I still don’t read as much as I’d like to. When school is in session, I tend to spend more time watching TV than I do reading books. I’m still working on changing that. Reading a book takes work! It’s a financial, temporal commitment of about 10 dollars and 300 pages. (Though you can always quit a book early if you so choose.) Reading is a mental commitment, too–it takes more effort than turning on an episode of “NCIS,” but reading a Christian book is certainly more spiritually profitable, and reading a secular book can be just as fun. At least… that’s what I keep telling myself.
I went on a bit of a spree in December and purchased three secular books off of Amazon, which I usually never do, because I have a large backlog of Christian books to read. All three of them are below (Philbrick, Kahneman, and Ellis). While Christian books are obviously more spiritually profitable than secular books, they do take more work to understand and apply, so while I do train myself to find rest Christian books and Bible study as my soul sates itself on God, I do look for secular books that I can enjoy for lighter, easier fun. You’ll find what I’m currently studying and reading below.
Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick
The back cover of this book promises to describe the Battle of Bunker Hill, as well as its prior events, such as the Boston Tea Party and the skirmish at Lexington and Concord. I’m about 75 pages in, and I’d say that description is accurate. Philbrick writes with a narrative style, as if the prominent figures were characters in a fictional novel. Bunker Hill does tend to lean more toward exposition, in the sense that there are a lot–and I mean a lot–of details about the events and people in the early stages of the American Revolution. So far, the book has focused mainly on Boston and its surrounding areas, which is not surprising given the title of the book (Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill are in Boston). One thing I’m particularly enjoying about the book is that Philbrick also chronicles the British figures involved in the American Revolution, such as General Thomas Gage. He also does not hold back in including some darker acts committed by overzealous American revolutionaries, such as tarring and feathering loyalists to the British crown, an act he describes as having “effectively parboiled [the victim’s] flesh” (19). This one isn’t as easy to read as the Ellis (below), but a helpful book for getting into the details of the start of the American Revolution.
Idols of the Heart by Elyse Fitzpatrick
This book is a great follow-up to Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands (which I’ve reviewed before), because it talks about how we create idols in our heart. I felt like Instruments was stronger in helping you counsel others to identify their idols, and lighter on counseling them on how to fight those idols; if anything, Idols of the Heart is in the reverse. Fitzpatrick looks at various Bible characters and their sins of idolatry (such as Rachel wanting children and the episode where she brings her father’s idols with her, or Lot’s wife wanting comfort and looking back to Sodom) as small case studies of how we come to prioritize idols. The most helpful thing Fitzpatrick does is to show how Jesus fought temptation and was satisfied in loving the Father and doing the work of the Father. Reading those sections forces me to confront my heart and ask what it settles for, why it is not content with all that God is.
The Jesus You Can’t Ignore by John MacArthur
I bought this book because it was on sale, and I thought it would be similar to The Gospel According to Jesus, which I haven’t read yet. I don’t think they really cover the same material. Pastor John writes The Jesus You Can’t Ignore to teach the more glossed over parts of the gospels, where Jesus confronts Pharisees with righteous indignation (like the temple cleansing episode) or knowing provocation (“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home”). The book often speaks of theological liberals who prefer to choose only the “softest” portrayals of Jesus in the gospel, to urge them to see that Jesus is not just about social and moral advancement, that Jesus was about the glory of the Father, which meant confronting false religion and its deceptions and sins.
The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible by B.B. Warfield
Every year, I try to read more books by “famous Christian dead guys,” and this book epitomizes why that’s so difficult. This is a special edition published in 2014 by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Press (SBTS Press), distributed to volunteers at Shepherds’ Conference 2015. There is a 70 page introduction by Cornelius Van Til, and I haven’t even read halfway through that. It’s a seminal work on the doctrine of inspiration, and I want to learn from it, but it–or at least the Van Til introduction–is quite dense and hard to read. It’s slow going, and so far I’ve only been reading a couple pages here and there.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
I hear about Daniel Kahneman every once in a while on the Freaknomics podcast, so I thought I would pick up this book. Kahneman is a behavioral economist and a psychologist, so his research is about how people think and respond to incentives. In this book in particular, Kahneman divides human thought processes into System 1 and System 2, where System 1 relies on intuition for quick judgments, and System 2 is more deliberate and logical but consumes more time and energy. He outlines the tendencies and biases of each system. As a statistician, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I do a good job of relying on data for my judgments, or that I’m levelheaded enough to consider a wide range of possibilities before finalizing my thoughts. Kahneman exposes that I’m still not very good at thinking. It’s a bit dense, with a lot of studies cited and explained, but a pretty engaging read.
Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays
Expository Studying by Joel James
Grasping God’s Word and Expository Studying are books I’ve assigned as reading for small group this year. We’re learning how to study the Bible, so I use these resources to help us learn basic hermeneutics and exegesis. I am not well studied in either of those areas, so having books for beginners is helpful. Expository Studying is better for working with the grammar of the text, since he wrote it as a guide for pastors on how to study and prepare sermons. It goes over parts of speech, different kinds of clauses, and block diagramming (all from the English text). There are also some great hermeneutical principles laid out at the beginning. Grasping God’s Word does a good job of explaining different kinds of style and structure used in Scripture, like parallelism and chiasmus, question/answer and cause/effect, etc. The second half of the book also addresses how to read different genres. The two books do different things, so they complement each other nicely. Joel James makes Expository Studying free for download, so you can get it at the link above.
The Quartet by Joseph Ellis
Joseph Ellis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (for Founding Brothers, which is also great–anything by Ellis is fantastic), and I’m not at all surprised by that. He writes non-fiction with the emotional force of narrative, and as with any good narrative, he always finds the dramatic arc within the story. The Quartet is about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, and their quest to create a strong national government in the United States of America. I was aware, though not particularly informed of the significance, of the fact that the United States was only a confederation of states after the success of the Revolution, with only a loose framework to bind the individual states together. State and local laws were much stronger, to the point where there was no national currency. These four men, based on different backgrounds and reasons, saw the need for an authoritative federal government to bind the states together. Ellis does a great job of piecing their stories together in a way that arcs toward the ratification of the Constitution, a narrative style that Philbrick, for example, doesn’t have. This makes The Quartet far easier and more engaging to read. You can’t go wrong with anything by Ellis, and this book is no exception.