On the Reading of Books

“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”  So writes Dutch humanist and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus, a contemporary and sometimes opponent, of Martin Luther.

Anybody who has ever helped me move can testify that I can relate to Erasmus’ philosophy.  I like books, all sorts of books, classic and new fiction, history, politics, academic, and more than anything else—theological books.  My shelves (when I have space for bookshelves) are full of books.  In addition to the 150 on the shelves in our apartment I also have one 4’ X 6’ X 7’ storage room packed with books.  I’ve read all of them but about 20 that are sitting on the shelf when I get a few minutes or hours of leisure time.  The best ones I’ve read several times.  I’ve underlined them and made notes in them.  That’s an advantage to owning a book as opposed to borrowing a book.  You can go back to it again and again.

The books that you read help to shape your way of thinking.  They expand your mind, your vocabulary, your understanding of the world we live in, and an understanding of yourself and your fellow human beings.  The best theological books do all that; but they also help us to better understand God and His creation, particularly as they focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of His work of salvation for the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life.

I’ve made a short list of some of my favorite “theological” books.  None of these are exceptionally scholarly, but readily accessible—providing both “milk” and “solid food” for Christians of various levels of maturity.  I offer them to you as examples of the many books that are available.  If you’re looking for a good book, please check one or more of them out.  Let me know what you think.  Hopefully they will prompt some questions for you and we can get together to discuss them.

The Spirituality of the Cross by Gene Edward Veith

Dr. Veith describes his spiritual journey, which included forays into liberal theology, fundamentalism, Buddhism, mysticism, and activism, and ultimately led him to Christianity.  Becoming dissatisfied with generic pop Christianity, Veith came upon the Lutheran spiritual tradition, where he found, in Lutheranism, a “faith particularly centered in the centered in the cross of Christ, one that offers a framework for embracing, and an honest and comprehensive way, the whole range of spiritual life, and whose insights have a profound resonance in ordinary, everyday life.”  This book explains some of that theology.

The Fire and the Staff: Lutheran Theology in Practice by Klemet I. Preus

“The Fire and the Staff” captures the relationship between doctrine and practice, in other words, how does the way we worship relate to what we teach.  Through stories of his own pastoral experiences, reflections on the Lutheran Confessions, and Scripture itself, Preus explores the impact of the American Evangelical and Church Growth Movements on the modern Lutheran Church.  Preus provides critical feedback to help fellow Lutherans evaluate the importance of unity of practice for the walk together as a church.

Grace upon Grace: Spirituality for Today by John W. Kleinig

There is much interest in “spirituality” these days, but little understanding of true Christian spirituality.  Dr. Kleinig states in his introduction: “Christian spirituality is, quite simply, following Jesus.  It is the ordinary life of faith in which we receive Baptism, attend the Divine Service, participate in the Holy Supper, read the Scriptures, pray for ourselves and others, resist temptation, and work with Jesus in our given location here on earth.”  Rather than list a number of confusing and distressing answers like many self-help spirituality books, this book points continuously to the means of grace and vocation, through which God gives us every spiritual gift we need and in which God gives us the opportunity to live out our faith.  

Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton

Have you gone to a funeral or wedding lately and barely heard a message that included the name of Jesus, let alone, of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.  Chances are that you won’t hear much about Christ in the Sunday worship services either.  Reformed theologian, Michael Horton explores the ways in which modern American churches have given in to the whims of popular culture and left Christ out of Christianity.

The Proper Distinction between Law And Gospel by C.F.W. Walther

In the late 19th century, C.F.W. Walther, the first president of the LC-MS delivered a series of 39 evening lectures to the students of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, detailing the proper distinction between Law and Gospel in Scriptural interpretation and preaching.  These lectures were translated into English and have been a standard textbook in our seminaries for decades.  One of my seminary professors remarked: “Every good pastor should review Walther’s Law and Gospel at least once a year to make sure he keeps his theology straight.” 

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

This book brings together C.S. Lewis’ legendary broadcast talks of the World War II days, talks in which he set out simply to “explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”   Lewis uses an apologetic approach rather Scriptural doctrine to make a case first of all for the existence of God, and then the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis

The dust jacket for my copy of this work of fiction says it well: “A masterpiece of satire, this classic has entertained and enlightened readers the world over with its sly and ironic portrayal of human life from the vantage point of Screwtape, a highly placed assistant to ‘Our Father Below.’  At once wildly comic, deadly serious, and strikingly original, C.S. Lewis gives us the correspondence of the worldly-wise old devil to his nephew Wormwood, a novice demon in charge of securing the damnation of an ordinary young man.  The Screwtape Letters is the most engaging and humorous account of temptation—and triumph over it—ever written.”

The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz

I’ve read this book at least once a year since I came out of the seminary.  It’s a fairly easy read with a well-written story.  I’ll let the back cover give the summary: “Here is a powerful novel on the theme of spiritual regeneration.  Three Swedish pastor learn the necessity of relying on God’s grace and promises the hard way—through failing in their pastoral duties, through public humiliation, through self-doubt, through an inability to accept God’s promise of forgiveness and sonship in their own lives, and through divisions and quarreling among parishioners.  Ultimately, each rejects the temptations of self-serving pride and over-reliance on works and permits the Holy Spirit to work through him for the glory of God and the continued ministry of the Gospel.

A Skeleton in God’s Closet by Paul L. Maier

Suppose they found a skeleton that appeared to be the remains of the body of Jesus Christ?  Would it matter?  In this carefully researched and compellingly written thriller, Dr. Paul L. Maier, Professor Emeritus of History at Western Michigan University and currently 3rd Vice President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, explores the tension between doubt and faith, science and religion, and one man’s determination to find the truth no matter what the cost.  The first time I read this book, I did so in one sitting, finishing up at about 4:00 a.m.  The second time I got done by 2:00 a.m.

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