In the coming months at New Life we are looking forward to stepping into a series called Questions for God. In the series, we hope to openly and honestly engage the most difficult questions people have about Christianity. For some those questions keep them on the outside looking in. For others, it causes them to wrestle with their faith.
We hope that Questions for God invites everyone into the conversation no matter where you are spiritually. It is our aim to address these questions with respect and honesty. And it is our hope that some might lean in to engage their questions in a safe environment. It is hope as well that it might serve as an opportunity for Christians to open the doors for conversations with friends and family members.
As we prepare for this series, I would commend the following books. Maybe one of these piques your interest. I would encourage you to pick it up and start reading it in the next few weeks.
Deep thinkers have pointed questions for Christianity. “Aren’t we better off without religion?” “How can you say there’s only one true faith?” “Doesn’t religion cause violence?” “Hasn’t science disproved Christianity?” “Isn’t Christianity homophobic?” “How could a loving God send people to hell?”
In Confronting Christianity, Rebecca McLaughlin takes those questions seriously. As a former skeptic, McLaughlin brings both empathy and clear reasoning. She does three things particularly well:
In Recapturing the Wonder, Mike Cosper has written a unique book that explores spiritual disciplines in our secular context. Cosper says that his book is “an attempt to sketch out the spiritual landscape of an age that has been called a ‘secular age,’ an ‘age of anxiety,’ and a ‘culture of narcissism,’ and an effort at finding a path into a different way of life.”
Cosper begins to explaining what it means that we live in a secular age. He explains that a secular world is a disenchanted world: “A disenchanted world has been drained of magic, of any supernatural presences, of spirits and God and transcendence. A disenchanted world is a material world, where what you see is what you get.”
The secular world responds to the religious world: “You can believe whatever you want so long as you don’t expect it to affect your everyday experience.”
In this world, spiritual disciplines are a counter-cultural act. They are not just formation: they are counter-formation. They shape us against the world we inhabit. It also means that these disciplines are going to be hard for us. “In a disenchanted world,” Cosper says, “solitude is terrifying.” As Christians, “We’re not called first to act but to cease.” Cosper continues, “As we take up ancient practices like prayer, Scripture reading, and fasting, we will see the way they confront our disenchanted way of knowing the world.”
Where the secular world creates religion of display, in Christ we can experience the reality of peace with God. “The alternative to the disenchanted religion of display--a life spent seeking affirmation in the mirror of the world—is to find rest in Jesus.” Cosper says we don’t need to manufacture spectacle, we need to experience the presence of God in daily disciplines.
What does your interior life look like? Who are you when you’re not displaying yourself?
Who is God? Michael Reeves asserts that the essence of the fullest answer to that question is “a Trinity.” Reeves believes that while the Trinity is something many Christians shove to the back corners of their minds when it comes to relating to God, or perhaps explore with a sort of mechanical interest, with clumsy charts and worse analogies, reflecting on the Trinity is something that should stir delight in us.
Reeves quotes Karl Barth, who once said, “The triunity of God is the secret of His beauty.” Reeves contrasts the Triune God with a singular conception of God (like the Islamic understanding of God), who has a very different relationship with creation. Reeves says that “Absolutely singular supreme beings do not like creation.”
In contract, “Everything changes when it comes to the Father, Son and Spirit. Here is a God who is not essentially lonely, but who has been loving for all eternity as the Father has loved the Son in the Spirit. Loving others is not a strange or novel thing for this God at all; it is at the root of who he is.” That is to say, the relationships within the Triune God are that which defines God himself. God is relational and loving in his very essence.
If you’re a child of the 80s like myself, the phrase “your own personal Jesus”is heard channeled through the distinctive voice of Martin Gore of Depeche Mode whose massive 1989 hit democratizes the first century Jewish Messiah. Gore tells us to “reach out and touch faith” through whatever experience we can create that makes us feel as though someone hears our prayers and cares.
Martin Gore’s vision of a personalized Jesus is truer today, thirty years after his song hit the charts, than it has ever been. JD Greear wants to lovingly but firmly let us know that You Don’t Get Your Own Personal Jesus in his thin volume by the same name. “Sometimes I hear people talk about ‘my God’ or ‘my Jesus’ as if he were their possession,” Greear reflects. But strangely absent of our personalized visions of Jesus are Jesus’ own claims of who he is. Unhappily for those who like to shape Jesus in their likeness, Jesus tells us that he is, in fact our Lord.
It makes sense that we think we can remake Jesus in our own image. Why shouldn’t we? Our social media feeds cater to our desires, my Amazon webpage is distinctive to me, your Netflix suggestions reflect your tastes. Why shouldn’t we be able to craft a Jesus who suits what we would like in a Savior? Greear reflects, “Those of us who have grown up in a consumeristic Western culture envision an Americanized Jesus who is one part genie, one part fan club, one part financial advisor, one part American patriot, and several parts therapist. Our ‘God’ makes us more narcissistic and materialistic, not less.” In Voltaire’s words, “God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.”
DA Carson is one of the clearest and deepest thinkers in the Reformed evangelical world. In The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God Carson tackles what is perhaps the most difficult issue for Reformed thinkers to grapple with: if the God of the Bible is sovereign, can he really be loving?
Before making his case for what the love of God looks like, Carson grapples with the distortion of the love of God. In Carson’s words, “The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized.”
Carson spends the first two chapters parceling out the love of God. First, Carson lays out what is his most significant contribution in the book: a layered understanding of the love of God. In doing so, Carson comes to grips with the multitude of ways God is talked about scripturally. For instance, how does one reconcile God’s love of the world with his love of the elect? It is a surprisingly difficult task that Carson has an elegant solution for.
How many decisions do you make in a day? A lot! From minor choices about food to significant decisions about our spiritual, relational, and vocational life, our days are filled with making choices. And yet, how much have I considered how I make those choices and how I might make better choices?
Most of us make decisions with a method popularized over two hundred years ago by Benjamin Franklin: tally up the pros and cons and go with the winner.
This approach, according to Chip and Dan Heath, is flawed. In fact, cognitive research says that we are wired to make poor choices. Our tendency is to narrow in on the wrong set of information—what is referred to as the “spotlight effect.” “Kahneman says that we are quick to jump to conclusions because we give too much weight to the information that’s right in front of us, while failing to consider the information that’s just offstage.” As decision-makers, we need to actively move the spotlight to include the information we need.
The Heaths lay out what they call “the Four Villains of Decision Making”—and this is the first of those: framing your choice in too narrow terms. In addition, there lie the dangers of seeking out information that supports your biases, being influenced by short-term emotions, and being overconfident about the future.
In contrast, the Heaths recommend an approach that they dub “WRAP.” Widen your options. Reality-test your assumptions. Attain distance before deciding. Prepare to be wrong.
The premise of Our Secular Age doesn’t have strong curb appeal: evangelical Christians grappling with the contribution of a contemporary philosopher’s nearly 900 page tome. Despite the fact that one of my favorite authors, James KA Smith has been significantly influenced by Charles Taylor, I still have yet to pick up Taylor’s A Secular Age.
Despite the less-than-enticing premise, Our Secular Age is a book that should be broadly read by Christian leaders. Even for the reader (like myself) who has no first-hand experience with Taylor, his theses are laid out clearly and the wide-ranging impact of his thought is explored and at times critiqued.
Taylor’s central thesis is that the secular world is a world that has turned its focus on the self and lost its sense of the transcendent. Collin Hansen says that Taylor traces the beginnings of this age to Martin Luther: “Taylor faults the Protestant Reformation and modern evangelical Christianity for disenchanting the world and turning the focus on the self rather than on God through and turning the focus on the self rather than on God through shared religious rituals.”
I read 54 books in 2018: about one a week. I love learning and books are one of my favorite forms of learning. I tend to read five types of books: Christian Living, Theology, Leadership, General Non-Fiction, and Fiction. If you’re interested in tracking my reading, getting fuller reviews, and sharing with me your favorites, I use Goodreads and would be happy to have you friend me there. Here were some highlights for me in 2018:
Everyone suffers. And yet perhaps because of the age in which we live, there have been few cultures that have struggled more with suffering than ours. I’m currently reading a popular book on loss and I’m struck by how vapid the wisdom of our age is in the face of suffering.
Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is, quite simply, the best book on suffering that I’ve read. Keller deals with the subject philosophically, theologically, and practically. Each treatment is successful on its own, and combined they pack a unique punch as Keller engages mind and heart alike.
Timothy Keller is such a unique author. His books range from the incredibly accessible: The Prodigal God and Counterfeit Gods, to the slightly more rigorous, but still very accessible apologetic, The Reason for God, to the more rigorous practitioner’s guides such as Generous Justice or Preaching. Part of Timothy Keller’s unique gifting is his ability to write so well in each of these genres. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is the most rigorous book by Keller to date and yet the book is every bit as well written as any of his best.
Contemporary westerners are repelled by suffering and death. On the stage of world history, our fear of death is abnormal. Keller quotes an author at The New York Times Magazine, who, after the tragic sniper shootings in the Washington DC area reflected,“The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. [And yet] despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.”[i] This aversion to suffering and death is a cultural blind spot and means that we naturally approach the topic with naiveté.
“What’s God’s will for my life?” I’ve asked that question and heard that question asked a thousand times in my ten years as a pastor. It’s a go to question I deal with when talking to middle school, high school, and college students.
Kevin DeYoung insists that the answer to the question is as simple as his title. How do I know God’s will for my life? “Just do something.” At first blush that answer sounds as reckless as it does callous.
But DeYoung builds his case scripturally that a faithful Christian life is not a life waiting to hear the whisper of God about what parking spot to take, school to choose, career to select, and spouse to marry. Instead, again and again, scripture frames the will of God in terms of the character of God. What is God’s will? The fruits of the Spirit. In DeYoung’s words, “God's will is always your sanctification.”
Obsessing over choices God wants us to make actually shackles us from living in the freedom of God’s purposes. DeYoung says, “The only chains God wants us to wear are the chains of righteousness--not the chains of hopeless subjectivism, not the shackles of risk-free living, not the fetters of horoscope decision making--just the chains befitting a bond servant of Christ Jesus. Die to self. Live for Christ. And then do what you want, and go where you want, for God's glory.” Applying Christ’s words, it sounds like this, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and then trust that He will take care of our needs, even before we know what they are and where we're going.”