Is Football Too Violent for Christians?

This week, in perhaps the most violent football game of the NFL season, Monday Night Football featured the Cincinnati Bengals hosting their rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers. By the time it ended, Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman called it “terrible …

Top 17 Books of 2017: The Best New Christian Nonfiction

Top 17 Books of 2017

Once again, I’m honored to choose my favorite nonfiction Christian books published in the last calendar year, my twelfth consecutive list. 2017 proved to be the most difficult year yet (and I’m sure I said the same thing last year), all driven by aggressive publishing momentum.

This year about 120 new titles caught my attention, and I set out to read the best of them until I could whittle down a list of my 17 favorite reads from the year. But before getting to the list, a few overall comments.

Female authors continue publishing new books at a swift pace, strong in 2014 and a little less prominent in 2015, but with more steam in 2016 and 2017. Women are now a mainstay and growing proportion of Christian publishing.

Christian publishing continues to deliver on aesthetics across the board, both on cover design and interior design, illustrated by projects like the ESV Illuminated Bible from Crossway and the beautiful Lost Sermons of C.H. Spurgeon series (volume 1 and volume 2) from B&H.

Once again, 2017 did not quite deliver biblical theology or commentaries like we saw in 2015, although we do continue to see solid contributions in two premier series: New Studies in Biblical Theology (IVP) and Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Crossway).

Closer to home, God richly blessed and Bethlehem College & Seminary with seven new titles in 2017:

It was a strong year for books related to singleness, marriage, and dating. Along with Segal’s gospel-wise plea to the not-yet married, Deepak Reju helped women steer clear of man-duds; David Powlison offered healing for the sexually broken and hope forward in Christ; Ben Stuart helped to wisely navigate singleness, dating, engagement, and the early married years; and Lydia Brownback tackled the loneliness that will find us whether we “win” or “lose” at romance.

Several significant books in 2017 again attempted to unknot the questions over how Christians best relate to politics and society (no small task). The most talked about book of the year was Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, a strategy of withdrawal from culture in order to better engage with it. Also noteworthy was James K.A. Smith’s Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, a call to return to a robust Augustinian and Kuyperian model in all its glory. Speaking of Abraham Kuyper, Craig Bartholomew wrote a captivating book, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction (a book I reviewed for The Gospel Coalition). And 2017 marked the midpoint in Logos/Lexham Press’s ambitious English-translation work of the 12-volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology.

Over the last eighteen months, we’ve seen a swell of valuable books for the suffering and grieving — covering issues as broad as loneliness, depression, disability, chronic pain, terminal illness, raising special-needs kids, and the anguish of losing children. In 2016 we saw ten books from Eswine, Howard, the Wilsons, Ryken, Furman, Guthrie, Tada, Risner, Voskamp, and Taylor. In 2017, six more titles were added from Lydia Brownback, Russ Ramsey, Sarah Walton and Kristen Wetherell, Richard Belcher, Kelly Kapic, and Connie Dever. And two more noteworthy titles are slated for release in 2018: one from counselor David Powlison and a memoir from Jack Deere. The concentration of so many edifying titles, in such a short publishing season, is nothing less than a remarkable work of the Spirit.

A Thank You

Assembling this list each year reminds me of the breadth of Christian content — the collection of writers and the diversity of genres that are serving the church today. Writing Christian nonfiction is hard work, and it’s mostly not lucrative — so I remain grateful for the writers and the publishers and the editors and the designers who sacrificially labor behind each of these titles. We live in the golden age of publishing, and reading (like writing) is a way of serving others, as we link helpful books to the specific needs and interests of our friends around us.

With my gratitude for all the labors of 2017, here’s my list of the year’s 17 best books, lumped together and sorted by my scientifically subjective algorithm of intuition about what books I think (1) are broadly valuable to the most readers, (2) contribute well to a specific topic, (3) succeed in their intended aims, and (4) will endure to serve the church for years ahead.

Top 17 Books of 2017

17. The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together by Jared Wilson

Jared Wilson has written a shelf of valuable books, but this one is his best yet. “For the sake of the cut-ups and the screw-ups, the tired and the torn-up, the weary and the wounded — how about we demystify discipleship?” Yes, and who isn’t inside these categories? Discipleship is for the cut-ups and the screw-ups, the tired and the torn-up, the weary and the wounded. Such a great sentence (worth repeating!) — and such a wise book. Few modern authors pastor my soul through prose better than Wilson.

16. The Messiah Comes to Middle-Earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in The Lord of the Rings by Philip Ryken

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series, intentionally didn’t write allegories (like Narnia). But in his letters, Tolkien tips us off that spiritual truths saturate his works. So how do we best mine out all the spiritual allusions in the intentionally de-religioned world of Middle Earth? One way is to find the threefold offices of Christ in the mix of characters that point to Christ. “The center of all joy is Jesus Christ — the word-speaking prophet, the sacrifice-offering priest, and the peace-bringing king.” From this center, Ryken works back from Christ in this beautifully illuminating volume, a capstone to what was perhaps the best twelve months in Tolkien studies and monographs I’ve ever seen, which included Eilmann on Tolkien’s “highly distinctive Romantic longing for a lost world”; Coutras on Tolkien’s supreme articulation of majesty and splendor; and Rhone on Tolkien’s “mythopoeic” worldview which connects him to Lewis, Chesterton, and MacDonald.

15. Exodus by T. Desmond Alexander

The year was rather slow for large academic commentaries, but this volume would have been the most important and significant commentary in just about any year. An 800-page offering on Exodus from one of the best minds in biblical theology, it’s a very good conservative commentary on the text with great care given to apply this prominent Old Testament narrative into the sweeping storyline of Scripture — like few but Alexander can pull off. Also noteworthy, Andreas Köstenberger on the Pastoral Epistles.

14. The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels by Brandon Crowe

Whenever I read Jonathan Edwards on the glory of Christ, I am surprised again at how much time he devotes to Christ’s humility, obedience, and demonstrations of love — the nitty-gritty acts of Christ’s life. Crowe does something similar here. Jesus is the true second Adam in every way. In his life, words, and attitudes, Christ was everything Adam failed to be, and on this basis he becomes our substitutionary atonement. The book echoes with the last words of J. Gresham Machen: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” The eternal generation of Christ was reclaimed in a bold way in 2017. May this also be known as the year that we reclaimed the active obedience of Christ — because without the life-obedience of Christ, there would be no gospel hope for him to offer us.

13. Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry Hurtado

To be a Christian in the first two centuries was to be weird — gloriously bizarre and odd. Christians handled marriage and sex and worship and social action so distinctly from the Roman pagans around them, it was impossible not to notice the differences. Hurtado has masterfully recreated the stark contrasts in this book. His egalitarian worldview emerges in places (especially when talking about household codes, which he sees as socially constructed, not originating in the Creator’s design). But this message of the cultural distinctiveness of Christ’s followers is especially relevant for us today. A rich and wonderful historical study! For other notable works in historical studies, see Michael Kruger on the church’s identity struggle in the second century, and Brian Wright on the place of communal reading in the Greco-Roman world, and how the practice gave shape to the New Testament and fueled gospel spread.

12. God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs by Tim and Kathy Keller

Following their 2015 devotional in the Psalms, the Kellers have produced a new companion devotional on the Proverbs. As you would expect, it’s a magnificent collection of bite-sized wisdom from Scripture and from their decades of cultural engagement, church leadership, parenting, and marriage. This book would be a delightful way to invest a year of reflection.

11. God’s Very Good Idea: A True Story of God’s Delightfully Different Family by Trillia Newbell and Catalina Echeverri

We need more brave authors willing to jump into the present racial tensions and offer Christ-centered vision and hope for ethnic unity. Trillia Newbell has written a very wise walk through creation, fall, redemption, and restoration — all highlighting God’s plan for the diversity among his image bearers, and all wonderfully explained and illustrated for children. For adults, see Matt Carter and Aaron Ivey’s historical novel Steal Away Home: Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Johnson, Unlikely Friends on the Passage to Freedom.

10. A Reader’s Guide to the Major Writings of Jonathan Edwards edited by Nathan Finn and Jeremy Kimble

Great old books are important for a reason, but many of the best books are also locked away from modern-day readers by ambiguities and dated debates that make them inaccessible. Helping readers ease into classics is one of the premier gifts that serious scholars offer to reading Christians. In this spirit, Finn and Kimble have edited and delivered a gift to unlock the great books of Jonathan Edwards. Every essay is solid. This year we also saw the massive 700-page Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia edited by Harry Stout, a significant library add for any serious student of Edwards’s life, thought, and theology.

9. True Feelings: God’s Gracious and Glorious Purpose for Our Emotions by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Mahaney Whitacre

The authors write, “Whatever our emotional struggle — and we should put every confusing, bizarre, and unruly feeling in this category, leaving nothing out — we will find help and hope in the Bible. There is hope for the teenage girl who wonders why her emotions feel out of control and hope for the woman whose hormones stalk her every month. There is hope for the employee trying to manage stress in the workplace and for the mom who hates that she’s always getting angry at her kids. . . . When we lose heart, when we feel helpless to change our emotions, we must remember the gospel. God, who did not spare his own Son to save us from our sins (Romans 8:32), will not leave us to drown in our emotional rip currents” (27). It’s an incredibly insightful book. Other notable books for women in 2017 include Lydia Brownback on the Psalms, Shona Murray on burnout, Jen Pollock Michel and Courtney Reissig on the dignity of the home, and Christina Fox on union with Christ and friendship.

8. Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken by David Powlison

Every one of us lives with a fallen and sinful sexuality, and every one of us is influenced by the sexual dysfunctions of others. Most books on sexual brokenness focus on one particular struggle, but leave it to David Powlison to discern patterns of similarity that we can all relate to, and to simultaneously address the gospel in two directions. “Some books are written to help people who struggle with their immoral sexual impulses. Other books are written for people who struggle with the impact of sexual betrayal, molestation, and assault. But this book will intentionally look in both directions,” Powlison writes, because “there are not two gospels, one for sinners and one for sufferers! There is the one gospel of Jesus Christ, who came to make saints of all kinds of sinner-sufferers and sufferer-sinners, whatever our particular configuration of defections and distresses.” In 2017, Powlison also released the book How Does Sanctification Work?

7. Entering into Rest: Ethics as Theology by Oliver O’Donovan

Likely the most revered academic ethicist today, Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan is writing books that will be read and studied for decades to come. This year marked the completion of the third and final volume in his series “Ethics as Theology” — or “ethics after Pentecost,” as he has called it (see volume 1 and volume 2). To use the author’s dynamic explanation of the trilogy, the series is intended to explain “how the active self expands into loving knowledge, is narrowed down to action, and finally attains rest in its accomplishment” (1:103). Throughout the series, O’Donovan has shown keen awareness of the centrality of joy in ethics, making him especially valuable to Christian Hedonists. This final volume speaks of rest and discipleship within an eschatological hope, weighted with the expectations of future redemption driving our lives and loves now. It is the capstone on a magnificent trilogy I’ll be rereading for years to come.

6. Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End by David Gibson

If the author of Ecclesiastes could behold the raw tonnage of commentaries on Ecclesiastes on the market today, he would surely face-palm in the regret of an unheeded sage. Didn’t he warn us about the overabundance of books? Yes, he did (Ecclesiastes 12:12). So this book would at least have to be a superior offering to warrant the paper it’s printed on. And it is. In the words of Don Carson, “The past two decades have witnessed quite a number of popular expositions of Ecclesiastes — and this one by David Gibson is the best of them.” Consider the mic dropped.

5. Practicing the Power: Welcoming the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Your Life by Sam Storms

Continuationism, as a conviction, is alive and well in Reformed circles, signaling a great victory over several years of theological opposition. But now what? Now that we have defended the spiritual gifts, how do we pursue them in practice? This is the hard work, the daunting task, and the somewhat awkward and uncomfortable practice of moving out from the safety of theological debates and into the rather unpredictable work of the Holy Spirit. Sam Storms has been preparing for this moment for years, and we have been long awaiting a book like this one. In the words of pastor Matt Chandler, in his foreword, “It is not an exaggeration to say I have been waiting for this book for close to fifteen years.” Chandler speaks on behalf of many pastors and believers of this new openness, this new eagerness, not merely open to the gifts of the Spirit, but now in earnest pursuit of those gifts in practice, for ourselves, for the spread of the gospel, and for the health of our local churches (1 Corinthians 14:1). Writes Storms, “we are responsible to actively and energetically pursue spiritual gifts” (40). The rest of the book explains how.

4. Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture by John Piper

This is the second book in Piper’s major new trilogy. Book 1, A Peculiar Glory, released in the spring of 2016, offered Piper’s account of Scripture’s self-attesting authority. Book 2, Reading the Bible Supernaturally, launched in the spring, explains how Piper goes about reading and studying to find meaning in Scripture, which requires both supernatural and natural mechanics. Finally, Book 3, Expository Exultation, launches in the spring of 2018, and there Piper will explain how preaching is an act of worship. That’s the trilogy: authority, meaning, heralding. This new book in the middle is loaded with practical help for approaching the Bible, especially in part 3, pages 225–390, principles which no Bible reader will want to miss. To hear Piper himself explain the architecture of his new trilogy, see Ask Pastor John episode 1047.

3. Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World by Eric Metaxas

It was the year of Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was a master at preaching and publishing and convincing masses. And he was also a haunted man with demons in his past that we must reckon with today. But of all the books published in 2017 on Luther and the Reformation, this 500-page version of Luther’s life is most filled with cultural detail, wit, prose verve, and creative energy — as we have come to expect from the pen of Metaxas.

2. Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk by Michelle DeRusha

The Protestant Reformation reclaimed a lot of things — including the beauty and value of marriage. The Luthers enjoyed a sweet marriage in many ways, but it was not without challenges. Katharina, the runaway nun, carried incredible domestic responsibilities, but was not meek, and often displayed a very strong will. Martin, the renegade monk, respected women, but made disparaging comments about them too, at times, even once making it clear that his ideal wife would be chiseled from stone as a quiet and obedient woman (cringe). Needless to say, marriage did not come naturally to either of them, but in the end, “Luther found the best possible partner in Katharina, a woman who deeply loved and respected him, yet also managed his volatile moods and his difficult personality and offered him intellectual stimulation and companionship. Luther undoubtedly understood how challenging and difficult he was. Feisty and strong, courageous and smart, industrious and utterly devoted, Katharina was, in fact, the perfect match for Martin Luther, and he knew it” (212). They do complement one another in a beautiful way. In her foreword to this book, Karen Swallow Prior writes, “Luther’s decision to marry Katharina von Bora specifically contributed to the Protestant understanding of marriage because of the particular ways these two particular people shaped one another and the life they created together. . . . [In our own time] — when marriage seems to be at once despised and idolized, both within the church and outside it, and when the very definition of marriage has been challenged, chastened, and changed — the radical marriage of Katharina and Martin Luther serves as a timely remembrance for the church.” Amen. May the 500th anniversary of the Reformation be a celebration of the value and dignity of marriage, and the preciousness of the home and domestic life — a mash-up of daily chores, messy struggles, spousal tensions, sacrificial love, wholehearted commitment, and transcendent joys and glories. Lastly, I should say this book makes for a fascinating look at one of the most unique couples in church history, but it’s not necessarily a reliable blueprint for every Christian marriage. (Hang tight — books that explain the design of marriage from Scripture will headline 2018.)

1. Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography by Herman Selderhuis

I first met Selderhuis by way of his 2009 biography of John Calvin. This new work of Luther’s life is similar — a Dutch biography translated into English, using sentences that are short, punchy, and precise. I don’t know of another theologian or historian who labors more diligently to make his works accessible like Selderhuis. No doubt we have lost something of him in the translation, but what we have in this biography is a rich gift to English readers. As Metaxas writes long-windedly and often seems to intrude into the narrative, Selderhuis writes with the subtle touch of brevity and precision of a man trying to paint with bright colors while keeping his own fingerprints out of the portrait. He gets details right, as you would expect from a scholar of his repute. (Of all the books I read on the Reformation this year, none better laid out the subtle historical transformation of Roman Catholic indulgences from a rather harmless certificate, originally, to something that became increasingly bold, dangerous, and finally thoroughly heretical.) Selderhuis’s skills — his readability, style, nuance, and focus on the interior of Luther’s spiritual life — combine to make this work my favorite read of 2017, the year of Martin Luther.

Honorable Mentions

The New City Catechism Devotional: God’s Truth for Our Hearts and Minds edited by Collin Hansen. It was a very good year for our friends at The Gospel Coalition, but this new catechism brought catechesis back on the map. Not only did it bring back the category, The Gospel Coalition delivered on an easy-to-use catechism (print and app) to help us all get back into the habit. Well designed and delivered, it is flexible enough to be useful for a variety of ages.

Exalting Jesus in Hebrews by Albert Mohler. For all his notoriety as a seminary reformer and worldview commentator on the daily news, Mohler’s preaching often goes unheralded. This new expositional commentary through Hebrews, developed from his pulpit ministry, is a good reminder of his exegetical skill. Beautifully Christ-exalting, this book is a solid expositional commentary to inspire preachers and a feast of Christ’s glory to any hungry soul.

This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years by Jaquelle Crowe. Written from one teen to other teens, this book is bold, compassionate, and articulate on what it means to live for Christ and to build into a local church. In my endorsement, I wrote, “Wise teens need straight talk — bold talk! — the kind of advice that is sharp enough to help them cut through the false promises and lies of our culture and blunt enough to push back all the old, tired stereotypes of teenagers. . . . These precious years are not the time to slack off; they’re the time to stand out.”

A Small Book about a Big Problem: Meditations on Anger, Patience, and Peace by Edward Welch. Packaged in a fifty-day devotional, Welch’s latest book is a short, sharp, and direct weapon to war against personal struggles with anger in all its root causes. The reader will learn again to love by putting off judgmental spirits, grumbling, jealousy, selfishness, and blame-shifting. By relinquishing control over others, readers can find the freedom and joy of a life of self-giving love to others and humility before the eyes of God.

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch. Tech books are the rage these days, specifically in helping us limit and resist the ubiquity of digital media that wants to saturate our teens, our homes, and our lives 24-7. This was one of the year’s better outlines for how to bring balance and digital sanity into the habits and routines of the home. It’s a noble, rational account for why Christian families should resist the intrusions of the digital age, though I think in the end, Crouch undersells the relevance of Scripture to speak to the heart impulses and desires captivated by the digital age (merely a dozen Bible citations). “We are continually being nudged by our devices toward a set of choices,” Crouch writes. “The question is whether those choices are leading us to the life we actually want. I want a life of conversation and friendship, not distraction and entertainment; but every day, many times a day, I’m nudged in the wrong direction. One key part of the art of living faithfully with technology is setting up better nudges for ourselves” (35). It’s a book of useful nudge-suggestions.

This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel by Trevin Wax. Trevin Wax continues to show his polymathic wisdom, here by looking at the ways Scripture helps us navigate culture. This is a broad book, looking at major trends with winsome boldness, all aimed at pointing us to where we can find the joy that Apple and Hollywood will never deliver — in the face of Jesus Christ. As Marvin Olasky writes in the foreword, “Trevin Wax is thirty-five, young by the standard of theologians who tend to peak at seventy, but he has an old head.” Yes, and a huge heart and an engaging style of writing.

The Gospel According to Paul: Embracing the Good News at the Heart of Paul’s Teachings by John MacArthur. It was a big year for MacArthur, with a new 1,000-page systematic theology published in January. But in the year of the Reformation, and the celebration of the gospel reclaimed, this title was especially relevant and valuable — a classic MacArthur re-circling around the glories of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “In the entire universe, there is nothing loftier or more important than the glory of the Lord. God’s glory constitutes the whole purpose for which we were created. Indeed, this is the ultimate reason for everything that has ever happened — from the dawn of creation until now” (170). Thus, “[God’s] righteous indignation and his perfect justice require an appropriate penalty for sin, because to forego punishment would be to allow his holiness to be trampled underfoot by agents of evil. For God to do that would be to abdicate his authority over his own universe” (161). These cosmic realities set the proper context for beholding the glories of the gospel in Paul’s epistles, which fill the other pages in this solid book.

Alive in Him: How Being Embraced by the Love of Christ Changes Everything by Gloria Furman. Furman’s new book is an enthusiastic study into the new-creational themes of Ephesians and a very ambitious attempt to translate cosmic Christology to the dishwater level of daily domestic life. If anyone could pull it off, it’s Furman. J.I. Packer’s priceless foreword to this volume says it all: “Digging into Ephesians had thrilled Mrs. Furman’s socks off, just as deep down it had done mine two generations ago (and, for the record, still does)” he said, reminiscing of his days of teaching. “Paul’s concentrated layout in Ephesians of the glory of God’s grace — the life-giving, price-paying love of the Father, the life-reshaping mediation of the Son, and the life-transforming ministry of the Holy Spirit — is breathtaking; Gloria Furman feels it, as do I, and evidently we agree that every healthy Christian will feel the same, now and to all eternity.”

The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary by Jonathan Pennington. No book of 2017 confronted more of my Bible assumptions than this one. I now read the Sermon on the Mount with new eyes, seeing it less as a series of “flat-footed conditional statements” (you do this, and I’ll reward you with that), and more specifically as a “Christocentric, flourishing-oriented, kingdom-awaiting, eschatological wisdom exhortation” (15). That’s a loaded phrase, and this commentary unpacks it well. No doubt, this book of vast detail needs to be investigated and debated within the academic guild, but it also serves as a stunning example of what we need more of: men and women who have given their lives to isolated sections of Scripture, writing winsomely to share their findings with the rest of us. (Technically speaking for a moment: if in the end, Pennington is right on the protasis/apodosis of the macarisms in the Sermon, this book will be a game-changer for years to come.)

Genesis 1–11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators by Samuel Bray and John Hobbins. A law professor (Bray) and a pastor and Hebrew scholar (Hobbins) got together to retranslate the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Rarely are we brought into the minds of translators as they wrestle for the right words and phrases to address ambiguities and to convey meaning to the reader, and that’s exactly what we get in this book. Initially skeptical over whether I would enjoy reading two translators justify their decisions, my doubts were dispelled rather soon in the drama of their translation struggles. This is a new English translation, with a robust explanation of the translation decisions, ultimately to enrich our appreciation for Genesis 1–11. I can only hope Bray and Hobbins will continue translating the rest of Genesis, the Psalms, Job, and perhaps the entire Old Testament. I’d be eager to read it! For more background on this volume, and their overall strategy, see this interview with the authors.

Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World by Mike Cosper. Our secular, technological culture pragmatically collapses all things into what they can do and what we can do with them — and we grow completely incapable of thinking about what things are. Which is to say, in the secular age of efficiency and productivity and technique, what we need more than anything else is a big dose of awe and wonder injected directly into the soul. But there’s no app for that! This type of anti-DIY book to push against the thinking of the age is the very type of book most people see no purpose for, making it a risky endeavor by authors and publishers alike. But Mike Cosper took the risk and pulled it off, celebrating things awesome and wonderful, about as well as can be done on paper, and all in his trademark style. Related books on secularism and awe include Barnabas Piper on curiosity, and The Gospel Coalition’s Our Secular Age (see Cosper’s contribution there, too).

Faith. Hope. Love.: The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace by Mark Jones. Mark Jones’s bibliography of authored books is impressive in both quantity and quality. Anything he writes, I read — and for good reason, proven here. In this book, Jones has set out to show that the virtue-triplicate — faith, hope, and love — is very often bound together in Scripture (see Romans 5:1–5; Galatians 5:5–6; Ephesians 4:2–5; Colossians 1:4–5; 1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8; Hebrews 6:10–12; 1 Peter 1:3–8). He then expounds each virtue in the form of a catechism, focused on heart application, and always with an open ear to the most pastorally shrewd insights of the eighteenth century’s greatest pastors. Jones channels Edwards when he writes dazzling sentences like these: “[God’s] attributes — all of them — satisfy us, because knowledge of his being is the chief source of our joy, blessedness, and glory. God is also satisfied in us, for he delights in the good in us, which ultimately comes from him. He cannot but love those gifts that he himself gives to us” (155). Also worth commendation this year is the other book Jones published, God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God.

Retrieving Eternal Generation edited by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain. A tornado tag-team match is comprised of six wrestlers who brawl on the same canvas, at the same time, divided into two teams. That’s what the theological world looked like in 2016 over the hotly debated eternal generation of Christ. This book is the ultimate fruit of those debates and the reclaiming of Christ’s eternal generation by a new generation. It’s a doctrine worth defending, and one to which most of us had never given any serious thought, even up to a few years ago. Personal highlights for me include essays by Matthew Emerson on Proverbs 8, Don Carson on John 5:26, and Christina Larsen on Jonathan Edwards — “For Edwards, the eternal generation is central to the church’s confession because, in one way or another, the Father’s eternal happiness in his glorious Son stands at the beginning and end of all things.” Amen. It’s an important debate, and Sanders and Swain and Co. have delivered a book worth reading with care and delight.

Previous Books of the Year

2016: The six-volume ESV Reader’s Bible (Crossway)

2015: Randy Alcorn, Happiness (Tyndale)

2014: Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton)

2013: Tom Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Baker)

2012: Steve DeWitt, Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything (Credo)

2011: Greg Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Baker)

2010: Don Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway) and The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Baker)

2009: Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale)

2008: The ESV Study Bible (Crossway) and Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Baker)

2007: Bruce Waltke, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Zondervan)

2006: Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Reformation Heritage)

Don’t Be That Guy: Thirty No’s in Paul’s Letters

We can invest the rest of our lives plunging deeper into the writings of the apostle Paul to get a better view of the glories of Christ to delight our souls.

In Paul’s letters (as elsewhere in the Bible) we are told glorious indicatives of truth l…

Harvey Weinstein and the Crisis of Masculinity

The Crisis of Masculinity

Actress Emma Thompson, 58, recently spoke out about movie producer, and alleged woman-hunting predator, Harvey Weinstein, saying he is just the tip of the iceberg of a Hollywood epidemic. Men abusing their power to force sexual advances on less-powerful females is, she says, our cultural “crisis of masculinity.”

How many other vultures prowl the hotels of Hollywood?

“Many,” said Thompson. “Maybe not to that degree. Do they have to all be as bad as him to make it count? Does it only count if you really have done it to loads and loads of women? Or does it count to do it to one woman once?

“This is a part of our world — a woman’s world — since time immemorial.”

The flood of recent news leaves us with questions. Will the Weinstein scandal soon explode into a Catholic-Church-level scandal for Hollywood? How far will the reverberations sound? How many powerful Hollywood elites will be exposed and implicated? And how did Weinstein, long scolded for his unwanted sexual advances, find a celebrated home in liberal politics for this long?

What the last year has made clear is that sinful men with influence and authority often take advantage of women who lack it — and it’s a problem for the most powerful elites on the right, and now clearly a problem for the most powerful elites on the left. It is a crisis of masculinity for all.

And, as Thompson said, it has been around since time immemorial.

David and Bathsheba

The story of a high-power movie producer inviting an aspiring actress to his hotel room, at some point stepping into the bathroom, emerging in a robe, asking for a massage (or worse), should make us uncomfortable. But the storyline is not new.

In its most infamous version, we read of the predation of King David and his misuse of his authority, and his abuse of a woman (2 Samuel 11:1–12:23).

Standing on his rooftop perch, looking down over the city under his control, David beheld a bathing woman. What he saw in the nakedness of Bathsheba was not a woman at the end of a long day partaking of a relaxing bubble bath as part of her daily convenience or soothing comfort. Like any other devoted Jewish woman, Bathsheba likely bathed once a month, a ceremonial necessity, an act of faith fitted to her very specific biological cycle (see 2 Samuel 11:4).

Most fundamentally, what David beheld was Bathsheba’s act of holy obedience to God’s command, an essential part of her faith and purity, as it was part of the restoration of her sexual availability to her husband — a husband currently away to fight the king’s war.

David turns this very private moment of Bathsheba’s self-touch into a moment for lustful curiosity and a fantasy leading to his own self-gratification.

It’s the kind of story that should make us all very uncomfortable.

We know where the shameful story heads next — from the lustful sight, to an abuse of his kingly authority to call her to his palace, then his bed, and then all the fallout: the pregnancy, the murder of her husband, the death of the resulting child, and the family turmoil that would haunt David’s own house as a result — one sin compounded by the next sin compounded by the next sin, all leading to a cascade of consequences.

The Sin

What makes this entire tragedy more vivid are the detailed accounts we are given of David’s brokenness and repentance after he was “outed” for his evil. Using a proverb of a predation, the prophet Nathan opens David’s eyes to see himself as the selfish thief of an unlawful pleasure (2 Samuel 12:1–15). The moment is as greedy and invasive as can be imagined, the prototypical sin of a man that echoes in the predacious role played by the Weinsteins of Hollywood and the conservative talkshow hosts of New York City.

On top of it all, we get a full Psalm from David debriefing his confession on his face before the God he has wronged. There David confesses that his sin is “ever before me.” He has sinned against a woman, sinned against her husband, sinned against his army, and sinned against his kingdom. And yet, all that is far and away surpassed by his offense against God. David confesses in prayer, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:3–4).

David’s lustful gaze at Bathsheba was a sin against God because, among other reasons, he was taking advantage of her in her obedience to God. She was following God. She was living in a moment when obedience called for self-care. And it was in this moment that David saw his opportunity to capitalize on for his own self-gratification.

David was blinded from his lust from seeing a woman as a God-honoring woman. His failure of masculinity (in fact, his failure as ruler) was in failing to protect her obedience to God. And this is at the heart of our crisis of masculinity today: men whose self-centeredness cannot appreciate the holy beauty of a woman’s act of obedience to God’s call over her life. Whether it is an actress God has called and gifted to act, or a female gifted by God to sing and perform on stage, or a woman working under the authority of a powerful male boss, every woman must be protected for her obedience to God’s design for her life.

True Masculinity

Whether it’s Roman Catholic priests, powerful television hosts, Hollywood directors, male authorities in female gymnastics, or any other positions of male power, there remains a crisis of masculinity — a crisis of knowing that true masculinity is self-giving for the sake of the benefit and flourishing of women.

We are called to teach our boys that the girls in their schools are living their lives before God, and likely called to be wives of other men. We are to keep telling married men that your wife is not your possession, but God’s, to be protected and guarded as she fulfills her faithful obedience to her God.

This crisis of masculinity is an old tale — an old tragedy — since time immemorial. It plagues the left and the right. And all of us men would be hopelessly caught in this sin, had it not been for another King, one greater than David, who could meet a vulnerable woman at a remote well, not to take advantage of her, but to give her eternal joy.

In him we can still hope for the resurgence of the glorious masculinity God intended — men not bent on taking, but giving. Men not fixed on self-gratification, but ready to sacrifice self for her good.

How Martin Luther Built a Brand That Changed the World

The Reformation spread when an unknown monk leveraged a rudimentary piece of technology developed by a devout Roman Catholic.Listen Now

The Ordinary Virgin Mary: Hellen Stirke (Died 1543)

The Ordinary Virgin Mary

The drama of the Protestant Reformation casts big personalities and major characters, the types of men now etched into myths, legends, and giant stone figures. But the Reformation is also the story of everyday, ordinary followers of Christ, mostly forgotten, who lived out Reformation theology on the ground — and who paid the price for it with their lives. Martyrs like Hellen Stirke.

Mary’s Equal

Hellen was a fairly average Scottish Christian in the city of Perth, dedicated to daily domestic work as a wife and mother. Her life remained unnoticed to history until the birth of her last child in 1544.

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When the time arrived for Hellen’s labor and delivery, Catholic tradition called for earnest prayers to the Virgin Mary. Having a good sense of Scripture, Hellen repudiated these petitions. It was a tradition she would not follow. Her baffled midwives pressed her to make such a prayer, but she refused the ritual. The physical risk was real, but the prayers were nothing more than superstitious insurance.

“If I had lived in the days of the Virgin,” Hellen said with poise, “God might have looked likewise to my humility and base estate, as he did the Virgin’s, and might have made me the mother of Christ.” Her childbed sermonette must have triggered gasps. But Hellen was settled and comforted by her theology, knowing her prayers were going directly to God through her Savior Jesus Christ.

“I Will Not Bid You Good Night”

News of Hellen’s refusal to pray to Mary, and her bold claim that she was on equal standing before God, very soon found its way to the ears of the local Catholic clergy and quickly up the chain to the presiding cardinal. His response was swift to snuff out this spark of Protestant theology. Before long, Hellen was arrested and imprisoned, along with her husband and four other outspoken Protestants in the city. The small group was soon found guilty of “heresy” and sentenced to death. The following day, soldiers brought Hellen, her husband, and the condemned Protestants to the gallows.

Hellen asked to die side by side with her husband, James Finlason, but her request was denied. Men were to be hanged, women drowned, and James would go first. Holding her young child in her arms, Hellen approached her husband, kissed him, and gave him these parting words:

“Husband, be glad, for we have lived together many joyful days, and this day, in which we must die, we ought to esteem the most joyful of all, because we shall have joy forever. Therefore I will not bid you good night, for we shall shortly meet in the kingdom of heaven.”

James was hanged before her eyes. His life on earth done, eyes fell to Hellen, who was forced to hand her newborn to a nurse entrusted with the child’s care from this point. The authorities led Hellen to a nearby pond, bound her hands and feet, put her into a large gunnysack along with stones or weights, and threw her into the water like a bag of garbage. All for the crime of “blaspheming the Virgin Mary.”

A Cloud of Ordinary Witnesses

Heaven has all the details, but this is all we know of Hellen’s life. She was a bold woman made strong by Scripture. Her birthbed claim, that she was equally qualified to mother Jesus, was a radical ceremonial insubordination — but at the heart it was an act of faith, rendering the strata of all human superiority irrelevant in the presence of Christ’s supremacy.

Look deeper into the Reformation, and you will see that it’s more than printing presses and theses nailed to doors and theological debates. It’s the story of ordinary believers, husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, poised in the words of Scripture, reclaiming the primacy of Jesus Christ for their lives, their marriages, their families, and their eternal hopes, who stand as a cloud of witnesses calling us to do likewise. They call us to hold our biblical convictions without wavering, to enjoy God’s earthly blessings, and to endure all momentary afflictions now for the great eternal joy set before us.

Should Teens Own Smartphones?

Should Teens Own Smartphones?

When Silicon Valley’s 20-something techno-prodigies were awing the world with new, shiny, unveilings of iPods and then iPhones and then iPads, many of the inventors didn’t have kids. Few had teens. Now, most of them have kids, and many have teens — teenagers addicted to gadgets their parents birthed into the world years ago.

This is the story of Tony Fadell, a former Senior VP at Apple, known as the grandfather of the iPod, and a key player on the early design team for the iPhone. On the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone in an interview, he made this admission: “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?”

Fadell, a father of three, has come to see the addictive power of the iPhone, an addiction that cannot be removed. “I know what happens when I take technology away from my kids. They literally feel like you’re tearing a piece of their person away from them — they get emotional about it, very emotional. They go through withdrawal for two to three days.”

“This self-absorbing culture is starting to [really stink],” Fadell said. “Parents didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know this was a thing they needed to teach because we didn’t know for ourselves. We all kind of got absorbed in it.”

Yes — we all got absorbed — techies and teens and parents. All of us. And now we’re trying to figure out how to wisely manage our devices.

Teens, Smartphones, and Depression

Digital absorption has coincided with the fast-changing dynamics of public high school life. Last winter, I asked an assistant principal at a large Twin Cities high school (of more than 2,000 students) how her job has changed over the past two decades.

Much remains the same, she said. “But the one thing that has changed drastically in working with teenagers for over twenty years is the dependency they have now on the instant gratification and feedback from others. How many likes do I have? How many followers? And there’s a compulsion to put something online to see how many likes I can get. And if that wasn’t enough, what does it say about me?”

“There’s a really strong connection to this behavior and the increased mental health issues we’re seeing in the school,” she said. “Over the past three-to-five years I would say my job has changed the most, because we’re now dealing with so much more mental health. I don’t think it’s singularly because of technology, but I genuinely believe digital technology is a major factor. It changes everything from the way people relate with others to the way they see themselves.”

Destroying a Generation?

The cold sweats of Fadell and the eyewitness testimony of this assistant principal are captured in the haunting headline over a recent feature article published in The Atlantic, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?

iGen is the new label for those roughly 12-to-22-year-olds, born between 1995 and 2005. Among them, the warning signs are prevalent. “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” wrote author Jean Twenge of the struggles faced by the iGen-ers. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

“The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression,” and, “girls have borne the brunt of the rise in depressive symptoms among today’s teens.” Twenge cites sources that show depression is on the rise among both boys and girls. For boys, depressive symptoms rose 21% between 2012–2015. In the same span, rates among girls increased by 50%. The rates of suicide for both increased, too. Male suicides doubled; female suicides increased threefold.

From what I know about these spikes in depression, and what I have discovered about the allure of our devices, what we are addressing here are existential questions about the meaning of life and acceptance from others — massive questions, weighing heavy on a young generation. These are redemptive questions, identity questions, gospel issues.

Digital media force a teen and preteen into the 24-7 pressure cooker of peer approval. But it’s not just teens; all of us feel this addictive draw of our social media. Smartphones seem to influence us all in at least 12 potent ways.

But the question here is pretty straightforward: Given these warning signs, is it possible for a teen to resist the powers of culture and go smartphone-free through the middle school and high school years?

Smartphone-Free Teens

I asked Jaquelle Crowe, the author of the excellent book, This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years, that question. She provides us with a rare example of an iGen teen who postponed the adoption of a smartphone until age 18. I asked her what it was like to wait so long.

Jaquelle, thanks for your time to share your experience. Studies are beginning to suggest that rates of teen depression are on the rise, and there is no single factor to get all the blame. But the pervasiveness of smartphones among iGen teens has to be considered as a significant cause. Would this connection surprise you?

Absolutely not. Smartphones contribute significantly to the 24-7 approval culture we live in. There’s no escaping it. This is something our parents don’t always understand, because when they were teenagers, that culture was largely limited to the 9–3 school day, and then they retreated to the boredom of family life.

But now there’s 24-7 social media. There’s a constant comparison and peer approval game that cannot be escaped. And it’s crippling, exhausting, and undeniably stressful. You can’t get away from the likes, the shares, the texts, the pictures. It’s like the popularity contest never ends. And it works both ways. Your smartphone gives you a front-row seat to watch the popularity contest, too.

That is a powerful dynamic, hard to escape the popularity culture on both fronts (feeding it and watching it play out). You did not get a smartphone until you were 18, but you had friends with smartphones, right?

Yes, I did, and I was well aware that most of my peers had access to something I didn’t. I could name every friend who had a phone, simply because I would see their phone. If Alison got a phone, I knew about it. If Jared got a phone, I knew about it. Not because they flaunted it or shamed me, but because it was always around. Even if we were talking together, it would buzz or ping or they’d be fidgeting with it. If there was a pause, a moment of silence, a break, they’d be on their phones, and I’d be left in the lingering awkwardness and boredom.

It definitely fed my FOMO (fear of missing out). It fed into some insecurity. Even though my friends never made me feel weird for not having a smartphone, it was an expectation, so they were surprised when they discovered I didn’t have one. There were times when I was the outlier. And not only with friends but also with my generation at large. I’d be walking through the mall or waiting in line or stopped on the sidewalk, and I would look around, fully present and disconnected — and stare at a sea of teens glued to smartphones. I was an exception, and that felt uncomfortable.

At times, I felt lonely — even if I was surrounded by people. They were constantly connected and I was isolated. I felt confined by my lack of access. At the same time, those feelings were largely emotional and visceral because I agreed theoretically with my parents — that I didn’t need a phone right then.

I applaud your parents for this foresight and conviction. Most parents, I fear, simply cave to the pressure, as their teen caves to the pressure — a domino effect of pressures, and certainly one I feel as a parent. But it’s worth giving this decision critical thought, because introducing a fully functioning smartphone is a decision that cannot easily be undone. For you, how much trust does this call for on the part of a teen, to wait? It seems like you have to trust your parents more than your peers, and that’s a main struggle of the teen years.

It calls for trust, definitely. And connected to that, a willingness to submit and obey. Ultimately, it requires a recognition that your parents are actually looking out for your best interests — emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically — and that they know you better than your peers do.

The thing is, deep down, most teens know that. They just push back because not owning a smartphone makes them feel ashamed.

I assume you had access to a phone of some sort?

Yes. If I was going out, I’d often borrow my mom’s flip phone for emergencies. I almost never used it.

That’s wise. As for digital media, what did you have access to before the smartphone?

I had a computer, I had email, I had access to some social media. I technically could do everything from home. But in a digital world with an expanding reach, that still somehow seemed limited.

For sure. Speaking as a 20-year-old now, what would you say to parents who are weighing the pros/cons and reading all the news and the testimonies of parents of teens, and who are coming to the conclusion that delaying the smartphone in the life of their teen would be wise? What kind of pushback should they expect to hear from their teen?

To parents, I’d say: It is worth it to have your kids wait. I’ve seen it and heard it and can attest to it since I got my own smartphone — smartphones change you. They give you overwhelming and shocking access. They zap your attention span. They are massively addictive. You can (and should!) put up safeguards, but a smartphone fundamentally changes your heart and mind. If it’s possible for teens to delay that change, I think it is a wise consideration.

Teach your teens discipline and discernment before you entrust them with the dangers of a smartphone. Of course, smartphones are not inherently evil; they have the potential for great good. But they need to be wielded well.

If you’re making your teen wait, don’t delegitimize the painful exclusion they’ll feel but use this time to prepare them to use technology wisely and faithfully. In the hands of unprepared, immature teens, smartphones can be deadly.

As for pushback that a parent is sure to hear, teens will feel left out. That might make them frustrated, confused, lonely, or hurt, and if they lash out, that’s why. They might feel like they’re separated from their friends. They might feel the pain of peer pressure. They might fear missing out. They might even have some legitimate concerns (e.g., having a phone with them when they’re out by themselves).

Parents, in the face of this pushback, be willing to explain your reasoning. When your teens ask you, “Why can’t I have a smartphone?” they really don’t want you to say, “Because I told you so.” Even if they don’t agree with it, they will likely respect your willingness to reason with them and the depth of critical thought you’ve put into this.

Share your research with them. Introduce them to other teens (in person or online) who don’t have smartphones. Instead of treating them like a child (just saying, “No” and moving on), pursue thoughtful, honest dialogue with them. Allow them to keep the conversation going, and be willing to do the hard work of communication for the greater good of your relationship.

Very good. And perhaps we can close with what you would say directly to the teens in this scenario. What should they expect to face by way of internal and peer struggle?

To the teens who take this countercultural move, you are an outlier in your generation. Obedience in life requires avoiding every clingy weight that will trip you up in the Christian life (Hebrews 12:1). I can only encourage you to hold fast. It comes down to this. Hold fast.

Jesus is better than a smartphone. You will rehearse this truth over and over in your heart.

And when you feel burdened by exclusion and isolation, don’t despair. Your identity is not in fitting in or meeting superficial expectations. It’s in Christ alone. And he gives you one task: be faithful. Right now, that looks like obeying your parents and trusting their good intentions for you — and that may mean not having a smartphone for a time.

Don’t run from this reality in shame; embrace it in faith. Your joy is not found in cultural connectivity; it’s found in union with Christ. So hold fast, and be faithful. Your reward is coming and it is far greater than any loss you will feel in this life.

The Nail in the Coffin of Our Hearts: Five Hundred Years of Fighting Idolatry

The Nail in the Coffin of Our Hearts

Five hundred years ago, God ignited a small flame in Wittenberg, Germany, and it grew into the golden blaze of the Protestant Reformation. What started in the hands of Martin Luther’s fabled hammer swings, soon became a battering ram which rung across the culture, smashing every false image of God in the cultural worship of the day.

It got messy.

Yes, it smashed images and statues and shrines and icons and relics. But these were simply outward manifestations of the invisible idols rooted in sinful hearts — idols sometimes perpetuated under the guise of “Christianity.”

The Reformers perceived the ancient expression of idol-making as simply the expression of an inner idol, a falsely placed confidence. The Protestant Reformation was a declaration of war on vain thoughts about God. And when war is declared against vain thoughts about God, war is declared on the culture’s idols.

Idol Factory

John Calvin fought in this battle, famously writing that “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” But listen to what Calvin says a few sentences later.

Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God. (Institutes, 1:108)

Nothing is more dangerous than religious confidence in a fake god of our own imagining.

Martin Luther fought this same war, writing against Rome:

The wicked say and confess . . . “I am a monk. I serve God with vows and ceremonies. Because of this he will give me eternal life.” But who tells you that you thus are worshiping the true God, when he has not commanded these things? Therefore you have made up for yourself some god who wants these things, although there is no true God who requires this or who wants to give eternal life because of this. What then are you worshiping except an idol of your own heart, whom you think the righteousness of your works pleases? (Works, 18:9–10)

Hear the unmasked lie: “I’ll be happy once I attain my spiritual security in my own meritorious deeds and vows and ceremonies.”

This claim is a false idol — a false security in the flesh — a false image of God and a false gospel and a false god altogether.

Shallow Theology

The Protestant Reformation was ignited by this confrontation with vain securities. The Reformers opposed images and statues and shrines and icons and relics. But far more central, the Reformers were aiming at the doctrinal idols, the false claims about God, and the presumptions concerning God that misled whole generations (Colossians 2:8; 2 Corinthians 10:4–5).

The Reformers drew from the first three commands to challenge this universal attraction of idols in every culture.

  • Command 1 in Exodus 20:3 — Don’t follow other gods.
  • Command 2 in Exodus 20:4–6 — Don’t corrupt your worship of God with vain images.
  • Command 3 in Exodus 20:7 — Don’t use God’s name in vain.

The three commands are three divine warnings against vain and shallow thoughts about God.

Warning 1 forbids syncretism. Don’t think that you can mix God with your worship of idols. If you want one-third of God, and two-thirds of other idols, you get none of God. Syncretism is vain thinking about God.

Warning 2 forbids reductionism. Don’t think that you can reduce God down into something manageable that you can hold in one hand like a household idol or a little golden calf. The earth is his footstool (Isaiah 66:1). Reductionism of God is vain thinking about God.

Warning 3 forbids presumption. Don’t speak rashly of God. It is vanity to think that we can invoke God’s name to cover over our ignorance of who he really is. Presumption about God is a cloak over vain thinking about him.

At root, all the physical idols of the Old Testament lie about God. That’s all they can do: lie. Idols are birthed from lies. Thus, in turn, idols can only preach sermons of deceit to their worshipers (Habakkuk 2:18; Zechariah 10:2; Jeremiah 10:15).

And as Luther discovered in the text of Scripture, the golden calf was fashioned with a stylus, a “graving tool” originally meant to write truth about God, but instead used to shape a golden lie (Exodus 32:4).

Our Idols Today

Taking aim at the religious idols of the age would become the battlefront as the Reformers reclaimed and proclaimed the epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Romans.

Man’s heart is an idol factory, and it took an entire revolution to slow its gears. Preachers had to be trained and sent out, evangelists had to take up the call, missionaries had to sail across dark seas to unknown lands, translators had to bring Scripture into the vernacular of the people, and healthy local churches had to grow so they could serve in this war. Every believer had to resist the idol factory of their heart by filling their hearts with Christ and nourishing themselves with robust knowledge of who God has revealed himself to be in Scripture.

This was the central concern the Reformers aimed at 500 years ago. Shallow thinking about God always replaces God, and sets in his place a fraudulent idol of security or sex or wealth or power or even of religion.

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Martin Luther didn’t stand alone 500 years ago. Nor does he stand alone today.

To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we invite you to join us on a 31-day journey, beginning October 1, just 5–7 minutes each day, to meet the many heroes of the Reformation.

The sad reality is that Scripture warns us over and over that we are all idol-makers. Seven billion polytheists today cannot (and will not) stop worshiping, because they cannot stop placing their hope and future security in things. Sovereign grace must break our idolatrous impulses.

As John Calvin so famously put it: The human heart is an idol factory, churning out new idols like the conveyor belt in a manufacturing plant rolling out new widgets. Viral idols gush out of fallen hearts and flood every nook and cranny of media in our culture — in social media, television, music, movies, and novels and memoirs.

A long time ago in Wittenberg, Germany, a monk ignited a 500-year war on idolatry. And the Reformation flame endures because the fundamental battle wars on today.

Do You Get ‘It’?

Do You Get ‘It’?

Grossing $117 million in its opening weekend, and $218.7 million in its first 10 days, the new horror movie It fast became the highest-grossing September release in Hollywood history.

The nightmare-to-paper thriller from Stephen King, about the child-hunting clown named Pennywise, was first an award-winning novel (1986), turned TV miniseries (1990), turned R-rated film phenomenon (2017).

But if a horrifying clown is good for the box office, it’s proving bad for the clowns-for-hire business. New York City clown John Nelson claims he lost six kid birthday gigs in the first week after It was released. In response he launched a pro-clown rally in his city to “raise enough awareness so when people think of clowns they won’t think of scary murderers.”

A group of clowns rising up in revolt brings a smile to my face like no clown has for many years (even if Nelson’s rally may have simply been a publicity stunt for the film, according to new reports).

Any clown with literary sense would know that since at least the time of Shakespeare, clowns have been called on stage, not to relieve tension but more often to jar the audience and to amplify the horrors of the storyline. The bard’s clowns didn’t draw blood, but their appearance often anticipated a tragic turn (Nason).

Why I Don’t Watch Horror

The wild success of horror movies in our culture, especially the most graphic and bloody ones, like It, mystify me. As a matter of settled principle, I don’t watch R-rated horror movies, and I have no intention of seeing It, nor do I encourage anyone else to. Violent games and films and shows feed in me a sinister curiosity for bloodshed and death. I’ve felt the lure.

And I see this conviction as part of the answer to the most beautiful question in the Bible: “Who has eyes that will behold the king in his beauty?” (Isaiah 33:17). Answer: He “who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil” (Isaiah 33:15). The beauty of God is for those who do not feed their sensory curiosities with violence and wickedness. On this basis I believe entertainment-by-gore is forbidden in Scripture, even at the level of what gets communicated to my senses as entirely fictional media.

Why Others Do

But I’m also intrigued by It as a cultural phenomenon, enough to dialogue with a Christian who, as a matter of professional calling, has seen the film. Among other things, Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a teacher on faith, worldviews, and storytelling (see this and this), and a popular author of biblical fiction (like this series).

What follows is a discussion between two Christians who disagree. Brian is pro-horror film, and has studied the genre for many years. I am anti-horror film, and have been so my entire adult life. My prayer is that our discussion will enlighten believers on both sides, and so serve the church, her wisdom, and her witness. I want to understand the popularity of the horror movie phenomenon, both outside the church and even within it, because frankly the phenomenon leaves me perplexed and unconvinced (even after this discussion).

Reinke: Brian, thanks for your time. As you know, It experienced the biggest opening weekend for any horror film to date, now on pace to become only the fourth R-rated movie to ever gross over $300 million in the United States. Theaters will again be full of moviegoers this weekend. More generally, 2017 has been a huge year for R-rated horror films, and audience appetite for It and other films is very high. Why is It so uncommonly successful? And what is behind the popularity of the genre right now?

Godawa: I think the success of It (and its predecessor, Stranger Things) lies in the universal archetype characters and their issues that most of us relate to: nerds, outcasts, rejects, fatty, skinny, “losers.” The kids are classic sympathetic heroes with strong moral growth, and we are hungry for such things since we are awash in an entertainment culture of anti-heroes and morally relative stories that ultimately do not satisfy someone who desires moral clarity.

Reinke: I want to talk about these kids more in a moment, but we cannot talk about It without first talking about clowns. Why are clowns a favorite antagonist in the horror genre?

Godawa: Horror is often based on irony and the unveiling of evil that appears to be good. Like real life. In real life, evil monsters — as in abusers, rapists, and killers — use the disguise of good in order to capture and hurt the innocent. So, using common images of safety to caution the innocent against naive trust is an excellent moral lesson.

John Wayne Gacy was a professional clown for a reason. This doesn’t mean all clowns should be considered evil images, any more than all cops should be considered dirty, just because there are lots of movies that portray dirty cops.

Although, personally, I’ve always considered clowns to be creepy.

Reinke: Likewise, yeah. So what, in your opinion, is the positive value of horror films as a genre?

Godawa: Well, horror as a genre is not simply about fear and violence for the sake of fear and violence. Yes, some movies do descend into that, but it is not the essence of the genre. Every genre has good examples and bad examples. Is the “biblical movie” genre always holy and good? No. Even biblical movies can be evil. Take Noah, or Exodus: Gods and Kings. Those movies are demonic twists of the Bible into its opposite. It’s called subversion.

So we must understand that no genre is intrinsically good or evil. They are used for the purpose of good or evil. Genres are not for everyone. Romance isn’t for everyone. Neither is horror. But they each have distinct purposes.

Reinke: You have not convinced me to see It, though a movie adaptation of the opening chapters of Job would be horrifying (Job 1:1–2:10). Not to mention the first Passover (Exodus 11:1–12:32). Or the ravaging Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20). Given the nature of Scripture, to get into the grit of this fallen world, what are the redeeming traits you see in the horror genre?

Godawa: The moral purpose of the horror genre is to expose what evil is, reinforce our need for courage to fight evil, and to have a healthy righteous fear instead of naive innocence when it comes to discernment in the world. Sounds like the Bible.

God uses the horror genre to solicit righteous fear of evil, and encourage repentance and righteous living. Beyond your examples, the books of Daniel and Revelation are epic horror fantasies of blood and gore using symbolic horror monsters as an analogy for real life. That’s what all horror does. It works as metaphor for something else, like social commentary (Underworld), spiritual truth (Jekyl and Hyde), or man’s hubris (Frankenstein).

God uses zombies and vampires as metaphors for spiritual evil in Scripture — I kid you not (see Micah 3:1–3; Ezekiel 39:18–19). God uses Frankenstein monsters as metaphors for political and social commentary (see Ezekiel 11:19; Revelation 13:1–2). One of God’s favorite horror metaphors is cannibalism as a literary symbol of spiritual apostasy (see Ezekiel 36:13–14; Psalm 27:2; Proverbs 30:14; Jeremiah 19:9; Zechariah 11:9).

This does not justify all horror stories ever told. Far from it. It simply establishes the genre, in broad terms, as one that God uses; therefore, it can be used with moral purpose.

Reinke: So back to It. You’ve seen it. What’s the overall thematic impact that you took from it?

Godawa: I have, and it contains many elements, common to the horror genre in general, that are quite in line with the Judeo-Christian worldview and values.

Reinke: Stop it.

Godawa: No, really. The movie is a coming of age story, which means that it is a metaphor for what makes us adults, or as one of the Jewish characters says, what it means to “become a man.” Godless secularism often tells stories that try to tell kids that growing up is having sex before marriage —

Reinke: As do a lot of horror films, right? Glorifying teen sex as part of the coming of age motif.

Godawa: Yes, that’s right, but not in this case. It not only denies that common lie, but preserves the sexual innocence of youth by showing how children should not be considered sexual at so young an age (a couple adult characters are shown to be evil for sexualizing children). Rather, its message is that maturity, growing up, is about facing your mortality, not about having sex, but learning that we die and that life is not one big fun summer of play.

The kids in the movie don’t want to grow up and tend to run from the bad things in their life, like bullies and abusive parents. One kid has a controlling mother, another an abusive father, most all of them are bullied, and the protagonist has a stuttering problem. They all win only by facing their fears, not by running from them. Another biblical maxim.

Children run in fear, adults — mature people — face their fears. This comes not only from facing the monster clown, but every kid in the movie has a difficulty that they run from in their lives. They must learn to face these fears in order to grow up.

There is no gospel of Jesus Christ here, but this notion of growing up is very much in line with the Bible. But this is where I would use the opportunity to discuss my belief with others that growing up also includes wrestling with the afterlife and the existence of God. Every good movie can be a doorway to the gospel.

Reinke: And as you alluded to earlier, it’s more than simply facing evils, though.

Godawa: Right. Most important of all, It teaches very explicitly that we should fight evil, which is another excellent moral element of the horror genre. And not just “take a stand,” but fight real evil to the death. The evil clown monster is an obvious metaphor for the fear that cripples our society’s courage. In today’s postmodern world of schools that provide “safe spaces” to encourage childishness, while denying real evil like radical Islam, that will hunt us all if we don’t undermine it, this is no mere tautology of a simple existence of good and evil.

This is one of the most profound moral messages that we need to reinforce through our stories. We have become a relativistic society of cowardice, so fighting evil with a willingness to protect the innocent is a truly profound Christian value. And part of that “fighting evil” moral in the movie is to be willing to sacrifice one’s self to protect the innocent.

Several key turning points in the film stress that the kids must be willing to risk their own safety to protect or save others. It illustrates how to stand up to bullies and fight back, not merely in self-defense, but on behalf of others. This willingness to self-sacrifice is not merely a strong component of moral maturity, but it gets at the heart of a Christian worldview.

Reinke: That’s an interesting take on horror films in general, confronting the relativism of evil. Of course, many horror films, like this one, are graphic bloodbaths. So too are many military films. Each of us has different thresholds for the visualized violence we can handle. Mine is quite low. But many of the best horror films released over the years have become noted for a simple ability to build tension, and remain relatively free of blood and gore. What is the best case to make for the usefulness of gore in making a moral point?

Godawa: I challenge Christians to read Ezekiel 16:1–58 and Ezekiel 23:1–49, for two examples, and tell me if they think God is not graphic in his artistic descriptions of violence and sexuality, but all of it used as creative metaphors for spiritual moral truths.

Reinke: You say that, beyond the gore, It has other issues viewers need to weigh, including issues of profanity and in portraying all the adults in a negative light. There’s a number of things to consider in this case. But for Christians drawn to movies and novels in this genre, what will an obsession here do to Christian joy?

Godawa: An unhealthy obsession with horror stories can certainly reveal a character flaw, as would an unhealthy obsession with romance, comedy, or just about any genre. Why? Because truth is multifaceted and includes all of these elements, but too much of a good thing can be harmful to our spiritual balance. Horror is not intrinsically bad, but it can be used for bad, just like biblical epics can be used for bad.

But at the same time, the Christian joy is a balanced joy of righteousness and healthy fear of evil (in addition to other things). Yes, we must rejoice at Noah’s righteousness — but it is in the context of a violent evil world where everyone but eight people are drowned to death. The joy of entering the Promised Land does not exist apart from the righteous violent and bloody slaughter of every man, woman, child, and animal of the cursed Canaanite clans. A necessary part of the joy of the resurrection of Jesus includes the evil betrayal by Judas and the unjust crucifixion of the Son of God, all monstrous evils as part of God’s plan of ultimate good.

Horror sets the stage for Christian joy. We should maintain a balance and not be so focused on happy talk and flowery religious sentiments that we remain as children in reference to a very real world of evil within which we are supposed to be agents of redemption. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves.

Reinke: Yes, there’s a sense in which an inability to process the graphic nature of Scripture leaves the faith in a perilous place — a true threat to our own faith and eternal joy. That’s a good point, Brian, thank you.

Horror films remind us of things true about the evil in a fallen world, and about facing up to real evils. While I have read more Stephen King than I would like to admit, I’ve never seen any of his films or television series. And I have no plan to change this conviction. It seems to me there’s a fundamental difference between reading about bloodshed in a book, at a distance, especially as an expression of God’s confrontation with sin, as opposed to seeing it presented on a screen, in the full sensorial plunge of a theater. There are a lot of other things to address, and I’m sure we have plenty more to disagree on here, too. But alas, we’re out of time. Perhaps in the future.

The World Is Against You: Fighting to Keep Our First Love

The World Is Against You

Sooner or later the hard truth settles in that this world is out to kill you. Brown rivers swell up in Houston and Bangladesh to wash away everything you own, even wash you away if you don’t watch your step. Even on a calm, pristine beach day, the ocean’s sub-currents are silently trying to grab hold of you, and pull you out to sea, under the surface of the water before you even know what happened.

Forget sharks. The gentle tug of submerged water is our true ocean enemy. Look away for a moment and water attempts to assassinate — one reason why no one objects to bestowing upon the red-clad guardians the exalted title of “Life Guards” at the neighborhood pool.

But dried off and standing on solid ground, we fare little better because the air silently carries around invisible particles to slip in to our lungs and cultivate a little patch of cancer that can kill us from the inside. Or the burning rays of the sun might do the same from the outside.

And then of course there are the much less subtle forms of dangers. About one hundred times a second, bolt-action lightning snipers with an ungratified desire to spite mighty trees and tall steeples, and who occasionally take aim at arrogant creatures who dare to walk about on two legs. Under us, at any moment of the day or night, the ground can rumble and split and we can fall into an earthquake crack in the earth. Whole houses can get sucked down into a sinkhole without warning, or the gigantic white swirl of a hurricane or the wobbly freight train of a tornado can chase us off in a high-speed escape.

The world seizes one ankle and we pull it away and escape. For now. The world — as full as it is of wonder, and it is full of incredible wonders — surrounds us on all sides with deadly dangers.

Death of Love

Likewise, “this evil age” is perpetually trying to kill our loves — not through blunt force, but through coercion by seduction. The world tempts us daily to leave greater loves for lesser lusts.

“The moment we care for anything deeply, the world — that is, all the other miscellaneous interests — becomes our enemy,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. “The moment you love anything the world becomes your foe” (Works 1:59–60).

To love something genuinely is to immediately face all the second loves that are making an attempt at killing your first love. It is the wink of the adulteress to the married man. It is the invitation from a clique to abandon a true friendship. It is the ignoring of the familiar gifts around you, in search of the next thing to charge on your credit card. Worldliness kills because it exchanges loves. The world becomes your foe.

To Love Is to Fight

This is why true love must fight. “In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting,” writes Chesterton. “In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights.” The same is true of all our loves. In fact, “To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust” (Works 15:255).

A man who has stopped fighting for his marriage will not fight against the lure of adulterous flirting, because he is driven by the passivity of lust, not the earnestness of love. Which means that true love must be fought for.

Misdirected Love

Theologically speaking, this is why to love the world is to lose the love of God. It’s a horrible trade, but we do it all the time.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15–17)

Misdirected love is the root cause of worldliness. Worldliness sucks the sap from our greatest love until it becomes a dried-up branch.

So we can love and treasure the day Christ will return. Or we can love the world. But we cannot go on trying to love the world and love the day of Christ’s return (2 Timothy 4:8–10). In the same way, we cannot love darkness and love the light (John 3:16–21). Love for the light will die once the heart falls in love with the darkness. And this is how the world proves to be our love-killer.

Heart of Worldliness

When we talk about worldliness, primarily we are not talking about the substitutes of adultery and materialism and money. We are not simply warning against television shows too graphic and media too lewd and skirts too short. All of those things are secondary matters. Curing the true heart of worldliness is not in the forbidding or what is forbidden; mending the true heart of worldliness must always begin with finding a core love worth fighting for — a love so precious that we will guard it with the proper holy jealousy it deserves.

The problem of worldliness only emerges with any real clarity in our lives once we have discovered our “first love,” a fundamental love, a central love for our Savior Jesus Christ (Revelation 2:4).

If talk of worldliness falls into hard times and does not surface much in our thoughts and conversations, it is not a sign that the dangers have disappeared. It is a sign that we have grown careless with the exclusivity of delight in Christ at the center of the Christian life. And once the jealous love is gone, the danger of worldliness grows more deadly and more invisible at the same time.