The Good and Beautiful Life | James Bryan Smith

The cover of Smith's Good and Beautiful LifeIn the first book of his Apprentice series, The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith reveals and challenges us to work through the false narratives that misconstrue our vision of God. Once these false narratives of God have been swept away, we can examine the false narratives that we hold about ourselves. This is where The Good and Beautiful life picks up.

Using the Sermon on the Mount as a framework, James Bryan Smith looks at the various underlying factors in our predilection to sin.

Take anger, for an example. Smith describes anger as the natural result of two factors: fear and unmet expectations. These two factors are reinforced by the false narratives we hold about ourselves such as “I am alone,” and “I must be in control all of the time” (73). If we want to get rid of our anger issues, we need to start by replacing the false narratives that feed our anger. Band-aids will not do when we need surgery.

Following each chapter, Smith suggests a “Soul Training” exercise to help with the topic at hand. For anger, he recommends observing the Sabbath. It seems unrelated at first, but if you follow his argument, nothing forces us to let go of our need to control the world like Sabbath practice.

This book is a simple yet wise. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, wholly lacking in the self-help drivel that passes for spiritual reading and formation today.

—James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009).

Three Day Road | Joseph Boyden

The cover of Boyden's Three Day RoadThree Day Road lands on the emotional landscape of the reader like the First World War munitions that comprise the setting of the novel. Elijah and Xavier, great First Nation hunters, join the Canadian forces and become skilled snipers on the Great War’s killing fields. This narrative is paralleled by the stories Auntie’s childhood as she paddles only one of the soldiers home.

The story is complex and beautiful—compelling and terrifying. It repays the attentive reader. By the time I was two thirds of the way through the book, during one of Auntie’s stories, I realized how the lives of Elijah and Xavier would end. This only added to the tension of the novel since I desperately hoped to be wrong.

I’ve read Boyden’s work backwards. I started with Orenda, his latest work, then went back to Born With a Tooth and this, his first novel. While Orenda is a more brutal novel, I found that Three Day Road packed a greater emotional punch.

Elijah and Xavier will live in your thoughts for weeks after their story is safely back on the bookshelf.

—Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road (Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2005).

Judges for You | Timothy Keller

The cover of Keller's Judges for YouJudges is a devastating book. It begins with disobedience and ends with utter chaos. Whether you read it as a court-polemic against life without kingly leadership or as merely a collection of stories about flawed heroes, you can’t escape the central thesis: Life, without God, becomes hell.

Timothy Keller does a good job at connecting the overall narrative of Judges. Rather that viewing the biographies of Israel’s heroes (anti-heroes?) in isolation, he demonstrates the progression of life when lived without God. Each judge is more morally corrupt and less effective than the former. The final two stories have no redeeming qualities. They are included to demonstrate the final effects of the repeated refrain which stands as the last sentence in the book:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)

I was raised in the church—a child of the Sunday School era. As a child, Gideon and Samson were presented as heroes. Just look what God can do when you give your life to him! The true story (as with most childhood memories) is darker and far more complex. Keller will help you through the darkness of Judges with his unwavering Christological focus.

—Timothy Keller, Judges for You (Surrey, UK: The Good Book Company, 2013).

No Man is an Island | Thomas Merton

1d933773f73598c596b77326977444341587343No Man is an Island is a reflection on the spiritual life. I’m aware that by using the word “spiritual,” some assume “otherworldly.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Merton has the entire person in mind—the person in relationship to God. He is concerned with our “integration in the mystery of Christ” (xxii).

The range of topics Merton covers is broad. He deals with everything from Love to Conscience, Solitude to Vocation, Intention to Charity. You can tell by reading these chapters that he has lived out his thoughts and ideas. He drills deep into human nature as he examines every aspect of our being in the light of God.

This book makes for great spiritual reading. I found that the best way to read it was to take it in small portions. To rush would be to miss his wisdom. I found his insight beneficial especially when I saw the tendencies he described in my own life. It takes time to make these discoveries.

My only frustration with Merton is the influence of Eastern Philosophy on his work. A good example of this is his words on Asceticism:

In order to spiritualize our lives and make them pleasing to God, we must become quiet. The peace of a soul that is detached from all things and from itself is the sign that our sacrifice is truly acceptable to God. (108)

In a few places like these, he makes the spiritual life sound like something Jesus certainly didn’t experience. Jesus, who cried at Lazarus’ tomb, who braided a whip to drive out money changers from the temple, and who begged God to relieve him of his burden, was anything but dispassionate!

That said, this volume is abundant in material to enrich the spiritual life of any thoughtful Christ follower.

—Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1955, 1983).