Tony Reinke’s Top 15 Non-Fiction Christian Books of 2015

Nov 30, 2015 | Justin Taylor


One of my favorite readers, Tony Reinke, writes:

2015 marks my tenth year choosing the best books of the year, and it was the most difficult of them all. Non-fiction Christian book publishing churned out a daunting amount of very good new titles, more than I’ve ever seen.

Overall, 2015 produced several strong Bible commentaries, but with a remarkably new interest in integrating biblical theology into those commentaries (as you will see). Bible production was strong again. From our Reformed circles, I’ve never seen more books on engaging political issues or speaking grace into our secularizing western culture. Books by female authors seemed to slow a little from 2014, while offerings for children seemed stronger.

What follows are all my favorite books from the year, lumped together in one list and ordered by my scientifically subjective algorithm of intuition about what books I think (1) are most unique, (2) most succeed at their aim, and (3) are most likely to endure in service to the church in the years ahead.

You can see his favorites, along with rationale here. Also see his honorable mentions and other 15 books not to miss.

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ESV Reader’s Bible: 67% Off (for 48 Hours)

Nov 30, 2015 | Justin Taylor

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For the next 48 hours (offer ends December 1, 2015), Westminster Bookstore has the best price available on the ESV Reader’s Bible67% off the cloth over board with slipcase.

Here is a description:

The ESV Reader’s Bible was created for those who want to read Scripture precisely as it was originally written—namely, as an unbroken narrative. Verse numbers, chapter and section headings, and translation footnotes are helpful navigational and interpretive tools, but they are also relatively recent conventions. In the ESV Reader’s Bible they have been removed from the Bible text. The result is a new kind of Bible-reading experience in a volume that presents Scripture as one extended story line.

On the top of each page a verse range is included for orientation. Other features include a single-column text setting, readable type, and a book-like format. The Reader’s Bible is a simple but elegant edition, and is perfect for devotional reading, for extended Bible reading, or for focusing on the overarching narrative of the Bible.

Here are some details:

  • Black letter text, with no verse numbers or footnotes
  • Single-column, paragraph format
  • Introduction
  • Two ribbon markers
  • Sewn Binding
  • Maps

You can watch a little video preview below:

Note that through all of December, WTS Books has all of the ESV Bibles for 50% off.

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The Christian Century No One Predicted

Nov 27, 2015 | Justin Taylor

9780801097461“The twentieth century,” according to Scott Sunquist, “surprised the religionists, the historians, and the politicians.”

He explains:

No scholar—or as far as that goes, not even a madman—predicted that at the end of the twentieth century Christianity would not be recognized even as a cultural factor in Europe by the nations that today compose the European Union.

No prognosticator predicted that more Christians would be worshiping each Sunday in China than in Europe or North America.

And, what might be surprising to us today, even the greatest mission leaders at the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910 had pretty much given up on Christianity in Africa. Most of the missionary leaders, even in their most optimistic moments, thought Islam had the upper hand and believed Africa would become a Muslim continent. Fast-forward and we find that the opposite is true, for there are more Christians than Muslims in Africa today.

In his new book, The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000, foreword by Mark Noll (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), xvi-xvii, Sunquist identifies the 20th century as one of the three great transformations in Christianity in its two thousand years.

1. The 4th Century

The first took place early in the fourth century, when Christianity began to get imperial recognition in three small nations and one empire: Osrhoene, Armenia, Ethiopia, and the Roman Empire. Royal conversions not only ensured that the religion would not be wiped out by belligerent rulers spreading other religions but also that Christianity would begin to develop differently with the support of kings and queens. Christian buildings began to look very nice. Christian life was no longer threatened. It was possible to fit into the larger culture very comfortably with little need for sacrifice or compromise. Christianity in these kingdoms and empires had moved from being a persecuted minority to being a favored faith. This changed everything.

2. The 15th and 16th Centuries

The second great transformation occurred in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was the period of the European Reformation, but that was not the supremely important transformation that I am thinking of. From about the 1450s to the 1550s Christianity broke out of its small enclaves of Western Europe, South India, and Ethiopia and became a truly worldwide religion. It didn’t have to happen that way, but it did. Muslim rulers, or certainly the Chinese, could have dominated the world. Instead, and very much for theological reasons, it was the Christians from Iberia who spread the Christian faith to places as far away as the Moluccas, the Kongo (Congo), Peru, and even Japan and China. As late as 1492 it was still not clear whether Christianity would devolve into a tribal faith of Western Europe.

3. The 20th Century

The third great transformation took place in the twentieth century, a great reversal . . . .

It was certainly a reversal in that the majority of Christians—or the global center—moved from the North Atlantic to the Southern Hemisphere and Asia.

But it was also a reversal in that Christianity moved from being centered in Christian nations to being centered in non-Christian nations. Christendom, that remarkable condition of churches supporting states and states supporting Christianity, died. The idea of Christian privilege in society was all but killed. And yet the religion seemed stronger than ever at the end of the twentieth century.

Sunquist cites the following the following global statistics—which I’ve put into a little chart—to show the dramatic change that took place in Christianity over the past 100 years:

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You can read Noll’s foreword, along with Sunquist’s preface and introduction, online for free.

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6 Quotes from G. K. Chesterton on Gratitude and Thanksgiving

Nov 26, 2015 | Justin Taylor

chesterton“The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

“The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.”

“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

“You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?”

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A Groundbreaking Book Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem

Nov 24, 2015 | Justin Taylor

9781433542138Readers should be appropriately skeptical any time they hear about a new theory revealing the true star of Bethlehem.

But reading the comments below from various experts—in biblical studies and apologetics and science and cometography—should encourage readers to give Colin Nicholl’s groundbreaking work, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Start of Bethlehem, serious attention.

Simon Gathercole says it is “the most comprehensive interdisciplinary synthesis of biblical and astronomical data yet produced. . . .  a remarkable feat.”

J. P. Moreland calls it “the definitive treatment of the subject.”

Eric Metaxas says it is ”an historic discovery and nothing less.”

Gary Kronk, author of Cambridge University Press’s multi-volume Cometography series, says this book is “a remarkable achievement . . . the most important book ever published on the Star of Bethlehem.”

John Lennox says it is “quite breathtaking in the range of its scholarship, yet a page-turner in terms of its accessibility.”

Gordon Wenham writes that this “amazing study . . .  reads like an absorbing detective story.”

You can read the full blurbs below. And you can read an excerpt of the book here.

You can also watch this sit-down interview with Eric Metaxas below:


The Great Christ Comet is a stunning book. Colin R. Nicholl develops a convincing case for what exactly the Star of Bethlehem was. The book reads like a detective novel, and while it is full of evidence, information, and argumentation, it is accessible and enjoyable to read. This work is now the definitive treatment of the subject. I highly recommend it.”
J. P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Biola University; author, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters

“I am simply in awe of this book. It is a blockbuster. It is an historic discovery and nothing less. The Great Christ Comet is an absolutely astonishing triumph of interdisciplinary scholarship so rarely seen and so tremendously illuminating as to merit bright comparison with the very celestial phenomenon it describes. Both lead us to the manger and to the Great Poet within, whose syllables are the moon and sun and stars.”
Eric Metaxas, New York Times best-selling author, Miracles and Bonhoeffer

“In every respect this volume is a remarkable achievement. I regard it as the most important book ever published on the Star of Bethlehem and enthusiastically commend it.”
Gary Kronk, author, Cometography; Consultant, American Meteor Society

“The most comprehensive interdisciplinary synthesis of biblical and astronomical data yet produced. It is a remarkable feat that a biblical scholar has been able to master the scientific data at such a level of erudition. No discussion of the historicity of the Star of Bethlehem can afford to ignore this book.”
Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament, University of Cambridge; author,Where Is Boasting? and The Preexistent Son

“In this erudite, engrossing, and compelling book, Colin R. Nicholl painstakingly develops a new solution for the enduring mystery of the Star of Bethlehem, bringing together the biblical story and ancient descriptions of the sky with modern understandings of astronomy. Nicholl’s argument—that the celestial visitor was actually a phenomenal comet that passed perilously close by Earth in 6 BC—is certain to be discussed and debated for years to come.”
Duncan Steel, Visiting Astronomer, Armagh Observatory; Visiting Professor, University of Buckingham; author, Eclipse and Marking Time

“This is an amazing study. It reads like an absorbing detective story. Nicholl starts with a detailed reading of Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi. He makes the case, based on ancient and modern astronomy, that the star of Bethlehem was a great comet whose behavior in the sky would have been interpreted by ancient astrologers as announcing the birth of a Jewish Messiah. The depth and breadth of learning that Nicholl displays is prodigious and persuasive, and all future studies will have to take its proposals most seriously.”
Gordon Wenham, Adjunct Professor of Old Testament, Trinity College, Bristol

“This is an outstanding book, quite breathtaking in the range of its scholarship, yet a page-turner in terms of its accessibility. Colin R. Nicholl is eminently followable, using detective skills to assess the biblical, historical, and astronomical evidence that lead him to conclude that the ‘star’ of Bethlehem was a comet. A real tour de force that I recommend unreservedly to a broad readership.”
John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics, University of Oxford

“Colin R. Nicholl brilliantly tackles a subject that has been debated for centuries. The Great Christ Comet is a captivating book on the Star of Bethlehem. You will not be able to put this book down!”
Louie Giglio, Pastor, Passion City Church, Atlanta; Founder, Passion Conferences

“Readers of this book will learn a lot of astronomy, history, and theology. Nicholl has produced a remarkable and fascinating book that combines the best of recent scientific scholarship with the best biblical scholarship. The Great Christ Comet is a model of the integration of science and Scripture, and presents a tightly reasoned and highly plausible argument that the Star was a comet. A terrific read!”
Donald A. Hagner, George Eldon Ladd Professor of New Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary; author, Matthew (Word Biblical Commentary)

“Nicholl breaks important new ground in the quest for the historical Star of Bethlehem. Not only does he develop a formidable case for identifying the Star as a great comet; he also proposes a fresh explanation as to what it may have done to so impress the Magi. Nicholl has a clear understanding of the relevant areas of modern astronomy, and especially of the nature, evolution, and orbital dynamics of comets as currently understood. This work will be of great interest to astronomers, theologians, historians of science, and the general public, and will hopefully stimulate important new lines of scientific enquiry.”
Mark Bailey, Director, Armagh Observatory; coauthor, The Origin of Comets

“Colin R. Nicholl’s magnum opus, which interprets Matthew’s Nativity ‘star’ as a spectacular comet, is fascinating and illuminating. He supports his thesis by appealing to Babylonian, classical, and patristic texts as well as modern astronomical data on comets. His comprehensive mastery of the data enables him to present a detailed scenario of the Magi’s initial sighting, subsequent observations, journey, and visit to the house in Bethlehem to view the newborn Christ child.”
Edwin M. Yamauchi, Professor Emeritus of History, Miami University

“This is the only book I know of by a biblical scholar on the Star of Bethlehem. It is rooted in a detailed analysis of the biblical text and offers a comprehensive scientific explanation for the Star of Bethlehem. Nicholl makes a compelling case that the Star was a comet, supporting this conclusion with a mass of evidence from a variety of sources. I strongly recommend his work on one of the most fascinating biblical mysteries.”
Colin Humphreys, Professor and Director of Research, Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge; author, The Miracles of Exodus

“This rigorous and compelling book sets a new standard for the study of the Star of Bethlehem. No prior investigation of this mystery has brought the disciplines of biblical studies and astronomy together in such a clear, thoroughly researched, and decisive way. Nicholl lets us observe the skies with the Magi and walk with them all the way to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. This richly illustrated and pleasantly accessible work is a must-read for everyone even vaguely interested in the Magi’s Star. I enthusiastically recommend this eye-opening book!”
John Hartmann, former Assistant Lecturer of Greek, University of Cambridge; Pastor, New Reformation Church, St. Louis, Missouri

“Colin R. Nicholl offers an impressive case for understanding the Magi’s star as a comet. He has produced a readable and beautifully illustrated introduction to relevant fields of astronomy, and has laid out pertinent historical data with proportion, care, and integrity. Based on detailed biblical study and current astronomical knowledge, Nicholl develops a fascinating reconstruction of the unprecedented events relating to the Star and the Magi.”
John Nolland, Tutor in New Testament, Trinity College, Bristol; Visiting Professor, University of Bristol; author, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Greek Testament Commentary)

The Great Christ Comet is a significant new contribution to the long-running debate over the nature of the Star of Bethlehem. One of the book’s many strengths is its critique of earlier, widely discussed hypotheses proposed to explain the Star. The book also explains the relevant astronomy very clearly at a level the general reader should have no trouble following. The case Nicholl makes for the Star being a great comet is certainly worthy of serious consideration.”
Martin Gaskell, Department of Astronomy, University of California at Santa Cruz

“Fascinating reading. Clearly the author has not only done his homework but has meticulously mined both quarries, theological and astronomical.”
Paul Maier, Professor of Ancient History, Western Michigan University; author, In the Fullness of Time

“It is a real pleasure to commend The Great Christ Comet to everyone who has ever wondered what could possibly account for the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem. Few have expended as much earnest research, or written as clearly, on the astronomical basis for this special event as has Colin R. Nicholl. When you’re reading this book, the pages turn rapidly—similar to the way the pages fly when you’re engrossed in a mystery novel. All readers will be richly rewarded!”
Walter C. Kaiser Jr.Colman M. Mockler Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Old Testament and President Emeritus, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Table of Contents

  1. “Star of Wonder”: Introducing the Bethlehem Star
  2. “We Beheld (It Is No Fable)”: The Testimony of Matthew’s Gospel
  3. “They Looked Up and Saw a Star”: The Story of the Star
  4. “What Star Is This?”: Evaluating the Major Hypotheses
  5. “What Sudden Radiance from Afar?”: Introducing Comets
  6. “A Stranger midst the Orbs of Light”: The Star as a Comet
  7. “Yon Virgin Mother and Child”: The Celestial Wonder
  8.  ”With Royal Beauty Bright”: Messiah’s Star
  9.  ”Lo, the Star Appeareth”: Profiling the Comet
  10. “Following Yonder Star”: Tracking the Comet
  11. “Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning”: The Greatest Comet in History
  12. “The Light Everlasting That Fades Not Away”: The Ongoing Story

Appendix 1: The Chinese Comet Records
Appendix 2: The Meteor Storm of 6 BC

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Marco Rubio on Faith, Anxiety, Peace, and Prayer—and Where God Was on 9/11

Nov 24, 2015 | Justin Taylor

An encouraging answer from presidential candidate Marco Rubio:

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4 Ways to Become a Better Writer

Nov 23, 2015 | Justin Taylor


1. Read a Lot

Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut. . . .

It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but didn’t have time to read, I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

2. Slow Down and Ask Questions When You Read

Joseph Epstein:

Most people ask three questions of what they read:

(1) What is being said?

(2) Does it interest me?

(3) Is it well constructed?

Writers also ask these questions, but two others along with them:

(4) How did the author achieve the effects he has? And

(5) What can I steal, properly camouflaged of course, from the best of what I am reading for my own writing?

This can slow things down a good bit.

3. Recognize that You Probably Don’t Know What You Think Until You Write It Out

Some people won’t write until they first know what they think about a subject. But good writers write in order to find out what they think. Here are a few examples:

Calvin, citing Augustine: “I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.”

Ed Welch: “I find that there are three levels of clarity. When I only think about something, my thoughts are embryonic and muddled. When I speak about it, my thoughts become clearer, though not always. When I write about it, I jump to a new level of clarity.”

John Piper: “Writing became the lever of my thinking and the outlet of my feelings. If I didn’t pull the lever, the wheel of thinking did not turn. It jerked and squeaked and halted. But once a pen was in hand, or a keyboard, the fog began to clear and the wheel of thought began to spin with clarity and insight.”

Arthur Krystal: “Like most writers, I seem to be smarter in print than in person. In fact, I am smarter when I’m writing. I don’t claim this merely because there is usually no one around to observe the false starts and groan-inducing sentences that make a mockery of my presumed intelligence, but because when the work is going well, I’m expressing opinions that I’ve never uttered in conversation and that otherwise might never occur to me. Nor am I the first to have this thought, which, naturally, occurred to me while composing. According to Edgar Allan Poe, writing in Graham’s Magazine, ‘Some Frenchman—possibly Montaigne—says: ‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.’ I can’t find these words in my copy of Montaigne, but I agree with the thought, whoever might have formed it. And it’s not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought or, at least supplies a Petri dish for its genesis.”

4. Reread and Rewrite.

Justice Brandeis: “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

James A Michener: “I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.”

Michael Crichton: Books aren’t written—they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

Roald Dahl: “Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”

Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Vladimir Nabokov: “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.”

Helen Dunmore: “Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”

Raymond Chandler: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”

Will Self: “Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work which is all in the edit.”

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What the Bible Really Says about Singleness

Nov 20, 2015 | Justin Taylor

John Piper wrote of Barry Danylak and his work on Redeeming Singleness: How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life (Crossway, 2010):

I don’t know of anyone else who has ever provided the extent of biblical reflection on singleness that Barry has provided for us here. . . .

My guess is that virtually every single who reads this book will finish with a sense of wonder at who they are, and how little they knew about this gift and calling.

Here is an hour-long talk from Dr. Danylak where he lays out the biblical teaching on singleness:

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What to Do If You Are Offended or Confused by Flannery O’Connor’s Stories

Nov 19, 2015 | Justin Taylor


Novelist and O’Connor scholar Jonathan Rogers writes:

Readers are often offended by Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

They ought to be; the stories are offensive.

Jesus’s parables would offend us, too, if we hadn’t heard them so many times—or if we were paying better attention.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we can all understand why the older brother, the one who has kept his nose clean, is offended by his father’s eager welcoming of the wayward brother. It’s a little shocking to realize that Jesus presents the older brother as just as big a jerk as the younger brother. Consider how much more shocking it would have been for Jesus’s original audience, who hadn’t already been told what they were supposed to think about the story.

The parables are driven by that dissonance between the truth and the way we feel about the truth. Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like; if we allow ourselves to be offended by that vision, we begin to see what needs to happen in our hearts.

I say I love grace, but I’m bothered by the fact that the vineyard workers who showed up an hour before dark get paid the same amount as the workers who started at daybreak. I can either reject that parable altogether, or I can think about why my heart doesn’t line up with the things I say I believe. But it would be a big mistake to explain away the offense—to say it’s not really that offensive.

O’Connor was working from Jesus’s playbook. She used shock and offense to show us something about our hearts. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she wrote, “and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Rogers explores these ideas in the introduction to his book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy:

images-Flannery_10_4_889237867If [O’Connor’s] stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it is painful to see a mostly harmless old grandmother come to terms with God and herself only at gunpoint.

It is even more painful to see her get shot anyway.

In a more properly moral story, she would be rewarded for her late-breaking insight and her life would be spared. But the story only enacts what Christians say they believe already: that to lose one’s body for the sake of one’s soul is a good trade indeed. It’s a mystery, and no small part of the mystery is the reader’s visceral reaction to truths he claims to believe already. O’Connor invites us to step into such mysteries, but she never resolves them. She never reduces them to something manageable.

O’Connor speaks with the ardor of an Old Testament prophet in her stories. She’s like an Isaiah who never quite gets around to “Comfort ye my people.” Except for this: there is a kind of comfort in finally facing the truth about oneself. That’s what happens in every one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories: in a moment of extremity, a character—usually a self-satisfied, self-sufficient character—finally comes to see the truth of his situation. He is accountable to a great God who is the source of all. He inhabits mysteries that are too great for him. And for the first time there is hope, even if he doesn’t understand it yet . . .

In O’Connor’s unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout.

You can read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” online, written in 1953, when Flannery O’Connor was 28 years old.

On April 22, 1959, the 34-year-old O’Connor visited Vanderbilt University and read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” You can listen to the audio below:

When she gave a reading of this story at Hollins College in Virginia on October 14, 1963—just 9 months before she died from complications of lupus—she prefaced it with some remarks.

Among other things, she addressed “what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story”:

I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.  This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.  The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.  It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make.  It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.

She identifies the place of such a “gesture” in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:

The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.

I find that students are often puzzled by what she says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.  The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.

On the violence in her stories, O’Connor comments:

In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

O’Connor knows that some people label this story “grotesque,” but she prefers to call it “literal”:

A good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal. When a child draws, he doesn’t intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion. Now the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion. And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.

O’Conner elsewhere expanded on the comparison of stories and drawings:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock-to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

You can get Jonathan Rogers’ spiritual biography of Flannery O’Connor (and follow his blog).

You can also get O’Connor’s complete stories for just over $10.

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John Piper: 20 Principles for How Christians Should Relate to Muslims (And Those of Other Religions)

Nov 18, 2015 | Justin Taylor

HistoryJohn Piper’s August 2002 paper on “Tolerance, Truth-Telling, Violence, and Law: Principles for How Christians Should Relate to Those of Other Faiths” did not get a great deal of attention at the time (so far as I recall), but it remains just as relevant now as it did in the months following 9/11.

It was originally prompted by the question of how Christians and Muslims should relate to each other. “This question,” Piper explains, “is part of the larger issue of how Christians are called to live in a pluralistic world. More specifically, how shall we as American Christians think and act with regard to freedom of religion in a pluralistic context defined by the ideals of representative democracy? In particular, how shall we bear witness to the supremacy of Christ in a world where powerful cultures and religions do not share the love of freedom or the ideals of democracy?”

I’ve reproduced the principles below.

1. Whether approved or disapproved by others, we should thankfully and joyfully hold firmly to the true biblical understanding of God and the way of salvation he has provided and the life of love and purity and justice Christ has modeled and taught.

(1 Corinthians 15:2; Hebrews 3:6;4:14; 6:18; 10:23; Revelation 2:13, 25; 3:11)

2. Both in the church and the world we should make clear and explicit the whole counsel of God revealed in his inspired word, the Bible—both the parts that non-Christians approve and the parts that they don’t. We should not conceal aspects of our faith in order to avoid criticism or disapproval.

(Matthew 10:27-28; Ephesians 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 4:2; Galatians 1:10)

3. It is loving to point out the error and harm of Christ-denying faiths. The harm consists not only in some temporal effects, but especially in the eternal pain caused by refusing the truth of Christ. This warning should be given with earnestness and longing for the good of those who are in danger of the consequences of not trusting Christ.

(Luke 6:31-32; Romans 13:10; 1 Timothy 4:8; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:20)

4. We Christians should acknowledge our sin and desperate need of salvation by a crucified and risen Savior, so that we do not posture ourselves as worthy of salvation as if we had superior intellect or wisdom or goodness. We are beggars who have, by grace, found the life-giving bread of truth, forgiveness, and joy. We desire to offer it to all, so that they join us in admiring and enjoying the greatness of Christ forever.

(1 Corinthians 1:26-30; 4:7; 1 Peter 5:6;James 4:8-10; Luke 18:13-14; Matthew 10:8b)

5. We should present Christ not as the triumph of an argument among religions but as the most trustworthy, beautiful, important, and precious person in history, and as our desperately needed and loved substitute in two senses: (1) He absorbed, by his suffering and death, the wrath of God in our place; and (2) he became our righteousness before the all-holy God by living a sinless life which was imputed as righteousness to us when we believed on Jesus.

(1 Corinthians 2:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 1 Peter 2:6-7; Romans 3:24-26; 5:18-19; Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21)

6. We should make clear that Christian faith, which unites us to Christ and all his saving benefits, is a childlike, self-despairing trust in the worth and work of Christ, not a meritorious work of our own. Our call for others to be Christians is not a call to work for God or to earn his approval by doing deeds of righteousness or love. We are calling for people to renounce all self-reliance and rely entirely on the saving life and death of Jesus Christ.

(Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5;Romans 4:4-5; Romans 10:1-4; Philippians 3:9)

7. We believe it is a just and loving thing to publicly point out the errors of other faiths, provided this is done with sufficient evidence that the sacred writings or representative spokesmen of those faiths do indeed express these errors. It is crucial that we strive to avoid misrepresenting other faiths, as that is not only disrespectful but also undermines our own credibility.

(Acts 6:8-7:53; Mark 12:24; Mark 8:33; Acts 3:15; 5:30; Exodus 20:16; Ephesians 4:25)

8. As we expose the errors of other religions, we should feel and express sorrow and compassion for those who do not embrace Christ so as to be saved.

(Luke 19:41-42; Philippians 3:18; Romans 9:1-3; 10:1)

9. We should make clear that we are Christians first and Americans second. We are aliens and exiles in the world and our deepest and truest citizenship is in heaven. Our decisive Lord and Leader is Jesus Christ, not the president of the United States. This first and deepest allegiance unites us with Christians of all nationalities more firmly than our secular citizenship unites us with other Americans. In regard to many American values and behaviors we are dissenting citizens. American culture is not Christianity. We believe it is not unpatriotic to criticize unjust and ungodly aspects of our own culture.

(Philippians 3:20; 1 Peter 2:11; Matthew 22:21; Acts 5:29; 1 Timothy 6:14-15; Revelation 17:14; Ephesians 5:11)

10. We should not expect a “fair fight” in a secular world that is hostile to God and uncomfortable around the truth of Christ. Therefore, our response to abuse or distortion or slander should not be angry resentment, but patient witness to the truth, in the hope and with the prayer that returning good for evil may open hearts to the truth. We must recognize that persecution of various kinds is normal and that much of the protection we have in America is abnormal in history and in the world. Our witness will not be advanced by resentful huffing and puffing about our rights. It will be advanced by “suffering yet always rejoicing,” and by overcoming evil with good, and by steadfast statements and reasonable defenses of the truth.

(Matthew 5:43-45; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Corinthians 4:12-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:15; 2 Timothy 3:12; 1 Peter 2:15, 19-24; 3:9; 4:12)

11. We should renounce all violence as means of spreading our faith. Biblical Christians do not try to spread their faith by the use of political or personal violence. Christians spread their faith by suffering, not by causing suffering. Authentic Christianity cannot be coerced by force or manipulation.

(Luke 10:3; 2 Corinthians 5:11; Colossians 2:24; 1 Peter 2:19-24; Revelation 12:11; )

12. We should acknowledge and proclaim that Christ will, at his personal appearing, punish those who have rejected him. He will assign them to everlasting judgment in the miseries of hell. However we must make just as clear that Christ’s violence at the end of the age is a decisive reason we should not and may not exert violence against others because of their beliefs. This is Christ’s right, not ours.

(Matthew 25:46; Romans 12:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; 1 Peter 2:20-23; Revelation 6:16)

13. In this present time before the coming of Christ himself in person, civil authorities should not use physical force or any other coercion of power or withheld benefits to reward or punish persons because of their beliefs. (Implied in the biblical pattern of voluntary faith sought by the power of persuasion and example; and in the necessity of divine enabling grace for conversion.

2 Corinthians 5:11; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-6; Ephesians 2:8-9; Acts 6:14; Philippians 1:29; 2 Timothy 2:24-26)

14. No physical force or any other coercion of power, or withheld benefits, should be used by civil authorities to punish persons because of their speech or writing or art, unless the communication can be shown, through due process of law, to reveal intentions to commit crimes or help others commit crimes.

(See the support for #13)

15. We believe that God has given to civil government, not individuals or the church, the duty to “bear the sword” for justice and safety.

(Matthew 26:52; Romans 13:1-4; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Peter 2:20-23; 3:9, 14)

16. We should distinguish between a just war of defense against aggression and a religious war against people because of their beliefs. We should acknowledge that this distinction will probably not be recognized by certain religions who define their beliefs to include the right of cultural domination by force. But we should insist on this distinction rather than accept the claim of the aggressor that our resistance to their aggression is a religious attack on their faith. We should argue that the ground of such national defense is the civil right to freedom (of religion and speech and press and assembly), not the disapproval of the religion underlying the attack. We will deeply disagree with other religions, but that disagreement is not the ground of armed national defense. We should distinguish between the de facto military resistance against a religiously motivated force, on the one hand, and the motivation of our resistance, on the other hand, which is not rejection of any religion but freedom for all religions to win converts by non-violent means of persuasion and attraction.

(Implied in the previous principles)

17. We should acknowledge that beliefs and behaviors do not have the same standing before the law. No beliefs are to be punished by civil authorities. But some behaviors rooted in beliefs may be outside the law and therefore punishable by the civil authority. These behaviors may include killing other people, assault, stealing, various forms of discrimination, etc. Which behaviors are legally prohibited in a society based on freedom of belief and freedom of religion, will be determined in a process of persuasion and debate and election of representative law-makers, with checks and balances provided by the executive and judicial branches and by constitutional safe-guards for the rights of the minority. Ambiguities are recognized.

(See the support for # 13 and the implications of the previous principles taken together)

18. We should distinguish between the right to express criticism of erroneous beliefs and sinful behaviors, on the one hand, and the false inference some draw from this criticism that proponents of the criticized beliefs can therefore legitimately be mistreated. We should not accept the claim that being criticized or denounced as mistaken or as sinners is a form of “mistreatment”. It is not a crime (hate crime or otherwise) to publicly call someone’s belief wrong and harmful, or to call someone’s behavior sinful and destructive. A necessary part of all debate concerning beliefs and behaviors and proposals is the argument that some are wrong, ill-founded, and have deleterious effects. This is how all political debate proceeds. This is not illegitimate in the religious sphere. For example, if someone violently assaulted a U. S. Senator on the street after he had been criticized on the floor of the Senate because his bill was flawed and based on misinformation and would lead to hurting poor people, we would not blame the criticizing Senator for the later violent assault and accuse him of inciting violence. Hence we must distinguish between public criticism of beliefs and behaviors, on the one hand, and the illegitimate inference that these erroneous beliefs and sinful behaviors warrant being mistreated.

(See the support for #3 and #7)

19. We believe that different beliefs change the inner meaning of all convictions and behaviors, but do not change the form of all convictions and behaviors. Hence, for example, two persons may have different beliefs but hold the same form of conviction and behavior concerning abortion. We desire that all people share faith in Christ and have convictions and behaviors whose inner meaning is that Christ is the Lord and treasure of life. But, even so, we are glad when the form of our convictions and behaviors are shared by those who differ with us in faith. We believe that it is possible to make common cause with them in social issues provided that this shared action does not undermine the ground and meaning of our Christ-exalting conviction.

(1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17; Romans 14:23)

20. We believe that every religion, world view, or philosophy of life may freely endeavor to influence and shape our culture. We renounce the use of force or bribery or deceit in this culture-shaping effort. We affirm the preaching of the gospel, the publishing of truth, the modeling of love and justice, the power of prayer, the use of persuasion, and participation in the political process. We recognize that all laws “impose” some group’s behavioral conviction on all. Thus it is not a compelling criticism to say that a law which governs behavior is bad because it “imposes someone’s morality” on society. Nevertheless, this makes it all the more important that we support principles, laws, and policies that protect the legal freedoms of minorities who do not have the numbers to sway law-making processes. The extent of these freedoms is determined by the principles expressed above, especially #17.

(Implied in the previous principles and supports)

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The Book of Psalms: Outlined and Explained with Animation

Nov 18, 2015 | Justin Taylor

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Short Film | How the Humble Mustard Seed Reminds Us of God’s Global Unstoppable Kingdom

Nov 13, 2015 | Justin Taylor

I enjoy the short films put out by Moving Works. Here is their latest:

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Allen Guelzo | The Illusion of Respectability

Nov 13, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Guelzo2Allen Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as Director of the Civil War Era Studies Program. He is widely recognized as one of the leading scholars of the Civil War in general and Abraham Lincoln in particular.

He is also a committed Christian and churchman. Though far better known for his work on Lincoln and the Civil War, he has also written noteworthy studies on Jonathan Edwards and free will and on the Reformed Episcopalians, as well as co-editing a book on the New England Theology.

Dr. Guelzo has just published a new article for Christianity Today online that should be read by anyone concerned about the evangelical mind and the temptation for respectability.

Here is the beginning:

van til rollieIt is very nearly four decades since, as a terribly callow graduate student with an interest in philosophy, I made a pilgrimage with a friend to the home of a professor of Christian apologetics. I was looking for direction, and even though Cornelius Van Til had been retired for many years, he was known to welcome inquirers—whom he often greeted on his front porch with a rake in hand, suggesting that perhaps they could pile-up his leaves for him before they talked.

I was hoping to hear an intimidating, intellectually-convoluted, scholastic, metaphysical strategy for blowing the philosopher’s version of Gideon’s trumpet. So I asked Van Til, then pushing eighty but with still the hard white comb of hair brushed back from his cliff-like Dutch brow, and the smile of an old Dutch dairy farmer (which his father had been), “Dr. Van Til, why did you decide to devote your life to the study of philosophy and the teaching of apologetics?”

And I then sat back to allow the metaphysics free room to roll. Kees Van Til never blinked.

“Why,” he said, “to protect Christ’s little ones.”

The surprise that could have dropped me to the floor that afternoon has never quite evaporated. Why, to protect Christ’s little ones. Not only because those words express a great nobility in a few syllables, but because, remembering them, they cast down every castle of intellectual folly I erect, or am tempted to erect. And because, at the end, I am not worthy of them, and because anyone who understands that the kingdom of God is our true home, that God’s people are truly our people, and that this is a world by turns indifferent and hostile to both, must see those words as a true reminder of what we owe to each other as Christians, and in what relation we stand to each other.

I recall those words—Why, to protect Christ’s little ones—with tears, first because I have not always lived according to them, but second because it is precisely the world of the scholar and historian that encourages me to ignore them. Certainly, I do not recall in graduate school ever being so advised. I was so busy protecting myself as a graduate student in history that I barely had time to worry about those little ones. I had only just earned the PhD and was on the job market when my department’s graduate chairman took me aside, and in the kindliest terms, said, “I wish I didn’t have to say this, but you should know that the slightest hint of religion on your resume is the kiss of death.”

In the years since I was given that advice, the shadows have only grown longer in the academic world.

If this is a subject that interests you, I highly recommend you read the whole thing. It is a beautiful and bracing piece.

Here is Professor Guelzo’s conclusion:

When we no longer make ourselves the center of our desires, when we take as our aim as Christian scholars, college presidents, pastors, thinkers, to make perfect our wills, then and only then do I imagine that we will have any real effect on the world—only when we have surrendered the notion of having an effect will we have one. And only then will we begin to see that our real priority is not to change the world, to change our professions, to publish this or footnote that, but to protect Christ’s little ones.

Again, the whole thing is here. I hope this piece spreads far and wide as those called to academic work will take it to heart.

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Harold Best | Harps & Riddles: My Life in the Arts

Nov 12, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Below is a brilliant and insightful talk by Harold Best, delivered for the Wheaton College Artist Series (September 12, 2015).

I want to tell two stories, the “my-life” part first and the “our-living” part last. The first, I promise you, will in no way comprise a solemn reading of I-knew-whom-studied-with-composed-for-performed-at-drew-applause-from-narrative, because there isn’t that much. I just want to weave in and out of a few things of earlier years in order to get to the harps out and riddles part: those strong, puzzling, paradoxical, truth-informed matters of which pressing on is the essence. And if you take anything away from this evening, forget the Harold Best part except to understand that God truly and graciously has worked on this flawed, oddly limited, and spottily trained life; that He keeps keeping my head and heart turned toward the Cross-emptied Tomb to which the Son of God addressed Himself from the eternities, and from which He, the Very Word of God was raised—who reigns, above, beyond and with us; everlasting, immutably truthful and a treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge. Too high and wonderful? Yes. Do we back off? No. We Press on.

The first part is engaging, and the second part—“a propositionally-laced, time-warped creation parable—in which the riddles that keep me refreshed and baffled are stated, I pray, in a truth-full way”—is worth the entire investment to watch the whole thing.

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Tim Keller | Our Identity: The Christian Alternative to Late Modernity’s Story

Nov 11, 2015 | Justin Taylor

Tim Keller speaking at chapel for Wheaton College (November 11, 2015), explaining that our culture repudiates as oppressive the idea that someone else names us and gives us an identity, but that when you trust Christ you have the only identity on earth that is received instead of achieved.

Keller goes on defend a form of individualism as inescapable but to critique expression individualism (the idea that you must look inside and then express them outwardly no matter what anyone says). He offers five critiques: it is  (1) incoherent; (2) unstable; (3) illusory; (4) crushing; (5) excluding.

We are social beings who need recognition and naming from outside—someone whom you love, approve, and esteem—to speak to you.

You can watch the whole thing here:

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