marsden
I had to read this for an excellent course at Regent on The Pastor in Christian History, and I loved it. I’d read Murray’s biography of Edwards previously which I’d enjoyed and I’ve read lots of John Piper, and had finally got round to reading his mini biography of Edwards combined with Edwards on “The End for which God created the world” one sunny morning outside Blenz Coffee shop down near Save-On-Foods (a remarkably empty supermarket by UK standards!) on UBC campus watching the towers growing around me. Marsden’s biography is fantastic at putting Edwards in his wider context, and at being “critical” in the right sense of asking questions of what Edwards was doing and how, although still broadly sympathetic to Edwards wider agenda. It is really fascinating in our “post-modern” (whatever that label might actually mean) context to see how Edwards tried to integrate everything at the start of the “modern” era – even where he didn’t really succeed it’s still worth seeing how he tried and the lessons we can learn.
I want to close this with an extensive quote from Chris Wright (again) – from the final chapter of his big book – and again it sums up something else I love about Wright – the integration of hard study and personal application – something that really, really needs to be integrated more in the lives of our churches (rant for another blog post sometime… )
We ask, ‘Where does God fit into the story of my life?’ when the real question is where does my little life fit into this great story of God’s mission.
We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.
We talk about ‘applying the Bible to our lives’. What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality — the real story — to which we are called to conform ourselves?
We wrestle with ‘making the gospel relevant to the world’. But in this story, God is about the business of transforming the world to fit the shape of the gospel.
We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission that God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God wants for the whole range of his mission.
I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.
Point 2 and point 3 above strike me as so fundamental, and so utterly radically perspective changing. So read the Bible. If you are not convinced by the above quotes read Isaiah 40-55. Over and over again. Read it. Read it until you get the point. God is God, and there is no other. God is God and he will act to save. Some highlights:
18 With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
20 A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple.
21 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
25 ‘To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?’ says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.
27 Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
‘My way is hidden from the Lord;
my cause is disregarded by my God’?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
42 ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope.’
43 But now, this is what the Lord says –
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your stead.
4 Since you are precious and honoured in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
I could quote more – but you get the idea – go, read!
These days most of the time I get for reading is taken up with reading for PhD, so it’s harder to list books I’d recommend – many I read now are rather technical, but I hope to do a final post in this series listing books I’ve discovered in my academic studies that are helpful, either in whole or in part for the more general reader.