On My Shelf: Life and Books with Joshua Chatraw – Ivan Mesa, Joshua Chatraw

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Joshua Chatraw—the Beeson Divinity School Billy Graham chair for evangelism and cultural engagement and author or coauthor of various books including The Augustine Way and Surprised by Doubt—about what’s on his bedside table, favorite fiction, favorite biographies, and much more.

What’s on your nightstand right now?

I’m taking this question quite literally. Here is what I see on my nightstand.

Coming to Faith Through Dawkins edited by Denis Alexander and Alister McGrath. Alister suggested I have a look at this book because we have a common interest in narrative apologetics. He mentioned this book isn’t exactly narrative apologetics, but it includes a series of essays by people whose journey to faith was marked by taking Richard Dawkins seriously enough to reflect more deeply on the question of God.

Journeys of the Mind by Peter Brown is the autobiography of the world-renowned scholar of late antiquity and Augustine. I’ve learned so much from Brown and to get to learn more about his own life has been a treat and an inspiration.

My friend and colleague Jonathan Linebaugh put me onto A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as a Radical Enlightener by Oswald Bayer. The book is an introduction to the life and thought of one of the most fascinating thinkers of 18th-century Germany. A contemporary and friend of Immanuel Kant, even introducing Kant to the work of both Hume and Rousseau, Hamann offered an early critique of Kant and Enlightenment rationality.

I also see two books on my nightstand that are related to a topic I have become interested in for the last several years. The books are Pauline Theology as a Way of Life by Joshua Jipp and Christianity as a Way of Life by Kevin Hector. Both are in some sense downstream from Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life. The idea is that as ancient philosophy was not simply a bunch of ideas or mainly an abstract epistemological project but rather an orientation marked by a set of spiritual practices, Christianity is more than simply ideas or doctrines one mentally assents to. Christianity is a way to inhabit the world that can be compared to other ways of life—ancient and modern. Jonathan Pennington’s work in both The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing and Jesus the Great Philosopher also masterfully illuminates Jesus’s teachings in this way.

Buried beneath the pile is Resurrection and Moral Order by Oliver O’Donovan. I read O’Donovan’s classic work several years back, but recently I found myself revisiting it in light of recent conversations about natural law and special revelation. It seems to me that O’Donovan offers us a great deal of wisdom in this discussion, refusing to choose between either “an ethic that is revealed and has no ontological grounding” or “an ethic that is based on creation and so is naturally known.” Instead, he charts a course for how the gospel of the resurrection offers, dare I say it, a third way.

Every Moment Holy, Volume III by Douglas Kaine McKelvey is filled with ancient and modern prayers. I’ve come back to this series again and again for use in my personal and family devotional life.

What are your favorite fiction books?

The Great Divorce and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. In The Great Divorce, Lewis puts forward a creative supposal of heaven and hell. Lewis warns readers from thinking his fictional account is actually how it is. Instead, he is out to prime our imaginations about eternal reality. My favorite part is when the Scottish minister and poet George MacDonald makes an appearance. Listen to the Audible version and get MacDonald’s Scottish accent included.

That Hideous Strength picks up the key theme found in the lectures turned book The Abolition of Man but in a different genre—namely, as the third volume in Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. Along the way, he critiques British academic culture in the middle of the 20th century, a critique that has some lasting relevance.

I read The Wingfeather Saga (four volumes) by Andrew Peterson to my kids a few years back. They really liked them, but I think I liked them even more. If you like Lewis, think Narnia for the 21st century. I’ve recommended this to kids, parents, seminary students, and pastors—and they all pretty much love this series.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

My favorite is Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown. Written by a world-class scholar, this is my favorite biography, about my favorite theologian. It is one of the few biographies by an academic that I want to start again once I finish the last page. Read the two additional chapters in the latest edition and don’t miss the intellectual virtue of a scholar who is willing to revise his earlier conclusions based on new evidence.

I also loved The Narnian by Alan Jacobs. I am interested in whatever Jacobs writes, but especially when he writes about Lewis. This book masterfully captures what Lewis was up to as a scholar and writer.

What are some books you regularly reread and why?

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is a book I’ve read three times now. I teach a pastoral theology course at Beeson Divinity School and read this book with my students. Robinson helps us inhabit the life and mind of a pastor whose imagination has been captured by the wonder of creation and the words of Scripture.

And, of course, if you know me you won’t be surprised to hear that I regularly come back to Augustine’s Confessions and City of God. I hope to always remain a student of Augustine. The depth of his thought and the strangeness of his world keep me on my toes. His theology and moral psychology continue to shape the way I preach and teach.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series came at the right time for me. In Desiring the Kingdom, Jamie helped wake me from my cultural slumber.

Tim Keller’s Center Church was like no other church leadership book I had ever read—integrating theology, history, apologetics, and practical wisdom.

Charles Taylor’s work (see A Secular Age and The Ethics of Authenticity) has helped me better understand the cultural air we are all breathing today and directed me toward the challenges and opportunities that I’ve been attempting to address in my work.

What’s one book you wish every pastor would read?

I wish every pastor had to read Pensées by Blaise Pascal. Pascal, the 17th-century polymath who foresaw the implications of the shifts in the early modern social imaginary with prophetic depth and clarity, offers pastors profound observations concerning human nature. The work itself was never finished and organized, so if you have trouble getting into it, try Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined, and Explained. Kreeft takes the most relevant sections of Pensées and provides commentary.

What’s your best piece of writing advice?

Don’t spend time worrying about building a platform. Instead, work on having something to say and learning how to say it. This means: Read (widely). Write. Edit. Edit. Edit. Rinse and repeat.

Excellent writing is normally the result of many rounds of edits. For me, this has meant asking for feedback from a variety of different people during the writing process and then being open to their critiques. It’s hard and sometimes painful work, but it’s worth it. Be humble. Be quick to admit when you are wrong or could improve. Be grateful for feedback.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I have a greater awareness that life is more wonderful and mysterious than I have the capacity to take in. As my kids get older and I have entered a new season as a professor teaching future ministers, I am learning to slow down to attend to and care for the little corner of creation God has called me to cultivate.

This means I spend a lot less time online and less time thinking about whatever the trending Christian controversy of the moment happens to be. I spend a lot more time with my family, colleagues, and students as well as more time trying to make beautiful things and reflecting on God’s grace.

I want to walk closer with Jesus for the second half of my life, to trust in God more deeply, to be a faithful witness to Christ in an age when belief feels harder for many, and to mentor those who are called to be ministers of the gospel. I can’t do those final two things well unless I prioritize the first two.

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