Part of the The Reading Interviews series.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hello Josh! Most certainly. I was born into a blue-collar carpentry family and even owned a small residential construction company myself for several years in Omaha. In the middle of this carpentry career I worked as a journalist at the local newspaper and a sports magazine eventually graduating with a degree in Liberal Arts from Bellevue University. For a left-brained carpenter, Liberal Arts was a huge jump. But it was an excellent degree for me and it introduced me to a lot of poetry and novels (two genres I largely avoided). This degree also put me into the lives of two-dozen sinners who needed to hear about Jesus and an academic program that allowed me to cultivate my personal interest in the gospel.
This degree introduced me to advanced critical thinking and I used these new tools to help write a full presentation of the gospel for my professor and my classmates (the content of my book Come Unto Me: God’s Invitation to the World). I now direct a blog for Christians who (like myself) who need daily encouragement to live a Cross-saturated life (The Shepherd’s Scrapbook). Recently I became the director of Take Up and Read, a website devoted to weekly book reviews (hosted by Monergism). Graphic arts, copywriting and providing search engine optimization for retail websites pay the bills.
I recently turned 30 years old, which means it’s been eight years since God’s sovereign grace shattered my addiction to religious legalism and gave me an appetite for the glorious and sufficient Cross of Christ. Immediately following this conversion I had an insatiable appetite to read good Christian books. The first books recommended to me were No Place for Truth by David Wells and The Gagging of God by D.A. Carson. These are not books for beginners! I was overwhelmed by the content, not having categories for much of what I was reading. But slowly I narrowed my own interests which are primarily in the Puritan and Reformed tradition.
Last December my wife, son and daughter moved to Minneapolis to serve at Sovereign Grace Fellowship (a church of Sovereign Grace Ministries). This allows me to sit under my favorite preacher, Rick Gamache. I’ve been very humbled here by my friends and their Cross-centered examples. It’s an amazing church and this time in my life is marked by personal renewal, resting in the promises of God, a re-calibration towards the Cross in everything and being emptied of myself. Here in Minneapolis I’ve been given a lot of time to pursue theological reading. Someday I hope to be a church planter and pastor myself.
I can see why you struggled with Wells and Carson. What books would you recommend for new Christians?
First, let me say I don’t fault my early influences. I was eager to read big books and these two were the hot talk at the time. But I think my own personal struggles centered around two needs I personally had as a new Christian. First, what I needed pounded into my brain was that everything in the Christian life is centered around the Cross (Gal. 1:6-9, 6:14; Phil. 3:2-11; 1 Cor. 2:1-5, 15:3). I was struggling through Wells and Carson when I should have been growing into a better comprehension that I was saved by the Cross and now I live by the power of the Cross. I really needed C.J. Mahaney and Jerry Bridges early on. I would highly recommend Living the Cross-Centered Life by Mahaney and Bridges’ books Transforming Grace and The Gospel for Real Life to this end.
Secondly, I needed a better grasp of the affectionate response of the believer towards the divine things. As a new believer I really needed to see how others respond to theology with praise. If you watch the books that are published for new believers they are essentially systematic theologies dumbed-down with shorter chapters and more simple illustrations. It seems the best books I could have read would have been sermons of Spurgeon or the devotional works of Octavius Winslow (see below). I needed to not only center on the Gospel but also needed to watch mature Christians affectionately respond to the Gospel. Without this foundation I launched into my Christian life on a largely academic and intellectual pursuit of knowledge. As I mature I’m more able to pause in the reading of a dense systematic theology on, say, the deity of Christ, and just pause and praise Christ for the beauty of His nature. As Jonathan Edwards writes, “The first objective ground of gracious affections, is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest.” That’s what I largely missed early on. I needed to learn doxology within a Cross-centered theology.
So I would say Mahaney and Bridges to center everything on the Gospel and Spurgeon and Winslow to focus my affections upon the Gospel. When looking back that is what I needed as a new believer.
What are your favorite books? What do you like about them and how have they influenced you?
- ESV Blank Bible. Without any hesitation my first favorite book in the world is the Blank ESV Bible I created with the help of a table saw and some past carpentry experience. This three-volume treasure sits to the right of my desk all day, every day and holds all of my biblical notes from the past year. You can see it and how it was constructed at my blog. Having a bible filled with blank pages is really an expectation of God’s illumination. I listen patiently with a blank page and a pen in hand.
- The Precious Things of God by Octavius Winslow (1808-1878). This book most struck me at a time when I needed to get away from very technical theology books. When I needed someone to preach again the beauties of the Cross, my friend Joel Beeke pointed my towards it. This precious book, written in 1859, was a success. Winslow quickly became (and now remains) my favorite author. This is the volume I open whenever I need to be freshly reminded of the preciousness of Christ’s blood for sinners like myself. When reading out loud to my wife as we walked the hospital hallways in preparation of our daughters birth and upon the tragic news that my neighbor was killed in a motorcycle accident last Summer, this was the book I picked up to be freshly reminded of eternally precious truth. As you can imagine, Winslow is immensely quotable for the preacher. His other books like The Fullness of Christ, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, The Work of the Holy Spirit, The Spiritual Life, No Condemnation in Christ Jesus, Help Heavenward and the newly printed Our God are also excellent. Start with The Precious Things of God and move on to The Fullness of Christ. Winslow reminds me of Charles Spurgeon but is even better at sustaining lengthy devotional threads. His books pass in and out of print but his best works can be accessed freely online.
- Living the Cross-Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney (Multnomah). This is a compilation of Mahaney’s two short books (The Cross Centered Life, 2002; Christ our Mediator, 2004). Each time I read Mahaney I see the beauty of the Cross again for the first time. Nobody more clearly unfolds the doctrine of the Gospel within the context of its life consequences. The title is misleading because it presents this book pragmatically whereas this volume is fully capable of teaching readers the truth of the Cross. Mahaney is a bible teacher, highlighting the beauty of the Cross in Scripture and also a physician of the soul, prescribing the Cross to every area of life. I cannot think of a more important contemporary book. My home church gives a copy of this book to every visitor and it’s expected that everyone else in the church has already read it and returns to its content frequently. If you grasp the immensity of the Cross it will infect all your worship, preaching and relationships. My goal is to return to this volume and read it every six months. I cannot recommend it more highly, especially for new believers. Our lives can be centered on only one main thing and Scripture defines that “one thing” as the Cross.
- The Works of John Bunyan edited by George Offor (Banner of Truth). On occasion I get emails from older readers who ask: “If I had only one year to live what would you recommend I read besides my bible?” It sounds dramatic but these are usually hypothetical questions from healthy men coming face-to-face with the brevity of life. My answer is always the same: The Works of John Bunyan. No writer is more earnest with souls. He pleads that his readers take eternity seriously because time is running out and life is like a withering flower or a puff of steam soon gone. And very few Christian authors are more versatile. Bunyan (1628-1688) bounces from autobiography to poetry for children to allegories for both children and adults (The Pilgrim’s Progress) to sermons and then on to straight biblical commentary. But he never loses his earnestness. His background was a tinker (a traveling metalworker who fixed pots and pans) so I guess I have some brotherhood being a carpenter and preacher myself. He had a blue-collar, street-smart sense of the spiritual struggles which makes him experientially priceless. When I begin to get spiritually lazy in evangelism or when I practically forget the horrors of hell or the beauty of Christ or the painful journey of a pilgrimage through this life, I frequently return to Bunyan. And as a bonus, the woodcut images and the memoir and editing by George Offor are outstanding! Truly a precious set I highly recommend for a lifetime of study. Come to think of it, you probably couldn’t read the entire Works in one year anyways.
- Works of Jonathan Edwards (2 volume, Banner of Truth). There is no debate that Edwards (1703-1758) ranks as a foremost theologian in church history. I would consider him the greatest theologian I’ve read and any short list would be incomplete without these volumes. Edwards was a first-rate thinker and a first-rate biblical exegete. These volumes contain many of his best sermons and books. I recommend readers begin with the many sermons before working through the books. For 60 bucks it’s a bargain.
- Meet the Puritans by Joel R. Beeke (Reformation Heritage Books). I’m a big fan of the Puritans and this book was my pick for book-of-the-year 2006 (see details here). It contains the biographies of 140 Puritans and short reviews of their available works. My family has been fortunate to spend time with his family and Dr. Beeke strikes me as both a gifted author/scholar/preacher but also easily moved by the beauty of the Cross. As far as his writing specifically, I recommend aspiring writers note Beeke’s style. He engages the reader with pertinent and dense content within short sentence structures.
In general I’m attracted to other Puritan and Reformed authors (and those who followed in their tradition). John Owen, Thomas Boston, John Flavel, William Ames, John Brown of Haddington, John Calvin, Thomas Goodwin, Thomas Brooks, John Newton, Francis Turretin, Jeremiah Burroughs, Richard Sibbes, Charles Spurgeon and Horatius Bonar come to mind. I’ve become familiar with old English spelling and become quick in decoding Roman numerals over the years.
More contemporary favorites include most of the CCEF authors but especially David Powlison and Paul David Tripp. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Tripp is my favorite book on the topic of how we minister to other Christians. Contemporary preachers like John Piper, J.I. Packer, John Stott, Mahaney and Martyn Lloyd-Jones all have excellent books. What links the Reformers, Puritans and contemporary authors together is a unified chorus around the Cross. The Cross of Christ is really the touchstone for all my Christian reading.
On a very different note, I’ve always been fascinated with World War I literature. There was a high concentration of soldiers with literary talent and they all came in with a romanticized view of war. These writers lived in the muddy trenches, struggled through diseases and watched other men die horrible deaths from the chemical warfare. The war provided plenty of content for the pens of these literary giants. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are two of my favorites. Owen’s, Dulce Et Decorum Est (1918), being the greatest WWI poem in my own opinion. Of course Good-bye to All That by Robert Graves and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque are also literary classics birthed from the events of WWI. All of these poems, autobiographies and novels reveal a world largely ignorant of the seriousness of world war suddenly awoken into its evil realities. Makes for powerful reading.
As a writer I’m always pushing myself to become better so books on the art and craft of writing are especially important to me. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by Zinsser and Woe is I by Patricia O’Conner are excellent. Josh, you are probably better qualified to make further recommendations in this category.
Any plans to sell your ESV Blank Bible? Maybe you could retire early…
Funny! You would be surprised how much I’ve been offered for my blank bible (not enough to retire). I get emails every day from readers who want me to make them a blank ESV. Regrettably, moving out of the construction business and away from my hometown I don’t have access to making them anymore. I gave two blank ESV-Greek Interlinear New Testaments away this past winter but that was the end of production. Maybe in the future I will make some more.
It’s obvious you have a great love for the Puritans. Some Puritans, of course, can be very difficult to read. Archaic spelling is relatively easy to understand (or lookup), but the density of sentences and long, complicated arguments can make Puritan writings nearly incomprehensible for an average reader – or an experienced one! What advice would you give to readers?
As far as word meanings, dictionaries helped a bit. Thankfully Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic have defined a lot of common Puritan terms in the glossary of John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation (pp. 435-441). But you are right, Josh, the sentences and paragraphs can be tough for an experienced reader. I’ve been told that John Owen used some form of Latin sentence structure with English words. I don’t know if that’s true but his books are tough reading (I know that to be certain). Owen and Thomas Goodwin are the toughest for me. Most of the Puritans I’m familiar with – Bunyan, Boston, Brooks, Flavel, Sibbes, Burroughs, Manton, Charnock, Rutherford – are relatively easy to read. By far the easiest Puritan literature is the sermons and these are very common in sets of complete works. So I guess my advice is stick to reading individual Puritan sermons (indexed by text online and also topically in Martin’s, A Guide to the Puritans) and read the tougher Puritan books later.
What is the best non-fiction and fiction book you have read recently?
I’m glad you asked this question. I recently picked up The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington. Within an hour I realized this is one of the most important books I’ve come across in a long time. It’s a reformed systematic theology of roughly 550 pages written in 1782 and published again in 2002. It includes 27,000 biblical references (that’s about 50 per page!). “Being formed, not to make you read, but to make you think much.” It’s a book that reads like a very detailed catechism, wrapping its arms around the scope of biblical revelation in a near-exhaustive systematic theology. I didn’t know anything like this existed until recently and I’m working on a review that will appear later in May. If your goal is to be mighty in the Scripture (and not just well-read) I would highly-recommend this volume. Brown, like Bunyan, is an unschooled scholar of the Word and souls. Few authors rival Brown in a comprehensive grasp of biblical details and you’ll be impressed how he concludes each section (but I wont spoil the surprise).
My last fiction book, The Odyssey by Homer, was good (I read the updated translation by Fagles). Sadly, I have very little time for fiction nowadays. Maybe on the next summer vacation or something. Any suggestions? I’ve heard the Life of Pi was interesting.
I always recommend reading (or re-reading) Lord of the Rings or anything by Charles Dickens. I’ve also enjoyed Steinbeck’s East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath. Books can be very personal, though, so recommendations are always a gamble. Each of us has different experiences and interests, thus we all enjoy different books. I suppose that’s why we have so many in the world!
Why do you think reading is important? What has led you to make it a priority in your life?
“Take up and read” was a phrase that floated from a child’s lips in a neighbor’s house and landed in Augustine’s ear. The voice was not directed at him but he took it as a personal command. Augustine immediately opened up to Romans 13:14 in a nearby bible and there found God’s saving graciousness (“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”). When I think of reading I think of that Latin phrase, tolle lege. Reading has the power to transform prostitute-addicted sinners into Jesus-followers. For me, the phrase “take up and read” is to position your soul for eternal life change. By God’s sovereign grace sinners are eternally transformed by a simple act like reading possible when any authors point us towards the truth. To read excellent books is to position yourself in the way of continued life-transformation. Our calling then is to be discerning readers and eager readers.
Seeing firsthand the power of books in my own life encourages me to read even more. One of the first books I struggled through was God’s Passion for His Glory by Jonathan Edwards and John Piper (edited by Rick Gamache). I’ve read it three times now and consider it one of the very best. Even today when I’m preaching I will frequently reference the glory of God with themes from this book. These concepts are at the front of my brain because years ago I invested a painfully significant amount of time to work through this book. Reading forces me to leave my temporary and fleeting thoughts and focus upon the eternal. To see the fruit of books years later in my sermons and conversations encourages me to read still more.
Are there any other books you would like to recommend?
My friends say I overwhelm them with recommendations so I’ll restrain myself from any more.
How many books do you normally read at a time?
I usually have five or so going at the same time. Often these are on the same subject. It’s amazing how a group of five books will become interwoven into my mind as themes crisscross and begin interacting with one another. I’m too impatient to read through one book at a time. Currently I’m reading Calvin’s Institutes with three Calvin biographies, a commentary on the Institutes (Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought by T.H.L. Parker), three books on the five points of Calvinism and two DVD documentaries on Calvin and Calvinism. This is a lot more than normal but I’ve also allotted more time than usual (5 months).
Do you mark and take notes while you read? If so, how?
I mark all over all my books with a Japanese micro pen (Pigma Micron 005). For the most important quotes I write a summary sentence in the back cover with a page reference and then I index these into an electronic database. My more important Puritan works are all indexed for me so I don’t have as extensive a catalogue myself.
Do you have any advice about reading that others might find helpful?
- Have a plan for your library. Since the day I was converted, I knew that God was leading me to a life of preaching and teaching of His Word. So I have always built my library with this purpose in mind. I am more heavily invested in commentaries and well-indexed Puritan sermons than contemporary topical books. Newly published topical books are often very good, but they can be intrusive to my library goals. The specific strategy for building a library of well-indexed Puritan literature can be found on my blog (The Puritan Study Series). Pastors (for whom I especially review books) have very limited reading time. That’s why I encourage them to build the Puritan Library and buy books that will drive them deeper into Scripture. For laypersons and preachers who want to use Puritan literature effectively I encourage them to begin with Martin’s, A Guide to the Puritans and build a library around the indexed works. I disagree that the best books are those read from cover-to-cover. Often I think the best books are those you can pick up and spend five minutes and find exactly what you came to see. This is next to impossible unless you plan your library intentionally.
- Learn how to think critically. As a Liberal Arts major I was forced to ask questions when I read. It was painful at first, but now comes more naturally. Where is this author coming from? What is their background, training and orientation? What is the main point the author trying to make in this specific book? What made this book so important that an author wrote it, an editor accepted it and a publisher printed it? What’s at stake for the author if he/she does not persuade the reader? What basis does the author make his/her point? Does the author give valid arguments? What presuppositions does the author carry into this book? Who does the author most frequently site? Do you agree with the author or not? Why? If the author is a preacher or theologian look up the biblical references. Are these biblically accurate? What passages could have improved the argument? I love reading Calvin’s Institutes because, while most of his arguments are firmly biblical, he almost never exhausts Scriptural reference. I like to add my own references here and there. It keeps me on my toes.
- Make time to read. I’m not a speed-reader so if you are like me you will probably not find enough time to read unless you make enough time to read. Consider rising earlier and staying up later. Get to Starbucks once a week for a change of scenery where your reading can be more focused and efficient. Also learn to read amidst frequent interruptions and/or with your family. I’ve learned to read John Owen on my stomach with two small children climbing on my back. Find ways to branch out and be in the presence of your family when reading. I especially enjoy reading together with my wife in the kitchen at night. Become flexible and creative.
- Be content to put books aside. Just because you bought it recently doesn’t mean you must read it. If, upon further evidence, it does not look like a book you expected put it aside and go back to something that did interest you. Every minute of reading is precious so only read the best literature you can find. Most people feel guilty with unread books on their shelves. In my view this could either be a sign of laziness or a triumph in discernment.
Would you like to add anything else?
Just a few final thoughts come to mind. I encourage every pastor to supply his people with a list of recommended reading and even a small church bookstore. I’ve seen church book tables with as few as five titles but any amount of good books for your congregation will help formulate the doctrine and life of the church. These titles also provide a base of accountability for everyone.
Finally, a Christian who reads a lot faces special dangers. I have found myself falling into what Spurgeon called “borrowed communion” where I think that because I’m reading a great devotional work that I automatically am enjoying communion with God. That may not be the case. Because I am prone to reading books and neglecting daily time in Scripture, I have an accountability partner in my life specifically asking me questions to gauge how I am doing here. Christians are sanctified in the truth and the truth is in the Word. Failing to read Scripture directly will lead to a lack of growth no matter how large of a Puritan library you build.
Thanks for your answers, Tony!
Thank you, Josh for this opportunity to talk about books. It’s my honor. Continue your excellent work at DG. Many thousands are blessed by your work who will never know you. Thank you for your example of humble service!