The Impact of Reading on the Soul

I’m reading along with 100 Days of Dante, and learning new things each canto.

Dr. Jane Kim provides a helpful analysis of the Inferno’s Canto V. Her concluding remarks struck me powerfully. In Canto V, a woman named Francesca reveals to Dante that her descent into hell was a consequence of reading the story of Lancelot alongside her lover, Paulo. In that story, the two found inspiration for the fall that led to the tragedy of their death, and now, the two find themselves forever confined to hell’s second circle, where those who fell victim to lust now dwell.

Reading is formative. I am being formed as I read Dante in community with others. I probably wouldn’t be following this journey at all if not for my friend, Matt.

The same applies to reading the Bible, or any other great text, with others. What we read shapes us. Who we read with, likewise, has the power to transform. Therefore, choose what, and with whom, you read wisely.

Who to Read

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Alan Jacobs might be right. I certainly resist reading those who are polemical and partisan. I do not find it helpful to feed the fire of my own self-righteous anger. I know it is in there. I know I harbor hatred; I know I have enemies. I also know there are some writers who capitalize on these impulses. They stoke fear and inflame passions.

Jacobs’ advice here helps us to eliminate options, making us think more carefully about what not to read. But how do we decide what to read?

What if we asked, “Does this writer help us to better love one another?”

That would mean we would read books that would help us:

  • Gain a greater understanding of the human condition.
  • Have compassion for a broader diversity of the human family.
  • Develop a consistent ethic.
  • Inspire creative action.
  • Communicate more clearly.
  • Have courage.
  • Differentiate between truth and falsehood.
  • Become aware of the mistakes of the past and how to avoid repeating them.
  • Grow in wisdom and knowledge.
  • And, last but not least, encounter God, or experience the divine.

There is something worthwhile in reading books that address current controversies, or pulp fiction that can help us pass the time. But the more books I’ve read, the more discriminating I’ve had to become. The sands are running out of the hourglass. My time reading must be worthwhile. Every pick counts.

2020: My Year in Reading

This year, at least I’ve had books. Praise God! Annus horribilis is a Latin phrase that means “horrible year,” and seeing that nine out of ten physicians agree that this year called for more Latin, I thought I’d deploy it here. I don’t know Latin, but sophisticates and intellectuals I like to read have thrown this phrase hither and yon in these last days, so I picked it up, added it to my lexicon and began throwing it around myself. Why? I want to win friends and influence people.

I’ve tracked my books for the past ten years. Whoa! My last decade of reading is here.

Please note: all links to Amazon are affiliate links. Clicks and purchases kickback to me. Support the blog and my reading habit. If a book in this post interests you and you plan to make a purchase, follow the hyperlink from this page. All the fun people do so. Be fun.

How Many Books Did I Read This Year?

My goal this year was to read 65 books. Turns out I had a little more time, hit the power-up button for reading speed, or grew a little more motivated. I made it to 86*. The first book I finished this year was the splendidly bearded John Michael Talbot’s The Jesus Prayer and the last book I finished was Charles C. W. Cooke’s Conservatarian Manifesto. I’m still reading comics on a regular basis: Detective Comics: BatmanGuardians of the GalaxyMiles Morales: Spider-ManX-Men, and Wolverine.

Here is the link to the full list of books I read this year, again, just in case you missed it.

I watched a lot of movies this year, too. Full length features, a lot of older films, documentaries, action, drama, and science fiction. When the global pandemic shut down professional sports, I cancelled our streaming television service, Sling. We signed on with Disney+ and bundled Hulu+ and ESPN+, and opened an account with Kanopy (free with my Baylor ID, since this service is available through the university’s library system). We have had Amazon Prime Video for several years. I had plenty of viewing options. The Disney+ subscription introduced my kids to Home Alone, and I was glad to see Star Wars be all it could be in The Mandalorian. The finale to season two was everything a fan could ask for, despite the villains being paper tigers.

Among my favorite films this year: The Sandlot, Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, Kansas City Confidential, Alien, Predator, Crazy Rich Asians, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Ford vs. Ferrari, Loving Vincent, Boxing Gym, Waco: Rules of Engagement, and Rashomon. The worst movies I watched were Alita: Battle Angel, Turbo Kid, and Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.

What Were My Favorite Books This Year?

I read Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh’s Van Gogh: The Life. Why? I was inspired to do so by my art teacher, Chad Hines. A few Van Gogh prints now hang on my office wall.

I read several excellent works of nonfiction: S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Thomas Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice, and Shelby Steele’s Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country. I really enjoyed Alan Jacob’s Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind and was compelled by the argument presented by Ross Douthat in his The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.

My poet of choice was Seamus Heaney.

The best book on the Christian life I read was Sarah Ruden’s translation of Augustine’s Confessions. I read Karl Barth’s Dogmatics I.1. I liked the much celebrated Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer, though it is not without its problems. Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life is brilliant, and while it does slow down in sections, and it is certainly not for every person, it contains numerous insights for anyone interested in spiritual theology, discipleship, church renewal and revival, and spiritual formation. The best Christian leadership book I read, hands down, was Tod Bolsinger’s Tempered Resilience.

I read several novels. Among my favorites: Alex Landragin’s Crossings, Jose Saramago’s Blindness (a perfect read in a plague year), Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter (slow beginning, but incredible depth, particularly its development of religious themes), and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I am also very glad I read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

The best book I read this year was Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I did not want it to end. I’ll recommend it to everyone until my death, and likely revisit it in a few years, Lord willing. A close second: Stephen Harrigan’s Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. Let the words ring out: “God bless you, Texas! And keep you brave and strong, That you may grow in power and worth, Thro’out the ages long.”

Did You Hate Anything?

I didn’t care much for Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence or Sharon Olds’ Arias or Richard Blanco’s How to Love a Country. I didn’t like Steve Wilkens’ What’s So Funny About God? A Theological Look at Humor or Walter Brueggemann’s Materiality as Resistance or James K. A. Smith’s On the Road with Saint Augustine. George Will’s Conservative Sensibility was not that interesting (Will’s argument against theism was a yawner). Despite hearing people rave about Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit for years I found it blah. Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama was stupid, but maybe that was the point. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, which I had been told many good things about, didn’t live up to the hype.

What Are You Reading Right Now?

Donald Worster’s A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir is my only active read, but I’ll soon pick up C. J. Sansom’s Tombland and Jerry Seinfeld’s Is This Anything?

What Did I Learn from My Experience Reading This Year?

My tastes are changing. I’m reading more history and more fiction, more poetry, and I’m particularly drawn to the novel. I like reading American history, and political philosophy. I have several nonfiction books lined up on my shelves, and I plan to spend some time this next year with the classics, like Homer, Horace, and Seneca.

What are you reading, and what should I add to my list?

* An earlier version of this post recorded I had read 85 books this year. But I had forgotten to note the completion of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden on my list! That’s a tremendous oversight, because I absolutely loved that book. Why? Because of what Steinbeck brings forth for discussion concerning human nature.

An Interview with Thomas Breimaier, Author of Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles H. Spurgeon

Sometimes I have the opportunity to connect with authors. Thomas Breimaier has written a book about one of my favorite preachers. I reached out via email. Tom’s book Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles H. Spurgeon [affiliate link] is good stuff. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

Who is Thomas Breimaier? Tom was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to the United Kingdom in 2013. Alongside studying at the University of Edinburgh, he helped out in various capacities at Hope City Church, Edinburgh, a church plant in the west of the city. He currently works at Spurgeon’s College in London, teaching classes in systematic theology and church history. Tom is married to Hannah, a primary school teacher who is originally from Scotland.

Our exchange follows.

BAS: For my readers who do not know much about Charles Spurgeon, who was he, and why is he a notable figure? 

TB: Charles Haddon Spurgeon was quite possibly the most well-known preacher of the 19th century. That said, he was born in a small village and spent virtually all of his childhood in villages and small towns between Essex and Cambridge. As such his upbringing was very much steeped in a rural identity. He is most known for his preaching in London, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which was the largest Protestant church in the world. He preached to thousands each week, and through his influence he started a college for pastors as well as two orphanages which would eventually become home to over 800 boys and girls. Spurgeon was known first and foremost for his sermons, which were transcribed and printed each week, and often sold tens of thousands of copies both in Britain and globally. He died comparatively young, at 57, and yet he remains one of the most influential evangelical figures in global Christian history. 

BAS: What led you to the study of Surgeon, his preaching, and his ministry?

TB: I think it really started when I took a class during my graduate program called “The Bible in the Nineteenth Century.” I had read a bit of Spurgeon beforehand, but I wanted to take the opportunity to dig deeper into the sermons and writings of a Christian figure who captivated the minds of millions in his century. These ideas percolated in my mind for a few years, and when I applied to the doctoral program at the University of Edinburgh, I thought this might be my opportunity to really dig into this topic. It was really fun to work on a project that combined history, theology, and biblical studies, and it was also a genuine encouragement to me personally to spend several years reading Spurgeon’s heartfelt writing every day.

BAS: Your book explores two main themes of Spurgeon’s preaching: his focus on conversion and on the cross. Why were themes important to Spurgeon? How did they shape his ministry?

TB: These themes are two of David Bebbington’s famous ‘quadrilateral’ definition of Victorian evangelicalism. [The others are a particular focus on the Bible and also social activism.] So, in a sense, I’m tapping into themes that are part of evangelical identity across a range of figures. That said, what I’ve argued in the book is that these themes held a particular bearing on his engagement with the Bible. Spurgeon grew up in a context that held the Puritans in particularly high regard, and as such I think he’s taken theological streams that were prominent in the various European reformations and brought them into the modern world. This, in my view, shows us two key things. First, these truths which undergird the Christian message of the Gospel are timeless and transcendent. Second, while these truths are timeless, it is the obligation of Christians to know their mission fields well, and to communicate the hope of the Gospel clearly and in an engaging way. 

BAS: Spurgeon is best known for his preaching ministry. But he also established a magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, and a training school for pastors, now known to us as Spurgeon’s College. Why did Spurgeon launch these initiatives, and how did they increase his influence?

TB: Spurgeon never had the benefit of a formal university education. During his youth, nonconformists (i.e. non-Anglican Protestants) weren’t able to study theology at the ancient universities like Oxford and Cambridge. There were a few Baptist training institutions, but they were similarly targeted at a constituency that was already well-educated, and also largely restricted to those that could afford the various expenses that come with higher education. Spurgeon set out to create a training path for ministers who would not have had a chance to apply to the other ministerial training facilities. Spurgeon didn’t care nearly as much about the students’ previous academic records as he did their capacity for ministry. As such, he started with bright and able preachers and ensured that they learned necessary elements of biblical and theological studies, as well as further instruction on preaching and rhetoric.

The magazine is in some ways a similar endeavor. Spurgeon realized that not everyone was called to be in paid ministry, however he had the expectation that all men and women would benefit from further study and reflection on biblical and theological topics. As such, he reprinted his and other people’s sermons, offered various news on the state of Christianity and missionary works, and he also included a number of book reviews in each issue, which directed his readers to further resources.

For me, both of these enterprises show a strong desire on his part to provide clear, helpful instruction for the whole church. I should also say that for me it is an absolute privilege to be part of Spurgeon’s College today, where I’m able to play a small role in training men and women for Christian mission, ministry, and leadership.  

BAS: Lastly, how is Spurgeon instructive for us today? What can we learn from his life, preaching, and ministry?

TB: First off, I often tell students and others that they shouldn’t feel obliged to be Spurgeon! He was who he was, he had his own gifts, we have ours. In ministry and everything else, comparison is often a road to disappointment and dismay. Nevertheless, I’d say that we ought to be inspired and challenged by his approach to the Bible. We should read widely like he did; and preach plainly, like he did. But we can’t forget the most important thing: to preach Christ and him crucified. We shouldn’t feel compelled to avoid the gospel because it’s not explicit in a particular text. Yet we also shouldn’t try to tack on an altar call to an otherwise unrelated sermon. Instead, we can recognize-like Spurgeon did-that the Bible is a book which is ultimately about reconciliation with God the Father through the Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and step into that mission by proclaiming those ancient truths. Spurgeon took these truths and presented them in accessible and engaging ways, and he never preached without sharing the good news. I think it’s a good reminder, and a convicting reminder, for every man or woman who wants to teach God’s word.

Spurgeon on Reading, Citations, and Learning From Other Minds

Image by Nino Carè from Pixabay

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Quoted from Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of C. H. Spurgeon, who cites from Christian George’s Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon [affiliate links].

Don’t get hung up on the pronouns. The wisdom here is for both men and women. While I might not recommend the Puritans, you could certainly do worse. And while light literature may have its place, we are only given so much time, and there are so many books.

Capon’s Three Point Argument for the Dinner Party

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

I’m the kind of guy who usually prefers a quiet night with a fire in the hearth and my family under my roof, good music coming through the speakers and a good book nearby. But the following argument for the full dinner party (as opposed to a cocktail party) by Robert Farrar Capon, outlined in The Supper of the Lamb [affiliate link], is one I want to remember.

1. The Session: Creating a Company

The dinner party, Capon writes:

[I]s an honest attempt to create a company, not a crowd. Persons matter at the table. We sit in real and estimable places marked with the most precious and intimate device we have: our names. Harry sits next to Martha not because he wandered to her side out of whim or loneliness but because, in his host’s loving regard, he is Harry and she is Martha, and that is where they belong. Place cards may be pretentious (they are, in any case, a dispensable formality); but assignment to place by name is the host’s announcement that he cares. I always take it as a compliment when a good man tells me where he wants me to sit.

He has, you see, been willing to take me on as God takes me–as a risk. He pays me the supreme tribute of putting himself in my power. The giver of a cocktail party is a man who hedges his bets and cops out of the dangers of entertaining. He requires nothing of his guests but their physical presence. If they turn out to be untempered duds or ill-tempered boors, it is no skin off his nose: They can simply find their own corner of outer darkness and fall apart any way they like. But when he sits me down at his table, he declares himself willing to let me into his life. He puts me into my place; but he also puts me in a position to make or break his party as I will. It is no small boldness; if you have such friends, treasure them.

2. Better Food, Service, and a Place to Sit

Capon calls the dinner party “merciful where the cocktail party is not.” He writes:

It provides us with better food, more attractive service, and, beneath it all, a seat to sit on. But it provides more than that. Early in the book I defied place as a Session, a meeting, a confrontation–of real beings. The old descriptions of heaven as the celestial banquet, the supper of eternal life, the endless convivium, hit close to the truth. Nowhere more than in good and formal company do we catch the praegustatum, the foretaste of what is in store for us.

3. A Proclamation of the Abundance of Being

A great meal is a chance to celebrate the goodness and glory of creation. Capon says:

Last, the dinner party is a true proclamation of the abundance of being–a rebuke to the thrifty little idolatries by which we lose sight of the lavish hand that made us. It is precisely because no one needs soup, fish, meat, salad, cheese, and dessert at one meal that we so badly need to sit down to them from time to time. It was largesse that made us all; we were not created to fast forever. The unnecessary is the taproot of our being and the last key to the door of delight. Enter here, therefore, as a sovereign remedy for the narrowness of our minds and the stinginess of our souls, the formal dinner for six, eight, or ten chosen guests, the true convivium–the long Session that brings us nearly home.

June 2020 Kindle Deals

These caught my eye:

That’s one musician, one wrestler, one novelist, one poet, one scholar and Christian apologist, and one pastor. Enjoy.