Random Musings on Christian Humanism

Humanism

(By: Nick Kennicott)

I have thought a lot lately about how often I hear or read someone mocking the liberal arts. The study of humanities has fallen on hard times over the past few decades, and culturally, it shows. Education in America and Western culture, in general, has shifted away from a pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful, eschewing the very humanistic ideals that formed America in the first place. In return, the majority of students hear from their teachers that all they’re really doing is preparing for the next test, preparing for the next grade, and preparing to get to college.

One of my closest friends has the unenviable job of reading essays written by aspiring college students applying to the well-respected institution he works for. In a recent conversation, he told me that one of the questions the students are asked to write about is, “Why do you want to go to college?” He said at least 50% of the essays say something along the lines of wanting to get a high paying job, so as far as they can tell, the only logical next step is to go to college. Very few young people are taught how to learn, and as a result, there’s very little desire to engage with ancient literature, understand history in context, think critically about art or music, or wrestle with competing ideas about the reasons why men and women make the decisions they do. Enough with the reading and writing and debating and speeches, just show me the money. Don’t believe me? Ask ten teenagers how many books they’ve read on their own from cover-to-cover in the past twelve months, and then fasten your seatbelt to hear the answer. I’m not down on the teens… go and ask their parents the same question and try not to have a major medical emergency (don’t say I didn’t warn you). 27% of adults in a recent Pew Survey admitted to having not read a single book in an entire year. To the man or woman with a love for humanities, that’s like saying they didn’t breathe! I feel my heart nearly stop when I hear those awful words, “I hate reading!”

I’m actually quite unsurprised that many college campuses across America have turned into offense-free zones where guest speakers with ideas (usually Christians and/or conservative) that do not conform to the majority of the students and faculty on the campus are harassed, maligned, and often cancelled because the very thought of them being on the premises is too much for people to handle. I’m not surprised when graduates walk out of graduation speeches by people they don’t like, I’m not surprised when conservative professors are fired for even suggesting different ideas should have a place in university classrooms, or when entire institutions are maligned and boycotted for holding to principles that differ from their counterparts. Why would people who were never made to read and discuss and debate dissenting ideas in the first place ever think there was all the sudden a place for those ideas? How can people who think injustice is defined as being offended ever engage in civil discourse? I suggest the slow movement away from the liberal arts in western society has created the culture of division in America that is so often defined as left and right, and yet both sides are plagued with the same malady.

Too often, “liberal arts” is used as a pejorative term rather than describing a noble pursuit. I am particularly disheartened when I hear disparaging remarks from Christians about these very ideas that set the stage for the Protestant Reformation and were foundational in the thinking they most admire in many of their heroes of the faith. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton both said they hated their studies in grammar and Latin, but also admitted it was those areas of study that made them the writers and thinkers they became. The Greek and Hebrew languages were all but lost along with most of the works of the Church Fathers throughout the middle ages, and if it weren’t for Christian humanists rediscovering and studying them, and using the printing press to distribute them, where would the church be today? I thank God for inspiring His people to reject the status quo of their day to make discoveries of the works of old and renew the ideas and methods that formed many great nations, men, and women.

I truly believe churches would be far more mature, sermons would be far more substantive, and outreach and evangelism would be far more effective if we took Christian humanism seriously–if we taught ourselves and our children how to think, how to reason, how to discuss, how to read and study. We would be far more conversant with our culture in a winsome way if we engaged with the standard Western canon of literature and if we studied and honed the arts of logic and rhetoric, even from a very early age. The church would be far more equipped to answer fools (Proverbs 26:5) and make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in them with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).

This short film (below) is a great piece that depicts something of what causes unrest in my heart (yes, I recognize the irony of including a dialogue-free film after all my blather about reading books and listening to and engaging in discourse). I appreciate the very notion being portrayed that perhaps we’re doing it all wrong! We used to have a culture that valued art and music, speech and well-crafted argument, stage productions and substantive political debate. No longer. All of life has conformed to the cookie-cutter ideals of the industrial revolution and now we think ourselves successful when we continually stamp out more of the same. God has gifted each person differently, and each different person should be given opportunities to explore and utilize their unique gifts that they might flourish in ways others don’t… it’s a humanist ideal that we’ve lost, but I hope there’s still time to see it recovered. Enjoy the film.

The Rhino Room | Top Books

Rhino Room

Rhino Room

Curious about the Rhino Room? Read our introduction here.

Other than the Bible, what one book do you wish every Christian would read and why? Provide a brief summary.

Samuel Barber (Pastoral Assistant, Ephesus Church of Rincon, Georgia)

In an attempt to avoid being predictable, I tried to think of a book besides John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; I just couldn’t do it. It is a must-read for every Christian. In this allegory Bunyan so wonderfully draws together story and theology, and depicts such vivid experimental Christianity that I glean from it every time I read it. It is the story of a man named Graceless (renamed Christian), who at the instruction of Evangelist, sets out from the City of Destruction for the Celestial City to flee from the wrath to come on account of his sin. The perilous journey upon which he embarks provides invaluable insights into the hardships, snares, triumphs, and glories of the Christian life. As the reader follows Christian’s journey to the Celestial City his heart is powerfully drawn toward heaven and he is given strength and grace to press on in his own pilgrimage.

Wayne Brandow (Pastor, Bible Baptist Church of Galway, New York)

I would recommend John Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan has given us pictures of the journey of the Christian life from being awakened to one’s sin and need of Christ, unto one’s crossing over the river of death and entrance into heaven. I used the word pictures, plural rather than singular, because more than one person’s life is chronicled in this allegory. The journeys of Christian, Faithful, Hopeful, Christiana, and Mercy are set before the reader. The similarities and differences they meet on the way make known that although some aspects are central to all, such as going through the wicket gate rather than climbing over the wall (Christ is the door), the Christian’s experiences are not uniformly the same.  We are all different, yet have the same basic need. This book shows us how to live the Christian life and the helps and the hindrances along the way.

Marc Grimaldi (Pastor, Grace Reformed Baptist Church of Merrick, New York)

Aside from the Bible, no book has greater impacted my life in a practical way more than, War of Words by Paul David Tripp. It is amazing to see how much our words reveal about what is going on in our hearts. Since we spend so much time speaking, it is thoroughly profitable to examine our speech as a critical means of addressing our hearts and working toward change, by way of the cross.

I wish every Christian would read this book as it is tremendously beneficial for enhancing unity, love, patience, long suffering, and basically every Christian virtue to which the Scriptures call us. Brother Tripp addresses this important subject humbly and tenderly, using his own personal struggles as a template for all that he attempts to get across.

Nicholas Kennicott (Pastor, Ephesus Church of Rincon, Georgia)

I wish every Christian would read and understand The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher (with Thomas Boston’s notes). My favorite preacher, Sinclair Ferguson, says anyone who “comes to grips with the issues raised in [this book] will almost certainly grow by leaps and bounds in understanding… the grace of God, the Christian life, and the very nature of the gospel itself.” The story of the books writing and publication is fascinating in itself, but more important is what it says. In my own personal life and ministry I have come to see a right understanding of the relationship between the law and the gospel as essential to fruitful, satisfying life with God and neighbor. Fisher provides a biblical corrective to both antinomianism and licentiousness in his captivating conversation through various interlocutors to lead his readers to a balanced, biblical understanding of the most essential truths of the faith.

Chris Marley (Pastor, Miller Valley Baptist Church of Miller Valley, Arizona)

This is a difficult question, because the book choice would very much depend on the individual. Pastors often “prescribe” books based on spiritual health, strengths, and weaknesses. For a man called to the ministry, it would be Horatius Bonar’s Words to Winners of Souls or Edmund Clowney’s Called to the Ministry. For the believer with a frail disposition, it would be Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening to give them a bi-daily refocusing and encouragement. I suppose the only book that covers the whole gamut would be Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with both Christian’s and Christiana’s narratives. It has material for men, women, children, pastors, and ordinary saints. It reminds all of us that our personal narratives are part of a greater one, and that our trials have been successfully endured by those before us. It also does a great job of connecting human experience to Scripture passages.

Douglas Van Dorn (Pastor, Reformed Baptist Church of Northern Colorado)

I know you are out there, people who are just like I used to be. Try Stephen Lawhead’s Taliesen, the first book of the Pendragon Cycle. Why? Not because it is the best book I’ve ever read, though I absolutely love it. Not because it is theologically rich or necessary. It is just fiction. Rather, this book changed my life. This is the book that took me from hating reading to loving it. Somehow, and I’m not proud of this, I managed to make it half way through college without ever reading a full book. Ever. I can’t tell you how much I despised reading. If you hate reading, then it doesn’t matter what book I recommend to you, you won’t read it. Therefore, figure out what you love in life and start there. Learn to love reading first. Then I’ll recommend all sorts of books, like Calvin’s Institutes.

How Do You Decide What to Read?

Books

BookStacksThere are a lot of incredible books available to read on the market today. When I travel to Nigeria each year I am reminded how embarrassingly fortunate we are in the West to have access to books upon books that much of the rest of the world simply cannot access with the ease we enjoy. I simply download it, or have it delivered to my doorstep, in most cases within 2 days. I still love having print books, but am an avid user of Logos Bible Software and the Amazon Kindle App on my iPad. So with so many options, how in the world can we decide what to read? Old books, new books, non-fiction, fiction, theology, sociology…

Over the years I’ve developed a method of reading that has worked well for me. I admit, it probably wouldn’t work well for most, but I also realize that as a pastor I have a responsibility to read a lot more than most, along with the freedom to do it a bit more regularly (although, not as often as some might assume – pastors really are busy most of the time!). So, while my way may not be the best for you, if you don’t have a plan and get frustrated with half read books laying around the house, this may encourage you to come up with a better plan for yourself.

I read books in 7 categories that I have going simultaneously. Some of the books I may read once per week, and others I may read through in a single sitting, depending on my particular need for the specific topic. However, I don’t start a new book in a specific category until the previous book in that category is complete, or at least as complete as I want it to be. So here they are:

Christian Living – These are, by far, the most popular books in Christian publishing and I enjoy a lot of them. However, most of them follow a very similar pattern and are easy for me to read through quickly. These are books that I most frequently recommend to Christians and have available on our book table at church, mainly because they are written with specific needs or ideas in mind. And I’ll tell you a secret: It’s rare for me to read every page, or even every chapter of a book before I consider it complete, and that is most prevalent in this genre. It’s also quite rare that I’ll read a preface, forward or introduction… and who in the world reads acknowledgements?

Systematic Theology – This may not always be an entire systematic theology work, but may be a systematic theology topic. So, for example, a book on the Atonement or Eschatology. However, sometimes it does include entire systematic theologies which can be quite edifying, even though it’s usually a big undertaking.

Biblical Theology – I may blog about it sometime, but I believe Christianity has largely lost its biblical theology which has come at the cost of losing the big story. Biblical theology is incredibly important but rarely taught, and even more rarely understood. I’m thankful for what seems to be somewhat of a recovery of biblical theology in some Christian circles. Nevertheless, there are some great biblical theology works out there, and in order to stay sharp, I read as much as I can. Biblical theology has increased my communion with God and my ability to see the forest through the trees when I work through the Scriptures.

Future Sermon/teaching Series – I try to plan ahead at least 3 months when it comes to what I’m preaching and teaching at Ephesus Church. Additionally, I am sometimes invited to preach in other contexts and I want to be prepared. With a busy life and the constant necessity to be ready for this Sunday, my goal is to at least be reading for what’s up next. I’m not writing or outlining, but I’m at least thinking, and I’ve found it helpful when I finally get there.

Sociology – Some of the most insightful reading I do is in this category. I’m fascinated by the way people think and the things they come up with. Some sociological writing is very helpful and, although most of the time it’s not from a Christian worldview, the best of it compliments biblical Christianity quite nicely and provides some excellent sermon illustrations.

Classical – I am constantly working to become a better classicist. The conversation between the philosophers and poets has been going on since the beginning, and most modern education has silenced it altogether. The writers of the Bible undoubtedly wrote with much of the conversation in mind, and I don’t want to miss it. Reading the great books has significantly affected how I read the Scriptures and how I think about history and worldview.

Hobbies – I’m a guy, so I have a lot of hobbies! I like to read books that help me in those hobbies, and to give my mind a peaceful retreat into things less taxing on the brain than the rest of the categories. The book rack at Lowe’s can be a dangerous place for me… even though I know I will never accomplish most of the DIY projects I’d love to do. I mean, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3 – why not?! And of course, all avid golfers need tips and tweeks, gardeners need to know the latest techniques, and beekeepers are a strange breed of incessant innovators.

My only addition to this is that there are always books I’m reading for my current teaching series’, however I generally read/use those as I’m preparing sermons and/or classes. I suppose they’re a category, but by the time I get to that part of my study I am usually using them as reference.

So, that’s what I do. What about you? What have you found useful in organizing your reading?

(By: Nick Kennicott)

Reading in the New Year

Books, Christian Living

Kid-ReadingIs it 2014 already? That didn’t take long! As you look ahead with anticipation, I hope you’re setting some reading goals to enrich your Christian life through the Scriptures and other Christian books. Tony Reinke very accurately explains, “Reading is a difficult pleasure because it requires discipline, diligence, and focus. But like in any pleasure, it is a pleasure that can be done for God’s glory.” [1] As someone who loves to read, I can admit that it’s not always easy, particularly in our day with so many other distractions clamoring for our attention. However, it’s essential to Christian growth and a discipline every one of us should seek to cultivate and grow in through the years. Don’t have time? Consider these numbers, also from Reinke:

First, most people can find sixty minutes each day to read. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t: fifteen minutes in the morning, fifteen minutes at lunchtime, and another thirty minutes in the evening. No problem. At this pace, you can devote seven hours to reading each week (or 420 minutes). The average reader moves through a book at a pace of about 250 words per minute. So 420 minutes of reading per week translates into 105,000 words per week. This book is roughly 55,000 words. Assuming that you can read for one hour each day, and that you read at around 250 words per minute, you can complete more than one book per week, or about seventy books per year.[2]

I would be elated to know that the average Christian read even 12 books per year along with the Bible! So what’s your plan? Why not consider one of the books I listed a few weeks ago to get you started?

Bible Reading. Many Christians begin the year with a plan to get through the entire Bible. It’s a good plan, and certainly something to strive for at some point, however it doesn’t need to be the way we all go about reading our Bibles each year. Quite frankly, for most it becomes a rather burdensome task which doesn’t provide the fruit that is intended. Nevertheless, reading the Bible in a year is profitable on many levels, so don’t not do it because it seems difficult (I promise, it is!). So here are a few Bible reading plans to help you get started: (this list was mostly generated by Justin Taylor):

  • Stephen Witmer’s two-year plan to get through the entire Bible.
  • The Gospel Coalition’s For the Love of God Blog takes you through the M’Cheyne reading plan, with a meditation each day by D. A. Carson related to one of the readings. In one year, you will read through the New Testament twice, the Psalms twice and the rest of the Old Testament once.
  • George Guthrie’s Chronological Bible Reading Plan. Guthrie has also made a a booklet version of the Read the Bible for Life 4+1 Reading Plan. In this plan, you read four different places in the Scriptures and a psalm a day, thus cycling through the psalms twice in the year. This plan is semi-chronological, placing the prophets and the NT letters in rough chronological order.
  • Don Whitney has a simple but surprisingly effective tool: A Bible Reading Record. It’s a list of every chapter in the Bible, and you can check them off as you read them at whatever pace you want.
  • For the highly motivated and disciplined, Grant Horner’s plan has you reading each day a chapter from ten different places in the Bible.
  • Joe Carter and Fred Sanders explain James Gray’s method of “How to Master the English Bible” (This is my personal favorite way to read the Bible devotionally).
  • There are 10 Reading Plans for ESV Editions, and the nice things is the way in which Crossway has made them accessible in multiple formats (web, RSS, Podcast, iCal, Mobile, pdf).

Bible Companions. It’s a good and important thing to read your Bible, but having a companion to help you through the Scriptures is important as well. I would suggest using a good commentary along the way and/or a confession of faith to help you theologically. We are arrogant and naive if we think we can figure the Bible out on our own – we need helpful resources.

  • I highly recommend reading Scripture with a confession of faith in hand. The Bible is theological, and sometimes we need help sorting out the theology behind it lest we fall into error. Check out the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.

Devotionals. What about devotionals? Devotionals are very helpful, and give us good things to think on throughout each day in addition to the Scripture we’ve read. Admittedly, many devotionals are shallow at best, but there are some that I have found to be helpful, meaty, and worth my reading time.  Here are a few of my suggestions:

While not necessarily written as a devotional, I have read Note to Self as a devotional and found it to be full of good thoughts to ponder throughout the day in small chunks. In other words, I would typically read a shorter book like this one in a sitting or two – this book is better consumed a chapter per day. And they are only a few pages each, making this an excellent choice for devotional reading.

Winslow was a very well known reformed pastor in the 1800s. His writings are deeply devotional and have proven to be a wonderful balm to my soul on countless occasions.

Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening is a classic devotional read. As with all of Spurgeon’s works, it is highly readable and enjoyable, just as much today as it was in the 1800s. This is also available free online.

Two years ago I followed a daily reading schedule to get through Calvin’s Institutes. It was highly rewarding, and I think something every Christian should consider doing do at some point. Many people talk about Calvinism or claim to have an understanding of what Calvin taught without ever actually reading him. Here’s a great way to get through his magnum opus in one year.

Tripp wrote 52 short chapters, mainly working through Psalm 51, to address our sin and God’s mercy. Whiter Than Snow is a very rewarding read, and each chapter comes in at 3 pages or less, making it perfect for a devotional.

Ligonier Ministries has published Tabletalk Magazine for many years, and has proven to be an excellent daily devotional for Christians. Tabletalk provides 5, 1-page readings for each week, and lengthy articles on a specific monthly topic to read on the weekends. It is well worth the subscription price – I, and many members of Ephesus Church have relied on Tabletalk for quite some time.

I’ve said many times, I believe Operation World should be in every Christian home. While not devotional reading, it is the most helpful guide available to walk Christians through praying for every country in the world every year. We have a mandate to pray for the nations and to do all that we can to see the advance of the gospel to the nations. Operation World will be very helpful to you and your family to accomplish that great task. I would also recommend looking up the Joshua Project app for your smartphone so that you can pray for the people group of the day.

Lastly, I want to provide a few things for you to consider as you read your Bible. Are you asking questions of the text to develop a greater understanding of what the writers are conveying? Remember, our goal is to know what the text means, not “what does it mean to me?” Quite frankly, what it means to you is of no value. When reading the Bible, we must know what the text is communicating to us because we are learning what God is communicating to us. One of the most effective ways to understand the Bible is by asking questions while you read. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Who is involved? Who is speaking? Who is acting?
  • When did this event take place (what day of week, what hour of the day, relationship to some other event)?
  • Where did the action take place (what city, what specific location such as a home or on a mountain, etc.)?
  • What took place?
  • What sin is presented that I should forsake?
  • What command is given that I should obey?
  • What promise has God made?
  • Why did this event take place?
  • How did the event occur?
  • How do I put the principles taught in the passage into practice?

If you like to journal, or would like to start journaling through your Bible reading, why not use these questions to get started? I guarantee you’ll immediately find yourself enjoying and understanding the Scriptures more than you ever have before.

(By: Nick Kennicott)


1. Reinke, Tony. Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011). Kindle Edition, 104.

2. Ibid., 130.

My Top 5 Reads

Book Reviews

BooksI read a lot and am often asked what I think other Christians should read as well. I consider it an integral part of my work, and I always encourage Christians to read more. So, in an effort to stoke your literary fire a bit, I would like to offer my top 5 list (apart from the Bible) of what I think every Christian should read and understand (in no particular order)…

Authority by: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Lloyd-Jones delivered three messages on authority which were compiled to make this short, but very important volume. He covers the authority of Christ, the authority of the Scriptures, and the authority of the Holy Spirit. As a people (i.e. Americans) who question and often reject all forms of authority, Lloyd-Jones delivers a masterful reminder of our true authority and what it means in our daily lives as God’s people.

The Marrow of Modern Divinity by: Edward Fisher 

In my opinion, one of the most important issues Christians need to understand is the relationship between the law and the gospel. This classic work from the 1600’s has not disappointed when it comes to causing a bit of a stir, however it remains the most unique treatment of this very important issue. For those who have not spent a lot of time reading older literature, it might prove a bit more difficult, however it’s not a hard book to read or understand by any means. It’s as entertaining as it is helpful, and I think it’s the perfect antidote for legalism and antinomianism in the church today. The specific edition I have linked to includes the valuable explanatory notes of the puritan Thomas Boston along with an Introduction by Philip Ryken and an historical Introduction by William Vandoodeward.

Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul by: Octavius Winslow

Let’s face it: Christians get discouraged and we begin to grow stagnant or even cold in our affections for God. At times, it may be an indication of a person’s true condition and whether or not they are in the faith. However, sometimes we lack in spiritual growth and vitality and don’t know the way out. Personal Declension is one of the most stirring, helpful, encouraging and convicting books I’ve ever read. I turn to Winslow each time I’m feeling discouraged in my communion with God and find fresh words for my weary soul. He has packed mountains of help and wisdom into this volume – read it carefully and prayerfully.

The Pilgrim’s Progress by: John Bunyan

You didn’t expect me to leave off the best-selling Christian book in history, did you? Bunyan’s allegory of the life of Christian is a memorable classic that Christians should be familiar with (especially if they want to understand a lot of reformed preacher’s illustrations!). There’s nothing quite like The Pilgrim’s Progress in terms of biblical fidelity, entertainment value, and thought-producing insight into the heart of a Christian. No Christian should reach the Celestial City without having a good knowledge of The Pilgrim’s Progress!

Undiscerned Spiritual Pride by: Jonathan Edwards

At the beginning of each year I re-read Edwards on Spiritual Pride. It’s a short read, but it packs a powerful punch. It’s a particularly helpful work for young people and those in the ministry. Most people don’t assume they’re prideful, and particularly when it comes to our spiritual lives. However, argues Edwards, that’s what it’s undiscerned and why we need to be made aware of it time and time again. Spiritual pride lurks in the shadows – are you willing to root it out?

What about you? What are your top 5 reads for every Christian?

(By: Nick Kennicott)