By / Jul 8

I remember a seminary professor of mine saying once, “The biggest problem most preachers have is they don’t read enough fiction.” I’ll admit, at the time, with all the problems I could list that most churches and pastors experience, a lack of novels was not near the top of my list.

In time, though, I came to realize this professor was right, and more importantly, I came to understand why. I realized, too, that when it comes to moral decision-making, the same holds true. So I’ll propose a similar ally in a quest for understanding and nourishing our moral and ethical frameworks: stories. Here’s why.

Stories speak the soul’s native language.

As humans created in the image of God, we’re hard-wired by God to be drawn toward narrative. This makes sense at one level when you stop and think about the fact that, as creatures, at our most basic level, we are all part of one cosmic story of redemption authored by God himself. We are born with an innate knowledge of this story’s Author (Rom. 1:20). Those of us in Christ have been given a preview of the plot’s culmination and are commissioned to reshape our own lives in light of our role in that final, everlasting chapter.

On another level, we’re created to love stories because God reveals himself to us in story form — and does so for a reason. Think about the nature of Scripture. At Sinai, God dictated the Ten Commandments to Moses. He could have just as easily done that with the entire Bible, giving us a divinely inspired systematic theology textbook. But he didn’t. Instead, he gave us a long and winding story about people and places and problems that often feel quite distant to us. And in spite of that, God tells us this is our story, and challenges us to find our place in it.

Much closer to home, the effect narrative has on us is powerful. Your average boy doesn’t learn about bravery from a daycare lecture on virtue; instead, long before he’s able to spell chivalry, he’s captivated by the hero racing into dark caves to ward off dragons and save the princess — and he’s playacting the same script in the woods and on the playground. More awkwardly, we’re all familiar with “that guy” at the gym —Jock Jams blaring in his ear buds, staring into the mirror between sets admiring his simulated swing as he imagines being the hero who hits the game-winning home run. In both cases, the story and script drill down deeply to the level of one’s own identity and intuitions.

For most, our first exposure to injustice, glory, sacrifice, rescue, heroism, and wickedness is often in some story. And our lives and psyches are shaped in ways we often don’t even realize by the stories we read, superimpose on our lives, and then rehearse in ways big and small. Why is that?

Stories sneak past the fallen soul’s defenses.

In Scripture, there’s a reason that Nathan, when forced to confront King David on his adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of Uriah, told a story about a rich man selfishly stealing a ewe lamb from a poor man. David, not seeing himself as part of this story, is outraged by the audacity of the man. And it’s only at that point that Nathan cries out that “You are the man” in this story, the one you say “deserves to die” because of his wickedness (2 Sam. 12:5). Nathan knows if he leads with an accusation, “You murdered Uriah! How could you?,” he’ll be met with some justification from David, “You don’t understand!” Instead, Nathan abstracts David’s sins and refashions them into a story that gets around the defenses David’s heart has constructed.

You and I, though, do the same thing that David did: we put up defenses that justify whatever actions we take. Any good preaching class uses Nathan as an example of how to preach, because sin has constructed barriers into the human heart to guard it from oncoming accusation. The job of the preacher is to find ways around those defenses.

In the same vein, Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind, argues convincingly that when it comes to moral judgments and decision-making, our intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. When strategic reasoning does come in, our reasoning acts less like a judge, impartially weighing evidence, but acts instead like a press secretary, immediately seeking to find justifications for decisions.

When we read, then, we do two things at once. On the one hand, we feed our instincts. Stories are uniquely absorbed into our lives and identities in ways that aren’t always easy to perceive. In reading, we don’t merely consume as in visual media. In reading, we engage: we go to different places, experiencing things not available to us in our own localities. We are confronted with difficulties we did not create and thus forced to feel empathy for people and situations we might not otherwise have occasion to consider. On the other hand, when we read we also welcome concepts in through a back door that evade the walls we have constructed in our own hearts. We invite pangs and insights that a sterile and shallow world of our own construction might never otherwise allow to enter in.

Of course, not all stories are nourishing; not all food is healthy. And reading, in and of itself, makes not a more virtuous person. But make no mistake: stories are powerful. As we identify with what we take in, we feed our ethical imaginations and broaden our moral vocabulary — creating categories, carving pathways, and cultivating instincts that show up in hundreds of ways every single day.

If that’s the case, then, as counterintuitive as it may sound, when it comes to moral decision-making, you are what you read.

By / Jun 7

On a rare day away from the kids several years ago, I hurried to a major bookstore. My career as a children’s book author was just beginning, and I felt I could reasonably justify a long, quiet afternoon knee-deep in picture books as “market research.” 

Grabbing 20 or 30 books off the shelves, I eagerly settled in. I didn’t choose them for any particular reason — some I had heard of, many I hadn’t — but all had claimed coveted spots on endcaps or display tables. In other words, these were the most anticipated, critically acclaimed, and best-selling picture books the store had to offer. So even though I wrote for the Christian market and these were general market books, these were the ones I wanted to learn from. 

And learn I did. What I found that day would shape the way I write, read, and choose books for my kids forever. And it wasn’t necessarily good news. 

Not even our children’s books are safe

To my astonishment, roughly 20% of the picture books I had randomly selected off the shelves ended up containing cleverly disguised jabs or outright antagonism toward God, religion in general, or Christianity specifically. While that may not seem overly shocking on the surface (especially considering our current culture) remember this: their target audience was 4 to 8-year-olds. 

From the outside, none of the titles gave any indication that they would be addressing matters of faith in any way. The covers were adorable, the titles clever, the themes silly, the writing excellent. They were doing their job well: enticing children to want to read them and parents, grandparents, and picture book lovers to buy them. Yet tucked within their pages were subtle, but insidious messages: God is a joke. God is a jerk. 

This story is fun. God is not. 

What should this tell us? What we already know. There is a war for our children’s souls, and our enemy does not play fair. Not even our children’s books are safe. 

What would Jesus do? 

What should we do? Why, fight fire with fantastic stories, of course. That’s what Jesus did, after all. Throughout the Gospels, we find Jesus telling stories. Stories of farmers and wayward sons and lost coins and found treasures. Jesus loved to teach truth through tales. 

And because Jesus truly knew his audience — “For he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:25b) — storytelling allowed Jesus to package his message in a way that would reach their specific situations, concerns, and heart-deep motivations. 

When it came to ministering to children, it seems doubtful that Jesus would have switched ministry tactics. Children gravitate to good storytellers, after all. Especially ones that make them laugh. 

Because it’s built into their nature and not explicitly stated in Scripture, we tend not to give it much thought. But as miniature image-bearers of God, a child’s play-seeking, fun-loving default mode must also represent an element of God’s character. If children love fun, then so must God, right? 

Not so sure? Look around.  Since God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20), what are we to deduce about God’s character through, for example, his creation of ticklish armpits? Or oh-so-fun-to-chase and easy-to-catch lightening bugs? Or maple seeds that helicopter to the ground? Or (forgive me) the uncouth, but giggle-inducing noises made by excess air leaving the body? 

What should these creations tell us about God? Among other things, he’s no dour-faced, destroyer of fun, that’s for sure. From infancy, God designed us to laugh, just as he also designed things for us to laugh at.

It’s not surprising then that Satan would take what children love — stories, fun, laughter — and use them for his purposes in children’s books. He’s not overly creative in his tactics, after all. He relies on starting with something God created and twisting it. God is a jerk or a joke. Anti-fun or anti-real. Following him is pointless, boring. Joyless. 

Beating the enemy with stories 

And this where we beat the enemy at his own game. It begins in our homes and on our bookshelves. 

1. Start with the ultimate story

God’s redemptive plan from Genesis to Revelation is the most important story we can give our kids. We are ambassadors for Christ, the first ones our children will meet. And what we value, they will value. When God’s Word is regularly quoted in our homes, frequently read from, and naturally applied to everyday situations, our children benefit eternally. 

Though we may wonder sometimes if it’s doing any good, we are promised that God’s Word will do its work. “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose it, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). 

Giving our children stories of truth from the Bible, spilling over with God’s love and the salvation offered to us through Christ, are the greatest, most important stories we can tell them. Definitely, absolutely we start there. 

2. Follow up with grace-filled, faith-based books

In our desire to reach our children’s hearts with truth, we often supplement Bible stories with faith-based children’s books. This is a good thing. (For me as a Christian children’s book author, this is a very good thing.) 

Sometimes though, in our determination to point our kids to Christ, we act like we don’t know our audience at all. We woefully package our message in didactic tales of warning: Don’t do this. Always do this. Be good. Be good. Be good. We forget that children are all-natural joy-chasers, and that Jesus went to the cross for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2)! The pursuit of joy is biblical, good, and God-glorifying. 

Therefore, vigilantly avoid books that propagate legalistic moralism. Yes, teach your children to love righteousness and hate wickedness, but give them the why behind it. For joy (Psa. 45:7)! Surround them with stories of grace. Lean heavily on messages of hope. Remind them that it’s through Christ’s righteousness alone that they’ll find forgiveness, purpose, and lasting joy. 

Grace-filled, faith-based books are harder to find in bookstores and libraries, but they’re there. Dig through the shelves. Read the whole book before you buy or check out. Do your homework on that popular book before you “buy it now,” and don’t purchase just because you recognize a celebrity author, Christian publisher, or a famous series. Often times, the best books are not the best-selling books. 

3. And, seriously, make them laugh

Setting those outwardly antagonistic-to-the-faith books aside (which are, thankfully, still in the minority), most general market children’s books do their job well. A lot of giggles can be shared reading The Book with No Pictures or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. But why should they have all the fun? 

Several years ago, after a particularly silly moment at a concert of one of my favorite Christian bands, Rend Collective, the lead singer memorably reminded us in the audience, “Seriousness is not a fruit of the Spirit.”

We worship the Creator of truth and of joy. Of salvation and silliness. Of fun and freedom. God isn’t a jerk or a joke; he’s the God of hope. Christian children’s books should be the most hopeful and hilarious books on our shelves. 

As a children’s book author, this is my goal. As Christian parents, this should be our goal too. Give them stories of grace, saturated with unchanging truth. That’s what Jesus would have done. And make them funny, for goodness’ sake. I believe that’s what he would have done too. 

Fight the enemy’s fire with fantastic stories. And have fun doing it. Your children certainly will. 

By / May 5

Italian journalist and novelist Italo Calvino once said, “A classic is a book that never finishes saying what it has to say.” Even those who don’t enjoy Greek literature can understand Odysseus’ desire to return home in The Iliad. And though it is unlikely that our own decade will be as decadent as the 1920s, all who read The Great Gatsby can understand the desire of the title character to reinvent yourself and overcome your past. 

In her new series of edited classics, Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English and Christian & Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, invites readers to return to (or read for the first time) works that continue to ask and answer questions of modern readers. We are not the first to ask questions about the relationship between science and religion, identity, and the juxtaposition of true faith and nominal Christianity. In returning to these great works of literature, Prior hopes to give readers a chance to wrestle with those questions in new ways guided by their Christian faith. 

Why did you choose the four stories so far in the series? Is there something unique about these four: Heart of Darkness, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein?

First of all, I chose from works in the public domain so as to avoid copyright questions and expenses. Fortunately, my area of expertise centers on literature that is well within those bounds. From there, I chose works that I know and love well. Narrowing it down to just six from there was still rather difficult! Ultimately, I wanted to choose works that wrestle with questions and themes that are particularly relevant to the church right now.

And to be totally transparent, I wanted to choose some works that I thought would be likely to appeal to male readers since so much evidence indicates that Christian men read fiction far less than other genres. Classic literature is for everyone.

Are there any books that you are hoping to include in the series in the future?

The last two books in the series will be Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. They will release in March 2022.

One thing that I think stands out about these editions is not just the text, but the way the physical book is itself a piece of care and craft. Is there a deeper reason for this, or is it only a decorative decision? How does having the book in a bound and beautiful text help to also shape the reader? 

One of the keys to understanding literature — and all art, really — is that form is everything. As Marshall McLuhan would say, “The medium is the message.” From the start, this project was envisioned as one that would bring beautiful stories to the reader — and to the church — in a beautiful form. Now, to be clear, I have no problem with cheap paperback versions of classics and own many myself. (They are perfect for carrying around to class or reading in the swimming pool.) But the market is overwhelmed with these editions. And while gorgeous clothbound editions of the classics are available from other publishers, as far as I know, none have been produced by any publisher for Christian readers specifically. 

My publishing team and I put a great deal of thought into the cover colors, design, finish, the paper, the ribbon marker, and even the font. (The font and page layout were improved even more with the second set.) These are volumes to own for a lifetime and to pass down. My copies join books on my shelves that have done the same, books that are now 100 or 200 years old.

Each of the introductions to the books concludes with the “Reading as a Christian” section. Why did you include that? What are practices you would encourage Christians do when reading fiction? Is there a Christian way to read or perspective that Christians should have when reading?

In my book, On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, I focus more on the practices and habits that can improve our reading. In this series, through both this part of each introduction and later in the discussion questions (since I have committed to having no plot spoilers in the introductions), I talk about the themes that have particular relevance to us as Christians. These themes are, as I mentioned above, part of the reason I chose each work. 

Of course, great books are relevant to all people in all times because their greatness is in the way they capture universal themes. Most classics are published and edited by scholars who either aren’t Christians or may even be hostile to the Christian backdrop of these works. These books offer a different perspective than what is commonly out there today.

The story of Frankenstein and his monster is both a horror story and science fiction. In this genre, there seems to be a warning about trusting too much in the power and goodness of science devoid of a larger framework. What cautions does this offer to a modern audience faced with a rapidly advancing technical age where what was fantastical can become commonplace in the matter of a few years? 

This question is one that I think makes Frankenstein timelier than ever. As I explain in the introduction, the premise of the story was not as far-fetched as it might seem since similar kinds of experiments and questions were common at the time. The central question the novel asks — what is the responsibility of a creator (or Creator) toward his creation — is ever more pressing. Frankenstein helps us to see that science is never just for the sake of science — it is an attempt to fulfill deeper human needs and desires. And it is those we need to address in the ways that only our Creator can, even as science allows us to improve human lives and human flourishing. Undertaken apart from our true purpose as human beings, however, science can also bring harm and destruction.

You say that the most unsettling part of Frankenstein is not the story, but the way it is told: nested stories and unreliable narrators. Why is that more unsettling than a reanimated corpse driven by passions? Do you see any corollaries in our own moment of how the unreliable narrators of our cultural stories contribute to the sense of unease?

I have lived more than half a century. I have taught for many years literature that spans many centuries. And yet, I never imagined myself living in a time when truth — even simple facts — could be so contested, debated, and unreliable. We are living in a time when so many competing narrators are vying for our attention and confidence that it is increasingly difficult to know what is true. Both Frankenstein (and, perhaps, even more Heart of Darkness, another book in the series) demonstrate the limits of human perspective and knowledge. 

We are wise to understand, then, that our limited understanding must be measured against the only reliable source of truth we have — God and his Word. We are our own unreliable narrators. But by God’s grace, we can see ourselves within the context of his story. Reading other people’s stories helps to realize our need to do so.

The introduction to Frankenstein notes the importance of the virtues in this story. Your previous book, On Reading Well, was devoted to the study of the virtues through literature. How does literature in general help us to learn and practice the virtues? How does Frankenstein specifically do that?

First time readers might be surprised to learn what a central place virtue has in Frankenstein. It is a recurring theme that demands the reader’s attention by asking us to find that moderation between the various excesses and deficiencies displayed in the novel. When does the zeal for knowledge become a vice rather than a virtue? When does the desire for justice cease to be a virtuous pursuit? What can a world which lacks the influence of women (one half of the human race) become? There are so many things out of balance in the story that it demands that readers seek the virtuous mean.

You say that it was the ordinariness of Jane Eyre that made the novel extraordinary. What do you mean by that? How was it both ordinary and revolutionary for its time?

In their early history, novels tended to be over-the-top, variously, in their sharp humor, their moral earnestness, or their amorous exploits. While drawing on both the Romantic and didactic traditions that came before it, Jane Eyre is more realistic than nearly all its literary predecessors. While it has some unrealistic (and even unsatisfactory) plot elements, the heart of the story is the voice and character of this very “plain Jane” who is so very human in her desire to have a place and people to belong to, to be with someone she loves, and to be a faithful Christian. Jane was revolutionary because she willed these things and she willed them passionately, refusing to accept injustice in a world in which justice was available only to the few who had power and wealth.

Christianity is a pervasive theme in Jane Eyre. Some early critics thought it was an attack on faith, and yet you say that Christianity created Jane Eyre. What accounts for this tension? How can reading this novel help modern readers understand our own nominally Christian context?

Well, you hit the nail on the head in the last part of this question. Jane Eyre was an attack — a powerful attack — on nominal Christianity. Those trapped within nominal Christianity took it as an attack on the real thing. Then, as now, it was, and is, difficult to separate mere convention from truly biblical principles. It is difficult for people in any time to see outside the context of their times, beyond their moral blind spots. But just as Nathan so effectively helped David to see his great sin by telling a parallel story about another man’s sin, so, too, literature about other times and places can help us see the truth by seeing it sideways. It’s easy for us to see now in the world of Jane Eyre where Christians got so many things wrong. The real test is seeing where they are wrong in our own time.

The question of self and identity are core themes in the life of Jane, specifically how an individual must “forge an identity,” a uniquely modern problem (and one that is also present in Frankenstein in the monster’s journey). What in this novel speaks to the way that a modern reader will understand that yearning for identity? Does the novel fully answer the question of identity? 

The novel doesn’t fully answer the question of identity. It would not be a great novel if it attempted to! Rather, good art invites us to see, to perceive, to consider. Indeed, even the ending of the novel (no spoilers!) is one some people find dissatisfying, which I think makes the novel all the better. For in this fallen world, we will not find perfect satisfaction. 

This question of identity that Jane Eyre wrestles with was one that was emerging when the novel was written. Nearly two centuries later, the question has only become more complicated and fraught. As our culture becomes more fractured and polarized, the shards of our identity have less to hold them together. This makes the hope of the gospel — and an identity in Christ — all the more satisfying and real. Jane understood that — yet still had to work it out in her life, just as we must as well.

By / Apr 29

Classic literature is not where we are likely to turn when looking to learn leadership principles. However, fiction is a constructive way for leaders to grow. Almost any great work of literature is worthwhile for leaders. In my experience, many leaders, particularly Christian leaders, neglect literary fiction to read books that are seemingly more practical (i.e., books on leadership). While literature seems less practical, it is often more useful in the long term. 

Literature helps shape virtue, which is essential for any meaningful or lasting leadership. Good stories stick with us and shape us consciously and subconsciously. Leaders need to be people of virtue and strong character. Literature also helps us cultivate empathy by seeing things from someone else’s perspective. 

As a general tip for reading fiction for those with little experience, I suggest finding some topic of interest and looking for a novel somehow related (for example, if you are interested in studying military history, you may enjoy All Quiet on the Western Front). As you read more, you will likely find your tastes expand, and you will become interested in reading widely.

The literary corpus is so large; where does someone begin? In particular, where does someone unaccustomed to reading fiction begin? I am going to share a few works that I believe would be helpful and accessible. I do not think these are the only works, or even necessarily the best works, but I do believe each of these works has incredible value and would be a decent place to begin.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day is a powerful novel about an English butler reflecting on life near his career’s end. While he has enjoyed and been honored by his career, he laments having missed out on relationships and opportunities by investing so deeply in his work. This novel is brilliantly captivating and a powerful reminder for leaders as they contemplate their work and their lives. It is easy for a leader to pour one’s life into one’s work at the expense of several vital things, including loving their families and growing in spiritual maturity. This novel offers wisdom into that topic.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar is loosely based on the historical assassination of Julius Caesar. This is one you likely read in high school (or were at least assigned). This play shows readers the stakes in leading well, making decisions for others, and the consequences of those choices. Shakespeare understood the human condition as well as any other English-speaking author, and he forces readers to wrestle with the essence of our identity, how we separate personal preferences from the greater good, and much more. Leaders must often make choices with no clear right or easy answer, and Shakespeare captures that reality in Julius Caesar

The Odyssey by Homer

The Odyssey is likely the most challenging book on this list, but the payoff is immeasurable for those willing to invest in it. Part of the challenge is that The Odyssey is epic poetry. Finding the right translation is helpful in making it through this one; I recommend Richmond Lattimore’s translation, but there are several other worthy translations. Odysseus is trying to make his way home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and his journey is filled with detour after detour. Odysseus is known for his cunning, but he also makes the occasional bad decision. On his journey, he tries to remain faithful to his wife and his quest while also protecting his men, but he also experiences failure and loss. There are lessons to learn from Odysseus by positive and negative examples, and Homer covers so many topics throughout this great epic, it is worth reading several times.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

I would likely favor having The Lord of the Rings on this list over The Hobbit, but that is a much greater undertaking. It may seem silly to include a children’s book, particularly a fantastical one. However, I hold the conviction that stories worth reading to children are at least as valuable for adults to read. The Hobbit follows an unlikely, unqualified hero, Bilbo Baggins, on a journey to reclaim treasure guarded by a dragon. Along the way, Bilbo must find courage and virtue in himself to achieve success. The most important thing for a leader is to have strong character, and this novel can help cultivate wisdom and virtue. If a tiny hobbit can face dire challenges to save his friends and experience success, so can we.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is sometimes viewed as being a love story, but it is so much more. This novel interacts with human identity and how we are uniquely created. The characters don’t always fit their family’s or society’s expectations. This tension forces introspection in readers — leaders must come to terms with their strengths and weaknesses to lead well. This book also reminds us that first impressions aren’t always accurate, and leaders need to be compassionate and slow to make judgments. Good leaders are attentive and listen well.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Total disclosure: this is my favorite work of fiction. I hesitated to mention it because the novel’s unabridged version is over 1,000 pages, which would make it a difficult place to start. But few other works deal with as many issues as beautifully as this one. Edmond Dantes is cruelly wronged but experiences growth in the process. This novel highlights what it means to hold on to hope, even amid hardship for many years. Dumas also deals with themes of forgiveness, justice, mercy, and redemption in this beautiful narrative.

Leaders often overlook classic literature for books about self-improvement and leadership growth. Yet, classic works of fiction offer inspiration and insight, shaping us through narrative. Next time you look for fresh books for your personal development, consider some of these great works of classic literature.

By / Mar 18

As COVID-19 (coronavirus) continues to spread through our communities, many families are spending extra time at home per the recommendation of most health professionals in order to slow down the spread of the virus as we seek to love our neighbors well. My family, in particular, has been under quarantine because of my wife’s chemotherapy treatments and compromised immune system. Being cooped up for an extended time can be challenging, especially if you or a loved one are sick.  

In order to help pass the time, I asked the ERLC team for a few of their favorite book recommendations to encourage and edify you during this unpredictable season. The list is below, along with links to grab them online so that you don’t have to brave the crowds or possibly expose yourself to the virus. It’s by no means exhaustive, but it is a good starting point, whether you’re an avid reader or haven’t picked up a book in years.  

Children  

With many little ones and teenagers out of school for an extended period of time, this is a great opportunity to redeem the time by exposing your children to a few of the great works of literature and some inspirational historical figures.  

Chronicles of Narnia (Complete Set) C.S. Lewis  

Jesus Rose for Me: The True Story of Easter & The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible  Jared Kennedy  

Empowered: How God Shaped 11 Women's Lives (And Can Shape Yours Too) & Strong: How God Equipped 11 Ordinary Men with Extraordinary Power (and Can Do the Same for You) Catherine Parks  

The Wingfeather Saga Andrew Peterson  

Devotional/Christian Living  

In tumultuous times, it can be easy to become anxious and overwhelmed as we tend to forget about God’s comforting presence and love for his children. Here are a few recommendations that will challenge you to cling to God in the midst of uncertainty.  

George Müller: Delighted in God Roger Steer  

Just as I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham Billy Graham  

The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves Curt Thompson  

Walking with God through Pain and Suffering Tim Keller  

Biography/Nonfiction  

Some of my favorite and often most encouraging reads are biographies and historical accounts. Through the story of these men and women, we can learn from the experiences of people from all walks of life. Reading about others’ lives or historical events can help shape our response to the issues of our day as well as give us perspective on the things we are dealing with as individuals.  

If I Perish Esther Ahn Kim  

Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama Michael K. Bohn  

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland Jim DeFede  

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life David Brooks  

My Heart in His Hands Sharon James  

Current Issues  

With a little time away from our normal routines, this also can be a great time to catch up on some of the most important issues of our day. These books can help equip you to understand some of the movements in our culture and prepare to engage them with the love of God and neighbor in mind.  

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion Jonathan Haidt  

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds Alan Jacobs  

The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success Ross Douthat  

The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity Jason Thacker  

Even if you are not the reading type, you can still dive into these works via audiobooks and a set of headphones. I personally enjoy listening to many books, especially history and biographies, because I can listen while doing other things around the house or yard. There are many ways to access audiobooks such as Audible, Overcast, or through your local library’s services.  

During this extended time of disruption, while we pray for those on the front lines of this virus outbreak, suffering from infection, and leading our states and nation, let’s use some of this time to pick up a good book, in addition to God’s Word, and enjoy the privilege of reading and learning.   

By / Mar 16

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth once advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” What Barth was recommending was that his students read the news with biblical discernment. 

Biblical discernment is the skill of understanding and applying God’s Word with the aid of the Holy Spirit to separate truth from error and right from wrong. Biblical discernment is therefore not only a habit needed to develop a biblical worldview, it is a primary reason for developing a biblical worldview and has the practical effect of helping us to live. 

Recognizing and rejecting false teaching is an essential element of biblical discernment, as well. As Paul tells us, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:20-22). But too often Christians limit discernment to the teachings within the church and overlook the catechism they are receiving from the culture. This is especially true when it comes to consumption of news media. 

There is much more to discernment, though, than simply avoiding false teachings, as Sinclair Ferguson explains in his book In Christ Alone

True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.

How to develop discernment

“How is such discernment to be obtained?” asks Ferguson. “We receive it as did Christ himself—by the anointing of the Spirit, through our understanding of God’s Word, by our experience of God’s grace, and by the progressive unfolding to us of the true condition of our own hearts.” Ferguson is clarifying that, as with most spiritual disciplines, biblical discernment contains both a passive and an active element. We must rely on our union with Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But we also must develop our understanding of Scripture and our ability to make critical judgements about how to apply what we learn. 

Let’s look at a few necessary steps for developing the skill of discernment when reading the news:

Consider what you believe about the news. Which is more important to us, God’s Word or the news? What if someone were asked to determine that answer by observing our habits? The uncomfortable truth is that we often spend far more time reading news articles than reading the Bible. And we spend more time watching news programs than actively acquiring wisdom. How would your life differ if you changed your news consumption habits to develop wisdom and understanding?

Understand that “news” is a product for consumption. The term “news” is most commonly used in our daily lives to mean information about current events that is delivered to the general public by the news industry. The news industry produces one product but sells two: they produce news content that they sell to news consumers (i.e., you), and they package the attention of news consumers (again, you) that they sell to others (usually advertisers but sometimes nonprofit donors).

For the news industry, you are both a consumer and a product. But in the age of social media you have also become a free distributor. Your friend who daily shares the content of a cable news show on Twitter and Facebook is essentially an unpaid intern working for Fox News or MSNBC. That means most of us are an unofficial part of the media and will be held responsible to God for how we use the news to promote or degrade the understanding and truth. 

Unfortunately, many of us don’t even bother to read the news we share. As philosopher Michael P. Lynch has noted, current research estimates that at least 60% of news stories shared online have not even been read by the person sharing them. We can’t be discerning if we are spreading a product that we have not even taken the time to evaluate. 

Guard your mind. You may consider yourself an “independent thinker,” but if you are a news consumer, you’re conditioned to “think about” whatever issues the news industry has decided you will think about that day. This is especially true if you engage on social media outlets like Twitter, where a recurring joke is to ask, “What are we upset about today?” Most of us, if we are honest, use outlets like Twitter as a shortcut to find out what agenda the news industry has set for the day.

Too often Christians limit discernment to the teachings within the church and overlook the catechism they are receiving from the culture. This is especially true when it comes to consumption of news media.

Christians don’t need to believe the news industry has nefarious motives to find this agenda-setting function troubling. Whether we are getting our news from Fox News or NPR, the picture of reality being drawn by the news industry is not likely to match the reality produced by our Creator. The Bible commands us to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3:2), which is impossible to do when we’re tuned into around-the-clock “headline news.”

Consume less news. Most news products are the mental and spiritual equivalent of junk food. By consuming less of it, we won’t necessarily improve our health, but we can limit its negative effects on us. But what if we miss something? The late media theorist Neil Postman offers this response: 

If you are concerned that cutting down your viewing time will cause you to “miss” important news, keep this in mind: each day’s TV news consists for the most part, of fifteen examples of the Seven Deadly Sins, with which you are already quite familiar. There may be a couple of stories exemplifying lust, usually four about murder, occasionally one about gluttony, another about envy, and so on. It cannot possibly do you any harm to excuse yourself each week from thirty or forty of these examples. Remember: TV news does not reflect normal, everyday life. 

News is for reading, not watching. If you are an American, you likely get your news in the worst way possible—through the medium of video, specifically television news. Studies show that more than half of adults in the U.S. get news from TV. We can improve our ability to discern the news by shifting our habits of consumption and obtaining the bulk of our news in printed form (including online text), listening to radio news sparingly, and avoiding TV news like it’s spreading a plague.

The primary reason for developing this preference is the way each medium communicates information. TV has a lower informational density than a newspaper. All the words spoken in an hour of TV news could fit on a single page of a newspaper, says Postman, so TV viewers are getting much less news content than newspaper readers. Postman also notes, “The grammar of images is weak in communicating past-ness and present-ness” and prefers change rather than stasis. That’s why, says Postman, violence finds its way on television news so often—it is a radical and attention-grabbing form of change. 

Arm yourself against “fake news.” Almost everyone in America agrees that so-called “fake news” is a problem. A study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 73% of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today, more than any other potential type of news bias. But there is less agreement on what the term means. So, let me offer my own definition: Fake news is information about current events that is distributed as news but has no concern for the truth; its purpose is only to motivate a particular form of acceptable thought.

The reason fake news has become so common is because there is a strong demand for it. And it isn’t the fake news of those we disagree with that we should be worried about but the news from those on “our side.” We all want to believe, especially when it comes to politics, that our preferred ideas, policies, and politicians are so obviously superior as to be above reproach. But for Christians, the priority must always be the truth. Truth must even take precedence over our political objectives. As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “Christian values . . . cannot be accepted as a superior utilitarianism, just as a means to an end. The biblical message is truth and it demands a commitment to truth.”

Pray for guidance. We should ask God to open our hearts to his Word and allow us to see any specific issue clearly. We should also continuously pray, as did the psalmist, “I am your servant; give me discernment” (Psa. 119:125). For every minute we spend consuming news products, we should spend a minute in prayer about how we discern the news. And if you don’t have time for that much prayer, you don’t have time to be wasting with the news. 

This article originally appeared in Light Magazine

By / Jan 7

Reading is one of my favorite pastimes and has been for as long as I can remember. I have fond memories from my childhood of staying up into the wee hours of the night, devouring books. My mom read aloud to us as children and did an excellent job instilling a love of reading into me.

I wanted to share some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way to help build reading into my regular rhythms. (If you need some reading recommendations, here are the books I read in 2018 and 2019) Before we dive in, I thought I’d share some of my favorite quotes about reading.

  • “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” – C.S. Lewis
  • “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.” – J.K. Rowling
  • “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” – C.S. Lewis
  • “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” – Victor Hugo

I hope you find these suggestions helpful and that they give you an appetite for the written word. 

1. Develop a rhythm of reading

If you want reading to be a regular part of your life, you need to make it a priority. Duh, right? But seriously, block off time on your schedule, and develop the habit of reaching regularly for a book, instead of defaulting to reaching for your phone or the TV remote.

Below are a few suggestions for habit building:

  • Read in the morning before you get ready for the day.
  • Read before bedtime.
  • Read 10 pages a day.
  • Set a timer, and read for a certain amount of time without touching your phone.

Personally, I read a few pages of a book in the morning after my quiet time and read before bed at night a few times a week.

2. Always carry a book

I always carry a book with me. Whenever I have a few spare minutes, I’ll take out a book and read a few pages. A few pages here and there really add up. Try it for a week. You’d be surprised how often you’ll be able to read.

If you want reading to be a regular part of your life, you need to make it a priority.

I try to be selective about the book I carry with me. I aim for one that’s easy to pick up and jump into without taking a ton of time to reorient myself back into the book. I recommend a biography or a personal development type of book.

3. Read books that are interesting

Life is too short to read books that don’t capture your attention. If a book just isn’t interesting to you, quit the book. Your time is precious, and you shouldn’t waste it on bad books. Give yourself permission to quit books.

4. Use the library

I’m such a fan of the library. I love it for checking out novels and books I know I likely won’t reread. Also, if you haven’t heard of the app “OverDrive,” you’re missing out. It’s your local public library’s free access to thousands of e-books and audiobooks.

5. Put your phone on “Do not Disturb”

How often have you started doing a task only to be interrupted five minutes later with a notification on your phone? I’ve been there more times than I can tell you. That’s why I regularly use the “Do not Disturb” feature on my phone. Or better yet, put your phone in the other room so you’re not even tempted to pick it up.

Sometimes it takes me a while to get into a book, but it’s easier if I’m not constantly distracted by my phone. You’d be surprised how much you can read if your focus is entirely engrossed in the task at hand.

6. “Read” on your commute

Halfway through this year, I decided to purchase an Audible subscription, and I’ve loved it. Oftentimes, I’ll pop on an audiobook and listen on my commute. A few other creative ways I find time to “listen” to books is while I’m cleaning, folding laundry, cleaning out my inbox, etc. (I don’t usually listen to anything while I’m walking outside. I like to be able to fully engage in nature when I’m outside.) Audible is $15 a month, but well worth the investment.

It’s important to remember that reading looks different in the changing seasons of life, and that’s okay. If you’re a mom of small children, chances are it’s going to be a lot more difficult to find time to read. Give yourself grace, and don’t compare your reading pace with someone else’s. I’m currently in a season of life that allows me to read more, but I know that it won’t always be this way.

Reading is worth the effort. I hope these suggestions encourage you to at least give it a try. Reading is a pleasure and a privilege, and I want to equip you to deeply enjoy it. I challenge you to take these suggestions and put your own personal spin on them as you begin a new year.

By / Jan 6

Politics consumes a lot of space in our lives. But that is never more true than during an election season. Even though the year has just begun, we can already tell that 2020 is shaping up to be another chaotic election year. And for Christians, there is much to think about. For believers, politics is about much more than one’s vote for president or the party or candidates we might choose to support. Instead, the way we engage the political process is about our public witness. In thinking about politics, we should be thinking about the way we represent Jesus to the world.

If I could make only one recommendation for Christians as we enter this election year, I would encourage you to prepare for it by spending some time learning from those who’ve also thought deeply about a Christian approach to politics. Below I’ve included four books that you should consider reading this year, along with a brief description of each one. Each book covers slightly different ground, and each author speaks with real credibility about the subjects he addresses. These books have been beneficial in my own life as I’ve learned to consider political engagement as an extension of my faith instead of something separate or only slightly related. I’m confident they will do the same for you.

Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore

I recommend this book first because of its hopeful outlook. Onward is a book that reflects the gospel-shaped mentality that should guide every Christian as he or she thinks about politics. Christians have exercised a profound influence over American politics since the founding of our nation. But whether our influence is to rise or wane in the future, Christians should always be mindful (and motivated) by the fact that our true allegiance is to a King and a Kingdom that is not of this world, and that the Kingdom of Christ is the only kingdom that will triumph at the end of history. Rightly applying the gospel to our politics should be the aim of every Christian citizen, and I know of no better place apart from the scriptures to begin.

One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics by Chris Pappalardo

One Nation Under God is a brief, excellent primer for Christians on the subject of political engagement. The book offers a new vision for the politically disillusioned and a helpful corrective to those expecting political achievement to usher in the Kingdom of God. The authors take the time to introduce the reader to the basic categories of political thought as they have developed throughout church history. In the first half of the book, they present a helpful, gospel-based framework for thinking biblically about politics. And in the second half, they apply that framework to contemporary political issues such as human dignity, marriage and family, human sexuality, immigration, war, and economics. The book is helpful, approachable, and includes both principles and application in a way that will help you think more carefully about applying your beliefs to political issues.

If I could make only one recommendation for Christians as we enter this election year, I would encourage you to prepare for it by spending some time learning from those who’ve also thought deeply about a Christian approach to politics.

How The Nations Rage: Rethinking Politics in a Divided Age by Jonathan Leeman

The public square is nothing less than a battleground of gods. Christians often struggle to make sense of the ways that it is appropriate to bring their faith to bear on politics and government. How do we “vote our values” while defending religious liberty? What about the separation of church and state? No one I know thinks more carefully about politics and the church than Jonathan Leeman. And so it is no surprise that the real strength of this book is Leeman’s ability to help readers see the local church as central to our politics. As he explains, local churches are literally outposts of the Kingdom of God on the earth. Leeman helps us see what the local church teaches us about politics by observing the rhythms of our lives and worship as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. Learning to think about earthly politics in light of Jesus’ Kingship is essential for Christians, and How The Nations Rage lays just such a foundation.

The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics by Greg Forster

This book differs substantially from those already mentioned. Instead of a guide for navigating contemporary politics, The Contested Public Square traces the history of Christian political engagement. Within its pages, Forster offers few prescriptions. But he does offer a compelling narration of significant developments in Christian political thought and its application and effects in the real world. In the book, he captures the sweeping history of Christianity’s rise from obscure sect within first-century Judaism to a modern, global religion and considers the faith’s powerful influence upon the development of Western history. Each of the book’s eight chapters give attention to a distinct period in history as Forster draws out the political ideals that emerged from Christianity’s repeated confrontation of the most consequential and hotly contested political questions of the day. Any Christian seeking to meaningfully engage politics today should be aware of this history. And Forster’s work is a great place to start.

By / Dec 20

Reading is important. It cultivates imagination, helps clarify ideas, and shapes our thinking. Throughout each year, members of our team enjoy reading and listening to a variety of books. Here are just a few that some of the ERLC staff enjoyed in 2019.   

Trillia Newbell: Director of Community Outreach

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover  
Educated is a gripping memoir about the life of Tara Westover and her siblings as they endured through various trials in Idaho. Westover was 17 before she ever stepped into a classroom, thus the name “educated.” Her parents were survivalists, forbade hospitals, and had radical religious beliefs. Her life was difficult, and yet, in many ways, she still found a way to honor her parents. I was gripped mostly because I realized that this is a true story, and there are likely hundreds of thousands of stories like it all over the world.   

A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It by Stephen Kinzer  
This year, I got the chance to travel to Rwanda with HOPE International. I knew a little about Rwanda’s history, but not much. I knew there was a genocide, but I didn’t quite get it. How can you grasp such tragedy? A Thousand Hills is the story of how the current president, Paul Kagame, who was once a refugee, rebuilt the country. I know there are many books about the history of Rwanda, but this one was a helpful introduction to what was happening at that time.   

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass  
There’s a great deal about slavery that I can’t and will never be able to wrap my head around. I’ve heard about our dark history, I’ve seen some of the effects of slavery that still linger in our society, but hearing the firsthand account from someone who lived through it is a, for lack of better terms, gift to all of us. I highly recommend this account of the life of Frederick Douglass.   

Run for Your Life: How to Run, Walk, and Move Without Pain or Injury and Achieve a Sense of Well-Being and Joy by Mark Cucuzzella  
I don’t love to run because it hurts. So, I wanted to see if maybe I was part of the problem. Was my technique off? Was I not wearing the best shoes? I decided to listen to this book while running! It was helpful. Running still hurts, but I think it’s mostly because I just don’t like running. But that won’t stop me from continuing to, and this book was helpful.   

Daniel Patterson: Vice President for Operations and Chief of Staff

Churchill: Walking with Destiny by Andrew Roberts
There is no shortage of biographies on Winston Churchill, many of them thousands of pages long. This new biography, however, is the best one-volume biography of Churchill available. An important man living at an important time, there’s something valuable in this biography for everyone.  

The Conservative Sensibility by George F. Will
An instant classic. In a day when conservatism is often confused, and conservative intellectuals are becoming increasingly, and sadly, extinct, George Will calls readers back to what conservatism is and why it matters. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who cares about engaging issues in the public square. Of note, Will is an atheist and includes a case for atheism in the book, which I of course reject. But this doesn’t diminish the value of the book. Will is a master of English prose, and this lengthy book is, at the same time, accessible, thorough, and immensely enjoyable.  

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
In a day when our devices have all too often become our masters, Newport exposes the war for our attention, highlights the virtues of a less distracted life, and shows the reader how to get there. Life is richer when we’re doing meaningful work and engaged with real-life people more than avatars. You might not adopt every strategy Newport proposes, but the argument behind the strategy is worthy of consideration for all.  

The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction by Justin Whitmel Early
We are creatures who too often try and live like we are machines. Early calls us to recognize what human flourishing looks like and encourages us to develop rhythms and habits, a liturgical calendar for life of sorts, that drives the reader toward greater dependance on God, a prioritization of relationships, and fuller realization of one’s own creatureliness, which in turn will make one more happy, holy, and whole.  

Daniel Darling: Vice President of Communications

Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It by Dave Zahl
Dave Zahl’s contention is that there really is no such thing as secularism, and his thesis is persuasive. He excavates America’s cultural idols—career, parenting, technology, food, politics, and romance—and finds the ways in which we practice all the forms of worship without grace. It really helped me see underneath many of our social problems in a way that points to the real reason we make the choices we make and express ourselves the way we express ourselves. In a word, he says we are longing for the approval and “enoughness” that can only be found in Christ.   

Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality by Andrew T. LePeau
Most writing books are as boring as an old phonebook. But LePau, a longtime editor at IVP, delivers the rare, page-turning tome on writing and editing. What’s more, LePau offers helpful instruction on communicating eternal, spiritual truths to new audiences and wisdom on the essential disciplines of the writing. This book has quickly moved to the top of the list of books I will recommend to first-time writers.   

Working by Robert A. Caro 
Caro’s memoir of his writing life delivered on two levels. First, it is a riveting autobiography of his remarkable career of writing about consequential American figures, Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Secondly, it is a fascinating look into his writing and research process. I was moved by his very human touch in moving to the Texas Hill Country in order to understand the deep and grinding poverty of LBJ’s childhood. Caro’s dedication to his craft is an inspiration, and his retelling of American history is a gift to generations of Americans.   

Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse by Timothy P. Carney
Few if any people have examined the deep pockets of despair in American society like Tim Carney, a journalist and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Carney’s sifting of data, on-the-ground reporting, and intellectual honesty helped me understand those pockets of despair in America that I had, to my shame, not seen. What’s more, Carney persuasively points to the necessity of tight webs of community ties as essential to human flourishing. I think every pastor, every Christian leader, and anyone who wants to obey the Great Commandment should read this book.   

Jason Thacker: Creative Director

Sacred Duty: A Soldier’s Tour at Arlington National Cemetery by Tom Cotton  
Senator Cotton tells the harrowing story of our nation’s most famous military unit, the Old Guard of Arlington. Cotton brings a unique perspective to the Old Guard’s history as one who served with these brave men and women who seek to honor our country’s greatest fallen heros. From the early stories of the unit’s founding and military campaigns to how Arlington National Cemetery came to be and how these traditions are carried on, Cotton’s account of this unit is gripping and opened my eyes to the reality of defending liberty here and abroad.  

Tools and Weapons: The Promise and The Peril of the Digital Age by Brand Smith and Carol Ann Browne  
Smith and Browne confront some of the most important issues of our day—and even some still on the horizon—in this book. Smith serves as the president of Microsoft and has been with the company since the early days, which gives him a unique perspective on some issues we face with these innovative tools. With sections on privacy, artificial intelligence, role of big tech in society, and weapon technology, Smith serves as steady guide to the digital age. While I don’t agree with him on every issue, he is thoughtful and challenging on the issues that matter most to our society.   

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport  
While not a new book in 2019, Deep Work is still a welcomed message for our society as we are prone to countless distractions and time wasters. Newport sees this trend and advocates for a concept based on distraction-free concentration that pushes our cognitive and intellectual ability to the max. This type of work is especially relevant in the age of smart machines that can automate certain aspects of our everyday work. We must pursue deep and meaningful work because of how God created us to image him in our daily lives. It is one thing to have good intentions in our work, but we must cultivate routines and rituals to our lives in order to minimize the amount of distraction and maximize our output.  

Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom by Robert Louis Wilken  
We hear about religious liberty nearly every day in the news, but many of us do not have a firm grasp on where this idea came from or why it matters in the 21st century. Some claim that religious liberty is code for white nationalism or bigotry, while others argue for simply the freedom to worship. Wilken looks deep into the history of Christianity to find the origins of this modern concept and how it informs today’s discussions about the role of faith in the public order. He argues for a rich and robust understanding of religious liberty, not simply as an inward reality, but on a community level where people live out their faith publicly in a way that is consistent with their inner reality.  

Josh Wester: Director of Research, Office of the President

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K. A. Smith  
If I could only pick one spiritual hero, it would be Saint Augustine. I’ve learned more about being a Christ-follower from Augustine’s life and writings than almost any other source. A few years ago, I discovered the works of James K.A. Smith—a modern disciple of the Bishop of Hippo—which brought me even closer to Augustine’s wisdom. In this latest work, Smith takes you on a spiritual journey with Augustine (with a helping of Heidigger for good measure) and teaches lessons on faith and yearning, suffering and spirituality, that are sure to benefit any believer.  

A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism by C. Stephen Evans  
I get that an intro to philosophy is unlikely to make your Christmas list. But if you have ever studied philosophy, or want to get started, this is definitely the place to begin. The book is as accessible as it is beneficial, and it will bring you into conversation with the richest wisdom of the Western tradition. Evans serves as an expert guide, and the book is well worth it.  

Who is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis by Thomas S. Kidd
Evangelicals are badly misunderstood. We’ve all grown tired of caricatures and misrepresentations of evangelical Christians as a racial monolith and conservative voting bloc. But in Who Is an Evangelical? Thomas Kidd traces the history of this movement, exploring its depth and diversity, and demonstrates its significance in American life and beyond. Kidd pulls no punches, but offers a raw yet fascinating look at our nation’s largest religious group.  

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis
I’ve always been a fan of American history, and I’ve long admired the works of Joseph Ellis. This book offers a fast-paced tour of the major figures and events of one of the most tumultuous and consequential periods in American history, the summer of 1776. Ellis brings the reader into close contact with pivotal figures on both sides of America’s War for Independence and illustrates with great skill the most harrowing and momentous scenes from those all-important months.  

Jenn Kintner: Office Coordinator

What is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics by Rachael Denhollander  
In What is a Girl Worth? author Rachael Denhollander shares her powerful story as the first survivor to come forward to report serial abuser Larry Nassar. Her book not only sheds light on that horrific situation where atrocities were committed and people looked the other way, but it also helps the reader understand the dynamics of abuse that people often misunderstand or ignore. In this true story, there are many examples of what to do and what not to do to walk alongside survivors allowing the reader to learn from a survivor, grow in understanding, grow in empathy, and grow as an advocate.  

Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
Boys in the Boat is the story of nine men on the rowing team at the University of Washington and their pursuit of the Olympic gold in 1936. It is a story of sorrow, diligence, perseverance, and teamwork. Their story with their Olympic experience in 1936 in Berlin shortly before World War II is insightful and brings a greater understanding of social and political dynamics leading up to the war. The audiobook is phenomenal and highly recommended.  

Shame Interrupted: How God Lifts the Pain of Worthlessness and Rejection by Edward T. Welch
Because of the fall, shame is something we all face. Edward Welch unpacks this powerful and sometimes debilitating emotion which he defines as “the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you” (2). The remedy for shame is not to clean ourselves up or think more highly of ourselves, but rather to identify with Christ and rejoice in our union with the perfect one. In Christ, we are connected “to the infinite worth of Jesus” and “receive what he has done for us” (62).  

7 Myths of Singleness by Sam Allberry
Sam Allberry’s book on singleness would be beneficial to anyone, whether single or married. The book is full of engaging stories, a biblical vision of singleness, and a vision for the Church being a family. It made me teary-eyed and thankful as a single reading his vision for the Church, since I’ve had faithful families who have demonstrated that in my life. Families and singles in the Church need one another, and the Church needs both. Allberry points out, while marriage demonstrates the shape of the gospel, singleness demonstrates the sufficiency of the gospel.  

Brent Leatherwood: Director of Strategic Partnerships

Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America by Michael Beschloss
We tend to lionize our leaders in America, especially the individuals who have been elected to the highest office in the land. But this book, which I consider a must-read for any fan of political science or American history, humanizes several of the most prominent members of that exclusive club. In fact, in each of the vignettes, you find traits that aren’t synonymous with courage at all. You find moments of fear, timidity, and worry displayed by some of the most noble men to live in the White House. Most readers will find it oddly reassuring that even the most uneven experiences can contribute much to our rich democratic tradition and serve to advance the American experiment.   

Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom by Condoleezza Rice
As our nation enters an election year, I’ve noticed more and more people seem to be questioning some of the foundational elements of our nation. So I went looking for a resource from someone who has worked to strengthen democracy. This book is both passionate and personal in places while, at the same time, allowing us to peek into other areas around the globe where democracy has had varying levels of success taking hold. As someone who cares deeply about our civic health, I came away more appreciative of just how special our American version of democracy is and how vigilant we need to be in safeguarding it.  

Alex Ward: Executive Assistant, Office of the President

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird is Anne Lamott taking readers through a master class on the elements of good writing. Fundamentally, writing is work, requires time and effort (like all worthy tasks), and is rewarding, though not always financially. By breaking the task of writing into different manageable tasks, Lamott gives the reader the tools to take this task “one bird at a time.” For those who aren’t writers (and have no desire to be), the book is also worth her musings on life. Every page of this book is filled with a love of language that makes you want to be a writer, a goal we can all appreciate in a world hoping for more beauty and art.  

The Odyssey by Homer (Trans. By Emily Wilson)
Gifted to me last Christmas, this was one of my favorite reads of the past year. Noteworthy because it is the first critical translation by a woman, Wilson does an excellent job of bringing this ancient story into the present. The translation itself updates the language (“Sing O’ Muse of the man of twists and turns” becomes “Tell me about a complicated Man / Muse,”) and also provides beautiful new images (“rose-coloured dawn” becomes “rosy-fingered Dawn”). This edition reminded me why I loved Greek mythology. It is at once strange, these stories of giants, water nymphs, and angry gods. It is also familiar, a man’s desire to return home, a son’s journey toward manhood, and a woman’s struggle between the life of domesticity and her ability to lead in a man’s world.  

As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon by Daniel Rodgers
There are few sermons that have had such an outsized impact on American history as Wintrop’s “Model of Christian Charity.” In this volume, Rodgers follows the sermon’s construction, delivery, and enduring legacy. From relative obscurity for much of American history to inclusion in Ronald Reagan’s 1989 farewell address and beyond, the sermon, along with the biblical text it cites, has provided a model of what America could be, while also reminding her of how much distance remains between ideal and reality.   

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt
As someone who tires of the complaints that Millennials or Gen Z are fragile and snowflakes, I found myself prepared to disregard this book as another instance of “These kids today” syndrome. However, Lukianoff and Haidt do a great job of charting some of the challenges that are shaping the next generation. Their analysis of the tribal nature of all people and how this has led to a polarization (and hatred) seems especially applicable in the year before a national election. Though I found myself shaking my head as often as I was nodding it, I do think that they raise worthwhile questions about the tension of protecting children and preparing them for the road ahead, new definitions of justice, and the role of speech and freedom in a healthy democracy.   

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik: Policy Director

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan
No other book moved me as much in the previous year like this one. Kang Chol-Hwan entered a North Korean labor camp when he was nine years old and spent the next decade of his life observing frequent public executions, enduring forced labor and near-starvation. He eventually escaped the camp and journeyed to South Korea, but not without losing many of his family members in the camp. While Chol-Hwan’s story is heartbreaking, it’s not an isolated story. The North Korean leadership brutally oppresses their people and is the worst violator of global human rights. Reading this book has caused me to redouble my efforts to advocate for the human rights of the North Korean people.  

Suffering Is Never for Nothing By Elizabeth Elliot  
Elizabeth Elliot’s work has deeply impacted my walk with the Lord, and I was delighted to see this book published. Elliot is no stranger to suffering; her first husband was murdered on the mission field in Ecuador, and she lost her second to cancer. In this book, she digs into the question of God’s presence in our suffering. It’s a must-read for anyone walking through a season of suffering.  

By / Jul 23

Our youngest child is ready for her next series of childhood milestones. She wants to ride a bike without training wheels and learn to swim without her float. And then, she’ll “finally be a big kid,” as she puts it. She’ll also begin reading instruction when she starts kindergarten, and we’ll have another independent reader in the family soon enough. 

She was born into a family of readers, so books have been a part of her life since the day she entered this world. My husband and I have read her hundreds of books, some of them hundreds of times. When she’s flipping through the pages on her own, she’s growing less and less satisfied just looking at the pictures of a book. She’s trying to understand how letters work and how words are made. 

In my education classes in college, we were taught that reading aloud to students had many benefits, including a better vocabulary, a better understanding of grammar and syntax, and increased reading comprehension. But once the child starts reaching fluency, we tend to ask them to exclusively read to themselves. Teachers and parents often view the change from listening to picture books to silently reading novels as a sort of graduation that means our kids don’t need us to read aloud anymore. 

Independent reading is important. Words are everywhere, and we must be able to decode and comprehend their meaning. Our quality of life is often dependent on being able to read words for ourselves—medicine bottles, warning signs, leases, and job descriptions. If reading filled only these utilitarian purposes, then we’re right to stop reading aloud. But reading aloud to our children is not a crutch like training wheels or a swim float. It is not something we do to bide time until they can do it alone. We cheat our children—and ourselves—when we stop reading aloud to them just because they can do it independently. 

Stories allow us to experience so much more than we could in any one life. We get to travel to faraway lands and long ago times and participate in different professions and see the consequences of our decisions. As C.S Lewis wrote, reading allows us “to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” Stories aren’t just about going on an adventure or solving a thrilling mystery; they are about learning what it means to be flawed, sinful humans with a good and holy God. Stories help us feel the weight of sin and see the beauty of obedience. They work on our hearts as we ponder their meaning and see ourselves reflected in the characters. Good stories will echo the message of the Bible by pointing us to justice and redemption. 

Reading can be better together 

And how much better is it to read stories of hope and restoration together with the ones we love? We should read stories with our children as long as possible that we might walk many roads with them, cry with them over pain and heartbreak and death, laugh with them over quirky characters and funny scenes, and celebrate the joys of marriage, childbirth, and victory. Our children can learn about us as we interact with the story and they hear a tremble or laugh in our voice. Through reading with our children, we can share more of life and grow together. 

As my daughter and I read the Anne of Green Gables series recently, we got to experience the grief of a breakup and, later, the joy of an engagement. She asked me about how her daddy proposed to me, and we looked at pictures from 15 years ago. I was able to share with her God’s faithfulness to our marriage. Through Little Women, my children and I walked alongside each other through many of life’s hardships, including the death of a sibling. We’ve encountered all sorts of evils in the works of Lloyd Alexander, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Walter Wangerin and have been reminded that good always conquers evil. We’ve suffered through the treacherous climb of a mountain in an attempt to summit in Banner in the Sky. We’ve grieved our country’s wicked history of slavery and racism in the works of Mildred Taylor and Christopher Paul Curtis and made connections with the history of our city. Where else can we experience so many of life’s events together without the high stakes of actually being in them?

As my oldest children have fewer years left at home than what’s behind them, I feel the pressure of wanting to teach them everything I possibly can. I want to walk them through the full spectrum of life. And yet, I can’t. But I can read to them stories that have many more experiences than we’d ever find ourselves in their 18 or so years at home and allow the truth of the story, the changes in the characters, and the experience of a range of emotions to help them grow. And as they have gotten older, reading aloud has helped bring us together as a family when their interests and activities take us different directions. 

Making the most of reading aloud 

For some families, reading aloud isn’t the most natural activity to share. Regardless of where you are starting, the benefits are the same, and families can grow as they go. How should parents approach read-aloud time?    

1. Start with reasonable goals. 

You don’t have to read the hardest classics for an incredibly long time with your children frozen in one spot to be successful. Read-aloud time isn’t going to go very well if you start with War and Peace. Good books to start with vary with age and personality. For younger children ready for texts longer than picture books, my family enjoys Homer Price by Robert McCloskey and the Little Britches series by Ralph Moody. If your kids are in late elementary school, try books by Edward Eager or Eleanor Estes to start. For older children, Andrew Peterson’s The Wingfeather Saga, Trenton Lee Stewart’s Mysterious Benedict Society, or Laura Hillenbrand’s biographies Seabiscuit and Unbroken may be good options.                                                                    

Children can color, play with blocks, or even eat a meal while listening to a story. Sometimes I read aloud to make chore time a little more enjoyable. They don’t have to be sitting perfectly still to follow along. 

When my kids were younger, read-aloud time was 15 minutes. Now they enjoy me reading for longer periods as our day and my voice allow. But, I try not to read for so long that I’ve lost their attention or that they’ve stopped enjoying it. 

2. Read books that you like too. 

You’re not going to prioritize reading if you hate the book. Choose books that interest you as well as the kids. The master storyteller C.S. Lewis wrote, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” If you’re not currently a reader, it may take longer to get interested in a story, but start by picking something that interests you.

3. Allow the story to work in your children’s hearts. 

Good books that communicate truth don’t need us to moralize them. There’s a reason that Jesus frequently taught in parables: He knew that people were not only capable of understanding them but also that as they considered the meaning and significance of the parable, their hearts were being penetrated by truth. And truth that we understand through a story stays with us longer than when it is reduced to a one sentence moral or, worse, a lecture by mom or dad.

The importance of stories transcend time and place; every culture shares stories because they matter. They pass on tradition and values and history. They help us understand ourselves and others better. And I want them to be a part of my family’s culture as long as there are people in the home to share them with.