Reading Reviews - February 2019

As I've committed to reviewing all the worthwhile books I've read this year, here are February's entries.

The Gospel Comes with a House Key, Rosaria Butterfield. This book is incredibly beautiful, deeply necessary, and difficult to broadly recommend. That contradictory jumble of descriptors is perhaps unsurprising to those familiar with Butterfield's autobiography.

On the one hand, the core argument of this book is both correct and rarely discussed. Modern America represents a society so individualistic and isolated, we cannot begin to fathom what the biblical call to community and hospitality actually represents. The Butterfields have chosen a radically different way of living, constantly opening their homes to believers and unbelievers alike, letting people live beside and with them in a way that almost everyone in our society would find staggering. She describes their house as something like a "commune."

They do this out of a similarly-radical sense of the calling of Christ - after relating the beginnings of a story about a meth-manufacturing neighbor they befriended that weaves through the book, Butterfield comments that we should teach our "children to love neighbors, even though they aren't safe." Hearing her discuss, with brutal honesty, both the joys and heartbreaks of this open way of living expands the imagination and caused Elizabeth and I to continue to discuss how we can better live out some of these same convictions, which we share.

That said, it also comes with a few caveats. Rosaria Butterfield is very much a controversialist; when confronted with the idea of picking her battles, she defaults to choosing all of them. As such, almost everyone will find some things they strongly disagree with. Refreshingly, this goes in almost all directions - her sexual ethics (and personal conversion from significant academic in the 90s LGBT movement to homeschooling homemaker) will be extremely challenging to the left, plenty of her politics and emphasis on inclusion and fearlessness stand as condemnation to the right, and some of her idiosyncrasies, like exclusive Psalm-singing, will leave almost all modern Christians floundering.

In addition, the extremes the Butterfields have adopted, while I appreciate them, are not attainable by everyone. While Rosaria acknowledges this in places, she fails to spend much time on it. Those readers who are easily plunged into guilt or who struggle to appreciate strong convictions without adopting them en masse will quickly find the book discouraging.

That said, the lifestyle modeled here is beautiful. While I don't think anyone will do everything the same, it provides an excellent invitation into another way of viewing the world.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle. I contend that there are two mistakes pastors can make in relation to the world of leadership-business-management books. One is to fail to appreciate the uniqueness of their calling and to adopt the recommendations of the secular world whole-cloth, especially when it leads those same pastors to neglect their central tasks of preaching, prayer, and presence. The other is to ignore the wisdom of such books out of fear of the first error and consequently to behave like idiots.

Daniel Coyle's book about building culture within an organization is a very good example of the need for awareness of both these tendencies within the church. First, from a broader organizational perspective, the book is excellent. Thanks to its emphasis on culture-building as resulting from basic human interactions rather than some abstract program, it is eminently practical. In addition, it is full of the sorts of insights that make you look at moments in your own life and think, "Aha!"

Within the church, it strikes me that the book has good applications but also substantial limitations. The applications rest in many of the practical insights. Having a repeatable story, doing concrete things to communicate safety and welcome - lots of the suggestions can find good uses within the life of ministry. That said, there are a few important caveats as well. Most notably, the question in ministry will inevatibly be about how to drawn people into a culture shaped by God's story, meaning some of the things that are negotiable in the book are non-negotiable within Christianity. In addition, I suspect some pastors will foolishly read the suggestions as encouragements to reinvent the wheel. One of the striking things is just how much the traditional structure of the church already fulfills this role. Its shared song and thoughtful liturgy, the weekly proclamation of the word and the regular rhythms of the sacraments, community and catechesis, all serve as ways to instill exactly the solidarity and shared values Coyle seeks in other organizations.

Introducing Covenant Theology, Michael Horton. I've meant to read this book for a while, as Horton has always served me as an excellent interlocutor, even when I to some extent disagree with him. (I stand by my assessment that his The Christian Faith is the best modern single-volume systematic theology I've encountered.) This book was indeed an engaging exploration of the set of historic doctrines categorized as "Covenant Theology," with a few caveats.

First, and this is a big one for many peopel who read this blog, I would in no sense consider this an "introduction" in the sense of "accessible to most laypeople." It could function that way at a seminary level, although even then I suspect some modern students would be jogging to keep up. A better word for what Horton is doing is "overview."

One of the reasons the book is no introduction is that Horton spends a substantial amount of time discussing and defending some of the idiosyncratic views within covenant theology he personally subscribes to, such as republication and a commitment to a particular two-kingdoms theology. This isn't a failing of the book - I suspect part of why it was written was as a chance to work through these ideas, and Horton represents a very moderate take on most of the positions he advances. At points, he gave so much ground that I'm not sure that he subscribes to some of those ideas in more than name and general emphasis. That said, a student unfamiliar with covenant theology more broadly will probably wonder why Horton spends ten or fifteen pages belaboring certain points.

All of that being said, while Introducing Covenant Theology doesn't replace the standard texts I would use to introduce the doctrine like O. Palmer Robertson's The Christ of the Covenants, Horton does an excellent job both explaining and defending the historical outlines of the doctrine and expressing concerns about certain parts of it that, even if ultimately wrong, are well-heeded by his detractors.

It's Better Than It Looks, Gregg Easterbrook. This book represents a protracted artillery barrage on the alarmism and declinism that is endemic in much modern discourse. The "bad news" drumbeat of the media, both mainstream and alternative, the "America is collapsing" rhetoric found on both sides of the aisle from people like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and the sense most people have that things are bad and getting worse - Easterbrook tears into all of it as totally wrong. His argument: we are richer and safer and happier and healthier, both in the United States and globally, than ever before. The middle class is growing globally, democracy is generally winning, and the perpetual predictions that we will run out of resources always prove false. While Easterbrook does acknowledge some issues (some income inequality in parts of the West, climate change) and calls for hard work on such issues, given the overwhelmingly positive direction of the world, he encourages optimism.

This is the kind of book I have major reservations about but would also recommend to a certain sort of person. First, the recommendation: a lot of average citizens of the West would do well to reflect on books like this one. We are constantly beaten over the head by fear, and Easterbrook is correct that much of it is manufactured. If we felt safe in our homes, optimistic about our future and willing to let our kids play outside 30 years ago, by any objective measure we should feel those things even more today. Our wrongheaded sense of constant panic about things like crime and the economy does us enormous harm.

That said, the book is imperfect because, in his attempt to make this case as strongly as possible, Easterbrook does ignore some of the complexity of our world in the other direction. There are a few points where it looks suspiciously like he is cherry-picking data to make things as rosy as possible. More than that, his focus on the typically-modern numerical measures fails to appreciate that there may be intangible emotional (and spiritual) issues created by our prosperity that aren't reflected in GDP charts but that are real causes for concern.

Written in Stone, Philip Ryken. Keeping the Ten Commandments, J.I. Packer. How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments, Edmund Clowney. I'll keep these last reviews brief. I've just started preaching through the Ten Commandments, and these are the non-commentary books I've read in preparation. If you're looking for one book on the subject, either Ryken or Packer is the way to go. Ryken's book, while it looks like an edited collection of sermons (which I usually dislike), is really fantastic and covers each one with breadth and insight. Packer's book is really a collection of short devotional reflections, lacking the scope of the former but consistently making insightful and challenging points in only a few pages. Clowney is a bit harder to recommend. The book is concerned with one very particular question, that of how the emphasis and nuance of each commandment are changed by Christ. It is a good work in this regard, albiet one that I would quibble with at a number of points, but this limits the book's broader application and really makes it supplemental to a study of the commandments itself.