I know it’s a bit late, but here’s a look at some books I read during the fall semester last year, which I would recommend for you to read as well. As I go through this list, I’m struck by how each and every one of these books has influenced my preaching over the last year:
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
I finally got around to finishing this book because of a little family competition we had before the release of the movie on Christmas day. I wish I had finished it earlier. Hugo writes one of the most classic stories about law and grace. I’ve long loved the broadway musical as well as the older film version, but neither (including the new movie) hold a candle to the beauty of the actual book. The way that Hugo develops his characters is amazing. I found myself falling in love with characters that are barely mentioned in the play/film (i.e. the Bishop, Gavroche, etc.) and I even enjoyed the various diversions he takes while telling his tale. Some of the passages contrasting Javert (law) and Jean Valjean (grace) gripped my soul and painted such a vivid picture in my mind of the transformation possible because of one act of grace. I know it is a long book, but if I could encourage you to read one book on this list I would say it is this one. I read it during the school semester and often found myself eager to get out of class so that I could keep reading. If nothing else, you must read the first 100 pages about the Bishop, or get an abridged version at least. I will definitely come back to this one over and over again.
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
After reading Les Miserables, I remembered why the classics are still around – so I’ve committed to always be reading one old book, and have not regretted that decision at all. This most likely will not come as a spoiler for anyone know knows about the book (but you have been warned!): The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the story of a handsome young man who has a portrait of himself painted. After seing the painting completed, he haphazardly wishes that the portrait will grow old while he stays young. The rest of the book unfolds what his life is like when just that happens. I won’t tell any more of the story, but what Wilde does is paint a poignant picture of the corrupting power of sin and how it festers when hidden. The story has become a constant image in my mind of the danger of keeping my sins and ugliness hidden behind a veneer of lies in an attempt to retain my good reputation or image. It constantly reminds me of the benefits of confession and honesty about my sins before others. Another book I will come back to again, I’m sure.
When Helping Hurts – Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert
If you have any intention of ever being involved in missions (short or long term), humanitarian aid, or working with those in poverty, I’d highly recommend you read this book. The thesis is that, in our western and materialistic understanding of poverty, when we try to help those in poverty we actually do more harm than good (both to those we are trying to help, and to ourselves). We tend to see the problem of poverty as a material/financial solution that we need to fix by giving the right amount of money/food/etc. In doing this, we oversimplify poverty and fail to address deeper underlying issues that contribute to poverty. To use an illustrating that Andy Crouch gave which has stuck with me: when westerners try to help the poor, we tend to “replace malevolent gods with benevolent gods.” Instead of recognizing that we are just as much in need as the people we are trying to help, we tend to set ourselves up as functional saviors and then once we’ve “fixed the problem,” we leave and go back to our comfortable lives. Corbett and Fikkert want to expose our tendency to help the poor with quick, material aid and point us towards more lasting long-term, relational solutions. This book really transformed the way I think about the poor, from ministry to homeless people, to working with impoverished people groups. As a pastor, this is something I will deal with constantly, and the ideas found here have opened my eyes to a better way to help the poor that reminds me of my poverty and need for Christ and also points them to Christ as savior (not me). Seriously, read it.
Counterfiet Gods – Tim Keller
In this book, Keller essentially goes through various stories in the Bible and points out different idols (“counterfeit gods”) that people look to in the place of God. He points out that idols are much more prevalent in our society than we would like to think, and also posits that most of our idols are not what we would consider “bad” things, but are often rather good things. The danger is when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing, or in other words: a counterfeit god (or functional savior). He shows how things like family, children, romance, money, reputation, etc. can take the place of God. Keller does a great job of exposing idols that our culture (even our Christian culture) tend to go to, and he does this by looking at different stories in Scripture. As always, he points to Christ as the solution in every chapter, and reveals the empty lies that the various idols give us. This book was very influential on my sermon series on Idolatry that I preached last fall.
Desiring the Kingdom – James K. A. Smith
Smith challenges the enlightenment notion that man is primarily a “thinking” or a “believing” being – rather, he suggests that man is primarily a “desiring” being. If this is true, then the way to form people is not by giving right knowledge or beliefs (worldview), but rather by addressing the affections. This is not to say that knowledge or beliefs are irrelevant, but instead that they follow where the affections go. The popular culture seems to understand this as we can see by looking at any of the advertisements that draw on your desires and affections to buy more of their products and mold us into consumers. Smith says that if we want to form the people of the church we have to stop waging a losing battle by trying to give them right knowledge or beliefs when the culture is capturing their affections and desires. We have to address their desires, and he proposes the way to do that is through worship. Worship needs to become central formative portion of the church (and not just “praise and worship” – i.e. singing, as we think of it). Worship is to train and educated our hearts to love and desire God as he is and has revealed himself to be. This book brought a large paradigm shift in me, and was the groundwork for what I preached about in my second sermon from my series on the Image of God.
The Meaning of Marriage – Tim Keller
This is one of the best books I’ve read on marriage (and I am not at all alone in this sentiment). Keller (along with his wife, Kathy) draws on his 37 years of marriage, his life of pastoral ministry, his ability to exegete the Scriptures and clearly communicate what is within them (and it doesn’t hurt that Keller is one of the most well read speakers and he demonstrates that he’s done his homework with over 30 pages of endnotes). Essentially, The Meaning of Marriage is an exegesis and exposition of the famous marriage passage in Ephesians 5:18-33. Keller thoroughly and very adequately expounds on this passage in each of the chapters, all the while pointing to the gospel and Christ in every chapter. His chapter on singleness is perhaps one of the best chapters on the subject I have ever read in any book, which has both challenged and encouraged me in my current life stage. If you were to read only one book on marriage, I would hands down recommend this book. This book (and especially the chapter on singleness) influenced my first sermon on Relational Idolatry in my series on Idolatry.
These last two books will primarily interest other seminary students or pastors:
Christ-Centered Preaching – Bryan Chapell
This book was incredibly helpful last semester (and summer) as I found myself writing my sermons (both for class and for church). Chapell has done an excellent job of demonstrating and illustrating how one is to preach Christocentrically from any text in the Bible (Old and New Testament). He makes sure to point out that we can’t just “tack on Christ” at the end without showing how he actually addresses the fallen condition highlighted within the text. I am convinced that he is right in finding Christ as the center of our preaching, and his method has been invaluable in helping me orient my sermons to demonstrate just that and point others (and myself as well) to Christ. (If you want an illustration of how my preaching has been changed since I’ve bought into Christocentric preaching then listen to the first sermon of my series on the Image of God, where I tell how I used to preach Genesis 11-12, and then how I would now preach in light of Christoncentric preaching).
We Become Like What We Worship – G.K. Beale
Beale has written an excellent theology of idolatry in this book. His main thesis is the title of the book: we become like what we worship. We are by nature worshiping creatures, and we will eventually become like what we worship. If that is God, we will be molded into God’s image (which is what we were created to do). But if we worship idols, we will become like idols. Beale demonstrates that this idea about idolatry and worship permeates the Scripture. He looks primarily at Psalm 135:18 and the account of the golden calf in Exodus 32, but shows how this same idea is entwined implicitly all throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament. This book was also very formative for me and provided much of the groundwork primarily for my series on the Image of God, but also for my later series on Idolatry. So if you want to spend some time in deep exegesis and theological groundwork, then I’d encourage you to read Beale’s work.