Reading Widely, Thinking Hard and Naming the Elephant

Those that know us are aware of our conviction that it is a good thing to read widely. We often find ourselves encouraging customers to read books that they disagree with, maybe that we disagree with, learning the best arguments of those whom they may tend to otherwise dismiss.

This is certainly important in theology where different traditions within the Body of Christ often fail to appreciate genuine insight and high quality work in traditions outside their own comfort zone. What a joy it would be, we think, if those with hard-headed Calvinist leanings drank deeply from the streams of the contemplative tradition; it would be especially appropriate and helpful, we believe, if those aligned with liberal traditions in the mainline churches paid closer attention to the remarkable scholarship and wise writing found on evangelical publishing houses such as InterVarsity Press or Baker Books.

And everyone, of course, should read N.T. Wright. His impeccable scholarship, irenic spirit, and passion for living out the implications of God’s reign over the disarray of our culture are just the sort of thing from which all movements within the church could benefit.

And, for a delightful walk into another world that too few of us understand, read At The Corner of East and Now: An Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy by Frederica Mathewes Green (Harper, $13.95) or other great memoirs or discussion by her such as Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey Into Ancient Orthodoxy (Harper, $23.95, hardcover only). What a great, great writer she is! Nearly everyone with any opinions about gender roles will be stretched, challanged and encouraged to reconsider by spending some time in her wonderful collection of essays, Gender: Men, Women, Sex & Feminism (Conciliar Press, $15.95). I still wish she would come down closer to, say, Eastern University prof and noted author, Mary Stewart Van Leuween, whose work we love, but Frederica’s prose is hard to put down, her stories compelling and her logic is significant. No matter what church tradition you are
a part of (if any) and no matter where you stand on gender issues, she is a woman to read.

Just to further illustrate, let me note some books that illustrate this kind of generous and realist ecumenical approach. Richard Foster, long a favorite here, has been rightly honored with a Gold Medallion Award for the wonderful and very insightful book Steams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith (HarperCollins, $15.00). What a great introduction to the strengths of each of the major traditions within the church universal. What stimulating and gracious reading. Foster importantly suggests that each denominational tradition brings a particular strength — the monks teach us contemplation, evangelicals remind of the written Word, the social justice tradition calls us to action, charismatics who have experienced the extraordinary power of the Holy Spirit bring us an invitation to empowerment and praise, the rich liturgical tradition reminds us of so much, not only about worship, but of a sacramental sense of G
od’s presence in the ordinary. It doesn’t do to try to summarize like this, but we invite you to consider this great paperback. And not only to read this particular book, which we love, but to honor its overall vision and contribution — a call to read widely and think ecumenically. This book helps us do this, gleaning the best of all that God’s people have offered.

In this same spirit, we are happy to announce two new titles that are substantial, fair and satisfying for the conservative theological mind (both by IVP, $14.00). More liberal folk would do well to dip into either of these, too, sensing the passion and desire for truth and serious theological reflection that evangelicals are doing. Unlike Foster, though, this isn’t a love-fest affirming the best of all traditions, but a legitimate bit of debate and critique. Check out Why I Am Not a Calvinist by Jerry Walls & Joseph Dongell and Why I Am Not an Armenian by Robert Peterson. Both of these are exceptional pieces of theological discourse, and while this surely isn’t all that needs to be debated, they are good examples of what I’m reflecting on this month. Why not buy one, and get the other to read later? Or read one with a friend and discuss them both, and then swap, of course?

*NOTE: IF YOU ORDER BOTH OF THESE WE WILL SHIP THE SECOND AT 25% OFF. Just mention when you email or call that you saw this offer at the Web site. How’s that for some encouragement to read widely?

I shiver a bit as I prepare to make another suggestion along these same lines. It is one which might help us fulfill our tongue-in-cheek mission statement to carry books with “something to offend everyone.” We are willing to risk that, since we do believe God would have us honor the best thinking on various sides of various issues and that reading generously is a virtue. Doesn’t the biblical proverb “as iron sharpens iron so one person strengthens another” imply the need for trusting relationships where rigorous challenge and learning, even in hard ways, can happen as we intend to learn from one another?

Surely in the debates about homosexuality, LGBT inclusion in the church, and same-sex unions there is way too much misinformation (and sometimes ungodly nastiness) about both liberals and conservatives, ugly shouts and accusations from both camps. Bigots! Homophobes! Relativists! Antinomians! (Well, okay, not too many say that last one, but that’s what they mean.) Further, I am sure that such a bi-polar continuum isn’t particularly useful anyway. My own serious journey of a decade of reading widely in this area has taught me that people’s views are not neatly categorized and their methodologies are often at odds with their own intentions and claims. For instance, there are those who advocate traditional sexual ethics who exhibit crummy Bible knowledge and hold these classic views for rather shallow theological reasons. And there are those who come down upon pretty unconventional places gleaned from fairly traditional biblical and theological reflection. I know rare evangelica
ls who quote chapter and verse for creating space for gay rights and I know theological liberals who are oddly queasy about homosexuality for what appear to be merely cultural reasons. Sorting all this out is a bit slow going and demands hard heads and soft hearts, I think.

In a Sunday school class I taught a few years back on various views of this topic, I observed that I tend to find greater spiritual solidarity with those with whom I disagree who came to their views by serious biblical study rather than those who hold views with which I agree who hold them for non-Christian ideological or cultural reasons. There: I’ve tipped my hand considerably — as an evangelical, I am convinced that we must struggle with the texts of Scripture, wherever they lead us. Therein, I’ll admit, lies a whole host of issues that need gracious and serious-minded work, too, of course, but it is to God’s revelation (in Word, world and supremely in Christ Jesus) that we must necessarily turn. Reading widely there, too, in hermeneutics (interpretation), cultural studies and Holy Scripture study is essential.

For a helpful and really potent little reminder of that, I just love Will Willimon’s brief powerhouse of a book, Shaped by the Bible (Abingdon, $5.95). Or, similarly, Walter Brueggeman’s evocative and provocative The Bible Makes Sense (Westminister/John Knox, $10.95), a favorite that I haul out regularly to remind me to have my very imagination shaped by the biblical world. For those needing a deeper study, the second half of Walsh & Middleton’s work on postmodernism, Truth is Stranger Than It Used To Be (IVP, $16.00) is essentially a culturally contextualized retelling of the biblical story. Trust me — it will make you think, and will draw you into the Scripture.

And may I once again commend Calvin Seerveld’s odd little book that is a masterpiece of this idea of understanding and thinking through (and finally offering critique of) various schools of thought? (You can find an earlier review of it a few months back in this monthly column.) How to Read the Bible to Hear God Speak (Dordt College Press, $12.50) is truly a rare little find, a book which takes a specific passage — the Balaam story from Numbers — and shows how different schools of interpretation read and understand it. After offering a gracious and yet judicious explanation of each approach, he explains his own “reformational” reading. Such reading, he claims, is not only most appropriate — attending to the best insights of the other limited views (such as the historicity of the text, the literary stylings, the doctrinal significance) — but finally of
fers a more fruitful reading for the Kingdom of God. Left, right or center, Bible scholar or lay person, I encourage a serious engagement with Seerveld’s thesis.

To wit, back to the topic of homosexuality and Christian sexual ethics: I suggest three examples of this important work of generous reading and hard thinking, discerning and working out the implications of our hopes for a Christian perspective worthy of the name.

Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality by Sally B. Geis & Donald E. Messer (Abingdon, $13.50). This collection is a good resource for churches or study groups wanting a fair-minded discussion of what various Christians think. Chapters are arranged in a conventional pro-con kind of format, with point-counterpoint, with topics such as the biblical and exegetical questions, ordination standards, the role of psychological studies and so forth. The study questions are fair and helpful and, even if your mind is clearly made up on this topic, it is for most of us healthy to revisit such things, hearing well what our “opponents” think and say.

Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views by Dan O. Via & Robert A.J. Gagnon (Fortress, $13.00). Here is a slim and feisty debate on the biblical material. Both bring serious study and deep passion to the topic, and the format is great for adult education. Granted, one slim volume can’t really do this justice, but it is the best brief debate text out there. I highly recommend it for church libraries and resource rooms.

To Continue the Dialogue: Biblical Interpretation and Homosexuality edited by C. Norman Kraus (Pandora, $23.95). Well-reasoned and passionate calls for all who care about biblical interpretation and how to discern a way forward, this wonderful and serious collection is specifically written within the Anabaptist tradition (so is especially important for Mennonites), but I would beg readers not to dismiss it if they are of other faith traditions. This collection is wide and thoughtful and the publishers even invited a small handful of Mennonite members to react to the very notion of the discussion and how it has been conducted in this volume — what a helpful little appendix, to remind the scholars of the folk in the pews who struggle with this specific issue and the broader questions of biblical authority, interpretation and fidelity.


Several evangelical presses have done books that are designed to debate various topics with a four-views approach. In these, the approach is complex but exceedingly useful for in-depth study: the first scholar offers his or her chapter, and the other three writers briefly reply back. Then the second view is presented and, again, the other three writers reply back. By the end of the book, you’ve seen not only four views, but also the critiques of each view by each of the other three. In one book you have each view’s strengths and weaknesses, critiques and rebuttals.

One of my early favorites in this style has been out of print for nearly 20 years, and has recently been re-issued (same cover and all!) by a small publisher in Winona Lake, Indiana. War: Four Views edited by Bob Clouse (originally done by IVP and now re-issued by BMH Books, $10.99) is an absolute must-have these days. Two of the writers are convinced of the traditional just-war theory, even as they parse it differently and give somewhat different criteria for what constitutes a justifiable war. Similarly, the other two authors are both committed to biblical nonviolence, although they disagree a bit about the whys and hows of Christian pacifism. A really useful collection for those willing to grapple with the options.

For the record, if anybody cares: as an odd Reformed evangelical committed to biblical nonviolence, I am not particularly satisfied with either of the pacifists in this four-way collection. For the best brief articulation of my view, I think I’d commend Ron Sider’s Christ & Violence (Wipf & Stock, $14.00). Other collections on peacemaking with bunches of pieces by a variety of authors abound. Call or email us.

A smaller book, by the way, that could be noted in this call to read widely and fairly is written by one author who strives to be fair-minded and clear as he describes the three classic views of war within the church — that it is sometimes a good thing, to be done for God, that it is a bad thing, but sadly necessary in a limited way in this fallen world, and that it is a bad thing, not to be engaged in by the redeemed who follow Christ. In these days of even Christians using jihad language, and the just-war theory in the daily news, this little volume is brief, inexpensive and helpful. Call us about War: A Primer for Christians by Joseph Allen (Southern Methodist University Press, $5.95).


The Zondervan publishing house has done some very useful work in a whole series of “four views” books — they have covered everything from various views of creation and evolution to a book of four opposing understandings of the wars of the Old Testament (Tremper Longman helped with that one). This series includes topics such as various views of the fate of those who have not heard the gospel, the role of women in the church, the end times, the nature of hell, and a thoughtful one on the proper perspective on apologetics (that one has five views!). Last month we recommended the newest, which actually has six different views on the nature of worship, a book I am slowly savoring; it is very nicely done. Call us for a full list.

InterVarsity started this approach, I think, in the 1970s with the influential — and still in print — Meaning of the Millenium: Four Views edited by Robert Clouse (IVP, $15.00). Skip Left Behind and check this out!

Two recent ones in this format by IVP that I find especially helpful:

Psychology & Christianity: Four Views edited by Eric Johnson & Stanton L. Jones, with contributions by Gary Collins, David Myers, David Powlison, Robert O. Roberts (IVP, $15.00). Here, four Christians who are professional counselors agree that there is a relationship between faith and psychology. The questions, of course, are what is the nature of the integration, how does a biblical view inform psychological studies and what really is “Christian counseling”? A very helpful collection, sure to be a beneficial read for layfolks and professionals alike. Which view best captures your stance?

Science & Christianity: Four Views edited by Richard Cahrlson with contributions by Wayne Frair & Gary Patterson, Jean Pond, Stephen Meyer, Howard J. Van Till (IVP, $16.00). Like the title listed above, this is a great resource to hammer out just what we mean by a Christian perspective on science, or thinking “Christianly” about this field. Deeper than the evolution-creation debate, this is a foundational question of how we ought to think about the integration of faith and science. Who knows, you may not agree with any of “Ëœem, but it would be hard not to learn a whole lot. Highly recommended.


Anytime I invite someone to critical thinking, reading diverse stuff, introducing “safe” readers to the adventures of reading widely, it becomes an opportunity, too, to invite serious thinking about the nature of worldviews. Any and every author has a bit of deeply held bias, are rooted within their own ideology and set(s) of presumptions. In other words, one sometimes has to learn to discern not just what the author overtly says, but what she means. Not only must we think critically about the clarity and truthfulness of the book, but how that author’s underlying worldviews have shaped the arguments. We have to learn to read “between the lines” for worldviewish discernment.

Here are two essential tools for just that. These are very important books to us here.

How To Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension by James Sire (Shaw, $12.99). This is a fabulous, fabulous resource, a book we talk about and recommend often. Sire (whose classic study about different worldview options, The Universe Next Door, is just now out in a revised fourth edition!) is himself very widely read — he gives illustrations from all sorts of literature and poetry and really makes the discernment of worldviews into not only a joyous discovery, but a keenly felt duty for Christian formation. What a great book!

Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept by James Sire (IVP, $14.00). I have said in this very column (years ago, now) that I found Sire’s body of work — as incredibly important as it is — to not have adequately explored the very nature of the idea of worldviews that he so often discusses. For him, it just seemed fairly given that everyone has a “mental filing cabinet” and set of cognitive ideas about the world which of course shape how they lean into life. He has now, in the preface to this book, duly noted that some critics have found his notion of worldview undeveloped (at best) and he has set his heart and mind to thinking this through. Alas, he has given us a brilliant little book, now only surpassed by the magisterial tome, Worldviews: The History of a Concept by David Naugle (Eerdmans; $26.00). If Naugle’s brilliant work tells you more than perhaps you ever imagined you wanted to know, Sire’
s new paperback leaves us hungering for more; it is that good! He has considerably revised his view of what constitutes a worldview and his wide and considered reading is obvious–from the expected Walsh & Middleton to Herman Dooyeweerd (a philosophic descendant of Abraham Kuyper) to modern critical studies scholars (can you say Michel Foucalt?).

What a joy to see an author take up a topic and work on it, reflecting, quoting others, explaining, asking questions, revisiting those questions. This itself is a work of art. Here, Sire deftly asks, "What, really, is a worldview, anyway? How is it different than a philosophy of life, or a set of theological truths? Are they self-conscious? Which comes first, heart or mind? In what ways do our faith-like worldview level assumptions effect our daily behaviors? In what way should we be engaged in ‘worldview-level’ thinking? Why is any of this important anyway??" This is really great stuff — especially so for campus ministers or those in academia — and I am so happy to get to promote it here. Truly, I praise God for this book and for the Hearts & Minds friends that he cites — from Al Wolters and Paul Marshall to Os Guinness and Steve Garber. This topic is one that helps guide what we here at the bookstore do and if customers have any appreciation
for us at all, they will realize that this is important to us. This book is a must-read. I hope it doesn’t speak unfavorably of my worldview, but I will say it again, with feeling: this book is a must-read.


I could write another column, I suppose, about another usage of the phrase “reading widely.” Instead of using my above advice — read stuff that makes you think, take on opposing views and try to decide for yourself (and in community with others) just where you stand, learning all the while to be gracious to those with whom we disagree — we could just as easily invite you to read various genres. In that sense of reading widely (wildly?), we can ask — why not take the summer to read an extra novel or two (if you are a nonfiction fan) or pick up a volume of poetry? (Last month we exclaimed about Luci Shaw, as one good place to start. And the often-mentioned Wendell Berry’s stories and poetry are surely as important as his critical essays.) Listen to some fiction on tape in the car this summer, or check out juvenile fiction (like recent Newberry Award winners, for instance).

And if you are a Christian romance lover, or historical fiction buff, why not try real-life memoirs or biographies for a change? If you appreciate the fantasy of C.S. Lewis, commit yourself to the edifying task of reading through Mere Theology: A Guide to the Thought of C.S. Lewis by Will Vaus (IVP, $20.00), which is garnering rave reviews among Lewis aficionados. Or conversely, if The Abolition of Man or The Weight of Glory are your bedtime reading, why not give The Chronicles of Narnia a try? Or, the brand new fantasy phenom, Shadowmancer by G.P. Taylor (Penguin, $16.99) which we are very excited about. Not only is it written by a solid Anglican pastor, it is, as they say in England, “Hotter than Potter!” Skip the collector’s item galleys selling for $1,000 on ebay, and order the handsome hardcover from us.

I know friends that use the dog days of summer as an excuse to hide out in air-conditioned movie theatres or to get caught up on home video watching. Why not supplement viewing with a faith-based study on film? You know — you must know unless you’re new to this column — that we love Bill Romanowski and his immensely useful Eyes Wide Open: Finding God in Popular Culture (Brazos, $12.99), which lays excellent groundwork for thinking about film, music, TV and such. A recent collection of good Christian movie reviews is called How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films by Gareth Higgins (Relevant Books, 13.99). Maybe you’ll read theologically about a movie you disliked, or maybe will learn to be more spiritually discerning about a film you enjoyed. Either way, you’ll learn and grow. And that is rewarding in itself.

Now is a great time to read widely — from various perspectives and in various genres. Check out our old reviews at our Web site and pick up a serious study you’ve put off. Have some fun with a beach book. Whatever you choose, keep reading, keep discussing, keep growing. As that old ad for historic black colleges used to say, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Have a good — and widely-read — summer.