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Pastor John's 2021 Reading Challenge - March Update

Like last year, I’m using Tim Challies’ reading challenge to help guide my reading for this year. I’ll post monthly updates this year for those interested in following along and/or looking for book recommendations. My goal for 2021 is to complete at least 80 books (somewhere between Challies’ “Committed” and “Obsessed” categories). A couple of the usual caveats:

  1. A book appearing on this list is not an endorsement. I (intentionally) read a lot of stuff by authors with whom I do not agree, and/or books that I don't recommend.
  2. Each year I like to have a secondary reading goal to further help refine my selection of books. This year I intend to focus much of my reading on topics of "social justice" and biblical responses to the progressive narrative surrounding them. For related reasons, I am choosing to read as many books as possible by female and/or BIPOC authors.
  3. I provide Amazon links for most books, not because I expect you to purchase them, but primarily so that you can have easy access to other reviews and publishing info. Virtually all books I read and review are in my personal library (from which FBC members are welcome to borrow) or in the Spokane County Public Library. If you do decide to purchase books from Amazon, be aware that I receive a VERY small commission when you click the link, which helps to feed my reading habit and does not affect the price you pay.

March's Reading List

A Book About Science, Astronomy, or Worldview

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents

by Rod Dreher
rating: 4/5
Dreher draws from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s essay of the same title, warning of the impending rise of what he calls "soft totalitarianism" in America, due to the fact that "a progressive—and profoundly anti-Christian militancy—is steadily overtaking society." His interviews with Christians who lived through communist totalitarianism in the Soviet bloc are fascinating, and his analysis of contemporary American culture and some of its parallels to communist Russia is sobering. He advocates the formation of an underground resistance that will prepare Christians to endure suffering and to withstand cultural opposition in the coming years, taking a bold stand for truth grounded in biblical convictions.

While I applaud his emphasis on "getting our spiritual lives in order" and wholeheartedly agree with his conclusion that American Christians are, by and large, completely unprepared to suffer for the sake of righteousness and truth, I find it hard to be as pessimistic as he seems to be (in this book as well as in other books and on his blog at TheAmericanConservative.com). Even in the bleakest of circumstances (which ours are certainly not), God calls us to live with joy and hope in Christ. Does that mean we ought to exhibit a naive optimism, or to bury our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong? By no means! But neither should we be surprised or afraid when the world's rejection of Christ results in rejection of His followers.

The balance between shrewd political activism (a goal which I share with Dreher) and joyful submission to Christ as we share in his sufferings is difficult to find, but it's worth pursuing. On the whole, Dreher's book is helpful in this regard, though caution is warranted for those who tend to be attracted to conspiracy theories, or to believe that every threat to Christ's supremacy is coming from the political Left. If that's you, be careful to take what is good in Dreher's writing--of which there is much!--while being careful not to let its tone lead you to fear or despair.

a book about leadership

Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer

by Oswald Sanders
rating: 5/5

I very much enjoyed this book, which was assigned for a seminary class. By no means an "academic" read, this is a fantastic resource for pastors and lay leaders who desire to increase their own capacity for leading their ministry and their congregation spiritually. It is likewise a book that will continue to help churches develop leaders from within their own congregations, as it has for decades already. Best when read with others in a 1:1 or small group discipleship setting, it is quite deserving of all the many accolades it has received, and is highly recommended for every believer!

a book about food or finances

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome, with Love and Pasta

by Jen Lin-Liu
rating: 4/5

I wasn't sure what to expect from this one. A lot of reviewers seem to have hated the author's insertion of so many personal comments about her marriage in a travel/food book, but given the subtitle's mention of "love and pasta" I guess I went into it expecting it to read more like a memoir than a travelogue, so I didn't mind the inclusion of the internal monologue. In fact, as a pastor, I've heard so many stories of people who had similar angst about their marriage and yet did nothing about it until it was too late--it's so much easier these days to divorce than to work through problems--that I actually found it refreshing to get inside the mind of someone who is struggling through some very common questions, yet comes through it determining that marriage & family is worth all the sacrifices.

Beyond that, this was a pretty fun book. The author sets off on a search to learn about the noodle's origin, comparing the cuisines of northern China and Italy and all the lands in between, traveling the Silk road by land. The descriptions of the various cooking methods was fascinating (definitely not a book to read on an empty stomach!), but even more interesting to me was the realization of just how central food is to cultural identity. Hospitality is immensely important in the far & middle east and the Mediterranean, and noodles are a huge part of that.

I also found it insightful to hear Lin-Liu's perspective as a Western woman traveling through very male-dominant societies (particularly Iran and Turkmenistan), as well as her thoughts and experiences with racism. As an ethnically Han Chinese woman traveling through western China, relying on the hospitality of Uyghurs (an ethnic minority that has been persecuted for decades by the Han majority), she was able to reflect back on life as a minority growing up in America, giving her a very unique perspective. In light of recent reports of Uyghur concentration camps in China, and the killing of six Asian women in Georgia (which happened just after I read this book) bringing the experiences of Asian-American women to the forefront of national dialog, these were particularly notable issues which, while unexpected in a book I picked up because I just really like noodles, were not unwelcome.

a book about suffering

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament

by Mark Vroegop
rating: 5/5

Lament is one of those things that I've always known was important—at least from an intellectual standpoint—but have never sufficiently prioritized it to the point that I felt I truly understood it. A shocking and shameful admission from a worship pastor! I mean, a third of the Psalms are laments (not to mention having an entire book of the Bible called "Lamentations"), so lamenting ought to be a pretty major part of our corporate gatherings, don't you think? But for all my good intentions, I've avoided making lament a priority both personally and corporately, because it's much easier to just avoid it.

Easier, that is, until tragedy and suffering arise, and we are left without the patterns and practices God gives us to cope, and to glorify him through our grief.

Enter Mark Vroegop, an Indianapolis pastor whose own grief over the loss of a child drove him to dig deep into God's Word and learn to lament well. He preached through his own pain, turning the fruit of his study in grief into this wonderful book. The title comes from two verses in Lamentations: the dark clouds of judgment in 2:1, and the deep morning mercies of 3:22. As Vroegop writes, "lament stands in the gap between pain and promise."

I love the simple but profound definition he gives for lament: “Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.” After an introduction devoted to his own story of "life in a minor key," Vroegop turns to exposition of four psalms of lament (Psalms 77, 10, 22, and 13) which serve as guides for understanding and applying lament psalms as a whole. The second section is a chapter-by-chapter study of the book of Lamentations. Through all this exposition, we see three hallmarks of biblical lament: First, it always addresses the Lord directly, as opposed to an impersonal crying out; true lament is only available for believers. Second, laments bring complaint to God. Believers aren't meant to pretend that everything is okay, but neither are we to gripe or despair; we are to take our complaints directly to the One who can actually do something about it. But lament cannot stop there! True, biblical lament always leads to an expression of trust and/or praise; notably, this trust and praise is given in the midst of grief, and is not dependent on deliverance from trial or suffering. Often, that trust and praise becomes the vehicle by which comfort and relief arrives.

But what do we do with all this? It's much easier (for me, anyway) to grasp lament as a concept than to actually put it into practice, which is why the book's final section is so immensely helpful. Vroegop devotes a chapter each to practical, "real world" applications of biblical lament in our personal lives and in our churches. Speaking from his own experience in grieving deeply, as well as in shepherding church members through their own sorrows and guiding his congregation to grow in their ability to lament well, his counsel here is priceless, urgent, and immediately applicable. In fact, I am working already to begin implementing what I have learned into the corporate worship of my church, and know I will rely heavily on the chapter for personal lament when counseling others or, inevitably, facing dark clouds of my own.

One last thing I found incredibly useful were the study questions at the end of each chapter. Often I skip questions like this in books—even in books I'm studying with a group—generally preferring to generate my own questions for reflection, or to follow up by pursuing my own interests in further study. But the questions in this book were truly challenging and thought-provoking in a way I rarely find, and I think this book would be an excellent choice for a group study. I consider it a "must read" for pastors and biblical counselors, and highly recommended for all believers.

a book about music

Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults

by Jenevora Williams
rating: 4/5

A very practical and accessible pedagogical resource that deals specifically with the challenges and rewards of equipping young people with the skill of singing well.

a book your pastor recommends

The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams

by Zac Hicks
rating: 5/5

Absolutely one of the best books I've read (thrice now) on the pastoral nature of the role of worship leader. In a modern worship landscape which often exalts musical skill and charisma at the expense of spiritual and leadership qualities in its leaders, a book like this is sorely needed. Hicks exhorts worship leaders to "keep to the ancient paths" (Jeremiah 6:16), remembering that the position we hold carries with it a sacred and weighty responsibility to shepherd the flock. While musical skill and charisma are indeed important qualities in an excellent worship pastor, the work extends so much farther than the onstage persona. He must be a theologian, a creative thinker, a spiritual leader and shepherd, an artist, a prayer warrior, and, yes, a skilled musician, among many other things. The book examines a different aspect of pastoral ministry in each chapter.

Hicks admirably balances practical application with biblical reflection, while writing out of his own significant experience as a worship leader, pastor, songwriter, and band leader. He warns against many popular—but unbiblical—trends in modern church music, while mapping out a way forward which enables worship pastors to lead their ministries with theological precision, cultural courage, pastoral care, and musical excellence. His approach is rooted in historical liturgical traditions, taking advantage of the blessing of modern advancements in technology and communication while avoiding their pitfalls.

The Worship Pastor is near the top of my recommended reading list for anyone leading a worship ministry, as well as those tasked with leading, training, or selecting worship leaders. Zac Hicks’ insight and vision is something from which we can all benefit, and which has benefited me immensely on each reading. I have particularly loved reading this book with worship interns alongside Bob Kauflin’s Worship Matters, which approaches worship leading from a different perspective. Where Kauflin seeks to define what a worship leader is and what he does, Hicks asks a different question: How does a worship leader shepherd. There is overlap between the two books, but taken together they give an excellent overview of what it takes to lead a healthy worship ministry which exalts God with excellence.

a book about Christian living or Atheism

Why Fish Don't Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

by Lulu Miller
rating: 4/5

The story is fascinating, and Miller's storytelling is exceptional. And yes, apparently, according to modern taxonomists, fish don't technically exist as a category. But that's not really the point. On one level, this is a story about David Starr Jordan, prominent fish finder and taxonomist, founding president of Stanford University, and a man who never seemed to give up pursuing his goals despite overwhelming challenges in both his personal and professional life. Miller, battling her own struggles with depression and pursuit of meaning in life, examines Jordan's life in an attempt to find hope that order can be wrought from chaos. Safe to say she doesn't quite find what she was looking for, but the journey is worth following.

At a deeper level, this book is really about philosophy and worldview. I found it fascinating precisely because it would be difficult to find someone whose worldview is more different from my own. Lulu Miller, science correspondent for NPR, is a committed atheist and Darwin disciple, convinced that "Chaos is the only sure thing in this world, and the master that rules us all." (3) Humans are but one among millions of species evolved from common ancestry, whose belief that we are superior to others is merely a "positive illusion"—a helpful trait, but not based in objective reality. Yet, like Jordan, the subject of her study, writes in his book The Philosophy of Despair," she believes that in the midst of the depressing reality that life has no ultimate purpose, "Happiness comes from doing, helping, working, loving, fighting, conquering, from the exercise of functions; from self-activity." In other words, while ultimate meaning does not exist in a chaotic universe, it is possible to find joy and purpose in our day-to-day lives, so long as we possess the willpower to overcome our natural despair. Science, of course, holds the key to unlocking our potential.

I, on the other hand, am a pastor, a committed Christian and Christ follower, convinced that all things were created by and for God, and that He is presently ruling over and sustaining His creation (Colossians 1:16-17). Humans, as the Imago Dei, are the crowning achievement of creation, and thus exercise dominion over every other species on the planet (Genesis 1:26-27). We were made with care and for a purpose, that we might glorify our Creator, finding our joy and fulfillment—and the ultimate meaning of life—in worshiping Him. Because He is a God not of chaos but of order (1 Corinthians 14:33), we are able to make sense of creation through the tools of science, which confirm rather than conflict with the biblical account.

Of her philosophical worldview, Miller writes: “There is grandeur in this view of life… if you can’t see it, shame on you.” (91) Meanwhile, Scripture records the words of David: “The fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1) These views are antithetical, and so it may surprise you that not only do I feel that Miller and I could be friends in real life, but that I greatly enjoyed her book.

This book has been widely lauded by readers and critics since its publication in the Spring of 2020, even being described as “life changing” in many reviews. This is not surprising, as Miller presents a beautiful apologetic for purpose and individual worth in an uncaring, godless world; “a prescription for hope,” as she writes. (191) It’s a hope which she articulates more clearly and winsomely than most Atheists, though many have tried, and so I can certainly see the appeal to those who determinedly refuse to acknowledge the One who has placed eternity in their hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

And yet, it is a hope which relies—as Miller herself acknowledges—on believing in positive illusions of our own devising, leading inevitably to a life filled with doubt and mistrust. We are to be “wary of words,” to “mistrust our measures… especially those about moral and mental standing,” and to question everything, even “science itself [which is] not the beacon toward truth I had always thought it was, but a blunt tool that can wreak a lot of havoc along the way.” (193)

Ironically, Miller’s conclusions end up largely agreeing with Scripture. We cannot trust the inclinations of our own hearts (Jeremiah 17:9), nor can our minds ever hope to fully understand the world which God has made (Isaiah 40:28; Romans 11:33), though we are driven to explore and to wonder! She is right to pursue hope and purpose, and to value human life, but her reasons for doing so are far too shallow, and her results fall far short of the blessings found in pursuing God.

There is purpose to life, because the universe was created with a telos; a design and an aim toward which all of history is moving. The world is broken because of sin, but there is hope because Christ has redeemed the world which He made; and thus, there is purpose even in the suffering and depression Miller herself has experienced. Each individual human life has value because each and every person was created in the image of God. And there is real, true, wonderful joy found in the surety and security of knowing that God exists, that He loves us, and that this life is not all that there is. I pray that Lulu Miller will one day know this hope for herself, though I am grateful for the insight I have gained through reading her story.

Up Next...

That's it for March! Here's what's up next on my reading list:

  • Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson
  • The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock & Roll
  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown
  • Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar, by Zac Hicks
  • The Stranger: Poems, by Ben Palpant
  • Every Moment Holy: Volume 2, by Douglas Kaine McKelvey