Book Review: The Character Gap

Turn on the news, survey social media, or glance at the comments section of any major Internet article and you’ll probably notice we live in an extremely polarized time. It’d be easy to conclude that the world can neatly be divided into good and bad people. If we stop to think about it, we’ll probably realize we tend to think this way, grouping ourselves and our friends and family in the good people category.

Dr. Christian Miller’s The Character Gap: How Good Are We? complicates this simplistic character gapdivision of the world, arguing very few of us possess good or bad character. Most of us are more or less in the middle: not as good as we’d like to think but not morally wretched either. Miller is a philosophy professor at Wake Forest University and Project Leader of the Character Project, an interdisciplinary academic exploration of character by scholars in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and theology.

Despite the academic context from which this book developed, it’s clearly written and easy to follow. You don’t have to have training in the disciplines above in order to appreciate the book. The simple structure and conversational writing style make the arguments easy to follow. Miller is warm, inviting, and self-effacing, and though he makes a clear case in the book, he’s charitable to opposing viewpoints or potential arguments and ideas against him. It’s an interesting book filled with great stories and examples that will keep your attention.

Purpose and Survey

The reason for the book, and indeed the Character Project as a whole, seems to be to encourage readers to pursue growth in good character. The Character Gap has three parts aimed at answering several questions to that end.

Part 1 has two chapters. The first explains what Miller means by good character. He argues that a person has good character when possessing virtue, which “when acquired becomes a relatively stable feature of our character and leads to relevant motivation and behavior over an extended period of time” (p. 13-14). In other words, a virtuous person performs good action in a variety of situations for the right reasons as a pattern of behavior over a sustained period of time.

The second chapter highlights the gap between good character and our actual character and then gives reasons why we should try to develop virtue: 1) it’s inspiring, 2) it makes the world a better place, 3) there seems to be wide agreement among different religions that God wants you to, and 4) good character can be rewarding.

Part 2 seeks to establish the main proposal of the book—that most of us are not virtuous or wretched—by drawing conclusions from research on our character with a focus on four particular behaviors: helping, harming, lying, and cheating. Chapters 3-6 look at research on each of these behaviors. For instance, in chapter 4 on harming, Miller makes some fascinating observations about how fear of consequences restrains aggressive behavior and about the role legitimate authority plays in our decisions to harm another person. The studies he cites suggest that the more responsibility a person feels, the less willing they are to inflict pain on another. He concludes most people do not have proper restraint on their aggression, but that most people aren’t cruel either (p. 99). Each of these chapters surveys the research, examines how differing motivating factors affect behavior, and ends with the same conclusion: most of us aren’t good or bad. Miller does a great job in these chapters interacting in engaging and thought-provoking ways with studies that might otherwise be dry and unstimulating to most people. Chapter 7 concludes part 2 by collecting 7 lessons from the previous chapters to tell the story of our character (p. 143-160).

Part 3 tackles the problem of the character gap by proposing what we can do to grow in virtue. Chapter 8 charitably critiques less promising strategies of character growth, noting some of the good these approaches can make. Miller offers three strategies in chapter 9 that show better promise. He notes we need to utilize multiple strategies to be effective but admits none of them will truly work unless we are properly motivated to want to grow. This leads to the final chapter where Miller makes a gracious invitation to irreligious people to consider the role and resources of religion in character development (p. 219-220). In particular, he suggests Christianity offers at least three things that facilitate virtue: 1) Christian rituals and practices like prayer, confession, scripture reading, giving, fasting, and worship, 2) Christian community, and 3) divine assistance by the Holy Spirit. Miller doesn’t take for granted his readers will be readily open to this approach. So while he acknowledges practicing Christianity cannot be proven to cause virtuous behavior, he argues studies do suggest a correlation between them (p. 239). The book closes with a short expression of hope that more research and work will be done in the field.

Evaluation

The Character Gap has much to offer any willing reader open to challenge and change. By even writing the book, Miller encourages and even resources readers toward good character. He offers inspiration, information, and strategies to grow. He dispels false notions of our own virtue and encourages humility and compassion towards those we might assume lack virtue, which is especially important in these polarized times. The book is well researched, and as I mentioned above, Miller presents his research in engaging ways. Especially in part 2, the book contains many fascinating observations about human behavior. I was particularly interested in several of the lessons he drew in chapter 7.

  • Most people behave admirably in some situations and then deplorably in others (p. 146ff).
  • Our changing moral behavior is extremely sensitive to features of the environment, and often we do not even realize what those features are (p. 148ff).
  • Most of us act with mixed motives (p. 152).
  • Sometimes we are not aware of an unconscious motive behind action, and we might be completely wrong in our understanding of our own motives (p. 153).

Finally, it was surprising and refreshing to find an academic integrating his own faith into his work on such a subject in a humble and gracious way. Not everyone will agree with this part of his book, but objections with this part of his book shouldn’t take away from the rest of it.

Though it has much to offer, The Character Gap left me scratching my head on a few accounts.   First, there is little to no argument made as to what qualifies as good behavior and why. Early in the book, Miller explains he will focus on uncontroversial examples of virtue (p. 7). While it’s helpful to see there has been widespread historical agreement on what behavior is considered good, Miller appears to beg the question. As another reviewer pointed out, “the booked does little to highlight the need for an underlying philosophical foundation for morality.” Many have argued, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, that differing accounts of morality are the result of diverse metanarratives, yet Miller seems to assume all readers are operating out of the same grand story. Given pluralism, this seems a problematic assumption.

Second, Miller suggests that virtue is not motivated by self-interest (p. 13). However, when explaining why we should be good, several of the reasons he offers are grounded, at bottom I’d argue, in self-interest. For instance, why should we pursue being good just because God wants us to unless we are interested in pleasing God? Also, isn’t the desire to make the world a better place grounded in our desire to enjoy a better world or, at least, to have the satisfaction of knowing we made the world a better place? Or finally and most obviously, isn’t pursuing good character because it can be rewarding clearly self-interested (p. 43)? Now Miller seems to try to avoid this conclusion by distinguishing between the goal of good behavior, which should be others-oriented, and the by-product of good behavior, individual reward (p. 47). However, I’m not so sure this distinction lets him off the hook. Later on, Miller returns to the question of motives, and he asserts that egoism—the idea that we are always motivated by self-interest—is clearly false, asserting that we can also be motivated by duty, altruism, and a number of different motives all at once (p. 150-153). Miller, no doubt, did not have time in this book to dive into a huge debate in the philosophy of ethics about motivation, so I can’t fault him. But further work on character will probably require deeper treatment of this issue.

Third, I wonder if there’s a flaw in the method of obtaining support for the main proposal that most of us are not good or bad. This thesis is supported by the studies explored in part 2. However, at the very beginning when Miller explains what character is, he makes the point that “mere behavior, no matter how consistent it might be, is never enough by itself to indicate good character…It’s hard to tell whether someone is truly virtuous” (p12). As far as I can tell, he makes this claim for two reasons. First, we cannot always discern the motivation behind an act. Second, one act, by itself, does not give us enough information about a person to establish a pattern. It seems, then, the studies Miller explores throughout the book cannot reliably tell us about the character status of the persons involved. Most of the studies cited involve single acts where no motive can be certainly discerned. I’m not sure the empirical methodology can do the work Miller asks, but this concern may only reflect my own limitations in understanding research methodology.

Conclusion

My questions aside, I happily commend this book. We could all use some encouragement to pursue virtuous character, and there are some good tools in this book to help us move in that direction. Furthermore, the topic is one we sorely need to discuss more as a society preoccupied with technique, efficiency, consuming, and entertainment. I’m grateful for Miller’s work, and if you take the time to get a copy and read it, I suspect you will be too.

[Disclaimer: I should note that I majored in philosophy at Wake Forest University before the author started teaching there. However, I do know the author personally, and I received a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for a fair and honest review.]

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Book Review: The Death of Expertise

I’d like to recommend to you a book you probably don’t want to read or even think you need to read. In all likelihood, it’s a book you probably think other people need to read, especially if you graduated from college. It’s a book about knowledge and information, arguments and dialogue, citizenship and democracy. It’s a book about the relationship between experts and citizens written by professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, Tom Nichols, and the title gives away the thesis of the book: The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.

expertiseIn this straightforward book filled with colorful examples, Nichols argues convincingly that society increasingly relates to experts as technicians rather than as those most qualified to make judgments on matters in their field of knowledge. In other words, we’re skeptical of authorities and have a high self-regard when it comes to our own knowledge of complex issues. For instance, we have no problem going to the doctor to have a broken bone set, but we don’t trust our doctor’s ability to diagnosis, to give sound advice regarding our diet, or to provide a needed medication schedule. Nichols wrote the book to make the case that this proud skepticism of experts is bad for everyone and is undermining democratic society.

What does he mean by “expert?” Nichols defines an expert as someone who possesses considerably more skill or knowledge of a subject than the rest of us. Additionally, an expert in a particular field is one who has received formal training or education, demonstrates a high level of talent or aptitude, has experience over time, and has been evaluated by his or her peers so as to be recognized in the field. Notice then, an expert is not (usually) someone who is self-taught and self-appointed but one who has community credentials.

The Argument

The first chapter gives us this definition and narrates how we got where we are and why it’s a problem. The story he tells focuses on the shift from agrarianism to the Industrial Age. Agrarian societies were filled with people who had to have a little knowledge about a lot of different areas of life, but the rise of industrialization brought a rise in specialization, which made the gap between experts and ordinary citizens much greater. The populist spirit of America already had a tenuous relationship to establish authorities, but the American ideal of the omnicompetent common man served as the foundation to the American Dream. So with the rise of specialization grew the rise of hostility to experts, and with the death of expertise comes the demise of democracy.

In perhaps the most important chapter of the book, Nichols points the finger at us in chapter two by suggesting specialization isn’t the biggest reason for the death of expertise. With a number of humorous illustrations and findings from studies, he discusses confirmation bias, the tendency to believe what we want to believe and to only look for information that confirms what we believe. He also explores what psychologists call the “Dunning-Kruger Effect,” the dumber a person is the more difficulty he has in recognizing his incompetence. Though we all tend to overestimate ourselves, studies have shown that those who have the least understanding of an issue often have the highest levels of confidence in making a judgment on the matter. Similarly, those who have no idea how to make a logical argument cannot realize when they’re failing to make a logical argument. The chapter also includes a fascinating examination of wives’ tales, superstition, and conspiracy theories. As someone who has been friends with a number of conspiracy theorists and wrestled considerably with how to understand and reason with them, Nichols’ insights here resonated. He roots the appeal of conspiracy theories to our sense of personal heroism, narcissism, powerlessness, and fear. He ends the chapter discussing the difference between stereotypes (negative value pre-judgments) and generalizations (probabilistic statements based on observational facts), which are necessary not only in scientific research but also for ordinary life.

Chapters three through five examine a number of the contributing factors to the death of expertise: the increase in those who attend college, the Internet, and the new journalism.

Nichols argues that in the pursuit of universal college education, college degrees have been watered down as higher education institutions have adopted a consumer-oriented college experience to an expanding market of college attendees, leading to a higher percentage of the population feeling they have arrived at knowledge rather than being equipped to be lifelong learners who are still not experts in much of anything.

In his chapter on the impact of the Internet, Nichols makes the argument most readers expect when they see the title of the book. The World Wide Web gives everyone access to endless information, inflating our sense that we understand complex issues while we lack context and the filters necessary to organize information on a subject properly. Nichols notes Pommer’s law: “the Internet can only change a person’s mind from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.” It gives the fool a platform to disseminate bad information that can never go away once posted, and it eliminates the distance between experts and ordinary individuals giving the illusion that everyone’s opinion on a matter is equally valid.

Chapter five on the new journalism shows that even though there’s more news than ever before, we’re less informed on the substantive issues of the day than those in previous generations. Technology has collided with capitalism, and now journalism is driven by website clicks and ad revenue. This means there’s less substantive reporting, less clarity, and more entertainment in news than ever before. Lower barriers to reporting means news travels faster, but it also means editors no longer curate content and standards fall. Citizens can interact with the news immediately via Twitter, phone, or webpage comments, but this displaces the role of experts. All of this contributes to the illusion of being informed. Additionally, the politicization of the news has led to dramatic distrust on the right and left of each side’s respective trusted news agency.

Thus far, it might sound like Nichols’ book suggests experts are never wrong, but chapter six explains that while that’s not the case, we still need to trust in experts. Yes, experts make mistakes. Sometimes they commit fraud, make judgments outside their area of expertise, or foolishly predict the future rather than explaining the present. But even with those mistakes, they’re vital to every aspect of society every day. Nichols also makes an important argument experts need to heed. On matters outside their area of expertise, studies have shown that experts fared no better than laypersons. Actors aren’t qualified to speak to medical issues like vaccines. Doctors shouldn’t act as foreign policy experts. Scientists shouldn’t venture to speak authoritatively on philosophy or religion.

Solutions and Problems

The last chapter offers some ways forward to our struggling republic, but honestly, he doesn’t offer much hope. Most of what he offers here is an education on what we should expect of experts and the difference between a republic and pure democracy. Very little addresses the devastating criticisms he levies in chapter 2 regarding confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and narcissism. Perhaps related to his inability to offer helpful solutions, my biggest critique of the book relates to the story he tells in chapter one on how we got here. Nichols says almost nothing about why trust in our society has eroded or, for many oppressed or marginalized groups, why it hasn’t ever existed in the first place. There’s no attention to power dynamics whatsoever, and so he fails to address or wrestle with those who have good reason to suspect the system and its experts are biased to protect their own place of power.

Overall, Nichols makes a compelling and sobering case about the problems with hostility to experts that should encourage any reader to be more humble, less reactive against ideas with which we disagree, and more realistic about what we can expect from civic leaders and the experts that advise them. I highly recommend this book to all. However, I suspect those most resistant to this recommendation probably need it most.

Book Review: God Made All of Me

My wife, Sally, and I get a lot of questions about how we teach and train our children about sex, marriage, and gender roles. We also get asked about how and when we talk to our kids about their private parts and healthy touching. One book, which frames larger discussions about marriage and sexuality, that we have found immensely helpful in reading with our kids to help protect them from abuse is God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, illustrated by Trish Mahoney. Justin Holcomb, PhD, is a professor of theology and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary, and his wife Lindsey Holcomb, MPH, counsels victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

gmaom_medium.bnkfttwqcorjilnklpwjageuhrcqexohMany people grew up in environments where adults focused so much on trying to prevent unhealthy sexual activity that children grew up thinking sex is bad and their private parts are evil. Others have grown up in “body positive” or “free-love” environments that have failed to protect people from healthy sexual boundaries altogether. These errors have left many parents today ill equipped to deal with the danger of sexual abuse. God Made All of Me (GMAOM) will help children avoid unnecessary shame regarding their bodies and sex while also learning healthy boundaries.

The state goal of the authors is to help parents protect their children from sexual abuse, and they do an excellent job in their story by providing an age appropriate conversation between a couple and their two children. After a note to parents, the book begins with a family conversation in the family room about God’s good creation of all things, including our bodies. With colorful and fun pictures, the conversation that makes up the story covers topics including the parts of our bodies that we share and the parts that are private, healthy touches, communicating to others what touches we do and do not want, saying no, talking to trusted people when we are confused or being touched in ways we don’t like, contexts where people may appropriately touch our privates (i.e. the doctor’s office during an exam), safe people to whom we can go for help, and secrets versus surprises. The book ends with 9 tips for parents.

While the book has no recommendation for the age of its audience, I think it’s a great book for children who have not yet started kindergarten (2-5yr olds), though older kids will still benefit from it.

Parents cannot afford to neglect these conversations. Sometimes we fear we’ll spoil our child’s innocence or foster unhealthy fear if we talk about these issues. We may also avoid these conversations out of embarrassment or the fear of embarrassment, knowing children sometimes bring up concepts they’re learning about in the wrong settings. But a little bit of information and the freedom to discuss these things openly as a family can go a long way toward protecting our children and helping them develop healthy boundaries with others.

I highly recommend this book to parents, but anyone who is around children and wants to be a part of establishing healthy boundaries will benefit from this book.

Book Review: The Tech-Wise Family

A headline here. A new study there. We’re learning more and more about the massive and rapid technological changes taking place right under our noses everyday. And we suspect these changes are impacting us in subtle and unseen ways. We feel like we can’t concentrate like we used to. Our memory doesn’t seem as good as it once was. Our kids seem hyper all the time, and we can’t imagine taking them to a restaurant without a device to keep them quiet.

Life for us and for our children is different than it used to be, but we aren’t sure what to do about it. Sometimes we wonder if we should swear off all new technology and go back to a simpler time. But it doesn’t take long before we realize that this isn’t really possible. We can’t avoid the changes that have come and will continue to come. So what can we do? Do we just surrender and hope for the best?

tech-wise

Enter Andy Crouch and his excellent book The Tech-Wise Family, a book aimed at helping us to put technology in its proper place so that our households can become places and communities where we can grow into wise and courageous people. Crouch refuses to deny the benefits and goodness of modern technology, but he insightfully warns us of unhelpful practices and habits that inevitably change us for the worse if we do not establish guidelines and disciplines that will nudge us in healthy directions.

Packed with research on the impact and use of technology, Crouch shares the 10 commitments he and his family have made over the years that have structured their life together. Each chapter unfolds the logic of each commitment, and encourages the reader to consider how they are facing the particular issues raised in the chapter. Studies have shown technology is the number one reason parents believe raising kids today is more complicated than in the past, so if that’s you, pick up this book. It’s written to parents, but it’s certainly not written only for parents. The insight and counsel of this book will benefit anyone looking for help in how to become a person of character.

The gracious and humble tone throughout the book is exemplified by his transparency at the end of each chapter where he shares the victories and the failures he and his family have experienced. There’s no condemnation here, only thoughtful reflection, honest evaluation, and hopeful counsel. Here’s how the book unfolds and the issues he addresses:

Section 1: Three Key Decisions To a Tech-Wise Family

1. Choosing Character: We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.

This chapter frames the whole book as Crouch ponders, “What is a family for?” He explains that he and his family have chosen to orient their life together toward the development of character. He distinguishes between knowledge, something readily accessible through the Internet, and wisdom which guides right action in a complex world. He also discusses the importance of developing courage, because the right thing to do is often scary and painful. The remainder of the chapter explores how modern technologies are good servants but terrible masters, especially as it relates to forming character.

2. Shaping Space: We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.

This commitment considers the space that is our home, and explores strategies for where our devices should be to help nudge us toward creativity, production, and beauty rather than mindless, banal consumption.

3. Structuring Time: We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.

Technology makes our work easier, but it also leads us take on more work and to rest in ways that aren’t restful. In this chapter, Crouch explores the difference between rest and leisure, the concept of Sabbath, and the empty promise of technology to relieve us of the toil of our work.

Section 2: Daily Life

4. Waking and Sleeping: We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.

In this chapter, Crouch explores our creatureliness by examining our sleep habits and bedtime rituals. He uncovers the anxieties and fantasies that both trouble and distract us from real life and the needed sleep we depend on to thrive.

5. Learning and Working: We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home.

In one of the most important chapters of the book, especially for those with children, Crouch explores how modern technologies actually make us less able to think and learn. As it turns out, easy education isn’t better, and he offers the statistics and research to back up that claim. In a world where attention spans and the ability to concentrate are declining, Crouch shows that the less we rely on screens to entertain ourselves and our children, the more capable we become at entertaining ourselves.

6. The Good News about Boredom: We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together rather than using them aimlessly and alone.

In a chapter closely related to the previous one, Crouch explores how screens over stimulate us and rewire our brains, numbing us to the ordinary wonder of the world. It’s eye opening to learn how we’re training ourselves to be incapable of wonder.

7. The Deep End of the (Car) Pool: Car Time is conversation time.

The car is one of the older technologies discussed in this book, but the way new devices are built into modern automobiles calls for fresh reflection on how we drive. Crouch shows how his family has made the most of their car time by intentionally conversing while driving rather than leaning on the crutches of screens and digital music.

8. Naked and Unashamed: Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.

In another important chapter, Crouch tackles the issue of pornography and sexual activity, offering simple and humble strategies for helping one another live in the light. Pornography consumption is an epidemic with countless negative consequences for individuals, families, and society. This easily accessible, pervasive, and addictive content needs to be talked about with understanding and grace, and the strategies offered here can go a long way to break addictions and help curb unhealthy consumption.

Section 3: What Matters Most

9. Why Singing Matters: We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.

This is perhaps the one chapter some families might find difficult to embrace simply because not everyone is as musical as the classically trained, jazz piano playing Crouch. That being said, there’s still a lot to gain from a chapter than encourages families to sing and worship together.

10. In Sickness and In Health: We show up in person for the big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.

This chapter explores the difference between phone calls, emails, and video chats and being present to others with our bodies, especially in the most important moments of life. We are limited creatures, and while technology can gives us the illusion that we can transcend those limits, our bodies are failing and will stop working altogether. In those moments, there’s nothing like the presence of other bodies that love us.

 

My words really cannot do this book justice. It’s beautiful, practical, accessible, and timely. Who are you becoming? How is technology shaping you right now? What habits are you adopting to help get where you want to be? This book can go a long way in helping you answer those questions.

Book Review: The Story of the Word

One summer, I was leading a Wednesday night college ministry bible study. There were about 50 students there, and I gave them a group assignment. On a piece of paper, I listed dozens of biblical characters and events and asked each group to put them in chronological order. I was trying to learn whether or not these students understood the overarching story of the bible and how these major characters fit into that story. As each group shared their answers, I wasn’t surprised to learn that, like me prior to seminary, almost none of them had any sense of the larger story of the Bible. They weren’t unique. Many Christians who have grown up in church have a familiarity with the Bible that lacks any sense of the overarching narratival unity of the Bible. After years of pastoral ministry, I am convinced there’s an even bigger problem: most Christians don’t understand how the larger story of the Bible, how all Scripture, is about Jesus Christ. In large part, it’s this problem that The Story of the Word by Trevor Laurence seeks to address.

sotwLaurence’s helpful book sets out to do four things: 1) to make use of Scripture as a means of grace, 2) to familiarize readers with the whole story of the Bible, 3) to train readers to interpret Scripture well, and 4) to help us see how the Bible speaks good news into every aspect of everyday life. This book accomplishes each of those goals effectively in a writing style that is both beautiful and easy to follow.

The book has three parts comprised of forty-five meditations and an interlude between parts two and three. Part one covers the story from creation to Christ. Part two covers the manger to the empty tomb. The interlude collects major themes and characters before Christ and shows how Jesus fulfills them all (this chapter alone is worth the price of the book). Part three unpacks and applies key passages in the New Testament from Christ’s ascension until his return.

Each meditation revolves around one passage of Scripture that serves as a major plot line in the grand story of the Bible and ends with a short prayer. The book works best if the reader starts with the Biblical passage before moving on to the meditation and prayer. It reads like a devotional commentary packed with background information beautifully interwoven with the details of each passage in a way that really helps the reader understand and appreciate what God has been doing in his world throughout history. Laurence’s writing style moves back and forth between connecting each passage to the larger story culminating in Christ and relating it to our lives today. Most chapters along with the biblical passage will take between 15-20 minutes to cover, making this book a wonderful morning devotional read.

Several chapters of The Story of the Word stood out to me as particularly excellent. In chapter 10, Laurence meditates on the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant found in Deuteronomy 28 and 30—not exactly easy reading. But the way he ties this passage to the Garden of Eden, to Israel’s slavery in Egypt, to Christ, and to us turns a difficult and somewhat confusing passage into an accessible, relevant, and edifying text. In chapter 27, Laurence manages to explain what’s happening in the Garden of Gethsemane on multiple levels while addressing the issue of pride and temptation and highlighting the beauty of Jesus’ loving perseverance. In chapter 39, Laurence meditates on the end of Galatians helpfully connecting Paul’s teaching on walking in the Spirit and bearing fruit to the power of the gospel. These chapters are rich examples of what Laurence does through this book, beautifully and practically weaving together gospel-centered interpretations and personal applications in the Christian life.

If there are any weaknesses to the book, they mainly relate to what this book is not. If you pick it up expecting an instruction manual telling you exactly what you need to do today to be faithful, this isn’t the book for you. Laurence is interested in helping us see and imagine the world from within God’s story, not proscribing simple answers to the complexities we face in life.

This book probably isn’t the starting place for those who have no familiarity with the Bible. While it is intended to help the reader see the big story of the Bible, it does depend on the reader having some familiarity with Christian terms, figures, and concepts. Laurence doesn’t take time to defend the faith or make it comprehensible to skeptics, but anyone who is willing to try to understand the Bible on its own terms will benefit.

I really enjoyed slowly reading through this book day by day, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the Bible and its central figure, Jesus Christ.

How Our Suffering Can Be Productive

Maybe you can tell, but I have been reading Tim Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering the past few weeks. It’s full of insight, depth, and practical help. I have never read anything so comprehensive and so good on suffering. I found his discussion on pages 188-190 on how suffering can reveal character flaws that can then be addressed particularly insightful in a number of ways.

In his book The Importance of Suffering, [psychologist James Davies] critiques what he believes is the majority position among Western therapists, namely that suffering should be treated by helping the patient remove or manage the negative feelings that adversity brings…Davies goes on to make a radical suggestion. What if your negative thoughts about yourself are actually right? “The feeling of being ‘cowardly,'” he writes, “may be less a symptom of ‘faulty thinking’ than an accurate appraisal of part of us that is cowardly. This makes the distress that accompanies our self appraisal not only a perfectly natural response to encountering our cowardice, but also a necessary prerequisite for changing it.” So suffering can lead us to see a significant lack of courage in our character.
If we listen to our negative thoughts in the midst of suffering, we might actually see ourselves more clearly so that we can cultivate courage. If dive deeper into our suffering, as difficult and frightening as it may be, by listening to our negative thoughts rather than seeking friends or therapists that will tell us we are great, then suffering can actually produce positive character growth.
Keller notes two other examples from Davies of character flaws that can be transformed in suffering :
Or suffering may also show us a streak of selfishness. Davies points out studies that show “low self-esteem” is far from a universal problem. He points to research psychologists demonstrating that many people, instead of being plagued with low self-esteem, “are so infected with self-love that they are unable to love others…[and] cannot see beyond the horizon of their own needs and concerns. They are therefore unable to put themselves to one side and empathize with the needs and pains of others–their reality is best so all should adapt to it.”
With an even more countercultural impulse, Davies claims that people who have been through depression can become wiser and more realistic about life than those who have not. He presents a number of studies that show that people who have never been depressed tend to overestimate the amount of control they have over their lives. While severely depressed people are debilitated, in general an experience of depression can give you a more accurate appraisal of your own limitations and how much influence you can have over your circumstances.
No one should seek out suffering, but psychologists agree with Romans 5:3-4 that suffering can produce endurance (resilience), proven character, and eventually a new hope.
But suffering doesn’t always produce these things in us, does it? Why not? Keller looks to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to explain.
Davies, Jonathan Haidt, and others who argue for the benefits of adversity, are quick to point out that suffering does not automatically improve your life. [In Happiness Hypothesis,] Haidt speaks of two basic ways to cope with it–what he calls “active coping and reappraisal” and “avoidance coping and denial.” The latter strategy can lead to disaster, for it includes “working to blunt one’s emotional reactions by denying or avoiding the events, or by drinking, drugs, and other distractions.” The former strategy can lead to real gains, as it combines doing the hard inner work of learning and growing with seeking to change the painful external circumstances. Put another way, Haidt and Davies distinguish steadily walking through suffering from standing still, lying down, or just running away from it.
…The stakes are high here. Suffering will either leave you a much better person or a much worse one than you were before.
When we rage at God, our church, and our friends on account of suffering, when we run away, deny, refuse to face, self-medicate, and/or distract ourselves from the pain and trauma we experience, our suffering will not transform us into better people. It will only make us bitter and angry or further blind us to the areas of our lives that need transformation. Running from our pain by finding something that temporarily relieves the pain and seemingly gives us new life will end up crashing down on us later leaving us more devastated and disillusioned with life.
But when we face our suffering, listen to our negative thoughts about ourselves, and observe what has been exposed about us, we can start to see beauty emerge from brokenness. We can grow into people of greater depth, compassion, understanding, and love.
This latter response is more probable if we know that because of the suffering of Jesus, we are in God’s hands as his children. The confidence that we belong to the Lord whether in life or in death can strengthen us to deal with our suffering rather than merely trying to manage or even deny it.
Trial and troubles in life, which are inevitable, will either make you or break you. But either way, you will not remain the same.

My Top 50 Books

I have read and re-read some great books recently. Some have solidified or synthesized theological and pastoral concerns I have been wrestling with for years. Others have given me whole new insights to myself, our cultural context, and/or my pastoral calling. A few have been incredibly challenging, causing me to rethink a particular part of my life.

All of these great books (and the fact that my study has moved from upstairs down to my basement where my bookshelves stare at me when I sit at my desk) have got me thinking about my spiritual and theological journey. For the past 4 years, I believe I have been discovering and getting comfortable in my theological and ecclesiological home. I am now at a point where I want to think about how I should be directing younger men seeking to be pastors regarding what they should read. I am thankful for the path I have traveled and the books that got me here, but I hope that those who follow me can take a shorter journey.

So here are my top 50 books I recommend to anyone seeking a rich theological and pastoral foundation in the Reformed theological tradition. I have organized them by various categories that begin with the foundational topics and flow toward more practical life related issues.

Considering Christianity

  1. The Reason for God by Tim Keller
  2. King’s Cross by Tim Keller
  3. Three Essential Books in One Volume: Trilogy – The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, He is There and He is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer
  4. Unapologetic Theology: A Christian Voice in a Pluralistic Conversation by William Placher
  5. Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen
  6. The Universe Next Door by James W. Sire
  7. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story by by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen

Theology

  1. Letters to a Young Calvinist by James Smith
  2. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton
  3. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1 by John Calvin
  4. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 2 by John Calvin
  5. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformed Worldview by Albert Wolters
  6. Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper
  7. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Doctrine by Kevin Vanhoozer
  8. Reformed Catholicity by Michael Allen and Scott Swain
  9. Union with Christ by J. Todd Billings
  10. Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama by Michael Horton
  11. We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God by David Koyzis

Ecclesiology, Ministry, Christian Formation, and Mission

  1. Center Church by Tim Keller
  2. Christ Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell
  3. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller
  4. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America edited by Darrell Guder
  5. Grounded in the Gospel by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett
  6. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James Smith

Biblical Studies

  1. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible by Graeme Goldsworthy
  2. From Paradise to Promised Land by T.D. Alexander
  3. Kingdom Prologue by Meredith Kline
  4. The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Andraes Kostenberger and Michael Kruger
  5. An Introduction to the Old Testament by Tremper Longman III and Raymond Dillard
  6. An Introduction to the New Testament by D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo
  7. A Biblical History of Israel by Ian Proven, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III
  8. Gospel Centered Hermeneutics by Graeme Goldsworthy
  9. Is There Meaning In This Text by Kevin Vanhoozer

Culture and the Public Sphere

  1. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter
  2. How (Not) To Be Secular by James Smith
  3. Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller
  4. A Public Faith by Miroslav Volf
  5. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Tim Keller

The Christian Life and Ethics

  1. The How and Why of Love: An Introduction to Evangelical Ethics by Micahel Hill
  2. Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics by Oliver O’Donovan
  3. The Doctrine of the Christian Life by John Frame
  4. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller
  5. Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller
  6. Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power , and the Only Hope that Matters by Tim Keller
  7. Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill
  8. Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality by Wesley Hill
  9. Real Sex by Lauren Winner
  10. The Christian Family by Herman Bavinck
  11. Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry by Kathy Keller
  12. Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp

I do not agree with everything written in these books, but they certainly contain the theology and practice of which I am most convinced and hope to embody. I hope you all find this list helpful.