As it’s the last day of the year, here are some posts from 2013 with ideas to help you make a study plan for 2014:
A Plan to Begin a Year of Learning – “Everything on this list is written at a level that a layperson can understand—there's nothing too technical or overly academic. It will give you a good foundation in the Bible (which is most important), cover a few topics in apologetics that are big right now, and give you tools on how to think and have productive conversations.”
Meet the Bible Before You Read It – “As part of their current series on ‘How to Read the Bible,’ the White Horse Inn posted some lectures by Michael Horton (about 30 minutes each) introducing and summarizing each of the major sections of the Bible, explaining how each part fits into the whole. (Related articles, books, audio, and other study aids are included in the links below.) Take the time to listen this month, and you’ll be ready to start reading on January 1.”
You Can Change Our Culture’s Mind on Abortion – “Making the pro-life case is completely within your ability, I promise you. You just need to arm yourself with some information, a game plan, and some tools to help you get started. So I’ve put together a short list of resources, chosen for their simplicity, clarity, and accessibility. There are no textbooks in this list, and you don’t have to be a philosopher to understand any of this material…. I confined my list to a few essentials that cover the basics and will effectively equip anyone wanting to enter into this fight for universal human rights.”
Cyber Weekend may be over, but it's not too late to get great discounts on thoughtful gifts for the Christian thinkers in your life. We at STR have compiled a convenient catalog of popular gift items, many of which have been sharply discounted for the Christmas season.
In the past, I have not been the best Christmas-season dad for my daughters. My background was not so much Christ-oriented as it was festive and family-oriented. In an effort to get better, here are some things our family is doing to be intentional about investing Christmas with both the meaning and the seasonal “magic” that makes this month so memorable.
The goal is creating a meaningful and memorable family celebration of Christ’s birth. We want to focus on Christ, but there are many other aspects of the Christmas celebration, some more “secular,” that add to making the entire season’s focus on Christ special.
In general, there are three ways to refocus during this season. First, slow down. There are so many obligations and things to do this season. Find small ways to say "no" in order to free up your schedule and take the season a little slower. For example, I recommend saying "no" to Christmas cards this year. Christmas cards take a lot of time to make and send. Can you think of the people who didn't send you a card last year? I can't. Maybe forgoing Christmas cards this year is one way you'll find rest.
Second, be together with whoever is most important to you. For me, that's my immediate family. If you're single, like I was for 48 years, attach yourself to another family. Don't be alone this Christmas.
Third, simplify. Buying gifts online using Amazon Prime is a great way to simplify. When you sign up, you get 30 days for free, which includes free 2-day shipping on a vast amount of products. So, you can get all your Christmas shopping done in about 30 minutes, and then visit the mall or go out to dinner stress-free.
Here are some specific ways to make the Christmas season more meaningful:
If you are going to send out Christmas cards, choose a meaningful Christmas card (no “Happy Holidays”), and send it out early.
Put out a nativity, though don’t put baby Jesus out until Christmas morning.
Greet/thank people with a Christmas greeting that stands out (e.g., “Happy Christmas").
Display a magnetic car sticker of a stable and Bethlehem star and “Keep Christ in Christmas” (kcnativitysets.com).
Celebrate Advent during Sunday evening dinners with candles and a short reading.
Play CDs of Christmas music.
Traditional hymns sung the traditional way
Watch meaningful videos.
“The Nativity Story” (We watch this the first week as a kick-off.)
“It’s a Wonderful Life”
Some version of “A Christmas Carol” (I like the 1951 version with Alistair Sim.)
“The Star of Bethlehem” (more for older kids and adults)
Any others meaningful to you
Have a “date” with the kids to buy the other parent's Christmas present and eat out.
Attend a Church Christmas concert.
Visit the mall to look, not buy.
Practice Christmas charity.
Give to an organization, e.g., Salvation Army, Operation Christmas Child.
Give face-to-face to someone needy in your community (financial help or visit with act of kindness).
Attend Christmas Eve service at church.
Have a Christmas morning reading from Luke before presents are opened.
We’re coming to the end of the year—the time when many hopeful Christians decide that next year will be the year they read through the Bible. Reading the whole Bible can be daunting the first time or two, and even after many complete read-throughs you might still not have a solid grasp of the framework of the story or understand the roles of the types of literature involved. So here’s something that will help you succeed in either finishing the Bible for the first time or enjoying a more meaningful reading next time.
As part of their current series on “How to Read the Bible,” the White Horse Inn posted some lectures by Michael Horton (about 30 minutes each) introducing and summarizing each of the major sections of the Bible, explaining how each part fits into the whole. (Related articles, books, audio, and other study aids are included in the links below.) Take the time to listen this month, and you’ll be ready to start reading on January 1.
[I]f, when summoned to give an account of our stewardship, we shall be called upon to answer for the use which we have made of our bodily organs, and of the means of relieving the wants and necessities of our fellow-creatures; how much more for the exercise of the nobler and more exalted faculties of our nature, of invention, and judgment, and memory, and for our employment of all the instruments and opportunities of diligent application, and serious reflection, and honest decision. And to what subject might we in all reason be expected to apply more earnestly, than to that wherein our eternal interests are at issue? When God has of his goodness vouchsafed [deigned] to grant us such abundant means of instruction in that which we are most concerned to know, how great must be the guilt, and how awful the punishment of voluntary ignorance!
And why, it may be asked, are we in this pursuit alone to expect knowledge without inquiry, and success without endeavor? The whole analogy of nature inculcates on us a different lesson, and our own judgments in matters of temporal interest and worldly policy confirm the truth of her suggestions. Bountiful as is the hand of Providence, its gifts are not so bestowed as to seduce us into indolence, but to rouse us to exertion; and no one expects to attain to the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, and strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labor, study, or inquiry.
This is the more preposterous, because Christianity, being a revelation from God, and not the invention of man, discovering to us new relations, with their correspondent duties; containing also doctrines, and motives, and practical principles, and rules, peculiar to itself, and almost as new in their nature as supreme in their excellence, we cannot reasonably expect to become proficients in it by the accidental intercourses of life, as one might learn insensibly the maxims of worldly policy, or a scheme of mere morals [emphasis and paragraphs added].
In his insightful article “Why Harry Potter Is Great Literature,” Brian Brown argues that J.K. Rowling's "Potter books are in the tradition of the great English novels, deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence, and are easily the most morally and socially insightful works of fantasy published in this generation.”
He explains the basis for this claim:
Fantasy appeals to us, to put it crudely, because of the relationship between magic and morality. An alternate world filled with strange and wonderful things, a world defined by imagination, gives us a setting in which to (consciously or not) engage with moral questions free from the complications and biases with which we engage our own setting. This can be blindingly obvious, as with Lewis’s explicitly allegorical Narnia, or more subtle, as with Tolkien’s stubbornly not allegorical Middle Earth. Fantasy, mythology, and fairy tales allow an author to shape our unconscious ideas about what our own world should be like—without beating us over the head with them or even stating them outright. Fantasy stories can tell you a lot about what a civilization values, and the best fantasy stories help a civilization value the right things.
Rowling does both.
Harry Potter is a welcome respite from the Disney story of the boy (or girl) who sacrifices everything to follow his dream, proving his worth and finding fame in the end. Brown argues that the Potter series, contrary to the Disney template, is profoundly countercultural; its characters find their identity in their choices, loyalties, place, prudence, and families—not by pursuing their dreams and “finding themselves.” For example:
Our choices. It is these, mentor Dumbledore tells an insecure Harry, that show who we truly are. No Aladdin-style “his worth lies far within” nonsense here. Over and over in Harry Potter, good triumphs when somebody who has no business being a hero—dim-witted Neville Longbottom, dumpy mother of seven Mrs. Weasley, most of all Harry—makes a choice to be stupid, to “fight the unbeatable foe,” just because it’s the right thing to do.
The full article is worth reading for the rest of the details. Brown concludes:
In short, Rowling (who must clearly be seen as a danger to modern society) seems to think that children find—make, really—their place in the adult world by the strength of their character, by the structures of their connections with the past and with loved ones, and not by “finding themselves.”
Tellingly, Harry never finds a passion in life, nor does he ever have much of an idea of what he wants to do with his life. The very thing most kids today are told to seek—Harry never finds it or even seriously looks for it. He doesn’t need to. Best of all, in almost Austenian fashion, Rowling sets these stories in a school, where parallels with Harry’s day-to-day battles with classmates and teachers make clear that all the virtues that make good triumph over evil are the same virtues that make the difference in real life.
Harry Potter’s is a reactionary world, a real step back in the march of progress. Families and traditional institutions are central, government experts are viewed with distrust, and the celebrity hero doesn’t want to be a celebrity. And likewise unfashionable is the path by which Harry and his friends seek adulthood. They find meaning in responsibility, learn respect for rightful authority, and sacrifice their individuality and even their lives to preserve a very messy world that seems beyond saving.
If you’re anything like me, you tend to feel a little guilty spending time on novels when you have a stack of “serious” non-fiction to get through. This is a grave mistake. Feeding our moral imagination is part of our education (as Joe Rigney argues here). Goodness, truth, and beauty are worth contemplating in story form, so give yourself permission to partake. If Harry Potter, Middle Earth, and Narnia aren’t your thing, find something else beautiful that is. How about one of these? (More ideas here.)
Today, on the 50th anniversary of his death, C.S. Lewis will be honored with a memorial stone in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. (I believe it’s still possible to donate to this cause if you wish to help with this.) Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia, said of this event:
To be memorialized in Poets’ Corner means you’ve received national recognition for your contribution to the arts. Westminster Abbey has been at the heart of religious and civic life in England for over a thousand years and is known as “the coronation church”. William the Conqueror was crowned there on Christmas Day 1066. Our present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, was crowned there in 1953. So, for C.S. Lewis to be memorialized in the Abbey is an indication of the respect in which he is held and an acknowledgement of his enduring place in the world of English letters.
It’s rare that I hear an apologist tell the story of how he or she became a Christian and that story doesn’t include reading Mere Christianity. That’s exactly how my story began, as well. Lewis’s impact on this world from just this one book is immeasurable. And he wrote many more.
Chances are, you’ve already read Lewis’s more popular works: Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and The Abolition of Man, so I wanted to recommend three more of his books that you may not have even heard of.
Perelandra: This is the second book in Lewis’s Space Trilogy. If you read all three of these books, you’ll get much of Lewis’s philosophy, along with his warnings about the dangerous trajectory of our culture, in the form of a novel (which turned out to be quite prophetic). But you can also read this one book on it’s own. It’s the story of the devil’s attempt to bring about the fall of the first inhabitants of a planet, and Lewis’s skill in capturing the essence of evil in one of the characters continues to astound me. (I also suspect this book influenced the last season of Lost, but that’s a story for another time.)
Till We Have Faces: This is a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. What can I say about this book that would do it justice? Lewis knew how to write novels. This one is about selfish love, suffering, and the transforming love of God.
The Pilgrim’s Regress: Lewis tells the story of a man’s spiritual journey through the world’s philosophies to Christianity in the allegorical style of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. He does this brilliantly, as always.
I’ve had Logos Bible Software for some years. It’s a vast Bible study tool with tons of features and an enormous library of resources; I’ve only scratched the surface in my use. I recently had the opportunity to learn more about it and read one of their new resources that I’ve been anxious to read.
I like Timothy Keller’s preaching. He’s pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. I find his teaching intellectually engaging and biblically insightful, but also well-balanced. It would be easy for someone like me at STR to only listen to eggheads. That’s not healthy. I need my relationship with God to be challenged spiritually and emotionally in ways that may not come as naturally to me. So I listen to his sermons regularly. There are a lot of times he says something I want to remember, but I can’t write it down at the time. So when I heard Logos was releasing transcripts of his sermons, I was interested.
Keller often quotes an author he’s read that makes an excellent point. Listening, I’d try to remember or make a quick note to follow up. I’d Google it, and sometimes I found it, a lot of times I didn’t. Now I can search the archives and find the exact quotation and source.
I can also apply the lesson of the sermon better. After listening, I can read what I just listened to and make notes of the main points to remind myself and reflect on so I can learn and apply it better. Some circumstances in my life have changed pretty radically recently, and I’m trying to figure out the way forward. It was really helpful to be able to refer in print to a sermon on Philippians 4:1-9 I’d listened to recently. It helped me focus on applying the points: “Re-see all of your circumstances through the wise love of God by offering all of your petitions to Him through thankful prayer.” Remember your standing as a child of a loving and faithful Father. Practice the discipline of “the presence of God.” Even reviewing it from the text now is a really helpful reinforcement to practice this in my circumstances.
The transcriptions are great reading resources apart from the audio I listen to. I can tell Keller spends a lot of time preparing his sermons so they’re biblically sound. They have biblical depth and insight from the language, the culture, and the context. He’s apologetic-minded, and I get a lot of helpful insights, little points and big ones. I benefit most by how practical he is. He gets the lesson from the text, teaches the passage, and then applies it. His teaching has impacted my living.
The sermon archive is searchable chronologically, by passage, and topically. Did I say it’s 25 years worth of sermons? Great devotional material.
I’m really thankful that at about the same time I got this resource to read, we also got some in-house training from some of the Logos team. I learned about features and apps I wasn’t aware of that make it even easier to access the sermon archive. Here’s what I found out.
Logos is multi-platform, so my library of resources is available on them all, and they sync. So when I read Keller’s sermon archives on one device, all my marks and notes are available to me on all my devices, and I can pick up where I left off. Since they’re part of my library, they’re indexed and show up in my search results. The thing I was probably most excited to find out about was their book app called Vyrso. It’s like iBook and Kindle. There’s a bookstore with lots of great resources, including Christian fiction, so there’s more variety than the study library of resources. The coolest thing is that my library in Logos can be read in Vyrso – and all the marks and notes transfer over. It even syncs where I left off reading. It takes a bit of time to get used to navigating, but it’s worth it.
I was excited to learn about a Bible app that they’ve released – Faithlife Study Bible. Again, it syncs information with the other software once you’re signed in. Logos developed the resources for this study Bible to go deep and get insight about the passage and about the background. There is a customizable daily reading schedule. There are devotions. There is community. You can organize a group yourself, or join one, and study the Bible together because you can share notes. The leader can set the study plan, and everyone checks in when they can.
A man who will be mentoring a college-aged student in Theology, Bible, and Apologetics for a year asked me for some recommendations on materials he could use. I wanted to post my recommendations here, as well, because many of you may be looking for some sort of program you can go through on your own in order to develop a better foundation for your life as a Christian. And many others of you might like to use the knowledge God has gifted you with by starting a class or book club to build up the body of Christ around you.
Everything on this list is written at a level that a layperson can understand—there's nothing too technical or overly academic. It will give you a good foundation in the Bible (which is most important), cover a few topics in apologetics that are big right now, and give you tools on how to think and have productive conversations.
The total number of pages in the books (not counting Bible pages) comes out to only 2489. That means if you go through this over a year’s time, there are roughly 50 pages of reading a week, or only 7 pages a day. Anyone can do this. And if you fall behind, just extend the time a little longer in order to finish.
Find a friend who can join with you to discuss these ideas and keep you on track, and then start reading! I recommend reading them in this order:
From Creation to the Cross (and the associated “Suggested Scripture Readings” in each chapter) – Book: Understanding the big picture of the Bible and how the Old Testament fits together with the New is valuable both for theology and for apologetics. Nothing is more important than getting a good grasp of the Bible (400 pages).
The Holiness of God – Book: Understanding God's holiness is the key to answering many current apologetics questions. This is the biggest blind spot in our culture, so this one is a must-read (240 pages).