Pastor Tom's Reading List
From time to time, I get asked about books that I am reading. While I do read some odd things and works of fiction, I find that most people are really interested in texts which are relevant to their faith. So, for those of you who have been asking, here is a list of recent readings:
Seeing Black & White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church's Debate over Sexuality by Dr. Bill T. Arnold – This book was written as a response to Adam Hamilton’s Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White. Adam is one of the UMC’s outstanding pastors and leaders and we have used a number of his excellent resources. However, when I read “Seeing Gray”, I found myself uneasy with some of his arguments. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read Dr. Arnold’s well thought response. As a professor of Hebrew and Old Testament studies, most of Dr. Arnold’s publications have been in the academic field. This one, however, was written for the rest of us. Even so, it is a closely argued and finely reasoned work. It is not long, but will be challenging for some readers. I know that not everyone will agree with his conclusions, but his logic is impeccable and he lays the groundwork for a more thoughtful and discerning discussion on a very divisive topic.
Unfinished by Richard Stearns – In some ways, this is the follow-up to The Hole In Our Gospel. However, it is less autobiographical and more Biblical and theological. I found it hard to put down and, yet, very challenging. Very well written and engaging, this book will challenge you to take seriously the call of discipleship in your life. As the tag says, “Believing is only the beginning….” The overall theme of this book is very consistent with John Wesley’s ideas on Sanctification and Holiness of Heart and Life. I am impressed enough that I’ve asked our worship team to plan on doing a sermon series based on this material. I don’t say this often, but this truly is a “must read.”
Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples by Francis Chan with Mark Beauving – This book is designed for use in small groups, discipline relationships or other focused settings. I would describe it is a kind of basic Christian beliefs and living manual. It is very readable and filled with provocative questions for your reflection/response. Some of it is a little basic for me, but other parts were stimulating. I think it would make a great refresher course for established Christians and a strong introduction for those new to the faith. Those of you making decisions on material for your class or small group should definitely take a look.
Simply Christian by N.T. Wright – This is a very reasoned work on why Christianity is relevant for today. N.T. Wright is one of the most respected theologians of our time. Not a “touchy-feely” kind of book, but written with excellent reason while still being quite readable.
Sexuality in the New Testament by William Loader (Professor Emeritus of Murdoch University) - This book is one the Christian Century recommended list. Recognized by scholars on all sides of our current debates, this is a survey of the New Testament texts related to sexuality and their Old Testament relatives. It is not about how to interpret such texts for our time, but about what the texts actually say. This is one of the best exegetical works on these texts I have read. If you’re looking for a “what to do” book, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for an honest appraisal of what the Bible actually says about sexuality, you will appreciate this book.
Hijacked: Responding to the Partisan Church Divide by Michael Slaughter and Chuck E. Gutenson - This is a great little book which walks through how we have allowed political divides to invade the church. It is very well-reasoned and written. Not a long read, but very helpful in getting a handle on the divisiveness within the church.
Journey in the Wilderness (mainline churches) and Back to Zero (UMC) by Gil Rendle – Rendle is one of the leading consultants of our time, working with the Alban Institute as well as Texas Methodist Foundation’s Institute for Church and Clergy Excellence. He has led a number of events in which I have participated or provided leadership. He works closely with many of our UMC bishops and cabinets on an ongoing basis. He also addressed two sessions of our most recent Annual Conference gathering. These books trace where we have gotten off track, as the church, in recent years and offers helpful direction on what we need to do to recover our mission and purpose. These are having a strong influence on the leadership of the UMC.
What Good is God by Philip Yancey – Finding God in the darkest places of the world is a daunting task. Yancey takes us into several places of darkness to see how God is still present. The book forms an experiential response to theodicy (why bad things happen if God is good). An inspiring read.
Living Into Focus by Arthur Boers – Boers postulates that our technology driven, over-connected lifestyle is causing us to lose focus and purpose in our faith and life. In this book, he examines the evidence for this and the loss we suffer as a result. He also suggests ways in which we can intentionally work to recover control of our lives and develop focus and purpose in our living. Well written, very thought-provoking and especially relevant to those of us in cities like Austin.
Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question by William Willimon – One of the United Methodist Church’s most prolific writers, Willimon served at Duke University for many years before becoming the Bishop of the Alabama Area. Preparing to retire and return to Duke, he offers up numerous observations on bishops, the UMC and Christian faith. Humorous and acerbic, Willimon is also deeply insightful. You may not agree with him on everything, but he does make you think about the fidelity of our discipleship, both as individuals and as a church.
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat - Douthat is the youngest-everop-ed columnist for the New York Times and one of the most provocative and influential voices of our time. Bad Religion looks at how American Christianity has gone off the rails—and why it threatens to take American society with it. Douthat argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, the problem is bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses. These faiths offer a distortion of traditional Christianity—not the real thing. This book is an urgent call for a restoration and revival of traditional Christianity. For a church like Bethany, which grapples with the reality of our divided culture, this is a must read.
Proof of Heaven by Dr. Eben Alexander III - Dr. Alexander is world renowned neurosurgeon who believed that near-death experiences feel real, but are simply fantasies produced by brains under extreme stress. Then, his own brain was attacked by a rare form of bacterial meningitis. The part of the brain that controls thought and emotion shut down completely. After seven days of lying in a coma – and just as his doctors considered stopping treatment – he suddenly regained consciousness. Dr. Alexander intertwines the story of his physical recovery with the story of his spiritual movement from struggling to reconcile his knowledge of neuroscience with any belief in heaven, God, or the soul to believing and advocating that true health can be achieved only when we realize that God and the soul are real. The writing is a little rough. However, the fact that is book is written by a recognized brain scientist makes is a standout among the plethora of near-death experience books.
Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help by Robert D. Lupton - Lupton is the founder of Focused Community Strategies in Atlanta. In a similar vein to When Helping Hurts, he shows how our well intentioned efforts can create dependency and extend the cycle of the very poverty we are trying to alleviate. He offers numerous case studies to support this idea. He also walks us through how we can reshape our efforts so that we break the cycle of poverty and help people achieve self-sufficiency. Having worked with various church and social service organizations over the last 30 years, I can affirm the validity of his position. I also found his ideas for change to be challenging and thought-provoking. This is a book that everyone involved in any form of social service ministry should read and understand.