Book Reviews

My friend Karl recently challenged me on Facebook to name ten books that have changed my life. Or, more accurately, I was to “write down ten books that have affected your life in some way and tag ten friends including me so I can see your choices as well.” Ignoring the fact that the word “affected” is “abominably vague” (as Karl also noted), here’s my list. It’s eclectic, to be sure, with fiction, poetry, theology, and more.

The books follow in no particular order.

narnia1. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

This series served, in many ways, as my gateway to both fantasy and theology. As a child, it was my favourite series of books, and I still reread them all every few years. The Christian symbolism is not something I become aware of until some years later, when my pastor explained it to me. At first I rebelled at the knowledge, but eventually the secret of it (Another story beneath! Deeper magic!) led me to read more of C.S. Lewis, including…

MereChristianity2. Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

This. This was my first introduction to serious Christian thought. My first introduction, as it were, to theology. More detailed study into the various focuses of Christian theology came later, as did wide reading in the writings of Christians from across the centuries. But Mere Christianity was, for me, where it all began. And for that, I am truly grateful to C.S. Lewis.

man-who-was-thursday3. The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton

This book was my first introduction to Chesterton, and thus an introduction to numerous other important books in my life (like Heretics, Orthodoxy, Napoleon of Notting Hill, etc). The ability to make the ordinary strange is a particular gift of Chesterton’s and a prevailing theme in much of his other writing; but nowhere is the concept so well enfleshed as it is in The Man Who Was Thursday. This book is my favourite novel, bar none—even if (or perhaps because?) it so often confounds me.

The-Augsburg-Confession4. The Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana) – Philip Melanchthon

The primary Lutheran confession of faith, important not only for articulating Lutheran theology over/against contemporary abuses, but also for stressing the theological continuity of Lutheranism with the faith of the ancient Church. “The churches among us,” Melanchthon writes, “do not dissent from the Catholic Church in any article of faith.” Indeed.

freedom-of-a-christian5. The Freedom of a Christian – Martin Luther

Too many people (including too many Lutherans) seem to think that salvation by grace through faith alone means works are excluded from the Christian’s life. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this book, Luther explains the proper relationship between faith and works. While only the former justifies before God, he writes, both are nevertheless necessary in the Christian’s life. This little work, too seldom read, also introduces a number of other important Lutheran ideas, as I’ve summarized elsewhere: “Here Luther touches on the simultaneous sinner/saint state of Christians; explains Law and Gospel; argues justification by faith alone; defends the necessity of works as a fruit of faith; discusses what makes works ‘good’; expounds on the priesthood of all believers (both what it does and doesn’t mean); and delves into his theology of vocation, as well as hinting at the doctrine of the ‘two kingdoms.’”

spirituality-of-the-cross6. The Spirituality of the Cross – Gene Edward Veith

This is the quintessential introduction to Lutheranism for those wanting to know more about “the way of first evangelicals.” Veith provides a winsome case for the Evangelical Catholic (aka Lutheran) tradition, taking readers on a tour through the major points of Lutheran theology in clear and eminently readable prose. And it never descends into mere academic musings; this is a theology that is forever relevant and applicable to Christians today. Looking for a sacramental evangelicalism? A protestantism that is, at its core, nevertheless catholic? Veith explains why Lutheranism is the church you’re seeking.

poems-john-donne-16337. Poems (1633) – John Donne

Where do I begin? Donne’s poetry, whether focused on the earthly or the divine—and really, Donne would say (and I would agree), everything in creation counts under the category of “divine”—is deeply profound and deeply moving. Meaning is packed tightly into each line, each phrase, like a compressed spring waiting to be released. The Holy Sonnets have especially been important to me in my own spiritual journeys. While what I’m writing here applies to any edition of Donne’s English poetry, there’s something particularly pleasing about holding my reproduction copy of the 1633 edition, as I reflect on Donne’s Holy Sonnets. It provides a tactile experience, a weight in my hands to mirror the weight in my heart—a heart that Donne (and God) batter, for my good.

Pilgrim's_Progress_first_edition_16788. The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan

I know what you’re thinking: “That old book? That long-on-words and short-on-plot book? That thinly-veiled not-at-all-veiled allegory? Why that book?” I know this book isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s been important to me for a number of reasons, not least of all because Bunyan’s thoughts have helped me formulate my understanding of what literature is for. I also acknowledge this book for Bunyan’s theology of despair, a condition in which I have an interest both personally and academically. Christian’s encounter with Giant Despair is, for those interested, made all the more illuminating when reading it alongside Bunyan’s own spiritual battle with despair (as described in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

Gospel-of-John9. The Gospel of John

While the Bible in its totality has had an obviously massive impact on my life, the Gospel of John is particularly dear to me. St. John’s surprisingly simple vocabulary make accessible complex theological ideas—mirroring, in a way, the enfleshing of the Divine Word in the Man Jesus. God humbles Himself that we may be brought up—He discloses Himself that we might to know Him Who made us.

odyssey10. The Odyssey – Homer

I am a lover of classical mythology and culture, and for me there is no greater story from the era than Homer’s Odyssey. This text led to my wider interest in the literature and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome—studies which have significantly impacted how I view all other literature and philosophies.

I can’t help but feel I’ve cut too many books that should also be on this list, just in order to keep it to ten. An expanded list must needs include some classic science fiction (such as the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells), children’s adventure stories (Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain), philosophy (Plato), drama (Shakespeare) fantasy (JRR Tolkien), and more from the Inklings (especially Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion and War in Heaven). I should also mention the first book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, as the description of Ransom learning alien language is what first kindled my interest (and subsequent degree) in Linguistics.

But there is one other book I just must mention, and that is C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Now what is so important about this book you ask? Well, it’s responsible (at least in part) for my marrying Leah. Some years ago, not long after Leah and I had first met, we fell into conversation at a large-group dinner event. We began by chance to speak of Lewis, zeroing in on The Great Divorce. I made some remark about the characterization of George MacDonald in the text. But Leah promptly corrected me, telling me in no uncertain terms I was wrong. Surprised, I actually went home that night and reread the book. Leah was right: I was wrong. About that time I began to realize just how attractive Leah was….

I count it a great blessing that Leah and I can talk so easily together about big ideas, and that each of us can learn from (and correct) each other. But it’s never lost on me that The Great Divorce led, in our case, to a rather Great Marriage.


Edit (August 27): I have no idea how I forgot to put The Screwtape Letters on this list. Major oversight.

If you’re out of university and—like me—are too busy to take classes, then you’ll want to hear what I’m about to say: The Great Courses is having a very big sale, with many courses 70 percent off! And among the courses on sale are two by the brilliant Phillip Cary.

Now, I hear you asking two questions: 1) What is The Great Courses?; and 2) Who is Phillip Cary? First off, The Great Courses is exactly what it sounds like: a company that produces recordings of stimulating lectures by intelligent and engaging professors. If you want to study something but can’t commit to the schedules of a real class, this is for you: you can study courses in history, religion, literature, science, and many, many more subjects.

To answer the second question, Phillip Cary is a professor at Eastern University with some serious theological credibility. An Anglican, he’s an expert on Augustine and a big proponent of Luther’s theology within wider evangelicalism (coincidentally, the two courses by him on sale at The Great Courses are his series on Augustine and his series on Luther). He wrote Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do which is unquestionably the best popular-level Christian book I’ve read in recent years. In it, he provides a clear declaration of the Gospel and encourages Christians to look for their comfort not within (Do I have strong enough faith? How do I hear God’s voice in my heart?) but instead to the external promises of Christ in Scripture.

Cary made a bit of a stir among Lutherans a few years back when he published an article entitled “Why Luther is not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise.” This was followed by an invitation to speak at the Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions at Concordia Theological Seminary (Fort Wayne, Indiana) in 2007 where he delivered the paper “Sola Fide: Luther and Calvin.” You can also find online his article “The Lutheran Codicil: From Augustine’s Grace to Luther’s Gospel” and an interview he gave for Issues, etc. Among his books, you’ll find three critically acclaimed works on Augustine.

In short, Phillip Cary is qualified to speak intelligently in matters of theology, particularly on Augustine and Luther. What’s more, he speaks engagingly; he’s even won awards for his teaching.

Which is why you need to head over to The Great Courses right now. His course on Augustine (12 lectures long) is on sale for $16. His course on Luther (24 lectures) is on sale for $30. And, if you make the purchase by January 26, you can save an additional $10 by using the coupon code X64R. That’s 36 lectures for $36 bucks—a deal if I ever saw one.

A friend recently lent me the book Mister God, This is Anna. The book centres around Fynn (the author) and his adventures with a little girl named Anna. And, as the title of the book might suggest, their greatest adventure focuses on discovering the nature of God. “Anna searched for Mr. God and her desire was for a better understanding of him,” Fynn writes, adding, “It was just my luck that I happened to be with her when she was doing her ‘working out’.”

Let me first of all say that this is an enjoyable book. The writing is engaging, the characters endearing, and the illustrations truly lovely in their inky simplicity. Most enjoyable is that the book simultaneously and beautifully blends philosophically complex ideas with childlike wonder. A particularly striking scene occurs when Lynn and Anna use mirrors to uncover “hidden worlds” dwelling within our own – a sort of glimpse into fairy land, if you like, revealing the existence of “meaning” beyond the realm of mere facts.

But, like any book, Mister God, This is Anna has its faults – namely, in this case, that the theology Anna articulates is – whatever else it may be – certainly not Christian in the orthodox sense of the term. Anna seems convinced that in order for faith in “Mr. God” to be real, it ought not to be constrained by outward rules: church, theology, even Scripture – all inhibit her from meeting God, she thinks, in his abundant openness. “People,” she asserts, “when they go to church measure God from the outside…. They don’t get inside and measure Mister God.” In order to truly know God one must fully experience (indeed, indwell) him. Everything else just gets in the way of knowing God personally.

It’s curious therefore that Anna’s own approach to God has the unintended effect of robbing God of his personhood, rather than enhancing it. For, in essence, she basically decides she will know God only on her own terms, rather than meeting him on the terms he himself provides. One needs to figure out who God is based on the world, she says, but she seems to leave no room for the idea that God himself might wish to explicitly tell us who he is. Fynn sums up Anna’s thoughts in the following way:

So far as Anna was concerned one thing was absolutely certain. Mister God had made everything, there was nothing that God hadn’t made. When you began to see what it was all about, how things worked, how things were put together, then you were beginning to understand what Mr. God was.

When you think about it, that’s the eventual conclusion of any religion which insists on knowing God solely through experience: you end up so focused on your own ideas that the personhood of God seems to slip into shadow. Everything ends up dependent on your interpretation of the world around you. To be sure, Anna propounds some fascinating thoughts (philosophical, even mystical) in the book which we can learn from. But they’re ideas about an abstract God – not the personal God she seems so eager to know.

One need only think of earthly, human relationships to understand why this approach to God doesn’t work out. Friendships aren’t built on our perceptions of other people; they’re based on actual communication. If I claim to be friends with someone – let’s say Bob, for example – then it’s important I actually listen to what Bob has to say. I can’t simply look at the type of clothes Bob wears and say, “Well, that’s Bob.” I can’t look at his house, see the environment in which he lives and then conclude I know the man. While all this can provide insight into who Bob is, it is a far cry from a real relationship. No, I must actually speak with Bob in order to know him.

Anna’s approach to God is similarly concerned with the trappings rather than the actual person, and this is why her meditations on the character of God (while interesting) nevertheless lack depth. She ends up doing what she accuses the church of: merely describing God, not actually knowing him. She views the world that God has made, contemplates the mysteries of language, biology, and much more – in essence, she views the house that God built and the clothes he wears. And based on these observations, she develops a philosophy of God. But for all that, she does not truly know him. Her “Mister God”, we must confess, remains for her a Mystery. He is too broad. He is spread too thin. He is an idea, alas, and not a person.

The personal knowledge she lacks (and which we in our sin also lack) can only be attained through real conversation with God. We cannot simply talk to and about God; we have to let him speak as well. And that’s why Scripture is so important (and why Anna’s low opinion thereof is the more unfortunate). For in these texts, God himself speaks to us. His love for us might be, as Anna reasons at one point in the book, infinitely higher than our own human capacity to love. But we only find an overt expression of that love in the Scriptures. Here we hear the God of power and creativity speak us into creation. Here we hear the God of justice speak words of judgement over our sin. Here we hear the God of love speak himself into human form, bear our sin, die in our place, and live again that we also might live.

In short, Anna’s concept of God misses the relational, incarnational mercy of God – the God who speaks human words to us, who becomes human for us, and who continues to care for us in our human endeavours. To be sure, philosophy can be good; the “heavens declare the glory of God,” as the Scripture say. But we need revelation to truly know our Creator. We need the Word of God. We need Christ – the image of an otherwise incomprehensible, invisible God.

Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice by David Lyle Jeffrey & Gregory P. Maillet (IVP Academic, 2011)

Guest post by Karl Persson

Ecclesiastes tells us that “of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh;” arguably, this assertion describes the plight of most of us English students who, out of the many texts in our ever expanding discipline, must be wise in considering what books we read and how to read them. Christian literary scholars find themselves in even more of a predicament, not only having to determine what to read, but also what it means to read books as Christians. Although I haven’t yet had time to purchase let-alone read this book, I nonetheless suggest that we couldn’t do much better than turn to Drs. Gregory Maillet and David Lyle Jeffrey in our search for Christian guidance in approaching English literature, past and present.

While you may wonder how I can make such a claim before reading the book, I do have good reasons, given my experience with the authors, particularly Dr. Maillet. Throughout my undergraduate program at the University of Regina, I took a number of courses with Greg, including Shakespearean Tragedy and Comedy, the Bible and Literature, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and perhaps most importantly for my own career, Old English Language and Literature. Greg taught all of these classes not only as an impeccable academic, but also as a Christian genuinely interested in the well-being of his students and the ways that their lives could be enriched through the study of literature and the larger philosophical and theological matters it approaches. As his Teaching Assistant and student, I learned much from his quiet but confident faith in Christ that was evident in his approach to literature, and I also appreciated the space he made for students like me to reflect on how we might learn to think about literature and literary theory as Christians. On a more personal level, I probably would not be pursuing my current line of academic study, Old English Literature, if it weren’t for Greg’s influence; not only did he go out of his way to persuade the university administration to let him teach the rarely offered Old English literature course in which I first learned the language; but he also encouraged me to study Latin at a moment when I was uncertain about my future academic plans; both of these languages continue to be instrumental in the work that I do.

In any case, given the advent of this new book by Drs. Maillet and Jeffrey, I wanted to share with you the impact that Greg’s faith has had on my life, not only in the hope that some of you will take the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom of both these superb scholars, but also in the hope that you will be encouraged by this story of someone whose faithfulness to Christ in the academy continues to testify to the grace of God.


Karl Persson is a Doctoral Candidate working on the intersection of Biblical and Old English wisdom literature; theologically, he is interested in being a good husband to Meg, being a good father to Andrew, and working out a theological grammar that allows us to speak appropriately and well about issues concerning God, suffering, and the broader problem of evil.


We cannot explore the relevance of theology, however, without first noting how bad a reputation it has developed within the churches in the last few decades. For some Christian leaders, theology is irrelevant to real life. It is about retreating into ivory towers when there are more pressing things to worry about. Yet rightly understood, theology is about enabling informed Christian action. It makes us want to do things, and do them in a Christian way. It helps us make judgements about how best to act; it encourages us to engage with the real world.

Mere TheologyThe preceding excerpt comes from the beginning of Alister McGrath’s new book Mere Theology: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind (American title: The Passionate Intellect). In this book, McGrath argues for the importance of theology in the life of everyday Christians. Theology equips Christians to better understand their relationships with God, and appreciate better His grace and His glory. And it’s not a mere academic exercise. As McGrath writes, “Theology is a passion of the mind, a longing to understand more about God’s nature and ways, and the transformative impact that this has on life. Our faith can be deepened and our personal lives enriched through theological reflection.”

The book’s arrival is timely. All around us, Christians, churches and even entire denominations are stepping away from theological orthodoxy, chasing after personal convictions and ideologies contrary to God’s revealed Word. In the midst of all this, McGrath points us back to the importance of a theologically firm faith; a relationship with God that develops through the applications of our minds.

Along the way, he reminds us that this same theological reflection not only strengthens our individual faith and relationship with God; it further prepares us to be witnesses to the world around us. It gives us a new perspective when approaching the major issues prevalent in Western culture.

The book is certainly worth a read. In particular, Part I (the first six chapters) are truly insightful. It draws on theological inspiration from such figures as George Herbert, Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis while exploring such diverse subjects as the transformative vision granted by the Gospel, the cross as the anchor in times of despair, and the place of apologetics in the Christian’s life. The second part, exploring the relationship between faith and science (McGrath’s own area of expertise), admittedly feels a little disjointed from the first half (except as an example of how faith transforms our understanding of reality). No doubt the occasional disjointedness results from the fact that book is “based on previously unpublished lectures and addresses, given over a two year period.” In truth, the book would likely be better if the Second Part was published separately from the first, as it doesn’t really relate to “mere theology” in the way that the First Part does.

But as McGrath himself explains, “Their common theme is the intellectual capaciousness of the Christian faith and its ability to bring about a new and deeply satisfying vision of reality.” And again, “Christianity is celebrated as something that both makes sense in itself, and has the capacity to make sense of many other aspects of reality as well.”

I heartily recommend this work to my readers. Most certainly you will not agree with everything McGrath writes. I know I don’t. But then, if we take McGrath’s call to theological scrutinity seriously, it would be wrong to take everything he says at face value. We must be discerning readers. And that, I think, is something we can all agree on.

I picked up Peter Hitchens’ book The Rage Against God a couple days back and read it in one sitting. Hitchens is the brother of famed atheist Christopher Hitchens, and while his book is not meant to be a point by point counter to his brother’s God is Not Great, it is nonetheless meant as a general rebuttal to popular atheism. Still, as he is clear, he is “neither a theologian nor even a Bible scholar,” and so his arguments are fundamentally autobiographical and/or journalistic in nature.

Which is probably why I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I thought I might (and on this, I apparently differ from media on both the left and the right who have generally given very positive reviews). The book is divided into three parts: 1, “A Personal Journey Through Atheism”; 2, “Addressing the Three Failed Arguments of Atheism”, and 3, “The League of the Militant Godless”. The first section, which takes up more than half the book, is an autobiographical account of how he had become a militant atheist (even burning his Bible on the school ground at the age of 15) to eventually re-embrace Christianity; an interesting testimony on, as the book’s North American subtitle puts it, “how atheism led me to faith”. The second addresses three arguments of atheism: 1, that conflicts which are purportedly religious are always actually about religion; 2, that coherent morality can exist without reference to God; and 3, that atheist states are not atheist.

The third subject is where Peter Hitchens shines, and it is on this subject that his readers will find him most insightful. Drawing on his own experiences in the USSR and well-researched knowledge of its early history, he demonstrates that the Soviet system was fundamentally atheist at its core (not “religious” as Christopher Hitchens repeatedly attempts to suggest). In doing so, he demonstrates that the actions taken by the “League of the Militant Godless” (an organization in the Soviet Union devoted to wiping out religion) were directly in line with the Soviet Union’s purpose. In the process, he demonstrates that some of today’s extremist atheists (such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkings) are advocating positions worryingly like those enacted in the USSR (for example, the argument that parents should not be allowed to teach their children anything about religion until they are 18). The consequences of enacting such laws would lead inevitably, Peter Hitchens suggests, to the destruction of human rights and the increase of suffering (which demonstrably happened in the USSR – a true atheist state).

The book is a generally good read, but if you’re looking for standard apologetics it may not be the book for you. But for what it is, it is a welcome, intelligent addition to the pro-religion/anti-religion debate so popular in the present era.

This evening (or rather, this morning) I finished reading the excellent novel Godric. It seemed well to record my reactions now while they are fresh than to wait until tomorrow when they are likely to have diminished somewhat. Godric is the 1980 work of Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and award-winning author. Godric itself was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps my sentiments on the book are best expressed in saying I consider it a great injustice it did not win.

Wrapped in an unusual but beautiful prose, the novel is a fictionalization of the life of Godric of Finchdale, who died in 1170 A.D. Thereafter he would come to be known as St. Godric, and it is with this treatment of himself as a holy man by others that the protagonist find his main concern. Well over one hundred years in age and nearing death, Godric finds himself joined by Brother Reginald who desires to record an account of his life. But the story he wishes to write is at great odds with that which Godric himself wishes to impart.

In the novel, Godric recounts his life, considering both the present and the past. “I’ve told my life from both its ends at once,” he explains near the end. The first half of his hundred years is his youth, it might be said. This is the story of a man who is not seeking God but is nevertheless being sought by him. The second half, his agedness, is the story of a man who, though still a sinner, is nonetheless one redeemed by God, and who tries to live his life accordingly. And these two aspects of his life are surely not the end of Godric’s story. “The third’s the Godric yet to be,” he confesses, “the Godric God will raise again to life and either burn in Hell as he deserves or caulk and patch until he’s fit to sail to Heaven at last.” Though a hermit for the latter fifty years of his life, he understands that salvation is not dependent on his works. “When I deserved it least, God gave me most,” he admits in humility. One can almost hear Paul’s words to Romans in this passage: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)

In reading this book, one cannot help but contemplate again the concept of the monastic or hermitic life. It is certainly an unpopular idea among Protestants today. And yet I must wonder whether this is necessarily a fair judgement. To be sure, the monastic life is not a “better” or more “holy” life. The Confessions speak as much, and with them I do agree. But perhaps it is worth noting it is not a worse life. As in the desert lived John the Baptist, so too there may remain today those who would do well in a monastery or convent. While it is not a higher calling, perhaps it nevertheless remains a calling for some.

The Augsburg Confession (27) condemns the piling on of rules and vows in such institutions, to be sure. But it seems to have no problem with the idea of a “free association”, as monasteries were in Augustine’s time (meaning one could leave at will). It appears to me that the early reformers’ criticisms of monasteries and convents were primarily of the abuses of the institutions and not necessarily of the idea of the institutions themselves. It is worth noting, I think, to remember that the early reformers allowed a number of monasteries to continue to operate after becoming Protestant. In fact, two such German monasteries (Amelungsborn Abbey and Loccum Abbey) continue in uninterupted use to this very day.

What do you think? Is there room in Lutheranism (and Protestantism at large, for that matter) for such institutions? To what extent do modern day bible colleges among evangelicals (at least those that require students to live on campus) provide similar structures to such religious communities? Could a long-term contemporary Protestant order exist today in North America without being thought by the average Christian as a “holier” calling than their own?

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