Recommended Author: Leif Enger

peace-like-a-riverI learned about Leif Enger through Abraham and John Piper’s recommendations of his first novel, Peace Like a River. It didn’t disappoint. The narrator’s father is one of my favorite characters ever, an Old Testament prophet dropped into the Midwest in 1962. (Read the excerpt in JP’s post to see what I mean.)

Enger’s second book is So Brave, Young, and Handsome. sobravecoverWith both second books and second albums, there’s always the worry that it’ll just be a retread, but I thought Enger avoided that well. Of course there are common elements, but it’s a different story told with a different voice.

Enger’s characters are mysterious and endearing. You get the sense that there has to be a back story, but you don’t get it– you’re just dropped in where he wants you. Where he wants you is somewhere out West in a world that doesn’t exist anymore, except that you feel it does when you’re reading Enger. You don’t have the feeling that it’s 2009 and you’re reading a story about a different time, but really that you’re embedded in that time. And his use of language is sriking and skillful– each sentence can stand on its own, just the right words for its purpose.

You could say that both of these stories are about developing manhood– one in a boy and one in a grown man. Enger portrays manhood well, and in a world that’s trying desperately to forget what manhood even is, that’s exciting.

Read Calvin’s Institutes in 2009

My general New Year’s resolution is to be more intentional, efficient, and productive with my time. It occurred to me that if I cut most of the time I spend putzing around on the Internet and planned how that time was spent, I could really get a lot done. (And I wouldn’t miss the putzing.)

So one aspect of that is getting some good reading done. And fortunately for me, the Year of Productivity is also the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, so there is a lot of good Calvin-related stuff coming out. My favorite project is reformation 21’s Blogging the Institutes. They’ve broken Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion down into 5-days-a-week readings, and one of their bloggers posts on each day’s section.

I’ve mentioned before that Calvin is way underrated, by anti-Calvinists and Calvinists alike. His writing is instructional and devotional, and his intellect is really unmatched. Institutes of the Christian Religion is one of the most important books ever written, and this project makes it more accessible (and finishable). If you want to learn more about the Bible and theology, this is one of the best ways I could think of to do it. (I started today, reading two days’ worth, and it took me less than 15 minutes. It’s very doable!) You can get the reading plan by emailing, or contact me directly and I’ll get it to you.

Just for good measure, here’s Piper on the discipline of scheduled reading:

Suppose that you read slowly, say about 250 words a minute (as I do). This means that in twenty minutes you can read about five thousand words. An average book has about four hundred words to a page. So you could read about twelve-and-a-half pages in twenty minutes. Suppose you discipline yourself to read a certain author or topic twenty minutes a day, six days a week, for a year. That would be 312 times 12.5 pages for a total of 3,900 pages. Assume that an average book is 250 pages long. This means you could read fifteen books like that in one year.

Or take a longer classic like John Calvin’s Institutes (fifteen hundred pages in the Westminster edition). At twenty minutes a day and 250 words a minute and six days a week, you could finish it in twenty-five weeks. Then Augustine’s City of God and B. B. Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible could be finished before year’s end.

This astonishing discovery freed me from the paralysis of not starting great, mind-shaping, heart-enriching books because I lacked enough big blocks of time. It turns out that I don’t need long periods of time in order to read three masterpieces in one year! I needed twenty minutes a day, six days a week. (Brothers, We are Not Professionals, 66-67)

My Favorite Theology Books of 2008

5. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life

4. Tom Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ

3. Tim Keller, The Reason for God

2. Kevin deYoung & Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys who Should Be

1. The ESV Study Bible. (I haven’t written a review yet, but here’s the short version: Get it. Sell something on Craigslist if necessary. It’s great.)

Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution

In his 2003 book The Lost Message of Jesus, Steve Chalke referred to the historic doctrine of substitutionary atonement as “a form of cosmic child abuse” (182). Not surprisingly, this touched off a firestorm among evangelicals, but it was just the latest, loudest, and most provocative example of a tendency since the late nineteenth century to shun this doctrine in favor of other less “violent” understandings of how the death of Jesus saves us.

The gospel really does hinge on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement-the truth that Christ died on the cross as a sinless substitute, taking on himself the guilt and the punishment for our sin, so that we could be given his righteousness. This doctrine, of course, does not deny that there are other aspects of the atonement-Christ’s victory over the powers of death and hell, his demonstration of self-sacrificing love, and many more-but penal substitution is the foundation of all the other glories of the cross.

This is the burden of the book Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach (a professor and two students at Oak Hill Theological College near London) have compiled what will surely become the go-to resource for explaining and defending the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. At least, that’s the impression you get from reading the endorsements from D. A. Carson, John Frame, John Piper, Mark Dever, Thomas Schreiner, David Wells, Timothy George, C. J. Mahaney, Sinclair Ferguson, Tremper Longman, and about a dozen others. (Good grief!)

In all seriousness, this book is excellent, covering just about all the ground to be covered in a defense of substitutionary atonement. The first half presents the case for the doctrine from Scriptural, theological, pastoral, and historical perspectives. Appropriately, the section on Scripture is by far the biggest, and it is excellent, showing how the idea of penal substitution is a clear biblical category going at least as far back as the Passover. The exegesis of each passage treated is thorough and clear. The next largest section is that on history, with particular emphasis on the first few centuries of the church. This is important because the charge is often leveled that the doctrine of penal substitution didn’t arise until the Reformation or later, and that it flattened out other views of the atonement. The authors show that not only did early writers exposit the doctrine in detail, but they also referred to it casually while discussing other topics, showing the concept was familiar enough that they could make passing reference to it and expect their hearers to understand.

The second half of the book is devoted to answering the critics of penal substitution. This is handled by addressing specific objections grouped into several broad categories, including penal substitution and the Bible, penal substitution and violence, penal substitution and justice, and others. These categories each have several specific objections, most of which are answered in 2-3 pages. Whether you’re struggling yourself with some of the implications of this doctrine or looking for resources in talking to others, this second section has great material that’s laid out in an easy-to-navigate order, and the detailed table of contents makes it a quick resource.

Pierced for Our Transgressions is a tremendous resource. It shows the biblical foundations for this important doctrine, shows its significance in the Christian life, and gives great responses to common critiques. Most of all, it will cause you to rejoice (in great detail!) over our Savior, who has paid a debt for us that we could never pay ourselves.

The Hope of Glory: 100 Daily Meditations on Colossians

Dr. Sam Storms has just accepted a call as pastor of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City. He’s also taught at Wheaton, spoken at numerous conferences including several Desiring God ones, and written a number of books. His teaching ministry is Enjoying God Ministries, and their website is a great resource. Storms is a great example of a serious scholar with serious passion for Jesus-I recommend anything with his name on it.

He’s recently begun publishing some devotional books with short meditations on Scripture. The first is The Hope of Glory: 100 Daily Meditations on Colossians. (He has a similar volume, To the One who Conquers, on the letters in Revelation, and forthcoming ones on Psalms and 1 Corinthians.)

Many devotional books are long on fluff and short on Scripture, using a verse or two as a springboard for a fairly generic positive thought to start the day. That is most decidedly not the case with Storms’ book on Colossians. These are content-rich, Scripture-grounded, heart-reaching meditations that will challenge you to think about the implications of the text for your doctrine and life. Each chapter is about 4 pages, with good explanation and application of a verse or two. Storms’ passion for God and his careful handling of the text work together to create what is basically a devotional commentary on Colossians, which is an overlooked but powerful book.

This book-and the others in the series as they are published-would be a great resource to guide you in personal devotions, and a great addition to the family library.

Doctrine of the Christian Life

The Doctrine of the Christian Life is the third volume of John Frame’s projected four-volume series A Theology of Lordship. The first two volumes, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and Doctrine of God, have won lots of praise, and the same is certain to be true of Christian Life. This book is vintage Frame. He has the kind of mind that comes along once a generation, but is very adept at explaining complicated material for the average reader. His writing is actually interesting to read. But for me, his greatest gift is that he’s an amazingly careful scholar. What I mean is that he seeks to go exactly as far as Scripture goes-no more and no less. And he’s willing to buck even his own Reformed tradition where he believes that it goes beyond the requirements of Scripture.

Doctrine of the Christian Life is, broadly speaking, an ethics book. It’s the kind of ethics book a Christian philosopher writes, which means he starts by asking very broad questions about how we should approach ethical questions, on what authority they can be answered, and the like. He briefly addresses non-Christian ethics before outlining a Christian ethical methodology. In my favorite section of the book, he goes through the Ten Commandments in great detail, covering related topics and hot-button issues as they relate to the Commandments. He then has a section on Christ and Culture, and a brief conclusion on growing in spiritual maturity.

This book weighs in at just over 1000 pages, so for most readers it’s not the kind of work where you start at the beginning and work your way through (although the time would be well spent). Much of the introductory material also wouldn’t interest the average reader, although again, the effort would be richly rewarded. The sections on the Ten Commandments and Christians in culture are incredible-exactly the kind of thing you’d like to have on your shelf as a for a good Christian take on a given ethics topic. Frame is especially good on bioethics, the Sabbath, and sexuality. But I have yet to read a section that I don’t think is great.

Make no mistake, this is definitely a thinking-man’s guide to Christian ethics. But it’s also immensely practical, and a great resource for believers who want to have all their thinking shaped by Scripture.

New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ

Thomas R. Schreiner is an NT professor at SBTS (click the link for lots of articles) and is well known for his Romans commentary and Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ. His New Testament Theology came out this summer, but had already created a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere before it was published. (No such thing as bad publicity, right?)

Schreiner’s thesis is basically two-pronged:

The thesis advanced in this book is that NT theology is God-focused, Christ-centered, and Spirit-saturated, but the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit must be understood along a salvation-historical timeline; that is, God’s promises are already fulfilled but not yet consummated in Christ Jesus.

His two big ideas, then, are the God-centered nature of the NT and the already-but-not-yet nature of the kingdom of God in the NT. These ideas are so foundational to Scripture that it’s easy to assume them without seeing how pervasive they really are (Schreiner notes, “We tend to look past what constantly stands in front of us”, 119). The great value of this book lies in Schreiner’s ability to see, point out, and explain things that we very easily take for granted.

Schreiner mostly takes a thematic approach, although some chapters are divided to cover certain books. Part 1, “The Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises,” deals with the already-not yet idea in the NT. Part 2, “The God of the Promise,” shows the centrality of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit (with particular emphasis on Christ, as the title of the book suggests). Part 3, “Experiencing the Promise”, deals with the problem of sin, the connection of faith and obedience in the life of the believer, and the role of the Law in the Old and New Testaments. Finally, Part 4, “The People of the Promise and the Future of the Promise,” deals with the relationship of the church to Israel and the future consummation.

This book is simply saturated with Scripture. Schreiner began his research by reading through the NT twice and taking notes, and the Scripture index runs over 30 pages. Schreiner masterfully paints the broad strokes of the NT while also meticulously referencing specific verses (tons of them!), enabling the reader to get the forest and the trees. I had several aha! moments in the time I spent looking through the book. In addition to the Scripture index, which I wil return to frequently, other highlights are the OT summary in the Introduction and the chapters on the centrality of God in NT theology and the role of the Law in salvation history. But the whole thing is excellent. This is a must-have for a theological library, and you could spend years using it to guide your personal Bible study. Schreiner has knocked this one out of the park.

Problems with The Shack, Part 4: The Big One

(If you missed them, read parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, along with a more positive Interlude.)

The biggest problem with The Shack, the one that grieves me the most, is that it offers a sugar pill to treat a cancer. It seeks to reconcile the existence of a good God with a world that is obviously filled with evil, to explain human suffering in the face of divine sovereignty. That is a good aim-many people, believers and nonbelievers, struggle to believe in the goodness of God when faced with suffering like what Mack has seen. But Young seriously fumbles the ball in seeking to answer Mack’s questions.

There are points where it looks like things are going in the right direction: Mack sees that outside God, he has no frame of reference for judging good and evil, and that in questioning God’s rule of the universe, he is accusing God of wrong. But at the crucial moment, when he brings up his daughter’s murder, he is told that that event had nothing to do with God.

“But I still don’t understand why Missy had to die.”

“She didn’t have to, Mackenzie. This was no plan of Papa’s. Papa has never needed evil to accomplish his good purposes.” (165, emphasis added)

Of course, no one says that God needs evil to accomplish his purposes. But the Bible is plain that he uses evil to accomplish his purposes-to carry out his plan. This is entirely compatible with humans making real choices with real consequences. That is why Joseph can say to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20). It’s why Peter can say of the murder of Jesus that he was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God,” but also “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

This does not make God the author of sin– in upholding the universe by the word of his power, he uses sin sinlessly to bring about his own glory and the good of his people. The free agency of man and the divine sovereignty of God are not mutually exclusive. But Young’s assumptions about free will cause him to make human autonomy the one thing with which God will not interfere: “If you could only see how all this ends and what we will achieve without the violation of one human will” (125). Ultimately, free will in The Shack becomes God. It is the thing to which God must submit, the ultimate reality to which even he is subject.

Of course, the biblical teaching of God’s sovereignty over all things, including human suffering, is initially hard to confront. On the face of it, Young’s answer seems so much nicer. But I can testify from personal experience that the knowledge that no suffering I experience comes apart from my Father’s plan is a great comfort. Think about it– if our suffering is not part of God’s plan, where does it ultimately come from? Can’t he see it coming? Couldn’t he stop it? Or must he play defense, reacting and trying to make the best of the devil’s– or our– attempts to foul things up? On the contrary, consider Charles Spurgeon’s response to the suffering in his own life:

It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, not sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity.

The Shack tries to tackle some of the most difficult questions of the Christian life. These questions are real; they are legitimate; they are crucial. But the best The Shack has to offer in response is a God who shrugs his shoulders and says, “I didn’t have anything to do with that.” The sometimes-bitter pill of God’s sovereignty is harder to swallow, but it is the answer the Bible gives, and it’s ultimately the only answer that brings real hope to those who suffer.

Problems with The Shack, Part 3: Arrogance

One of the things that consistently struck me as distasteful in The Shack is the idea that it was presenting all this great new truth about God that no one had heard before. All the characters consistently mock and parody traditional Christianity, as though the church (which is, of course, not perfect) isn’t getting anything right, the poor fools. The book seems to assume that Christianity is (and has always been) joyless, legalistic, un-heart-moving, cold theological fact– but that’s OK, because now William Young and The Shack are here to lead us into the light of day.

This comes out even more fully in “Is The Shack Heresy?“, a response posted on Windblown Media’s website by Wayne Jacobsen, one of the book’s co-publishers. This response isn’t helpful. Jacobsen doesn’t really respond to criticisms of the book, except to say they are unwarranted and come from “self-appointed doctrine police” who are “either threatened by its success, or… want to ride on it to push their own fear-based agenda.” Well, thanks for that. But two comments were especially revealing:

This is not the angry and tyrannical God that religion has been using for 2000 years to beat people into conformity and we are not surprised that this threatens the self-proclaimed doctrine police.


We realize this would be a challenging read for those who see no difference between the religious conditioning that underlies Christianity as it is often presented in the 21st Century and the simple, powerful life in Christ that Jesus offered to his followers.

These comments suggest two things:

  1. No criticism of The Shack could possibly arise from a sincere believer having legitimate questions about whether the content is in line with the Bible.
  2. After 2000 years of Christians getting Jesus’ message wrong, The Shack finally gets it right.

That kind of arrogance raises a huge red flag with me, as I’ve noted on another subject.