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Christianity Today's 2019 Book Awards

Our picks for the books most likely to shape evangelical life, thought, and culture.

There’s a funny graphic making the social media rounds that confirms a truth universally acknowledged, at least by bibliophiles. Under the heading “Do I need more books?” sits a pie chart partitioned into a big slice (in teal) and a much smaller slice (in yellow), representing the dueling impulses in play. Predictably enough, the teal portion depicts the overwhelming urge to answer with an emphatic “YES.” But then we confront the nagging, still small voice of conscience, whispering ever so delicately, “also YES, but in yellow.”

As someone who owns a perfectly appropriate, not even slightly excessive, but still fairly large number of books, I know the feeling. Several years ago, I was part of a book club at church. We were discussing a book about books (Tony Reinke’s Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading). At some point, I asked whether anyone else ever felt guilty about devoting too much time to reading, given all the other callings God places on our lives. One young woman in the group thought the question revealed more about the bookworm bubble I inhabited than any spiritual dilemma Christians commonly face. And of course she was right! (Thank goodness that levelheaded young woman later saw fit to become my wife.)

If only through gritted teeth, you can usually get me to concede the sinful temptations that bookaholism encourages. Like any good gift, reading can be overindulged. But each year, as I set the table for another book awards banquet, I try to ease up on the introspection, adopting the literary equivalent of the “calories don’t count” mindset that fuels so many satisfying Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner binges.

During book awards season, at least, the ...

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Beyond Disease Transmission: Evangelical Missions and the Consequences of Colonialism

It matters how the church enters a mission field.

“Three of our children were folded in the arms of the Good Shepherd during the past year. Tuberculosis, the tendency to which was inherited, took each of them. As none of the teachers … or other white people at Unalaska, are so far as we know ever touched by the great white plague, we have come to the conclusion that it is not the climate but the conditions of living that make the disease so prevalent among the natives. Few children in Alaska are well born. Then, the ignorance of the parents, who seem to make it their chief avocation during the long winters to watch lest a whiff of fresh air get into their cabins, and the lack of good food add their contributions to the inherited tendency.”

Annual Report of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1909

Since the news of John Chau’s death reached the wider world, both pundits and people on social media have offered commentary on the merits or folly of Mr. Chau’s actions. One of the strongest criticisms has been the possibility of disease transmission. Recently, Ed Stetzer interviewed experts who helpfully contributed information on epidemiology and missions. While essential to research on colonialism and missions, disease transmission is not the only factor in understanding how disease affects mission fields.

As a historian, I research American missions movements, focusing on how American missionaries were influenced by race theories and how these race theories affected missionary education, proclamation, and public health efforts. As an Alaskan, I was drawn to this history in my home state. My research led me to the troubling story of missions and tuberculosis among Alaska Natives.

The quote that opens ...

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What We Long for the Church to Face about Sexual Violence

Improving our prevention and response to sexual violence will take sustained, significant efforts.

We believe that the vast majority of people of faith, if asked, would state a sincere desire to respond to sexual violence with wisdom, justice and support for victims. Numerous narratives from survivors, however, caution us to consider that we vastly overestimate our readiness to respond well, and underestimate the challenges involved in doing so.

Therefore, we do not place all our hopes in sharing a “to-do list” of strategies for churches. Clergy and leaders can have access to best practices, along with the resources to implement them, and still be stymied by powerful spiritual, psychological, and cultural influences.

These forces complicate and countervail against wise application of knowledge and effective implementation of safeguarding and response measures. In the third of our reflections, we identify and urge consideration of a few of these complicating forces.

1 – Human nature recoils from engagement with sexual violence.

The first may seem an obvious truth, but it is essential to this conversation. Human nature seeks comfort and stability, and resists distress and disequilibrium. Anguish and disruption, however, are unavoidable when sexual violation touches the lives of individuals and those called to act in response.

By their very nature, sexual violations, and their disclosures, throw individuals and systems into disarray. We are inclined to resist this level of disruption and recoil from coming into close contact with the physical, psychological, social and spiritual realities of sexual violence.

However, there is no way to respond to these experiences with justice and accountability without encountering profound disruptions and palpable distress. Avoidance and minimization may temporarily reestablish ...

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Bonhoeffer: Advent Is Like a Prison Cell

In the midst of Nazi resistance, this Christian martyr offered three models for the season of waiting.

On November 21, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter from Tegel Prison. “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent,” he said. “One waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

The comparison between Advent and a prison cell may seem strange. It evokes powerlessness, perhaps even hopelessness. However, it is this particular type of waiting that Bonhoeffer believes best prepares us for Christ’s coming.

Although a Nazi prison gave him this metaphor, the sermons he wrote during his time of active ministry also present a similar vision of Advent waiting. In these sermons, Bonhoeffer sees the season before Christmas as a sharpened liturgical expression of the tension that informs our entire lives as Christians. Celebrating it prepares us to live as people who have made a radical break with the present world of sin and death and are also preparing for the redeemed future that God has already, in one sense, accomplished. Through Advent, we learn how to live in these two concurrent realities: We have already been delivered, and yet our deliverance is still to come.

Bonhoeffer’s Christmas and Advent sermons highlight three figures who exemplify life amid this tension and, by their example, might guide us through this season. Learning how to wait from these figures will not be warm and cozy but deep, dangerous, and shot through with sorrow and pain.

The first figure is Moses. This is not the triumphant Moses leading the people of Israel through a miraculously parted Red Sea or the lawgiver Moses carrying the stone tablets down the mountainside. Rather, the Advent Moses is the one found in Deuteronomy ...

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Russell Moore: Putting the Family First Puts the Church at Odds with Jesus

He came to divide sons from their fathers and daughters from their mothers—not to promote “family values.”

An excerpt from CT’s Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year. Here’s the full list of CT 2019 Book Award winners.

When many people think of North American Christianity, one of the first words that come to mind would be family. Part of that is good, necessary, and unavoidable for a church on mission. If we are going to disciple people, we must teach them to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21), and many of the idols of our age come under the rubric of allegedly freeing people from the “constraints” of family responsibility and even family definition. When the outside culture valorizes sexual promiscuity, gender confusion, a divorce culture, and the upending of marriage, then the church must work hard to articulate a different vision. There is a danger, though, that comes with any mission, and this one is no exception.

The outside world is interested in order and stability. In that sense, the world can see the value, in most cases, of “The Family” in a way that it would not see the value of, say, the doctrine of justification by faith. Churches can talk about the family, then, in ways that seem immediately relevant even to their most metaphysically disinterested neighbors. With the secularizing of Western culture, many churches find that their neighbors simply aren’t asking questions like “What will I say when God asks me, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’ ” They find people are asking, “How can I find sexual fulfillment if I’m not married?” or “How can I stop arguing so much with my husband?” or “How can I relate to my kids during the teenage years?” For many churches, the family then becomes the point of contact with ...

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Chance the Rapper Shares a ‘Private Prayer’ from His Bible Reading Break

The Chicago musician begins his first sabbatical with a famous 80-year-old devotional.

After years of referencing his Christian faith on social media and in his Grammy-winning hip hop albums, Chance the Rapper has set out on a sabbatical to study and meditate on God’s Word.

He shared a glimpse of his morning devotions—a page from Scottish theologian John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer—with 9.2 million followers on Instagram on Monday.

The 25-year-old rapper posted a picture of the second day of the devotional, a prayer entitled “Continued Dependence Upon You” [full text below].

A Diary of Private Prayer reflects the personal religious practices developed by Baillie—a longtime seminary professor and church leader in Edinburgh in the mid-20th century. He and his brother Donald were considered among the greatest meditating theologians of their day. The book has sold more than a million copies in 20 languages since it was released in 1937.

Chance’s venture into Baillie’s best-known work comes a few days after the musician told fans he’d be traveling out of the country on his “first sabbatical” and would be dedicating the time away to studying Scripture.

“I’m going away to learn the Word of God which I am admittedly very unfamiliar with. I’ve been brought up by my family to know Christ but I haven’t taken it upon myself to really just take a couple days and read my Bible,” he stated.

“We all quote scripture and tell each other what God likes and doesn’t like but how much time do we spend as followers of Jesus to really just read and KNOW his Word. I’m definitely guilty of not devoting time to it.”

Over the weekend, he also posted on his Instagram stories a picture of the cover of Tim Keller’s ...

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There’s Nothing Sketchy About Cross-Gender Friendships in the Church

Why we shouldn’t let the Billy Graham Rule—or the “Billy Crystal Rule”—define how men and women relate.

Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” Harry Burns, played by Billy Crystal, famously (or infamously) spoke those words in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally. That line contained a multitude of messages, not all of them intentional, about gender relations, identity, and worth. Regardless of the direction the film took or the reception it got, that idea represented an all too widespread school of thought—one that isn’t flattering either to women or to the concept of friendship.

When Harry Met Sally was, of course, a mainstream secular rom-com—exactly the sort of source our churches didn’t want us to consult for ideas about romance and sexuality. So it’s ironic, Aimee Byrd suggests in her book, Why Can’t We Be Friends?: Avoidance Is Not Purity, that much of the church has wholeheartedly embraced what she calls the “Billy Crystal rule.”

“In a complete contradiction of our fight to uphold a biblical understanding of sexuality,” Byrd writes, “Hollywood became our teacher on relationships and gender after all. The church sent messages that a woman’s attractiveness serves the purpose of landing a husband, then becomes a threat to all other men. My sexuality became a barrier to friendship.”

Brothers and Sisters

Her words resonate with those of us Christians who have been warned all our lives by various Christian teachers and leaders about the dangers of cross-gender friendships. There’s no reason you need to spend any time together alone. (Or meet for lunch. Or have any unsupervised communications.) The temptations are just too great. Bad things can’t happen if you don’t let the ...

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The Most Wonderfully Painful Time of the Year

Christmas reminds us that faith in the future does not erase our pain in the present.

Several years ago, when my son Quinn was in kindergarten, he opened a present on Christmas morning, and he was not happy with what he saw. He set it aside, looked up at me, and declared, “We’re gonna need a receipt for that one.” I made a mental note to start working on gratitude with him as soon as the wrapping paper was all picked up. Yet, at the same time, I heard in his words the ordinary wish of the masses of humanity: We are given this gift called life and, oftentimes, as we unwrap it, there are parts of it we would like to return.

Usually, we want a receipt for the painful parts.

For instance, several months ago, I dropped Quinn off for his first day of fifth grade. The long line of cars was moving slowly, so I had time to watch him walk onto the playground. He stood there, alone, nervously rubbing the straps of his backpack, scanning the crowd for just one friendly face. He turned in circles and searched in vain. My stomach clenched. As a psychologist, I know kids need moments like this to build resilience—to learn they can survive it—but the father in me was about to pull over and get out anyway. Then, the line sped up and I was forced to move on, leaving my son lonely and looking. I knew he’d eventually find his friends—moments of loneliness always precede moments of belonging, that’s just the way it is—but eventually wasn’t good enough for me.

I wanted to skip over the painful part.

Jesus Wept

It’s Christmastime now, and as I watch my kids make wish lists and sing in Christmas pageants and open an Advent calendar, memories of my own childhood are revived, like ghosts from Christmases past. Specifically, I recall the church I attended when I was Quinn’s ...

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The Top Bible Verses of 2018 Don’t Come from Jesus or Paul

For the first time in recent years, YouVersion and Bible Gateway users searched for and shared verses from Old Testament prophets the most.

Do not fear.

It’s a charge that extends back to the earliest parts of Scripture, gets repeated from the lips of Jesus, and resonates the modern world. It’s also the message of the most popular Bible verse of 2018 on YouVersion, the world’s most-downloaded Bible app.

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God,” reads the year’s top verse, Isaiah 41:10. “I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

That exhortation from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah was shared, bookmarked, and highlighted more than any other passage by hundreds of millions of YouVersion users.

The year’s top honor at Bible Gateway comes from another Old Testament prophet. The most-read verse on the Bible website was the familiar Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

On the leading Bible website, either Jeremiah 29:11 or John 3:16 have topped the annual list every year. (The oft-quoted line from Jeremiah has come to be considered one of the most frequently misinterpreted Bible verses.)

The rest of Bible Gateway’s top 10 come from Psalm 23 (verses 1, 4, 6, and 6), Romans (Romans 8:28 and Romans 12:2), and Matthew (6:33).

YouVersion’s top verse, Isaiah 41:10, ranked thirteenth on Bible Gateway. Bible Gateway’s top verse, Jeremiah 29:11, also spiked to No. 1 in several countries worldwide, according to the YouVersion data.

The two Bible platforms’ lists end up being pretty different from one another each year, evidence that users tend to look up different verses online ...

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Technology, Politics, and Evangelicalism’s Good News

Power, wealth, and political influence may not be the prize that the world needs to experience. In fact, it may be the problem.

Many evangelicals instinctively believe that our culture’s access to technology has contributed to the decay of today’s moral verve. Although that may be true in a limited scope, it is more likely that today’s technology has more often served to reveal the true nature of our moral condition, rather than contributed substantively to its demise. What was once thought hidden is now, through technology, humiliatingly paraded for all to see. The sickness was always covertly cloaked amongst us. Technology simply exposed our malady and arranged for the predictable perp-walks.

Similarly, today, many bemoan the seemingly instant free fall of evangelicalism’s reputation among those it once sought to influence. In our hand-wringing, many automatically equate this collapse of public standing to the way evangelicalism appeared to have tethered itself to a disruptive and ethically challenging political campaign. With this ecclesiastical-partisan linkage firmly established, those outside were now more outside than ever. They became committed strangers with little compelling attraction to do anything but remain stalwart outsiders.

Here is the troubling question. Was this recent sacred-secular alliance actually the cause of our missionary dissonance, or was it, like morality and technology, actually an instructive event revealing the nature of our true loyalties? Has our deep distance from missionary effectiveness resulted from a recent, political moment in history or from a sustained misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel and its calling as a gospel-surrendered people?

To me, it seems apparent that it is the latter. The cavernous division between a commissioned missionary people and its mission field serves as ...

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