My 2018 Reading List and Top Five Favorite Reads of the Year!

Happy New Year’s Eve, friends!

The end of the calendar year means a look back at my 2018 reading, so I present for your consideration my 2018 reading list!
January

  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Pentateuch

March

  • A Little Book About the Christian Life – John Calvin
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Historical Books
  • The World-Tilting Gospel – Dan Phillips
  • The Gospel According to Jesus – John MacArthur
  • On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson (audio)

April

  • North! Or Be Eaten – Andrew Peterson
  • The Monster in the Hollows – Andrew Peterson

May

  • The Imperfect Disciple – Jared Wilson
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Poetry
  • S. – JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
  • Sing! – Keith and Krysten Getty
  • The Warden and the Wolf King – Andrew Peterson

June

  • Real Artists Don’t Starve – Jeff Goins

July

  • Finish! — Jon Acuff
  • Smallville Season 11 Vols. 1 and 2 (Guardian and Detective) –Various
  • God at Work – Gene Veith
  • American Assassin – Vince Flynn
  • The Keto Reset Diet – Mark Sisson
  • The Pilgrim’s Progress — John Bunyan
  • Pops – Michael Chabon

August

  • Side Hustle – Chris Gillebeau
  • ESV Reader’s Bible: Prophets

September

  • Fantasy Life — Matthew Berry

October

  • From Death to Life — Allen Nelson
  • Day of War — Cliff Graham
  • After the Fire — Will Hill
  • ESV Reader’s Bible: Gospels and Acts
  • The Exemplary Husband — Dr. Stuart Scott
  • What is Reformed Theology? — RC Sproul

November

  • Wingfeather Tales – AP, ed.
  • Elevation – Stephen King
  • ESV Readers Bible: Epistles and Revelation

December

  • Illusion – Frank Peretti
  • Katharina and Martin Luther – Michelle Derusha
  • Why the Nations Rage – Jonathan Leeman

Totals: 37 volumes (6 volumes of Scripture, 14 fiction titles, 17 non-fiction titles)

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My Top Five Favorite Reads of 2018

(For the record, I’m not counting the Bible in this list, for obvious reasons. Just assume I enjoyed that greatly.)

The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson — I don’t know if there’s anything else I can say that I haven’t said already. This fantasy series is an absolute delight to read and I commend it to you most heartily. (And to be fair to the other books, I’m counting all 5 in this first slot.)

Day of War, by Cliff Graham — I grew up reading historical/Biblical fiction, and Graham’s books should rank among the best of the genre. This first volume of Graham’s “Lion of War” series is a first-rate adventure, and his battle sequences are as thrilling as any in fiction.

What is Reformed Theology? by RC Sproul — This classic volume from the late and much-missed Dr. Sproul is a must-read for anyone who is studying Reformed theology or wants to understand the “Doctrines of Grace” better.

Side-Hustle, by Chris Gillebeau — I have to admit, part of the reason I am including this one is because the podcast that it inspired is a regular listen for me. Gillebeau provides practical direction for anyone wanting to start a side-business, and includes lots of interesting stories to inspire and challenge new entrepreneurs.

The Keto Reset Diet, by Mark Sisson — My final selection is this must-read volume for anyone looking into the ketogenic diet. I’m giving it a slot on this list particularly because I’m about to reread it, as I get back on track with my eating and exercise in the coming weeks. If it’s worth revisiting, it’s worth recommending.

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Okay, friends–your turn! What were some of your top reads of 2018?

Let us know in the comments below!

DNF: 4 Books I Gave Up on in 2018

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Pexels.com

In my younger years, I would NEVER give up on a book halfway-through. I can only think of 2 books I tried to read before I was 18 that I chose not to finish because I was offended by the content or language.

When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the misguided notion that it was somehow wrong or bad to quit reading a book if it didn’t interest me or I didn’t have time. It took me a few years, but I finally came to realize that life is too short to slog through books you don’t care about reading.

So this year, while I have finished most of the books I began reading, there have been a handful of books that I started but decided not to finish for one reason or another:

  • The Loneliness of the Black Republican, by Leah Wright Rigueur — I may actually come back to this one at some point in the future. The premise intrigues me, since it challenges the unspoken assumption that all African-Americans do or should or must support the Democratic Party. However, the book is written at a pretty high academic level, and when I tried to read it back in February, I was not ready to keep up with Rigueur’s rigorous analysis. After struggling for about 30 pages to follow her initial arguments, I threw in the towel. She won’t catch me off-guard next time.
  • Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero — I figured this premise was a winner: A group of kids who became locally famous as a detective team (like the Scooby Doo gang) are haunted by something they discovered during their last case years ago. Now adults, the surviving members of the team (and the ghost of the non-surviving member) return to a haunted lake where a mysterious evil lurks–and it’s not just an old man wearing a monster-mask. And yet…it didn’t work for me. To be honest, it could have, but some of the narrative choices the author made bugged me, as well as the way he wrote some of the adult characters. I got about halfway through the book and realized I wasn’t having nearly as much fun as I had hoped, so I cashed in my chips and moved on.
  • The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing, by Zachary Petit — This is a helpful field guide from the good folks at Writer’s Digest about the ins and outs of freelance writing, particularly in the world of print and online short-form content creation. The style of the book is funny and light, and the information looked really helpful, but I realized after about 70 pages that it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for when I picked it up this fall. I had been gathering information about how to juggle side-work while keeping my day job, but since I wasn’t doing content creation, it wasn’t a good fit. I think it would be a great resource for anyone who’s entering the freelance writing market, so it’s worth checking out if that’s what you need.
  • Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts, by Jaron Lanier — You’re probably thinking that I didn’t finish this book because I am deep in the throes of social media addiction. Well, you’re… Look, you’re not wrong, necessarily, but that’s not the reason, okay? As it happens, right before I started this book, I was listening to an episode of the podcast “Table of (Mal)Contents.” The hosts were discussing books that “should have stayed a blog post or TED Talk”–popular (and sometimes best-selling) titles that are basically an inflated repackaging of earlier content, puffed up by repetition or illustration to reach “book” length. Well, I don’t know if Jaron Lanier gave a TED talk about deleting social media, but this 150-page book felt about 120 pages too long. It’s not that he had bad ideas, or that he was necessarily wrong. The book was just thin. After the first 2 or 3 chapters, I skimmed the rest of it. Other than some cheap shots at political parties and politicians he disagrees with, Lanier doesn’t provide anything groundbreaking here. (In fact, if you would actually like to watch a really good TED talk on the subject of quitting social media, this talk by Cal Newport is excellent.)

I think there have been a few more, but these are 4 books that I checked out on, this year. (Note: I didn’t include the handful of books that I’m still reading and just didn’t quite finish before entering 2019. I’ll add those to my 2019 reading list!)

What about you? Are there any books that you decided to quit reading this year? Or are you the type of reader who perseveres no matter what? Let me know in the comments!

Taking Suggestions…

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hey gang! Just popping in to ask for your help with something. 

I mentioned on my Facebook and Twitter feeds yesterday that I have this crazy idea to read 100 short stories next year and write about them. I may do posts about some individually or write blog posts that respond to several in batches–I haven’t decided yet. But I want to expand my experience in the short fiction realm!

I’ve gotten a bunch of recommendations so far, but I wanted to widen my net and get recommendations from as many people as possible.

So here’s my question, faithful reader: What is your favorite short story ever, or one that you think every person should read–and why?

Put your recommendations in the comments below! Thanks!

Currently Reading: 12/19/2018

 

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I don’t have any new book reviews to post this week–my reading progress has both  slowed down and scattered this month! So instead, I decided to update you on my “in-progress” reading list, with minimally-spoilery reviews of each book on my nightstand:

Illusion, by Frank Peretti — It has been years since I’ve read a novel by Frank Peretti, so when I looked up his recent work, I was intrigued by the premise of this 2012 release. In Illusion, Dane and Mandy are a married professional magician duo enjoying the twilight of a successful career together, when they get in a deadly car crash, killing Mandy and leaving Dane broken and struggling to move on. Meanwhile, a young woman who appears to be Mandy from 1970 (having all her same memories and thoughts) suddenly finds herself in present day, with no memory of how she got there. I’m around 100 pages into the story, and I’m quite enjoying it. Peretti is a great writer, and his pacing and characterization are keeping me engaged. There are some hints of a science fiction explanation for this mysterious scenario, but I have no idea where the story is going or how it will resolve. At any rate, I’m enjoying the ride.

Katharina and Martin Luther, by Michelle DeRusha — In the last few years (since getting married, I suppose), I’ve become curious about the married life of different figures in church history. There isn’t a marriage more famous (or infamous) in the Protestant church than that of this former monk and runaway nun. I was excited to dive into this story and find out more about the home life of the bombastic reformer and the hospitable homemaker. I’m about halfway through this book, and I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed. There’s not a lot of substance here about the Luthers themselves. It’s not the author’s fault, either. There is almost no documentary evidence directly from Katie Luther or specifically about her. DeRusha spends several pages on general information about the conditions for women in the Reformation era, fills in some gaps about the Luthers from secondary sources, and generally assumes what Mrs. Luther might have been thinking or feeling. The general history aspect is interesting, but this book feels like a bait-and-switch. The information DeRusha provides may have been better served as part of a broader book on the home life of the Reformers, rather than an entire book that is too narrowly focused and awkwardly padded.

How the Nations Rage, by Jonathan Leeman — I’m not quite halfway through this book, which examines the intersection of Christian faith and public politics. While I have mixed feelings with some of Leeman’s points, I’m finding several points that are helpful in framing the discussion of if and how my Christian faith directs my function as a citizen of this republic. I thought his point about the falsely-presumed “neutrality” of a pluralistic society was particularly observant; specifically, Leeman suggests that a “secular” culture is inherently religious, but that the amorphous nature of secular “religion” prevents it from having to abide by the same restrictions that formalized religion faces in the public square. I look forward to engaging further with his ideas.

Gospel Eldership, by Robert Thune — I’m being considered for a lay-elder position at my church, so I’ve started working through this material with another one of the elders. I’m not very deep into it, but I appreciate the seriousness with which Thune addresses this topic, as well as the fact that this book is designed to be interactive. There are not only discussion questions but also practicum sections with blanks so you can write in your answers to the questions the author raises. I’m looking forward to benefiting more and more from this in the next few weeks!

Them, by Ben Sasse — You may love him or hate him, but right now, Senator Ben Sasse is the congressperson I most respect. I appreciate his remarks on the state of conservatism and partisanship, in a time when American politics are becoming more starkly tribal and fragmented. In this vein, Sasse wrote Them, a book about addressing the tribalism of American culture through a focus on community involvement, understanding, and mutual respect. I’m only a chapter or so into this one, but I’m interested to hear what Sasse has to say. However, I have noticed already that Sasse’s focus and approach is (predictably) horizontal and thus may fall short of fixing the root issue–a malady that needs a Great Physician. Perhaps reading this along with Leeman’s book can help me think through this subject in a more well-rounded way.

All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson — Every Christian should try to read the Puritans on a regular basis. This short but very dense tome is a meditation on Romans 8:28, and the truth that, for the follower of Jesus, all things (good, bad, or otherwise) work for their good because God is in control of all things and directs them for the ultimate good of His children. I have been reading this book a page at a time, right before I go to sleep. I do this for 2 reasons: first, it’s often difficult to digest more than a few paragraphs at a time, since there’s so much to unpack; and secondly, this gives me something true and good to meditate upon as I fall asleep. (If you don’t do this, I would recommend it highly, especially if, like me, you struggle with anxiety at bedtime.)

The Spurgeon Study Bible (CSB) — Last month, I finished reading through the hardcover ESV Reader’s Bible, so I decided to begin my next read-through of the Scriptures by using a study Bible. My sister and brother-in-law gave me this beautiful “Truth for Life” edition of the Spurgeon Study Bible for my birthday. I’ve never read the updated CSB translation, so this seemed like the perfect way to do so. I love the insight gleaned from Spurgeon’s notations on the text. I would recommend this resource for people who are considering a new Bible for personal reading and study. I’m still firmly in the camp of using the ESV for teaching/preaching since it’s a more literal translation, but I am enjoying the CSB’s smoothed-out wording and helpful notes in my personal study and meditation.

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I *think* that’s all the books I’m currently reading. It’s no wonder I haven’t finished any books recently–I keep starting new ones! Hopefully, I can carve out a bit of time to read over the next week or so, in order to add a few more titles to my “2018 Reading List” (which I will share on January 2nd!).

In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’re reading these days! Feel free to post your “Current Reads” in the com-box below! See you on Friday!

The4thDave Reads: My Fall Book List!

It’s been a while since I’ve done capsule reviews of the books I’ve read in recent months, so here’s a recap of the other books I read this past fall! Hope you enjoy it!

Fantasy Life, by Matthew Berry:  As I wrote in my thank-you note, Matthew Berry is one of my favorite sports writers, particularly when it comes to fantasy sports. Fantasy Life is a collected and expanded compilation of his reflections on his life as a fantasy sports analyst, the twists and turns that his career and personal life have taken and what he’s learned from that, and a whole slew of stories from his readers about the crazy up’s and down’s of the #FantasyLife. I enjoyed the book, for the most part; no surprise, given how much I enjoy Berry’s style. However, I was a little frustrated by how often he decided to go a bit off-color with the stories he shared. It doesn’t surprise me that fantasy sports fans do really foolish and even crass things when friends, money, and booze is involved, but I really don’t need to hear about it–frequently. So, with that said, if you are interested in reading more about fantasy sports, I say stick to Berry’s columns at ESPN.com (where the company standards rein in some of the inappropriate humor).

Day of War, by Cliff Graham: I grew up reading a lot of historical fiction, and particularly historical Christian fiction, but I don’t think I ever read a book like this one. This is the first book in Graham’s Day of War series that follows the exploits of King David and his “Mighty Men.” In this novel, Graham focuses on the events recounted in the last few chapters of I Samuel. The author acknowledges in an introductory note in the volume that writing Biblical fiction is a challenge, because the author must “flesh out” sections of the stories, including conversations and events that aren’t explicitly described in the Scriptural text. However, Graham assures the reader that he sought to stay faithful to what had been revealed, and I thought he did a good job of that. The battle scenes are detailed and exciting, and Graham doesn’t shy away from describing combat graphically and effectively (meaning, if you’re squeamish, you may want to skip a few pages here or there). This was a gripping story that I had a hard time putting down, and I look forward to continuing the series in the future.

The Exemplary Husband, by Dr. Stuart Scott: I’ve read a lot of marriage books and a good number of books regarding Biblical manhood. What struck me about Dr. Scott’s book is how deeply and unashamedly Scriptural it was. It seemed like almost every paragraph was followed up by a Bible text to support it. In this volume, Dr. Scott begins by focusing on the husband’s relationship with God, rightly arguing that a man who does not have a healthy relationship with God will have trouble loving and serving his wife as Christ loves the Church, giving Himself up for her. After spending a good deal of time focusing on the husband’s relationship with God, Dr. Scott turns his attention to the qualities of an exemplary husband, and builds this vision of a godly husband on the qualities of Jesus Himself. Finally, Dr. Scott examines the duties and responsibilities that a husband has to his wife and children. This book is probably the best book on marriage and “husbanding” that I’ve read in years, if not ever, and it’s definitely one I plan on revisiting. I read it very slowly the first time and still think I need to spend more time digesting the rich truths that were presented.

Elevation, by Stephen King: Confession time–Stephen King is one of my guilty-pleasure authors. For some reason, his style and rhythms just work for me, and I enjoy his bizarre storytelling, even if he consistently caricatures Christians as hucksters and hypocrites. It has been a few years since I’ve read any of his new stuff, so I grabbed this slim volume (practically a novella) based on the cover copy. Elevation is the story of a man who discovers that he’s becoming lighter–not that he’s losing weight, but that gravity is slowly losing its grip on him, along with anything he happens to be holding. While it’s a fun, light premise (no pun intended), what I didn’t realize until I started reading the book was that this lightness is quickly ruined by a heavy-handed message of tolerance and acceptance. Once again, those benighted Christians (and Republicans! gasp!) are at fault and have to be taught a lesson. And as much as I have enjoyed King’s books in the past, this one just became deadly dull. It’s like the last 15 years of American politics have sucked all the creativity out of him. I stuck it out to the end of the book because it was short and the plot featured a Thanksgiving Turkey Trot (I was reading it the day after I finished my own race). But if it had been 400 pages instead of 150, there’s no way I would have kept going. Life’s too short for preachy, holier-than-thou fiction, gang–no matter who’s writing it.

ESV Reader’s Bible: Gospels and Acts / Epistles and Revelation: I’m happy to announce that, for the first time in my life, I have read the entire Bible within a calendar year. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to do this! What a blessing it is! As I’ve said before, I loved the format of the ESV Reader’s Bible, as well as the tactile pleasure of using it–the volumes felt wonderful to handle and read. The hardest part of reading the New Testament in a “reader’s Bible” format, sans chapter-and-verse designations, was that my mind kept trying to find its place and recognize where I was in each book. (“Okay, that’s the beginning of Chapter 5… There’s Chapter 6…”) I don’t think you can be too familiar with the New Testament, but that familiarity became a bit of a distraction from the reading itself. I’ll also admit that my excitement to finish sometimes caused me to read too quickly; more than once, I had to go back and pick up the thread because I realized I was just running my eyes over the lines and not really taking it in. Now that I have finished the Reader’s Bible read-through, I’ve started back at Genesis, using a Spurgeon Study Bible with the CSB translation. Suffice it to say, the experience is still great but VERY different, and I’m trying to go much more slowly and soak up all I can!

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That should get us caught up to speed. Hope you found one or two books above that you want to check out yourself! I’ll keep you posted on any books I finish by the end of the year, as well as my complete 2018 reading list, in a future post!

Your Turn: Have you read any good books this fall? Share your recommendations/reviews in the comments!

I’m already starting to build my reading list for 2019, and would love to hear your suggestions!

The4thDave Reads: The Wingfeather Saga, by Andrew Peterson

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by Andrew Peterson
North! Or Be Eaten, by Andrew Peterson
The Monster in the Hollows, by Andrew Peterson
The Warden and the Wolf King, by Andrew Peterson
Wingfeather Tales, by various authors (edited by Andrew Peterson)

(You can find all these books here! And that’s not an affiliate link, either; I get nothing from it. I would just love for you to support these writers!)

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Friends, I’ve been waiting for months to tell you about this series of stories!

Here’s the Backstory: It’s become a family roadtrip tradition for my wife and I to check out a few audiobooks from the library before we travel. So, back in March, as we prepared to head east to visit my in-laws, I happened to see that the first book in the Wingfeather series (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness) was available on audio. I had heard that Peterson was a good writer, so I decided to take a chance on it.

Y’all, I was not disappointed. 

We finished the first book just before we arrived at our destination, and were eager to keep going, but the audio of North! Or Be Eaten wasn’t available for download. Thank the providence and generosity of God, we stumbled upon a used (and signed!) copy of Book 2 at a second-hand book shop there in town, for less than $2! By the time we had arrived home, we had begun asking friends from church if we could borrow the others, and eventually were each able to finish reading the series proper. A few months after that, I read Wingfeather Tales, a collection of short stories and novellas by multiple authors that take place “in-universe,” and was again surprised by how vivid and powerful these stories are. What a delight it is to visit the world of these books!

Enough Build-up! What’s The Series About, Dave?

I’ll try to give you just enough, because I’d hate to spoil any of it. So, here’s a bare-bones description:

The Land of Aerwear (sounds like “There we are!”) lies under the scourge of invasion and occupation, as the vile forces of Gnag the Nameless have crossed the Dark Sea of Darkness and now hold the people of Skree and surrounding lands under their scaly thumbs. It’s said that Gnag won’t rest until he finds the legendary Jewels of Anniera. Bands of sinister Fangs holds sway in the villages and lanes as an occupying force, and only the grown folks can remember a time before, when the true kings and queens reigned from the Shining Isle of Anniera. Meanwhile, a trio of siblings (Janner, Tink, and Leeli Igiby) are doing their best to stay out of trouble and avoid any tussles with the Fangs, so as not to worry their dear mama or Grandpa Podo.

But this is a fantasy-adventure story, so you can expect that trouble is about to find them, and turn their world upside down. Though they don’t realize it, theirs is a story of monsters and dragons, battles and intrigue, magic and mystery, prophecies and bloodlines, heartache and courage.

And that’s about all I can tell you safely.

So, You Liked It, Then?

I’ve said this a few times, and I think I still stand by it: in terms of world-building, storytelling, plot, and heart, I think The Wingfeather Saga surpasses even the sainted Narnia books. 

That’s right, I said it. Yell at me in the comments, if you want.

Peterson masterfully combines the rich world-building of Tolkien with the child-like accessibility of Lewis. While he may not have gone as far as to create entire languages for his story, he does develop a bizarre and playful assortment of flora and fauna to inhabit this world he has created. In some ways, it’s a bit similar to J.K. Rowling’s use of details and description to flesh out the world that her characters inhabit. The result is an immersive reading experience.

These are perfect books for families to read together. They are written in short, punchy chapters (perfect for bedtime stories, I would think). The dialogue is crisp, the characters are well-developed, and while there are some plot elements that can be predicted, others will absolutely surprise you. It may be a touch too scary for small kids, but perfect for grade school and up.

Another excellent quality of these books are the Christian allusions and subtext that is present but not preachy, artful rather than artificial. These are unquestionably Christian stories, but they are not evangelistic in nature–and that is in no way a back-handed compliment. The Wingfeather books aren’t allegories with 1:1 theological correlations; they’re fantasy books that are grounded on Deep Truths, which shine brightly if you have the eyes to see them.

My Recommendation

If you’ve never read these books, here’s my recommendation: Take the leap and buy the full set. Just trust me on this. Make it a Christmas present to yourself or someone you love.

If you have fond memories of Middle-Earth, Narnia, or Hogwarts, I think you will love sailing the Dark Sea of Darkness (watch out for dragons!), skulking around Digtown, or tromping through the Green Hollows. In fact, I suspect you’ll want to revisit this world again and again. (And once you have enjoyed the series, go back and read Wingfeather Tales, which acts as a sort of Silmarillion to the main story.)

I can’t say enough good things about these books. Go check ’em out.

 

 

The4thDave Reads: “What Is Reformed Theology?” by Dr. R.C. Sproul

I’m not sure exactly when I started exploring Reformed doctrine. It happened sometime in the late 2000’s, likely due to my crossing paths with the ministries of John Piper, Mark Driscoll (before he drove Mars Hill into a ditch), and Matt Chandler. Sometime between 2007 and 2010, I began really considering the doctrines of election and predestination, and it made me see parts of the New Testament with new eyes.

I grew up in the SBC, so if “Calvinism” was ever mentioned (which wasn’t often, in my circles), it was generally distrusted. In fact, thinking back to my early days of teaching college Sunday School classes, I shudder to remember the outright Arminianism that I taught for a few years. Suffice it to say, the tone and tenor of my teaching greatly changed.

Depending on whom you talk to, I’m not technically “reformed” in  my theology as much as “Calvinistic” in my soteriology — meaning, I hold to what’s called the “Doctrines of Grace” but I’m not confessional in my theology. (I’m still looking into it, y’all, chill out.) But no matter what label I would use for my own position, I have become convinced that the “reformed” doctrine of salvation is the best way to interpret the Scriptures.

Why bring all this up? Just putting my cards on the table, so that when I say I found Dr. Sproul’s classic book on the “basics” of Reformed theology compelling and instructive, I’m clear about my starting point and that I was already inclined to agree with it. What I found in this helpful volume only confirmed my resolve on these issues.

What Is Reformed Theology? provides an outstanding primer on the basics of (you guessed it) Reformed theology, as well as chapter-long explications of the 5 “petals” of the TULIP acrostic (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), while addressing the misconceptions of and arguments against each concept. Dr. Sproul doesn’t make assumptions about his reader, but carefully works through the core concepts, in order to demonstrate the soundness of a Reformed reading of Scripture.

What Worked

I found this volume to be approachable though not simple. This isn’t a light and breezy read, but it’s also not tied down by opaque theological jargon. Dr. Sproul is a natural teacher, so his argumentation builds from simple to complex. If you’re looking to learn these concepts, this is a great resource.  Dr. Sproul touches on different points in church history that address the doctrinal discussions involved, and provides a Biblical justification for the arguments used.

The examination of free will and “compatibilism” in the chapter on total depravity was particularly helpful in clarifying my understanding on the idea of how our volition co-exists with God’s sovereignty. I had been introduced to this idea before, but Dr. Sproul’s explanation helped me to settle the ideas in my mind so that I could explain it more easily in my own teaching and writing.

I also appreciated how Dr. Sproul took time to address misconceptions and misapplications of the TULIP acrostic, including a helpful explanation about how some of the terminology used in the name of each doctrine may actually confuse the issue. For example, he argued that “P” may be better explained as the Preservation of the Saints, because it is the work of God that holds us, and not simply that we hold on to Him. This helped me consider how the way we say things should be carefully considered when we discuss theological truths.

Minor Quibbles

I do have two small critiques of this volume.

First, the chapter on covenant theology felt a bit thin. Granted, the nature of the volume did not allow for anything but the basics to be explained, but as someone who did not grow up in that mindset, I was hoping for a bit more meat on the bone when it came to the difference between covenant theology and other approaches like dispensationalism. I suppose the onus is on me to seek a deeper discussion on my own.

Secondly, the book just ends after the chapter on perseverance/preservation of the saints, the “P” of TULIP. I think a summary or concluding chapter that tied the ideas together again at the end would have been appropriate, rather than just running abruptly into the end-notes.

Also: End notes? Really? Hm.

My Recommendation

What is Reformed Theology? is an incredibly helpful volume for people who are unfamiliar with Reformed thinking (or grew up hearing that Calvinists are missions-hating boogeymen) or those who want to solidify their understanding of the Doctrines of Grace. Clocking in at 250 pages, this is a speedy and effective way to get your feet set as you begin to explore this theological system.

 

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Please Note: The publisher, Baker Books, provided my a paperback copy of the book in exchange for a honest review.

(I’m sorry it took me so long to write this, Baker! #OverdueBookReview )

The4thDave Reads: “After the Fire” by Will Hill

AfterTheFire

I vaguely remember when the 1993 Waco siege happened, though I didn’t pay much attention at the time. I would chuckle when classmates joked that “Waco” stands for “We Ain’t Comin’ Out,” without thinking about the tragic implications of such gallows humor.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, there was a religious cult called the Branch-Davidians, led by a charismatic sociopath named David Koresh, who lived in a fenced-in compound outside of Waco, Texas. Koresh and his followers had been stock-piling weapons and readying themselves for “the final battle,” until ATF and FBI agents laid siege to their compound for almost two months. The stand-off ended in a horrific fire and gunfight that left 76 cult members dead.

The Story

Author Will Hill used the events in Waco as inspiration for his new YA novel, After the Fire. The narrator of the story is a 17-year-old girl named Moonbeam, whose parents joined “The Lord’s Legion,” a separatist religious group in West Texas, when she was a baby. After a government raid on their compound destroys her home and kills almost everyone she knows, Moonbeam is asked by a therapist and an FBI agent to reconstruct an account of her life before and of the events leading up to the fire that destroyed her world. Even as Moonbeam tries to process the horrific events that have happened to her, she struggles to overcome the training and programming she received from “Father John” and the other adults in her life.

Using the fire as the hinge event of the narrative, the story is told in a series of “Before” and “After” chapters, as Moonbeam cautiously reveals more and more of her experience to the two men asking her questions every day–two men who, as Outsiders, she was raised never to trust.

Faith and Fear

From the beginning, I was intrigued by the premise, but I was a little cautious about the execution. After all, this is a mainstream novel exploring religious themes. The use of a “fringe Christian cult” as the backdrop of the story can go a few different ways, and I was bracing for the author to pull out his broadest brushes with which to paint people of faith. While there ultimately aren’t any examples of true Christian teaching or faith present in the novel, the author makes clear that he is not applying the Legion’s activities to Christendom at large. (In fact, I really appreciated the author’s note at the end of the book, in which he explicitly stated that his goal was not to stereotype religion in general or Christianity specifically.)

From the beginning, it’s clear that this religious cult borrows heavily from Biblical language, though any fair-minded reader can clearly see that what they practice is a man-centered, blood-thirsty corruption of Christianity. The group’s leader, Father John, sets himself up as the sole mouthpiece of God, and twists the Scriptures and Scriptural language to manipulate his followers and use their fear to keep them under his control. For all the use of Biblical language, the name of Jesus is barely if ever spoken, and the grace and mercy of God is out-right contradicted by Father John. So it’s plain to all but the most jaded reader that this isn’t Gospel Christianity in this story.

In fact, there are several discussions in which the issue of faith is addressed, and the question is almost always about faith in people–in parents, in friends, in religious leaders. Over and over, the story demonstrates that faith put in people is ultimately shaken because people are sinful, self-interested, and fearful creatures. One would hope that such concepts would lead the reader to look for something stronger and truer in which to believe.

Not As Dark as Expected–But Dark Enough

Given the topic, you would expect that the novel’s content drifts into some pretty dark places–and it does, to be sure. Thankfully, the author remembers that he’s writing a YA (“young adult”–think teenage audience) novel, so the content is not as graphic as many mainstream novels might take it.

That said, there is strong language throughout, clear implications of sinful (and criminal) behavior, and one uncomfortable scene involving an interrupted sexual crime. None of this sinful behavior is glorified, but the descriptions may be uncomfortable or disturbing, especially for those who have been victims of abuse.

There is a question to be considered at this point, which I can’t answer for anyone but myself: “How much darkness can I tolerate being depicted/described before it stops being worth reading or watching?” As a Christian, I must apply the Philippians 4:8 filter to my entertainment and decide if a piece of art is too dark to justify taking in for entertainment.

In the case of this novel, I feel like it’s really a close call. Getting to step inside the shoes of someone who grew up in a closed religious cult was intriguing; however, the darkness of the some plot elements made me start to question if it was worth finishing the story.

My Recommendation

After the Fire is an effective and engrossing tale about a young woman finding the strength to face the darkness of her past and the courage to move forward into an uncertain future. The author explores the effects of conditioning and control on people seeking to escape from religious cults, and the power of using fear to keep people imprisoned.

Given the subject matter and content concerns, I don’t feel comfortable recommending this book broadly. However, if the reader will keep those caveats in mind and use discernment in their reading, they may find this book to be an fascinating novel about surviving trauma and overcoming fear.

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Please Note: I was sent an e-book copy of this novel (via NetGalley) in exchange for an honest review.

The4thDave Reads: “From Death to Life” by Pastor Allen S. Nelson IV

FDTLWhen it comes to books about Christian theology, there seems to be a handful of approaches: they can be written toward an academic or seminary audience with an advanced-level, specialized focus; they can be written primarily for lay readers, with minimal theological concepts and jargon and a heavy emphasis on illustrations and application ideas; and then there is a third category that lands in the sweet-spot of deep-but-not-dense, accessible-but-not-shallow. Nelson’s slim volume on the process and implications of salvation falls into this group.

In From Death to Life (subtitled: “How Salvation Works”), Pastor Nelson seeks to lead the reader through the complete doctrine of salvation: our state outside of Christ, the way we are drawn to Christ, what is needed to be born again, and what being born again means to us. In ten chapters and several appendices, Nelson seeks to give the full scope of what is needed to become a Christian, and what being a Christian demands of us, in just 200 pages.

What Works

From Death to Life is a worthwhile study for a few key reasons:

It’s Biblical. I love it when a book on Christian living is steeped in Scripture. It may seem axiomatic, but a trip to your local Christian bookstore would clear up any question of how much purportedly “Christian” writing actually relies on the Christian Scriptures. Pastor Nelson does not shy away from building his arguments first and foremost on the Word of God.

It’s approachable. What I appreciate so much about this book is that Nelson isn’t trying to impress the intelligentsia or appeal to the academic–but this is not to say the writing is simplistic. He writes with a pastor’s heart, desiring to bring out the new treasures as well as the old for his flock to appreciate. As such, the book addresses important spiritual ideas in a way that even new believers can understand.

It’s comprehensive. While the book doesn’t give an exhaustive teaching on salvation (and doesn’t seek to, for that matter), it does provide a fully-orbed examination. Nelson seeks to ensure that the reader gets the full picture of why we must be saved, how we can be saved, and what being saved produces in us. He makes sure that the reader understands the Bad News, so that we can then more fully grasp the Good News. In an age full to the teeth with half-gospel presentations, this full treatment of the Gospel is refreshing.

It’s encouraging. I was blessed and encouraged as I read this book. In particular, the chapters on sanctification and evangelism were helpful and challenging. Again, Nelson writes pastorally, so even when he steps on your toes, he does so with grace and truth.

Technical Nitpicks

While the book is certainly worth reading, it is not without problems. However, all of these concerns involve style rather than content.

This is (as I understand it) Pastor Nelson’s first book (hopefully first of several!), and it shows a bit in how it’s formatted. There are an abundance of footnotes that often may have been better kept in-line without taking away the flow of his argumentation. There were typographical errors in several places that should have been caught during the editing/proofreading process.

There were also some places where the sections felt too casual and read more like a blog post instead of a book chapter. In a few places, the argument seemed to wander and then double-back. I think such sections could have used a bit more formality without losing Pastor Nelson’s voice or approach.

Finally (and this is really a nitpick), some chapters would have been better served to include section headings in order to help the reader find his or her way through the argument. There were times when I had to put the book down and come back to it later, and it took me a minute to remember what the argument was at that point.

All in all, any critique I have of the book is that it may benefit from a bit more polishing up–but that is only to help the gem sparkle more brightly.

My Recommendation

From Death to Life by Pastor Allen S. Nelson IV is a blessing to the church and will be useful and edifying for Christians in any walk of life. It’s as profitable for the person in the pew as it is for the pastor in the pulpit. Despite some minor technical issues, I would heartily commend it to you.

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Please Note: I was given a physical copy of the book to review, in exchange for my honest and unbiased thoughts.

#The4thDaveReads: Summer Round-up!

Hey y’all! I apologize for the radio silence over the last week or so. Between looking for freelance opportunities and helping take my baby sister back to college for the fall, I’ve been a bit overbooked! Suffice it to say, I’m happy to be back behind the keyboard.

Today, I’m back with some reviews of books I finished reading over the last 4-5 weeks. You ready? Let’s do this thing!

The Keto Reset Diet, by Mark Sisson — I’ve had more than a few conversations over the last 3 months about the weight-loss progress I’ve made. At first, I would simply say that I was following a ketogenic diet, but this resulted in more than a few blank stares. Sometimes, the person would respond, “So, like the Caveman Diet? Eating nothing but meat? Isn’t that unhealthy?” This would result in a much longer conversation than I’m sure my friend was really ready for, in which I would clarify what ketogenic eating means (low-carb, high-fat, moderate-protein) and how it has been beneficial to me, even beyond the scale. At the end, I usually trail off when I start feeling like one of those obnoxious fitness-cult people, droning on too long about an obscure dietary approach.

More recently, my response to keto questions has involved my bringing up Mark Sisson’s excellent book. I usually recommend The Keto Reset Diet for 3 reasons: 1) Sisson begins by laying out the scientific ideas behind this style of eating; 2) the book describes a 3-week carb-reduction process that is really “pre-keto” so that people avoid diving into the deep end too quickly and burning out; 3) there are dozens of helpful starter recipes for those who want to start eating this way. If you’re interested in checking out the keto eating style, Sisson’s book may be a great introduction for you.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan — Bunyan’s allegory of the Christian life, written from the confinement of an English prison cell, is one of the top-selling English-language books of all time, and for good reason. This narrative of a sinner’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City is part adventure story, part catechism, part Scriptural exegesis, and part soul-care textbook. Generations of Christians have found Bunyan’s tale encouraging and challenging.

What many modern readers miss is that the story is actually written in two parts: the popular first part that follows Christian’s journey to glory, and the less-well-known second part, in which Christian’s wife (aptly named Christiana) and their four children follow in his footsteps and make the trek to Zion, facing a few familiar faces and dangers, as well as some new ones.

I’ve written about this second part of the story elsewhere, but suffice it to say, I really love this book. Nevertheless, I can understand how hard it may be to get through sometimes; there are sections that are plainly didactic, as the narrative grinds to a halt to allow the characters engage in theological discourse. However, I would encourage readers to push through, because (unlike another much-beloved Christian children’s allegory) the theology is sound all the way through and rewards thoughtful consideration. In some cases, it may not be a bad idea to pick up a modern-language update, if it’s your first time through the story. On the other hand, if you can understand the King James Bible, you shouldn’t have any trouble with Bunyan’s original text.

Pops, by Michael Chabon — There are certain writers that I’ve read and enjoyed in the past but can’t really connect with in the present. I think Michael Chabon has become one of those writers. I remember enjoying Wonder Boys and adoring Kavalier and Clay, despite moments where the author’s worldview clearly conflicts with my own. There’s no question that Chabon is a talented novelist, so I hoped I would enjoy his non-fiction work just as much.

Pops is a collection of personal essays that Chabon wrote for various publications over the last few years. Given that the volume’s underlying subject matter is fatherhood, I assumed I would enjoy this peek into Chabon’s thoughts about being both a son and a father. In the end, I really just stopped caring about either.

Throughout each piece, it felt like Chabon wasn’t so much writing about his experience of fatherhood, as signalling to the reader that he was being the right kind of father, raising the right kind of children. His attempts at self-deprecation felt forced, as if he knew he was supposed to play the “slightly-out-of-touch-but-still-hip dad” role but couldn’t quite sell it. The whole exercise just felt forced. Maybe I’m not in the right frame of mind or time of life to appreciate it, but I don’t care enough to revisit it later. Although it’s a short collection (barely over 100 pages), I had to push to finish reading it and was relieved to hit that back cover.

Side Hustle, by Chris Gillebeau — As I’m sure I’ve written before, self-help/productivity/motivational books are only as good as what you actually do with that information. Or, as Gillebeau says at the end of every episode of his Side-Hustle School podcast (highly recommended, for the puns if nothing else!), “Inspiration is good, but inspiration combined with action is so much better!”

This is extremely true with his fantastic book, Side Hustle. If you have an idea for a new business, or want to try to create some extra income during your free time, this book is a must-read. I’ve realized over the last week that some of the roadblocks and frustration I’ve been experiencing with my attempts to build freelance work is because I haven’t been applying what I read in the book!

In Side-Hustle, Gillebeau takes you through a 5-week plan for brainstorming, planning, and executing a side-hustle business. There are step-by-step instructions about process, questions to consider, and mistakes to avoid. Along the way, he demonstrates these steps with story after story of hustlers who found success by making smart choices and working hard. It’s an inspiring read, even if (like me) you’ve never considered creating a business for yourself. I definitely recommend this book, especially if you’ve got the itch to build something of your own.

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As you can see, my reading this summer has been quite varied. As for the next few months of #The4thDaveReads, I’m working on a few interesting titles:

  • The Exemplary Husband, by Stuart Scott
  • Everybody Writes, by Ann Handley
  • The Thing Is, by Tony Payne
  • The ESV Reader’s Bible: Prophets

I’m looking forward to discussing all of these with you in September!

Have a great Wednesday, and I’ll see you on Friday with another #FridayFive!

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Your Turn: What’s your favorite read from this summer (or any summers past)?  Let me know in the comments below!