Thursday, January 29, 2009

MORE Book Awards: Best Read in 2008, Part 1

Awarded by Walt Mueller

I’m long overdue in answering Derek’s request for a list of my favorite books of 2008. Choosing the best is a difficult task as most of the books I read I consider to be good books. Since I have this thing about always finishing any book I start (weird, I know), I’m very careful about the books I pick up in the first place. I read a lot of good books during 2008. Now I’m tackling the task of naming the 10 best.

Like Derek, I came up with some criteria. Since Derek beat me to the punch by getting his list together first (see part 1 & part 2), I decided that my list can’t contain any books that Derek had on his list. Yes, Derek stole a couple of my top 10. . . . and I’m not telling which titles those are. Other questions I asked are these: Is what I’m reading teaching me something new? Is this a book that gets me excited about God’s redemptive work in the world and His graceful invitation to me to enter into His story? Am I recommending this book to others? Do I find myself wanting to tell others about the book? Is the book timely in the sense that it has something profound to say to God’s people living in today’s contemporary culture? Has this book taken me deeper in my knowledge of God and understanding of His mission in our world?

So here goes. . . . no particular order. Not all of these books were written in 2008, but I read them during the year. You might be surprised by a couple of my choices.

The Culturally Savvy Christian, by Dick Staub. I was terribly disappointed when Dick’s great book Too Christian, Too Pagan was taken out of print. The blow was softened by the arrival of The Culturally Savvy Christian. I love Dick’s strong foundation of Biblical understanding and the earnestness with which he applies that knowledge to matters of faith and culture. I value Dick as a friend who has a timely prophetic message for the church about how to live faithfully in today’s world. If I were to be given a chance to write the syllabus for a required course that all humans would have to read on what it means to be fully human, this book would be required reading. Okay. So that will never happen. But I just finished teaching a week-long seminary course on Youth Culture and the students were required to read this book. They loved it. It shook them up. It challenged their thinking. Hopefully, what they read will bear great Kingdom-fruit in their ministries.

A Better Way: Discovering The Drama of Christ-Centered Worship, by Michael Horton. Oh boy. Another book on worship. Not a problem. This is one of the most well-reasoned and Biblically-sound treatments of worship I’ve ever read. Horton’s love for Christ, His Word, and the Church is exemplary. Good voices like Horton’s have been lost in all the noise coming from the battlefield of what’s become known as “the worship wars.” It’s time to stop firing and start listening. Then, we need to make readjustments. Horton knows that worship must begin with God. We look to Him to learn more about who He is, who we’re called to be, and how He desires us to worship Him. Horton knows that Christ must regain His rightful place at center-stage in our worship. This is a great call to neither settle for dull routine or perpetual innovation. This is a meaty book. . . . so I’m fearful that those who would benefit most from it might never pick it up. Take the challenge and give it a thoughtful and prayerful read.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, by Cornelius Plantinga. Okay. I’m embarrassed that this one’s on my list of books read in 2008. It’s embarrassing because it’s been out since 1995 and I just now got around to reading it. Just like we’ve lost our understanding of worship, we’ve also lost our understanding of sin. Why don’t we endeavor to know more about the chapter of the unfolding Biblical drama titled “The Fall?” Can we really understand and begin to appreciate God’s justice, mercy, and grace if we don’t understand sin? This summary of sin is outstanding. You will get to the last page, and rather than closing the book, you will go right back to page 1 all over again. Yes, it’s that good.

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by Timothy Keller. What? You haven’t yet read this book? Shame on you! There’s not much more to say about this one other than I would have it listed as required reading on the aforementioned syllabus.

Scattershot: My Bi-Polar Family, by David Lovelace. One of my favorite professors at Gordon-Conwell Seminary was Dr. Richard Lovelace. His Dynamics of Spiritual Life had become a classic among young, thinking Christians who were involved in doing ministry back in the early 80s. As a professor, Lovelace was warm and eccentric. The stories of his eccentricity that circulated in the seminary community became legendary. We loved the man. Little did any of us know what was going on behind the scenes as our beloved professor and several members of his family were battling bipolar disorder. This memoir from his son takes readers on a whirlwind journey into issues of mental illness, faith, and family. The book is both riveting and heartbreaking.

Part 2 coming soon...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mary Poplin on Finding Calcutta

Mary Poplin (MP) is a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University in California. Her book Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service won a 2008 CPYU Bookshelf Book Award.

CPYU: What motivated you to take a sabbatical to work with Mother Teresa?

MP: In November of 1992, after a vivid dream of Christ, I began to consider Christianity. By January of 1993 I had begun to follow Christ. Later that same year I saw a documentary of Mother Teresa where she said their work was “religious work not social work.” Since my own work had often focused on educating the poor, I felt this understanding might help me see both my work and my faith in new ways. I believed that if I was really to understand it, I would have to do the work day in and out, side by side with them. So when it came time for my sabbatical in spring of 1996, I sent a letter and asked if I could come and work with them. At some level, I naively was thinking of the experience as a sort of anthropological study of the question of how religious and social work differ.

CPYU: Early in your book you mentioned that you struggled for many years to write about your experience. What were the challenges? Why was it such a difficult book to write?

MP: The challenge for me was I wanted to write about her in a way that would make her understood by a large group of people (secular, Christian or other religious). But I found in trying to make her understandable and attractive to everyone I had to distort her – I was either leaving things out and/or distorting what she really believed. It’s odd now thinking back on it – here I was going to understand the difference between religious work and social work and now I was trying to reconvert it. So when I really understood what I was doing and that she could not be understood except from a Biblical Christian worldview, I stopped all that. Once I did, the whole book seemed to write itself. Ultimately, the sort of climax of the book is toward the end when I confess that from any of the worldviews currently taught in the university (naturalism, humanism, and pantheism) Mother Teresa is completely incomprehensible.

CPYU: What surprised you the most about Mother Teresa?

MP: I was surprised by how radically they followed Scripture, how absolutely faithful they are to Jesus, how austere they live their lives, how peaceful and contented they are, and how hard the work was in terms of just physical labor in a hard place.

CPYU: The title of your book comes from a quote by Mother Teresa: “You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have eyes to see.” How have you found “your Calcutta” working in an American university?

MP: The title comes from a brief conversation with Mother Teresa when she said to me – “God doesn’t call everyone to work with the poor or to live like the poor as he has called us, but God does call everyone to a Calcutta, you have to find yours.” Yes, I found mine. My Calcutta is to discern and teach all the worldviews, including the Christian one as it relates to whatever content I am teaching. All worldviews (secular or sacred) begin with foundational principles that have to be accepted on faith; Christianity is no different than secular worldviews in that respect. But for many years, the secular experiment has become increasingly narrow and ultimately has limited, rather than expanded, what gets taught. For example, Christianity has a completely different approach to solving psychological problems that cannot be mimicked by secular psychology. To leave these principles out of the options taught to students is to limit their education.

CPYU: The book is full of interesting and insightful quotes by Mother Teresa. Do you have a favorite?

MP: I think it was her insistence that God has called us not so much to great things, but to do “small things with great love.” It is such a great description of what God asks from all of us and look at what He did with it – she ended up developing a great thing – a new order in the Catholic Church – a worldwide, multiethnic compassion ministry to do small things with great love!

Related Links:
A review of Finding Calcutta can be found on page 17 of CPYU’s Engage journal.

Listen to Mary Poplin’s lectures for the Veritas Forum, university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life's hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January Resource of the Month: Christless Christianity by Michael Horton

You can purchase Christless Christianity at the CPYU Online Resource Center.

Is it possible that we have left Christ out of Christianity? Are the faith and practice of American Christians today more American than Christian? Have we allowed the church to be taken captive to the prevailing culture? These are the provocative questions Michael Horton addresses in this thoughtful, insightful book. His analysis should give us pause as we consider the current state of Christianity - even evangelical Christianity - in America. Christians have always had their differences, but never in church history have there been so many statistics indicating that many Christians today are practicing what can only be described as "Christless Christianity."

Christless Christianity guides the reader to a greater understanding of a big problem within the American religious setting, namely the creeping fog of countless sermons in churches across the country that focus on moralistic concerns and personal transformation rather than the theology of the cross.

Michael Horton's analysis of the contemporary church points believers back to the power of a gospel that should never be assumed.

Related Links:
Read a review of Christless Christianity by Derek Melleby on p. 16 of Engage (CPYU's FREE online journal)

Read Walt Mueller's recent blog entry about Christless Christianity

Monday, January 12, 2009

Book Awards: Best Books (Read) in 2008, Part 2

Awarded by Derek Melleby

Now the hotly anticipated Book Awards Part 2! (Read part 1 to learn a bit more about how the books were selected.) Remember, they are listed in alphabetical order by the author’s last name and for no other reason. Here are the concluding 5 books of the top-ten read in 2008.

Awakening Youth Discipleship: Christian Resistance in a Consumer Culture, Brian J. Mahan, Michael Warren, & David F. White (Cascade Books). Coming in at just under 130 pages, this small book packs a powerful punch. It is composed of three sections. In part one White summarizes the creation and history of adolescence, illustrating how youth have been marginalized in society. He then offers a challenging critique of comfortable Christian parents who don’t really want to see their kids radically transformed by the Gospel. In part two, Warren explains how much of today’s youth ministry is shaped more by the techniques and assumptions of marketers and entertainers than the Gospel. And finally, in part three, Mahan directly challenges youth ministers (and himself) to consider how they have conformed to the patterns of this world by not inviting kids into the story of the Gospel, but rather into the story of the American Dream and consumerism. There is also a concluding interview chapter where each author has an opportunity to ask and answer questions about the essays. This book is challenging to say the least and should be taken seriously by those who wish to get at the root of issues facing Christian youth.

Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers, Eugene Peterson, (Eerdmans). This is Peterson’s fourth installment in his five-volume series on spiritual theology. Tell It Slant focuses on our language and the language of Jesus, particularly in his parables and his prayers. Peterson writes, “Every time we open our mouths, whether in conversation with one another or in prayer to our Lord, Christian truth and community are on the line… I want to insist on a continuity of language between the words we use in Bible studies and the words we use when we’re out fishing for rainbow trout.” There’s nothing better than Peterson explaining and reflecting on a biblical text. Here he is at his best, and this one gets an extra award: the most underlined book of the year!

Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service, Mary Poplin (Intervarsity Press). I like to give a book to everyone in my family for Christmas. This year I chose to give Poplin’s account of her time with Mother Teresa. There are so many elements to this fascinating book: it is a story about Poplin’s later-in-life conversion to faith in Jesus; it is a moving account of what it is like to serve the poorest of the poor; it is a handy collection of insightful sayings of Mother Teresa; it is a good example of how to integrate a meaningful, intense experience back into “normal,” everyday life. Ultimately it is a story of hope. God is still intimately involved in our lives and in His world, calling us to service right where we are. I couldn’t put this one down. You should pick it up! (Be on the look out for a CPYU Bookshelf Exclusive Interview with Dr. Poplin coming soon!)

The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor, John Stott (Intervarsity Press). There is one thing about the contemporary church that I have been noticing: more and more young people seem to have the strongest voices in determining its direction. This isn’t everywhere, and certainly, we should listen to younger opinions, but I wonder if too many parts of the church are failing to acquire wisdom from the older generation. In The Living Church, long-time pastor, evangelist and biblical scholar, John Stott offers reflections on the church. Stott brings clarity to the confusion that often surrounds “emerging churches” and suggests ways that the church can adapt to contemporary culture without losing the heart of the Gospel. As he suggests, a “living church is a learning church” and this book greatly assists the learning process. (Click here for a fuller review.)

The Shack, William P. Young (Windblown Media). Okay, I’ll admit it. I was almost too cool to include this New York Times bestseller. I mean, come on, everybody is talking about The Shack, declaring it the best book they’ve ever read, telling everyone else to read… Oh, you just gotta read The Shack. You haven’t read The Shack? The Shack this, The Shack that. The Shack, The Shack, The Shackgetta hold of yourself. Okay, here’s the deal: I read The Shack before it was popular. My copy does not say New York Times Bestseller on the top and I didn’t buy it at Costco. Yes, I am that cool. So there. But, truth be told, it sucked me right in. I devoured the book. I fought back tears. I told others about it. And, for the doctrine police who are reading: I did suggest that I wasn’t thrilled with all of its theology. Like every book, it should be read and tested against scripture. But let’s not forget what it is: a novel. It is a powerful story attempting to make sense of a loving God in the midst of tragic events. It is worth reading and discussing even if you don’t agree with every word. (Click here for a fuller review.)

That concludes the CPYU Bookshelf Book Awards. Thanks for reading. Feel free to add your own 2008 favorites to the list. It would be good to hear from you. Happy reading in 2009!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Book Awards: Best Books (Read) In 2008, Part 1

Awarded by Derek Melleby

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. But two surprising things happened when I sat down to award the first annual CPYU Bookshelf’s “best books of the year.” First, I came up with an interesting criterion to determine the winners. As I stared at my bookshelf, I reflected on the past year and thought: What books did I recommend to friends? What parts of books did I read aloud to my wife? What books did I quote from in writing? What books did I give as gifts? Basically, what books were on my mind the most over the last year? Second, and this is remarkable, after thinking through those questions, I started to pull books from the shelf. Guess how many I pulled? You guessed it: 10 books. How perfect!

The following books receive a CPYU Bookshelf Best Book of 2008 Award. This post will be in two parts, five books each. The books are listed in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Enjoy the list and feel free to add your own!

(Drum roll please.)

Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places, L.L. Barkat (Intervarsity Press). On a number of occasions, I heard my good friend and Hearts & Minds Bookstore owner, Byron Borger, rave about this memoir, but it took me a few months before I finally picked up my own copy to read. I’m glad I did. I read it devotionally during a summer family vacation. I seemed to be always reading paragraphs to anyone who would listen. Barkat has a painful and powerful story to tell and she does so gracefully. This is perhaps the best written book on the list. Each chapter concludes with a biblical reflection connecting the main ideas to Scripture. She doesn’t “proof text,” but rather eloquently inserts her story into God’s story without saying that that is what she is doing. Truly a masterpiece. Simply Beautiful.

Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, Colin Duriez (Crossway Books). This biography was inspiring. I knew the basics of Schaeffer’s life: pastor, missionary, apologist and founder of the L’Abri Community in Switzerland. I have a few friends who met him or were mentored by him and their stories helped to fill-in bits and pieces of his life. But Duriez’s book lays it all out there, filling in gaps and painting a clearer picture of this 20th Century prophet. Most importantly, Schaeffer was a humble, honest man who cared deeply about others and who spoke truth with love and compassion. Click here to read my fuller review.

Sex & The Soul: Juggling Sexality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses, Donna Freitas (Oxford University Press). It’s no surprise that many college students experiment sexually during this season of life. Freitas, however, was curious to know if students connected their spirituality with their sexuality. The short answer: no. The majority of college students, even those that claim to be “spiritual” say that their faith has little to do with how they navigate the “hook-up” culture. There is one exception: evangelical students want their faith to make a difference in all areas of life. What is lacking, for many of them, is a safe-place to discuss sexuality openly and honestly. Freitas’ statistics and interviews are sobering. This book is for anyone who cares about college students and about those heading off to college. It paints a realistic picture of the college cultural landscape and offers solid advice on how to help students connect their spirituality with their sexuality. Click here to read a fuller review.

Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don’t), Michael J. Gerson (HarperOne). I started reading this book at the end of 2007, but didn’t finish it until early 2008. So, it makes the ’08 list. And, it was an election year, so I felt compelled to include something I read about politics. Gerson was a speech writer for much of George W. Bush’s presidency. Here he tells many of the behind-the-scenes-daily-grind-business of being a speechwriter and president. Learning about the work and craft of speech writing was fascinating and worth the price of the book. But it’s about much more. This book is not just for people who are right-of-center politically. Ultimately it is about casting a vision for the Republican Party (and country) that gets us past the red/blue, win-at-all-costs, political climate and pushes readers to think more deeply about the crucial role America’s government should play domestically and abroad. Gerson’s argument needs to be heard by both those on the right and left.

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Timothy Keller (Dutton Books). Keller published two books in 2008 and both of them are very worthy of the award. But, I was so excited when I realized that I had chosen 10 off the top of my head and didn’t want to mess it up! His first book, The Reason for God (a New York Times bestseller), is certainly award-worthy, but this second book gets the coveted prize. Here Keller takes a closer look at Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, revealing its radical message that speaks directly to both irreligious and religious people. Click here to read a fuller review.

Part 2 coming soon…