Re-reading Josh Harris now

Well, that happened quicker than expected – and yet it was still devastating news. Joshua Harris has clearly announced that he is no longer a Christian. I have now been reliably informed that this was unsurprising to some – the theological trajectory was there for a while as Josh slowly started to leave behind various parts of the Christian faith in the process of his ‘deconstruction’, even before he left as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church.

He also confirmed that he is getting divorced.

Last night I attended a ministry gathering and heard from Thabiti Anyabwile. Among his many excellent encouragements was also an insightful comment that when we see someone like Josh – an author, a conference speaker, a pastor, a council member of The Gospel Coalition – we never assume that one day they could walk away from it all. Perhaps there’s also an assumption there that we too would never walk away.

And yet here we are, devastated and – for some of us – wondering if someone like Josh couldn’t do it what hope do we have?

In response I think it’s important that we recognise that Josh’s most recent post contains a much sadder note than his falling away. It’s these lines right at the end:

“To my Christian friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful…”

Steven McAlpine has a penetratingly insightful post about this – basically: Josh’s post is not about him falling away, but about being saved. Saved from his Christian faith and saved to an affirming world.

This is not a mere slip or a mistake, or even a season of finding himself and hopefully finding his way back to Jesus. His post is the end of a long train of thought that Josh appears to have been on for a long time.

CS Lewis understood this this process well. In The Screwtape Letters he notes that the easiest road to hell was a gentle incline, soft underfoot, with no markers or signs. Without many of us noticing Josh has travelled far – and only an act of God can bring him back.

And to that end, we must continue to pray.

In the wake of all of this, some have asked me what we should do with his books. As I sit here reflecting I have on my desk a few of Josh’s books staring at me. All of them have been of help to me to some degree or another.

So here are my reflections over the past few days on what we should do with them.

First, don’t throw them away – at least not immediately. The rawness of Josh’s announcement leaving the faith is still pretty fresh, and many of us are probably still mourning the loss of a brother (and sister). Give it some time – for as time passes we’ll be reminded that life goes on and as sad as it is that Josh has walked away from the faith God’s Kingdom marches on seeking new disciples every day.

After some time, it might be worth revisiting those books, but no longer neutrally. The previous works may now subtly reveal the trajectory he was on. Knowing his present situation, it will be difficult to avoid parsing each of his lines and thoughts in the light of the future he didn’t know at that time. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reading in this way can grow us in discerning the seeds of falling away and help us examine our own hearts. So re-read his work with keen discernment.

And also read for encouragement. One person has asked whether there is any value in reading works he no longer subscribes to. My answer is yes with discernment. Simply because Josh no longer holds to what he once taught doesn’t make what he once taught null and void. I clearly remember particular phrases and thoughts in his later works to be very clear ways of explaining things and I’ll probably continue to use and develop upon those lines. At the same time his work serves well as a warning that biblical knowledge is crucial and must also work itself out in faithful living, obedience and repentance. God in the mystery of his sovereignty and providence can and does use the words and writings of those who have morally failed, or walked away, to encourage and spur us on.

He’ll even use dodgy books for our personal growth in him.

I remember listening to a Question and Answer session with Don Carson who mentioned that when he was younger the book ‘The Normal Christian Life’ by Watchman Nee was profoundly helpful in encouraging him towards holiness. But as he matured as a Christian, and especially as he grew to understand the Bible, he realised that Nee’s exegesis of Romans was very poor. To quote, “It was… up the creek without a paddle.” Did the book help him when he was younger – most certainly. Would he recommend it now? Not a chance.

I think about this story as I personally reflect on I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was helpful for me personally in the past, but not something I was recommending as much in recent years.

The story is a little different with something like ‘Dug Down Deep’ or ‘Humble Orthodoxy’. Both were his last books, both were incredibly clear and very helpful – which makes his move away from the central ideas of these books all the more devastating.

In the light of Josh’s announcement, we need to be further discerning about who we recommend these books to. The teacher and their teaching cannot be separated. This is why the New Testament is so clear that character matters the most when it comes to elders/teachers/pastors: because how they live is supposed to be a model and reflection of what they teach. This is also why false teachers are never given a pass on the sometimes right things they say.

Now, this isn’t to say that all authors we recommend need to be perfect – for none are. There is no author or teacher who lands perfectly on every doctrine or interpretation of scripture – and I’m looking at myself as well here. If you never disagree with your favourite theologian then it reveals more about you as their fanboy/girl than it does about the truth of their teaching. We always need to read with discernment.

But some failings are more noteworthy than others. Apostasy is up there.

Wisdom helps us work out whether we should recommend Josh’s books. As we discern the content for ourselves we need to be wise about who might be able to handle, or not handle, all that the author brings to the table. It would be a disservice to some if we sever the connection between teacher and teaching – for it may stumble them to places we would never wish them to go.

So, don’t dump all his works immediately. Read them with discernment, rejoice in what is true, and be careful who we recommend them to.

Building Houses, Reading Books – some suggestions

In between the last post and this post (about two months!) some friends tagged me on a Facebook list. It asked what 15 authors have influenced you the most and it was interesting to see some of the responses. The most encouraging comment I received was that my author list reflected my vintage! So please keep that in mind as I make some suggestions in this list. It is by no means exhaustive and it is highly reflective of my Gen-Y vintage.
Paul writes to the Corinthians that when they were ‘infants in Christ’ he fed them ‘spiritual milk’. This is appropriate since infants need milk. But for a Christian of a few years – say, spiritually 5 years old and up – it’s a massive concern if they are still on milk. A child of 5 years old should be stomaching solid food. A child of 10 should be eating a wide variety of food and should be able to readily identify what is good and bad for them. And even more so for someone much older. So with this in mind I’ve separated each section into ‘for starters’ and ‘moving forward’.
First – The Framework. Books to build your understanding of God and His Word.
For starters:
The Bible – keep reading and re-reading! It is simple enough for babes to grasp, and profound enough to keep even the wisest among us in awe. Keep reading the Bible!
Tim Keller – The Prodigal God – This is a great little book to remind you that the gospel isn’t first and foremost about people but about God.
CJ Mahaney – Living the Cross Centred Life – my book of 2008 and 2009. Worth owning and re-reading yearly.
Josh Harris – Dug Down Deep – my book of 2010. Excellent, clear and simple introduction to doctrine and how great it can be.
Moving forward:
Tim Keller – Counterfeit Gods – we all have idols, those things that replace God as the centre of our lives. Identifying them and letting them go, however, is hard. This little book has some helpful pointers.
John Stott – The Cross of Christ – Immerse yourself in the cross of Christ and you’ll find yourself constantly digging deeper and deeper.
John Piper – Desiring God/The Pleasures of God/Battling Unbelief – Piper can be hard to get into. I’d suggest starting with ‘Battling Unbelief’ as it is smaller and clearer, but once you warm to Piper’s style a treasure trove awaits.
Second – The roof and the walls – those things you need to keep the weather and baddies (like false doctrine) out. Books to help you understand how the message of the Bible fits together alongside Doctrine and life.
For Starters
Robert Vaughn – God’s Big Plan – A great little book which is clear, easy to read, and helpfully showing how the Old and New Testaments fit together.
Kevin DeYoung – Just Do Something – Another great little book on the issue of guidance. This seems to be a regular issue with new Christians and this little book can be of great benefit amidst the many unhelpful things people can say about ‘seeking God’s will’.
Peter Jeffrey – Bitesize Theology – Jeffrey does us all a great service by helpfully summarising the bible’s teaching on a variety of topics like, ‘Jesus’, ‘The Holy Spirit’, ‘Justification’, ‘Sanctification’ etc…
Moving Forward
Graeme Goldsworthy – Gospel and Kingdom/According to Plan – Bigger and weighty books on how the Old and New Testaments fit together.
Mark Dever – The Message of the OT/NT – Dever summarises in his own words what each book of the Bible is about, their main themes and how (especially the Old Testament) point forward to Christ.
Gordon Fee & Douglas Stewart – How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth – one of the more helpful reference books you could own, a great book on understanding how the Bible is to be read according to context, genre and literary setting.
Commentaries – a bit of a minefield in terms of finding good and helpful commentaries. I’d suggest speaking to your pastor or someone you might know who goes to a theological college/seminary, or head here Old Testament and New Testament commentary surveys by Tremper Longman III and Don Carson (respectively) are also very helpful.
Don Carson – A Call to Spiritual Reformation – Carson is always good value. This is a great book on the topic of prayer and how the New Testament should shape the way we pray.
Mark Driscoll – Death By Love – one of the best books I’ve read lately which helpfully connects doctrine and life. The subject matters are weighty, as doctrines of the Cross are, and Driscoll helpfully applies each doctrine to pastoral situations. A tough slog, but worth every bit.
Third – interior decoration. This is where it’s up to you. Here are some suggestions in some categories…
Apologetic books can, like commentaries, tend to be a minefield. I’d suggest that apologetic books only be read after you’ve built your framework and walls/roofs a little more. You’ll often find that some apologetic arguments might run counter to your framework and understanding (ie – the ‘free will’ response to the issue of suffering running counter to the Reformed view that the will is in bondage and isn’t really ‘free’ at all). But some of the more helpful apologetic books include:
  • John Dickson – The Christ Files – evidence for why we know what we know about Jesus
  • John Blanchard – Does God Believe in Atheists? – A rather thick book which tackles a wide variety of philosophical and theological issues.
  • Ravi Zacharias – Can Man Live Without God/Jesus Among Other Gods – for those who love a good philosophical challenge. Not for the feint of heart.
  • Ray Galea – Nothing in my hand I bring. A personal journey of one man through Catholicism to a personal faith in Jesus Christ.
Otherwise I’d suggest that the best apologetics come from a solid understanding of Christ and the Cross.
Boy/Girl Relationships
Joshua Harris – I Kissed Dating Goodbye/Boy Meets Girl – two of the best books about singleness and courtship respectively.
– Some might include the books by Eric and Leslie Ludy, but I personally find them a little bit soppy.
Joshua Harris – Sex is not the problem, Lust is. Fantastic little book on the issue of sexual immorality, ways to think through it and the hope of the Gospel in the struggle.
Amelia and Greg Clarke – One Flesh. This one is definitely for engaged or married couples only.
Colin Marshal and Tony Payne – The Trellis and the Vine – a new and excellent book on thinking through how and why we serve in church.
Colin Marshal – Growth Groups – one for future leaders of churches.
Karen and Rod Morris – Leading Better Bible Studies – similar to Colin Marshal’s book but has a few other very helpful insights, particularly if you’re going to be in any teaching capacity.
SMBC – How To Speak at Special Events – one of the most helpful entry level books on preaching and how to preach.
Don Carson – Exegetical Fallacies – if you’ve read through some of the other books already listed, this one might be worth getting if you’re getting into serious preaching. Carson’s list of exegetical fallacies, how the bible is often used wrongly in sermons, is lengthy and varied. Sometimes the matters can be quite technical (ie – incorrect use of Greek grammar for emphasis) but it’s an otherwise helpful book.
Jay E Adams – Preaching with Purpose – a short book to spur you towards passionate preaching.
Missions biographies are always gold. These are worth stocking up on.
Fourth – the rubbish bin. You can generally judge these books by their covers because they usually have the author’s face plastered dominantly on the front.
– Anything by Joel Osteen deserves to be binned. He’s basically Oprah Winfrey ‘think positive’ with a Christian Badge…a very small Christian badge…
Well, there are my suggestions. What would you add to the list? Would love to hear from you, especially the non-Gen-Yers!

Building Houses, Reading Books

In my former work life I spent the bulk of my day reading building disputes. I read all kinds of disputes: dodgy repairs, owners unhappy with the work (sometimes unjustly), contract obligations unfulfilled. There were some strange ones in there: like the man who was convinced his home’s foundation was laid incorrectly and was faulty despite multiple inspections saying otherwise, who then went bankrupt and took a jackhammer to the floor before the bank repossessed it. But more often than not most matters revolved around perceived dodgy work by the builder.
Reading all these disputes helped me realise that building a house must be done in a particular order. One memorable person who came through our way was a builder whose license was suspended. He had built a new house which the Qld Building Services Authority not only deemed unfit to live in but also potentially dangerous or life threatening. The house he built had its foundation laid correctly, but he failed to build a house which was safe to live in.
Reading books to build our renewed minds (Romans 12:1-2) is like building a house. The foundation needs to be laid first, then the framework of the house needs to be erected, a roof put in place, then walls and then all the interior stuff. I personally think the books we read fall into similar categories as building a house. The foundation is Christ, but how you build from there is important. Get the order wrong and you can end up with a funny looking home or worse: a home which falls over at the whiff of a storm.
As an avid reader, but by no means having read everything, can I make a few (non-exhaustive) suggestions on how choose what books to read:
First – you need framework. A good home has not only been designed well, but the framework is erected first. Not only does this give shape to the home, but it also sets up how you build the rest of your home. Books to help build your framework are books which help you understand God and the Gospel.
Second – you need a roof and walls. The roof and walls of your home help provide shelter from the elements and keep the nasties out. Books which help you understand how to read the bible and build your confidence in God’s Word are like the roof and walls. When the hard knocks of life batter away at you your roof and walls shelter you, and when you encounter strange (or false) doctrines your roof and walls keep them out of your home.
Third – interior decoration. This is where it’s up to you. Just like there are some essentials in a home (tables, chairs, beds) books on ministry and church help you feel more at home as you serve others. Apologetic books are useful at this point in time, after you’ve built an understanding of God’s word and your framework (not all apologetic books are useful nor would you necessarily agree with some of their arguments).
Fourth – the rubbish bin. This part requires a certain degree of discernment and humility. After re-reading and growing in our knowledge of God and the Gospel we might find that some books we read earlier may no longer be helpful or useful. I found one particular book very helpful in my Christian walk early on, but I’m loathed to suggest it now.
My next blog post will suggest some books which fit all of those categories.