On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.
I asked Matthew Barrett—professor of theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, founder and editor of Credo, and author of many books including Simply Trinity and The Reformation as Renewal—about what’s on his bedside table, favorite fiction, favorite Reformation books, and much more.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
The book of Jeremiah is on my nightstand because I’m absorbed in chapter 10. Jeremiah believes we see our idolatry for what it is when we’re wonderstruck by an overpowering portrait of God as Creator. If Charles Taylor is right when he says we live in A Secular Age, then we no longer live in Berea but in Athens. Until we can demonstrate our Creator isn’t served by human hands—the aseity of God—the world will not see its need to raise its hands to receive the gospel. The Bible often prescribes natural theology to resurrect true worship of the living God.
I’ve lost myself in three epic poems all at once: Homer’s The Iliad, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. For what reason? All four of our children are receiving a classical education, which teaches them to love learning for its own sake. By means of classical texts—from Plato to Boethius—their young minds enter the great conversation, an adventure in pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Education, said G. K. Chesterton, is “not a subject” but “a way of life.” Paideia is the principal concentration because education is about the good life, a way of excellence by means of discipline in virtue rather than vice.
The current state of education is as perplexing as it is tragic. In K–12, students can receive a classical education, but only a select number of Protestant colleges continue such an education. You’d think classical education would define seminary since the orthodoxy of the church fathers sits at Christianity’s core. But by seminary, classical education is annihilated altogether.
I know of only one seminary where students who received a classical education in the past can continue that education in seminary. Students at prior institutions once read Athanasius, Augustine, and Boethius in humanities, only to enter seminary and read textbooks that undermine the classical theology of those same authors. Or worse yet, they graduate seminary without reading them at all.
To remedy this common malady, I’m reading an engrossing book, Lost in Thought by Zena Hitz. She may have in mind the great books program at St. John’s College, but she’s unwittingly helping me reimagine a new day for seminary education, one that currently doesn’t exist within Protestantism.
The Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas is on my shelf as well because I’m writing a systematic theology, and I can think of few in the history of Christianity who have plumbed the depths of theology to the same degree as Aquinas. Right now, I’m revisiting Christology, and Aquinas raises questions as fascinating as they are profound, questions that evangelicals don’t have on their radars. I can’t help but wonder if the drift away from the orthodoxy of the creeds in the last two centuries could have been avoided if we read someone as orthodox as Aquinas.
Plus, Aquinas reminds me of David in Psalm 27, desiring one thing above all: to contemplate the beauty of the Lord. More and more, I see why one of my other theological companions, John Owen, was so indebted to Aquinas. Both men make me love Jesus more.
What are your favorite fiction books?
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Here’s a plot summary: It’s 1922 and the Bolsheviks have risen to power. Meet Count Alexander Rostov, a true aristocrat if there ever was one. He’s written a poem that betrays his defiance. His sentence? House arrest. But out of all places, he’s imprisoned across from the Kremlin in the epic Metropol Hotel. If he steps foot outside, he’ll be shot on sight. Yet house arrest affords him a surprising friendship with a little girl. Can Rostov save his country by passing on the values of the past to a future generation that may just depend on a little girl?
In one of my favorite scenes, the Count discovers that the restaurant in the Metropol has been ordered to strip every wine bottle of its label. And just like that, the Count must face the cold fact that the old world has been effaced: “The Bolsheviks, who were so intent upon recasting the future from a mold of their own making, would not rest until every last vestige of his Russia had been uprooted, shattered, or erased.”
Amor Towles, in my estimation, is one of today’s most talented writers, one of those few who can be as profound as he is witty. But most of all, the novel teaches us that the traditions that define our past will only be preserved if we have the courage to stand up for its ideas in the present. In the words of the Count, “What matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”
As one who’s torn between the comforts of home and adventures abroad, I must list The Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame as well. I also have a deep affection for The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, who possesses that legendary ability to capture the resilience of determination through a single lens.
What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?
On Writing by Stephen King. Don’t let the title fool you. The book is a memoir. Tracing his rise to fame through his fall into drug addiction, the master storyteller has published the best book on the craft of writing, by means of his own story of triumph through tragedy. King taught me the order in which I write. During one of his darkest moments, King learned, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
What are your go-to books on the Reformation (e.g., whole histories, narrow examinations, and biographies)?
Nothing can replace reading the reformers themselves. But since you asked, Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform is dated yet still exemplifies how to enter the 16th century through the door of medieval history. I also recommend the master himself, Heiko Oberman. His Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is to this day one of the liveliest biographies. Yet his The Harvest of Medieval Theology is far more essential, unveiling Luther’s debt to and revolt against the nominalist soteriology of the via moderna, especially Ockham and Biel, putting the year 1517 and Luther’s attack on scholasticism in proper context.
John Farthing’s Thomas Aquinas and Gabriel Biel is priceless because he demonstrates the many ways a late medieval like Biel misrepresented Aquinas to Luther. In that vein, read Luther in Context by David Steinmetz, who says, “The story of Thomas Aquinas and Protestantism has yet to be written, and it is not identical with the story of Thomas and Luther.” To see Steinmetz’s point, I recommend Carl Trueman and R. Scott Clark’s Protestant Scholasticism. Steinmetz’s chapter called “The Scholastic Calvin” shatters caricatures—which reminds me, we all stand on the shoulders of Richard Muller’s The Unaccommodated Calvin as well.
Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors will not just tell but show what the renewal of reformed catholicity looked like in pulpit and pew alike. As for the Swiss, you can’t do better than Bruce Gordon. Besides his biography of Calvin, read The Swiss Reformation and his illuminating new biography Zwingli. If you’re looking for a sweeping history, study The Division of Christendom by Hans Hillerbrand.
My new book, The Reformation as Renewal, joins the chorus by exhibiting the Protestant principle so pregnant with catholic substance (to borrow from Jaroslav Pelikan). Protestants have been told they’re trespassers, but in truth, the reformers believed they had every right to retrieve the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
What’s your best piece of writing advice?
Turn off social media. Writing is like falling in love. If you’ve ever met someone in love, he has this annoying, almost supernatural ability to fixate on nothing else. No one has to say, “Geoffrey, you need to eliminate other distractions in your life if you really love Isabel.” Likewise with writing. Writing is a cruel, beautiful lover. She can be as painful and blissful as love itself, but one thing is required: the death of distraction.
For me, however, that doesn’t always mean silence—some interruptions can be more like intermissions than distractions. For example, I love to write with my family nearby. Some intrusions are divine, like my 6-year-old, Lorelei, stumbling in for a kiss or my 12-year-old, Georgia, bringing Dad a strawberry smoothie. Whatever your balm, find your place of flow. And once you do, make sure it becomes habitual—a dripping literary faucet conquers a literary flash flood in the end.
Last, don’t be a baby. Writing is hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea,” says Stephen King. Each day before I write, I pray, “Lord, help me.” And then I open a vein and bleed.
And like a host at a good party, I worry about cleaning up the mess later.
What’s one book you wish every pastor would read?
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. I’ve yet to meet a pastor with church members who don’t want to be happy. Yet too often churchgoers struggle to understand what God has to do with that longing. So they use God, as if he’s but a means to some other end.
Boethius finds the tonic to pragmatic Christianity in divine simplicity, the orthodox belief that God is without parts. His essence is his attributes and his attributes his essence, so his attributes are identical with one another—the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
If you think simplicity is irrelevant to happiness, you’re mistaken. For if God is simple, he doesn’t have to go find happiness outside himself as we do. Rather, he is happiness itself. And if this is so, then he’s the everlasting fountain of our bliss and blessedness. Everyone else, however, must participate in God to be happy.
Is this not what Jesus the philosopher once told the Samaritan woman at the well? He doesn’t point her to living water somewhere else but extends to her living water by offering nothing less than himself. He is the living water for which she thirsts.
People have been told the world we live in is disenchanted. To reference another book on my shelf, Heavenly Participation by Hans Boersma, modernism is the low-level hum of our daily lives because we’ve cut the cord of participation. With an about-face to God’s simplicity, Boethius opens our eyes to the enchanted world of the Bible, a world where we’re meant to participate in the likeness of our Creator—a participation that has already begun and one day will reach its culmination when we see God in the beatific vision.
Pastor, if your people secretly loathe the idea of heaven, it’s probably because they can’t stand the thought of having nothing but . . . God. It’s time to infuse their souls with an overwhelming vision of God’s grandeur. If you don’t, they’ll look for beauty elsewhere—from empty cisterns.
After reading Boethius, sit down with C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image. Lewis treasured The Consolation of Philosophy, calling it “one of the most influential books ever written in Latin.” Lewis was the Boethius of his day because he was a medieval mind in a modern world, laboring to bring the magic back to Narnia.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
I am enamored by Jesus’s unrelenting devotion to the contemplative life. I fear too many associate Christianity, and especially Protestantism, with anti-intellectualism. But the late Tim Keller exemplified what the intellectual life can offer to an onlooking world. I hope, in a small way, I can do the same. I want to gaze at the beauty of the Lord and summon others to join me to that beatific end.
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