Article by: 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 Greg Forster—author of several books and director of the Oikonomia Network—about what’s on his nightstand, books he re-reads, books that have shaped his understanding of faith and culture, and more.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Two collections of essays and short stories by C. S. Lewis—Of Other Worlds and The World’s Last Night. His wise reflections on the role of story in our lives are much needed in the church today, partly because he punctures some of the more pretentious, navel-gazing, abstract theories about “narrative”! It’s also fascinating to read his argument in favor of eschatology, addressed to a midcentury church that found the whole subject déclassé and embarrassing, from our perspective today when the church has explosively rediscovered the importance of this topic.
What books have most profoundly shaped your understanding of faith and culture?
I actually came to this question before I was a believer. I was interested in the political problem of faith and culture—how do we hold a society together, which requires a shared morality, when we don’t share a religion? John Locke’s works helped me grasp how political and civil structures depend on morality, which depends ultimately on religion, so we have to find middle ground between secular neutralism and enforced orthodoxy. As I’ve written on TGC before, it was while I was studying this problem that I read Locke’s defense of Christianity, which was essential to my conversion. And I still think his Letter Concerning Toleration is one of the most magnificent pieces of Christian philosophy ever written. It takes my breath away whenever I go back to it.
As a necessary corrective, though, Tocqueville (Democracy in America) appreciates Locke’s solution to the problem, but also sees the inherent weaknesses in it. I really appreciate the combination of Tocqueville’s commitment to justice and hard-headed realism. There’s no sentimentality in Tocqueville, but there’s a deep appreciation of the greatness of the old aristocratic cultures. He sees just as clearly that justice requires destroying those cultures, and he’s willing to do it because it’s the right thing. Still, he sees that the democratic future is going to be vulgar and irreligious and will struggle to maintain its commitment to justice, freedom, and equality. We’re still working on the challenges he laid out for us.
An important next step for me was G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, which helped me reframe this problem from a more theological perspective. Locke and Tocqueville are primarily interested in solving a political problem, in which the role of faith is a critical factor. That’s definitely valid; we do have this huge political problem in the present, and we need to cope with it somehow. But Chesterton helped me look at the whole thing the other way around—helped me see that the unfolding influence of the kingdom of God in history, the long-term consequences of Christ having come, and the telos of history in his future return, was the essential context for our present problem. I read Orthodoxy much later, but chapter five of that book helped me start framing the possibility of a solution to the Tocquevillian dilemma.
I also appreciate Augustine (City of God, esp. Book XIX) and Kuyper (try Our Program) for helping me understand why people are attracted to other solutions to the basic problem of faith and culture. In the end, I think Augustine underestimates the spiritual value of public justice, not only for God’s purposes in the world but even for the faithfulness of the church, while Kuyper overestimates the extent to which cultures and their public justice can ever have authentic, organic spiritual integrity. If I may put it this way, I want to love public justice much more than Augustine does, without being in love with it in the way Kuyper is. But when you actually sit down with the masterpieces written by Augustine or Kuyper, as opposed to reading contemporary books by people they’ve influenced, they make you realize why people go in for these approaches.
I should also acknowledge the importance of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, which is out of fashion these days, but unfairly so; and also the first half of Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy. They really force you to confront the full depth of the problem. We must distinguish faith from culture, but we can never really separate faith from culture. (As the TGC theological statement puts it, there is no expression of the gospel or the Christian faith that isn’t culturally contextualized.) More recently, Berger’s The Many Altars of Modernity and James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World were invaluable in helping me see how the dynamic is unfolding in the present moment.
What’s one book you wish every evangelical pastor and church leader read and why?
Wow, that’s tough! I guess I’d have to go with Berger’s Many Altars of Modernity. It lays out the deep sources of the current faith and culture problem in a way that’s accessible to the uninitiated, but widely learned. It recognizes the plusses and minuses of all potential approaches in a way that others usually don’t. Berger is a theologically progressive mainliner and that does influence his analysis, but evangelical pastors are grownups, and I trust them to adjust accordingly.
What’s the last great book you read?
Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. That’s an unbelievable book; I can’t believe I reached 43 without reading it. Here’s a man who was a paid agent of a murderous totalitarian regime, turned to Jesus and walked away from it all, and then told the truth about what he had done. Then the whole power of American civilization, I mean everyone from the president to Supreme Court justices to the chair of the Harvard psychology department to the head Washington reporter of The New York Times, turned on him and did everything in their power to destroy him.
They wanted to destroy him because he told a truth they couldn’t bear to hear; it exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of secular, progressive Western culture. Chambers could’ve saved himself at any time just by telling one small lie, but he wouldn’t do it. He owed it to God, and to the people he’d helped murder, to tell the truth about what he had done no matter what it cost him. They just tore him in pieces. So he went home and wrote a book about how civilization now faces this basic choice: Man or God? Because if the answer is Man, murderous totalitarianism is in fact the correct response to the overall human situation. I’m old enough to remember the cultural context of the Cold War, but I hope this book would speak to people who don’t have that. I’m teaching my daughter to be like Whittaker Chambers.
What are some books you regularly re-read and why?
A formative book for me before my conversion was Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. That’s how the whole crisis of modernity looks to the secular philosophical mind, or at least to the best ones. I keep revisiting this book because Bloom’s diagnosis of the basic problem is so penetrating, yet he has this one huge blind spot when it comes to Christianity, and I keep hoping that’s the reason he doesn’t see a solution to the crisis. I’m hoping to see how Christ is the answer to the problem he lays out. I have that on audiobook, plus about six books of C. S. Lewis, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Everlasting Man, the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., and a few fiction books (Austen and Homer), and I just listen through all of those over and over on my commutes.
What been the role of reading and books in your Christian growth and discipleship?
It’s essential. There’s something magical about books. They allow you to enter into someone else’s whole view of the world in a uniquely formative way. I actually think this is related to the fact that God reveals himself to us through a book. God designed us to be highly responsive to books; it’s our nature. He knew what he was doing.
What are you learning about life and following Jesus?
That the challenges get harder, not easier, as you grow in Christ—but you grow more, and you grow in ways that you couldn’t have grown, or even understood, at the earlier stages. I have an unfair advantage because I was an unbeliever all the way into adulthood, so when the going gets rough, all I have to do is think back to what life without Christ was like. There are passages about that in Augustine’s Confessions that I honestly wonder whether anyone but an adult convert can really fathom.
That’s what kept Chambers going, too, and, in their way, Lewis and Chesterton. Once you truly grasp what your conversion consists of, I mean grasp it experientially and not just in theory, there can really be no question of going back. It would be like asking Nelson Mandela if he were ever tempted to hand South Africa back to the apartheid regime and go back to jail—and get cancer. So the challenges get harder, but in one way, it doesn’t feel like it, because the alternative isn’t serious.
Also in the On My Shelf series: Jen Pollock Michel • Sam Storms • Barton Swaim • John Stonestreet • George Marsden • Andrew Wilson • Sally Lloyd-Jones • Darryl Williamson • D. A. Horton • Carl Ellis • Owen Strachan • Thomas Kidd • David Murray • Jarvis Williams • Gracy Olmstead • Matthew Hall • Drew Dyck • Louis Markos • Ray Ortlund • Brett McCracken • Mez McConnell • Erik Raymond • Sandra McCracken • Tim Challies • Sammy Rhodes • Karen Ellis • Alastair Roberts • Scott Sauls • Karen Swallow Prior • Jackie Hill Perry • Bruce Ashford • Jonathan Leeman • Megan Hill • Marvin Olasky • David Wells • John Frame • Rod Dreher • James K. A. Smith • Randy Alcorn • Tom Schreiner • Trillia Newbell • Jen Wilkin • Joe Carter • Timothy George • Tim Keller • Bryan Chapell • Lauren Chandler • Mike Cosper • Russell Moore • Jared Wilson • Kathy Keller • J. D. Greear • Kevin DeYoung • Kathleen Nielson • Thabiti Anyabwile • Elyse Fitzpatrick • Collin Hansen • Fred Sanders • Rosaria Butterfield • Nancy Guthrie • Matt Chandler
Ivan Mesa is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. He and his wife, Sarah, live in Louisville, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter.