On My Shelf: Life and Books with Christopher Ash – Ivan Mesa

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

I asked Christopher Ash—writer-in-residence at Tyndale House, author of Married for God, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross, and many others—about what’s on his bedside table, favorite fiction, favorite re-reads, and much more. 

What’s on your coffee table and bedside tables right now?

I’m listening to a superb audiobook of Andrew Roberts’s recent biography of Winston Churchill. I enjoyed Roy Jenkins’s earlier biography but Roberts does outstandingly well what a biographer should do, which is to help me get under the skin and really understand this extraordinary and paradoxical man, whose role in May 1940 was critical in saving my country from Hitler’s Third Reich. (I’m a little biased, since Churchill autographed a book for me when I was young. I was born on his birthday and a great uncle, then a member of Parliament, asked the Prime Minister to sign it for me. A rather special family heirloom.)

My friend Rico Tice has just given me Andrew Bradstock’s authorized biography of the evangelical England cricketer and later Bishop, David Sheppard, Batting for the Poor. A quarter of a century before me, Sheppard attended the same English public school (Sherborne) and then the same college at Cambridge (Trinity Hall). Whereas I came to Christ as a schoolboy, Sheppard was converted at Cambridge. I don’t think I shall agree with all of Sheppard’s later views, but it’s moving to see the radical difference between the dead formalism of English public-school Anglicanism (which I too remember) and the life-changing reality of a living faith in Christ.

Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds is a trenchant and devastating critique (by an openly gay and non-Christian journalist) of the many nonsenses of identity politics.

From a Christian stable, two apologetics books I’ve read recently are Rebecca McLaughlin’s Confronting Christianity and Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body. I’ve been recommending these and giving them to Christian and non-Christian alike. Superb.

The extracts from Sinclair Ferguson’s writings compiled by Banner of Truth in Some Pastors and Teachers is rich and thoughtful devotional fare for a pastor.

I read recently and plan to re-read Hugh Martin’s The Shadow of Calvaryamong the best of 19th-century Reformed devotion.

Iain Murray’s biography of J. C. Ryle (Sheppard’s first predecessor as Bishop of Liverpool) is a bracing read, entitled Prepared to Stand Alone

Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition is a stimulating read. I’m mulling over how to keep the biblical balance when assessing what place we give to so-called premodern exegesis. On one extreme, some of the so-called TIS (Theological Interpretation of Scripture) movement goes overboard and jettisons sober exegesis; on the other, some virtually ignore the first three-quarters of Christian history. Carter’s book is stimulating and thought-provoking.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I thoroughly enjoy the novels of Charles Dickens, partly because of the wonderful variety (and often eccentricity) of his characters and partly because of his powers of description (especially of my native London). My favorite is probably Little Dorrit, although I’m presently reading Our Mutual Friend to Carolyn at bedtime.

The Richard Hannay stories of John Buchan are a terrific read, from another older generation, and written by a Christian author. Although The Thirty-Nine Steps is the most famous (not least through several movies), the others are good too.

I never tire of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I read through it twice to our children in their childhoods and once to Carolyn at bedtime more recently. So rich, so imaginative, so deeply Christian (in polar contrast to Philip Pullman’s anti-Christian trilogy).

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

As a young Christian I was stirred, like so many in past generations, by the wholehearted devotion of James Hudson Taylor (in Dr. and Mrs/ Howard Taylor’s older biography), of Isobel Kuhn in her autobiographical By Searching, and by Fraser of Lisuland. More recently I was challenged and inspired by Andrew Bonar’s short biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne.

From an earlier age, Peter Brown’s classic biography of Augustine of Hippo taught me a great deal about the age in which Augustine lived, about his own conflicted personality, about the controversies which he got spectacularly right and about others as well.

Perhaps I might also be permitted to mention what is, I think, the most thought-provoking book by my own brother, Timothy Garton Ash. My brother isn’t a Christian, but his autobiographical book The File tells the story of the file that the East German secret police (the Stasi) held on him during the cold war, his later interviews with those who had informed against him, and his reflections about that strangely and terribly toxic society. It’s an engrossing read.

What are some books you regularly refer back to and why?

Oliver O’Donovan’s meaty theological book, Resurrection and Moral Order, shaped much of my thinking about the relationship between creation and redemption, and a deeply biblical understanding of biblical law and Christian ethics. I had to read it all twice and much of it three times before I understood it. But I felt it was worth it.

My main study and writing project is to grapple with what constitutes an authentically Christian appropriation of the Psalms. (I delivered the Gheens Lectures on this subject last fall at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.) In the course of my studies, I returned again and again to the Psalms commentaries and homilies of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. None of them is always right (and sometimes Augustine in particular is wildly wrong), but they never fail to give me food for richly Christian reflection.

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

When I was an inexperienced assistant pastor, my senior pastor (the late Mark Ashton) gave me Kent and Barbara Hughes’s Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. I guess he reckoned I needed it, and he was right. It has been a tremendous help to me.

In a similar vein, as a natural people-pleaser, Ed Welch’s When People are Big and God is Small has also been helpful.

John Stott’s older book I Believe in Preaching was a considerable help early in my preaching ministry. It comes from what I think were Stott’s greatest days, earlier in his ministry, when he inspired and helped so many of us in the UK and across the world to see the importance and majesty of truly expository preaching.

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

This is really hard. I’m going to cheat and recommend three—one of which is a double! 

J. C. Ryle’s Holiness has enduring value in my view. Ryle is clear, challenging, and goes right to the heart of gospel holiness. We live in an age when every pastoral disaster is magnified by the internet and retweeted around the globe. We can’t but be aware of the tragedies of pastors falling into scandalous moral failure, and it makes us tremble when we examine our hearts. Ryle is bracing tonic for the complacent and gospel medicine for the troubled and fearful pastor.

I wish every pastor would read, and re-read, Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students. These are deservedly popular, full of pastoral wisdom, and laced with wonderful humor.

I wish pastors would persevere with the sometimes-impenetrable John Owen. The two excellent volumes, published by Crossway and edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor—Communion with the Triune God and Overcoming Sin and Temptation—are gold. Owen’s heavily latinate English isn’t easy to read, but these volumes give us a way in to these treasures of biblical reasoning and exposition.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

Perhaps in answer to this question I may be permitted to use an extract from our letter to prayer supporters sent out at the start of February (before the pandemic!):

“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).

Carolyn and I have recently been prompted to ponder how to respond to shocks or setbacks. I (Christopher) was operated on at very short notice on January 24 for a bad tear in the retina of my left eye, to prevent the retina detaching. Time will tell how successful this has been, though the sight of the eye has been preserved. Many of you will have had, or will in future have, similar little crises, or indeed far worse. The details of this are not so important. 

But how ought we to respond before God? So far Carolyn and I have had three thoughts as we have talked it over. 

The first is thankfulness. God is infinitely, unchangeably, and unfailingly kind to us in Jesus. But I’m grateful for particular signs of his kindness in these events—for the love of my wife, the skill (I hope: time will tell!) of the surgeon, the promptness of the operation, the kindness of a nurse during the procedure, the love and kindness of family and of friends at Tyndale House and our church (St. Andrew the Great), and for my sight being saved.

But then the surgeon told me not to read for a week! Seven days. One hundred and sixty-eight hours. You should try it for one day! It changes life rather dramatically and I can’t say I have found it easy (ask Carolyn). So then the second thought is that this is the enemy’s spiritual attack to stop me doing the work of study and writing, to oppose the work of the gospel. Well, that may be so. We’re in a spiritual battle. We do have an enemy. But my problem is that this idea casts me as the warrior-hero fighting God’s battles. And I’m not so confident of that.

So the third, and the response borne in upon me this week, is that I have a Heavenly Father who, because he loves me and is determined to make me like Jesus (“the peaceful fruit of righteousness”), disciplines me. It hurts, but it’s necessary. It’s more important that I learn, for example, to be patient and content, than that I achieve anything. And so I come out of this strange non-reading week resolved to submit to my Father’s loving discipline, both now and in whatever lies ahead. Perhaps this will encourage you to do the same as he disciplines you.

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