Category Archives: Books

Favorite Christian Book of 2014

Calvin and the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever
Michael Horton

John Calvin is one of the most fascinating and yet most widely misunderstood figures in Christian history. The most common image of Calvin is that of a fire breathing tyrant whose mission in life was to suck the most pleasure and joy out of people that he possibly could. He is commonly associated with the doctrine of predestination, but what he actually believed, taught, and wrote on predestination is not what most of his detractors attribute to him.

Dr. Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, has written the latest book of several over the last few years that corrects our understanding of what John Calvin was all about. Several recent predecessors that I have read are John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey; The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steven J. Lawson; John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, edited by Burk Parsons; and Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper by Keith A. Mathison.

Horton’s contribution focuses on Calvin’s personal piety and practical theology. ‘Personal piety’ these days is frequently interpreted to mean ‘holier than thou’, but this is not the case with Calvin. For Calvin, this simply meant the way a person lives out the Christian life. From Horton’s introduction:

“Piety” (pietas), not spirituality, is the Reformer’s all-encompassing term for Christian faith and practice. Even this term has lost its value in modernity. We’ve learned to draw a line between doctrine and life, with “piety” (like “spirituality”) falling on the “life” side of the ledger. The ancient church saw it differently: eusebia encompassed doctrine and life. It could be translated “piety” or “orthodoxy” without any confusion. Calvin assumed this overarching horizon. Doctrine, worship, and life are all of one piece. The doctrine is always practically oriented, and practice is always to be grounded in true doctrine. In fact, “justification by faith…is the sum of all piety.” The root of piety is faith in the gospel. Love is the yardstick for all duties, and God’s moral law in both testaments stipulates the character of this love on the ground, comprehending “piety toward God” and “charity toward men.” Calvin even defended his Institutes as “a sum of Christian piety.” (p. 17)

Horton quotes extensively from Calvin’s own works. Predominant among these is Calvin’s monumental work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin intended his Institutes to be used to train pastors in sound doctrine, and it is there that I find Calvin’s thoughts most clearly explained in the most detail. Calvin’s Catechism, his sermons on the Scriptures, and his correspondence round out the source material from which Horton mines Calvin’s views of how a Christian ought to live, guided by the Scriptures and a proper understanding of the gospel.

Far from being a tyrant, Calvin was one of the church’s strongest defenders of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is the idea that anything not specifically prohibited in the Scriptures is lawful for a Christian to do. For instance, dancing, smoking, and going to movies activities frequently forbidden in Western churches, but these are not activities specifically prohibited in the scriptures. Therefore, despite what many evangelical churches have tried to teach over the centuries, Calvin teaches that Christians have the freedom to pursue these activities if they wish. Calvin once got into trouble with the city of Geneva’s leaders for bowling on the Sabbath. That doesn’t sound like a kill-joy tyrant to me. Horton sums up Calvin’s point on Christian liberty by saying “Of what use is a doctrine of justification if we do not actually experience God’s liberality toward us in our daily lives?” (p. 181)

Calvin explicitly defends Christian liberty against the Pharisees of legalism, and he defends it often and loudly. Calvin takes special aim at the legalists among us who try to hide their legalism behind the argument of ‘not stumbling the weaker brother’. Horton says, “Restricting the church’s authority in doctrine, worship, and life to that which God has clearly commanded in his word, Calvin is the enemy of legalism.” (p. 182)

Calvin speaks to many issues confronting us in today’s world, as well. The compassionate way Calvin provided for refugees in the city of Geneva lead me to believe he would not be on the Republican side of our own immigration issue.

Horton takes us through Calvin’s thoughts on grace, worship service, and prayer. He explains Calvin’s views on a Christian’s relation to the government, a Christian’s vocation, and a Christian’s future hope. Horton does much of this with Calvin’s own words. Horton’s book could almost be read as a thinking Christian’s devotional. I highly recommend it!


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Favorite Book Series of 2014

I discovered this series by reading a National Public Radio review of the third volume, Acceptance, when it was released in September. Jason Sheehan, the NPR reviewer, had the same problem that I have…how to tell you enough about these books to want to read them without giving anything away. I know…that is a problem with every review, but it is a problem that usually has an easy work around. Not so with Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series.

Something Strange is happening in the coastal wilderness of the United States’ Eastern seaboard. We are never given an exact location. I always thought it was South Carolina, but it could just as well be northern Florida or Georgia. These Strange Things started happening decades ago, and have caused the government to quarantine the area now known as Area X. The only people allowed into Area X are government research teams. The first book, Annihilation, begins with the insertion of the twelfth such team. After sending in eleven teams already…nobody still knows anything about Area X. The twelfth team is a party of four women; a psychologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor. Why all women?

And that’s about all I can give you. (Ain’t I a tease? 😉 )

OK…I can tell you the story involves a mysterious lighthouse. And a tower. Or is it a tunnel? And who wrote those words on the walls of the tower/tunnel?

OK. That’s all I can give you. Honest.

One reviewer said that this series is ‘genre-blending’. That is true. Is it an espionage thriller? A horror story? Science fiction? All of the above. And each book has a slightly different tone and perspective.

I think Jason Sheehan summed it up exactly in that first NPR review that I read when he said “If the guys who wrote Lost had brought H.P. Lovecraft into the room as a script doctor in the first season, the Southern Reach trilogy is what they would have come up with.”

If this book series had been a role playing game, then several of the player characters had to make sanity rolls…and failed. Or did they?

This series is so-o-o-o-o delicious! And that is why The Southern Reach Trilogy is my favorite book series of 2014.

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Posted by on December 30, 2014 in Book Review, Books


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Favorite Book of 2014

This book was actually written in 2012, and I bought it around Christmas time in 2013. Patsy and I were at Barnes & Noble in Redding and I just happened to walk past a stack of these out on a book table. The cover looked interesting. The title, implying a video game reference, caught my attention. I read the back cover and decided to get it for our sixteen year old son Joshua for Christmas.

I think he finished reading it by dawn on December 26. It jumped into his ‘Favorite Book’ slot, and being a video game and Rush fan, he couldn’t say enough good things about it. I finally picked it up and read it a couple of months later.

Josh was right!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline takes place in a future world in which virtual reality has become commonplace. On-line gaming has grown to the point that the virtual world has become the predominant form of society’s entertainment. Even school is accomplished virtually. A basic virtual immersion rig is part of every school kid’s supplies. Actually, it’s the only school supply. Everything else that is needed is found and saved on-line. Most kids go to the free Government virtual school. Kids from richer families can afford better virtual immersion rigs, and can afford the ‘pay-as-you-play’ format of being able to explore away from your free basic school world.

James Halliday, the creator of the virtual universe, has died without heirs. He has left his entire fortune to the first person to crack the Easter eggs he has planted throughout his virtual universe. His fortune is so huge that even multi-national corporations dedicate corporate divisions to solving these Easter eggs, but nobody has even solved the first one yet. Halliday grew up in the 1980s, and the virtual universe and the Easter eggs are a treasure trove of ‘80s pop and geek culture. Enter poor but uber-geeky teenager Wade Watts, and the race is on!

One sci-fi writer has referred to Ready Player One as a ‘nerdgasm’. Apt.

Reviewers at Amazon have given Ready Player One 3,184 5-star ratings, as of December 26, 2014. Ninety reviewers have given it one star. I think some of the comments on the poor reviews might be right. The one stars were probably given by dementors, trying to suck all of the fun and joy out of life.

Unlike Josh, I would not say this is my favorite book of all, but it was definitely my favorite read of 2014.
Ernest Cline’s next book, Armada, is due out summer of 2015. I’ll be looking for it!

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Posted by on December 29, 2014 in Book Review, Books


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Humboldt: The Old Home Place

I found this book just browsing through the ‘New Books’ shelf at the Shasta County Library in Redding. The full title is Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, and I was drawn to it because the time I spent living and working in Del Norte County, just north of Humboldt County, made me feel a connection to the topic. I’ve been through many of the places described in the book. I was even there during some of the times which Brady writes about. I wasn’t in Del Norte County very long before I learned what CAMP was. (The Campaign Against Marijuana Planting was an annual Federal anti-marijuana operation. It was a multi-agency operation involving local and state law enforcement along with Army National Guard units.)

Author Emily Brady, a Northern California native, spent a year living in Humboldt County researching this book. The depth of her research shows. The people and events she writes about are believable. They resemble people and events that I knew in my time living over on the North Coast. This book is the real deal.

I think the most succinct way to describe this book is to describe the book’s four archetypes that represent the four types of people involved in the Emerald Triangle’s marijuana trade. These are not fictional characters, but they are actual people representative of the four main types of people involved, directly or indirectly, in the trade. Brady changed the names as necessary to protect the identities of some of those involved.

Mare had been involved in the Height-Ashbury counter culture of the late ‘60s. When the Summer of Love took a violent turn, she and her partner moved north to Humboldt County as part of the back-to-the-land movement. She started growing pot for personal use, and then for income as the prices rose and growing became profitable. Marijuana, for Mare, represents a culture and a simple, back to the earth lifestyle.

Emma grew up in the pot growing community. Her upbringing was filed with topics and events that did not get mentioned outside of the immediate family. She grew up dodging CAMP helicopters. She saw the effects on families when people got busted and went to jail, or got killed in deals gone bad. She left Humboldt County for college, and Emma has spent a lot of time trying to figure it all out.

Crockett represents “the younger, business minded grower who had come to Humboldt to make money.” Marijuana to Crockett is a cash crop, plain and simple. A business.

Bob “was a deputy sheriff in a town of outlaws”. Reading Bob’s story seemed to give me an understanding of what it might have been like to be a lawman in moonshine country during prohibition.

A significant part of the book describes the tension among pot growers over marijuana legalization. A large part of the Humboldt economy is built upon the high prices for black market pot. If marijuana were to be legalized in California, as it almost was with Proposition 19, people wouldn’t go to jail for it anymore and people could come up from the underground culture that has developed around illegal pot. However, experts expect the price of marijuana to crash so low that small scale farmers would not be able to sustain themselves on it anymore. Prop 19 was soundly defeated in Humboldt County.

Humboldt is less than 250 pages long and an easy read. I highly recommend this one.

I will talk about my views on marijuana legalization in a later post.

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Posted by on April 23, 2014 in Books


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