search this site

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Get the eNews

* indicates required
Email Format
This form does not yet contain any fields.
    twitter updates
    find ben simpson on facebook


    2015 End of Year Book Notes

    In past years, I have shared my list of books read, highlighting titles I really enjoyed. I’ve also taken the time to link those titles to If you click a title from my website and purchase that book as a result, and if this happens enough, I receive a credit to that allows me to buy more books, which I, of course, delight in doing. As Erasmus remarked, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."

    This year, I won’t list all of the titles. Instead, I want to highlight a few themes. I’ve read some challenging academic theology this year, but much more fiction. I have spent time with a number of authors focused on the pastoral task. Among my favorite authors this year were C. J. Sansom and Rowan Williams.

    The first book I finished reading this year was Thomas C. Oden’s A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir. This book was a gift from my sister and brother-in-law, given last year. Soon thereafter, I finished reading John Wesley’s Works, Vol. 5. That was the culmination of work spanning several years. This volume features Wesley’s sermons. In contrast, one of the last books I finished was John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1. I’ll move on to the second volume of the Institutes in the year to come. I also plan to read Barth’s Dogmatics.

    The above is preface, here are the themes. And I’ll include a short bonus on how I keep track of titles.

    Academic Theology

    C. S. Lewis once wrote, "I believe that many who find that 'nothing happens' when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.” I have not spent time with a pipe this year. But I have held a pencil, and a few works of challenging theology.

    Stanley Hauerwas’s The Work of Theology was my most anticipated read. I have attempted to read everything he has written. I also read The Holy Spirit, which Hauerwas co-authored with William Willimon. Both books released this year.

    I mentioned Wesley and Calvin above, and I will continue to read them both. Other notables this year were Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology: Volume 1: The Triune God, and George Eldon Ladd’s Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God. I read Ladd, in part, because of my reading of Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church early in 2015.


    Reviewing my reading list, this is where I am most surprised. I read a lot of fiction this year. The authors: Barbara Kingsolver, Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, John Irving, C. J. Sansom, Willa Cather, Alan Patton, Andrew Klavan, and Sue Monk Kidd.

    Since I read a number of titles by Michael Connelly, both from the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer series, crime fiction dominated my imagination. Connelly’s pacing, dialogue, and realism make for enjoyable reading.

    Reading novels has been shown to increase empathy (, a needed skill in pastoral ministry. Empathy is also a really good skill to have in life.

    Pastoral Theology

    Thomas C. Oden’s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry is the headliner. I consider this book indispensable for those in ministry. I bought a used copy a few years ago, and I’m glad I finally committed myself to reading it, for the rewards were many. If you are serving in ministry, or discerning a call, this book provides an excellent overview and theological foundation for the pastoral task.

    My favorite books this year that encouraged my heart: Dallas Willard’s The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God, and Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation. I enjoyed reading Rowan Williams’s books Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent and Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another. And from a practical ministry angle, I was challenged by Andrew Root’s little books, Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry and Taking Theology to Youth Ministry.

    The best book I read on youth ministry this year was by Mark DeVries, called Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn't Last and What Your Church Can Do About It. I got to hear from him at the National Youth Workers Convention in Louisville, which was an added blessing. DeVries has written a youth ministry model book I actually enjoyed reading, which is rare.

    One Other Book

    Early in 2015, the world lost David Carr, a writer best known for his work with The New York Times. Carr’s death was unexpected. Many offered their remembrances of Carr on Twitter. Which led me to watch the documentary, Page One: Inside the New York Times ( I was then led to read Carr’s book The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.

    While I can’t say everyone should read David Carr, I’m glad that I did.

    How I Keep Track of Titles

    According to my record, this year I read 78 books, along with countless articles, blog posts, and what I’ll call online fodder. I would do well to spend less time flitting between Twitter and Facebook, and more time with classic literature and works of theology, with a pencil in hand.

    I’m not the best at annotation, and while I own a book journal, I do not use it regularly. I have one notebook that I have numbered and sectioned, according to my needs. I have tabs for notes, quotes, ideas, lists, goals, and books. My book tab is last, and I work from the last page of my journal, backwards and toward the front. I number my list by fives, and record the author and the title. If I think a book is exceptionally well written and impactful, I place a star by the title.

    Here’s a picture:

    I love to read. I have a few titles, primed and ready, on my nightstand, at my desk, and in my office.

    I can’t wait to see what next year shall bring.


    Rowan Williams, Handel's Messiah, Box Canyon

    Here are a few things I have enjoyed this week. First up, Rowan Williams. This presentation was given earlier this month at St. Paul's Cathedral, London. The video is an hour and a half, which includes an introduction and a question and answer period. Rowan Williams is brilliant.

    One claim made in this presentation:

    We are shown something about God. That the God we believe in is not a God who has to be lured down from heaven by being very, very polite to him, or behaving extra well. We are dealing with a God who can't help himself overflowing, boiling over, into the world he has made. A God who cannot give less than the life that is the divine life. We are dealing, in other words, with a God who does not have to be persuaded to be interested in us. And that's quite a good start.

    Secondly, George Frideric Handel's "Messiah." You would think that I might have heard this beautiful oratorio in its entirety at some point. Until this week, I had not. I have been listening to Christmas music for the past two weeks, and upon hearing Part 12, "Unto Us a Child is Born," I was taken in. I will go so far to say that my soul was lifted, and I was changed.

    Thirdly, this little video from Laity Lodge was something I enjoyed. 

    Underneath from Laity Lodge on Vimeo.

    Lastly, The Brilliance released an EP last week. The track "See the Love" is good, and challenging. Give it a listen.


    Home Is Where Jesus Is

    Elizabeth Vargas and ABC News "20/20" recently reported on the journey of a group of Iraqi Christian refugees, fleeing ISIS and being received ultimately by the people of Slovakia. Along the way, they are helped by the people of Mar Elia in Erbil. The entire report is worth watching.  

    It is a moving human interest story, but is also a really good investigation of religion. Vargas repeatedly alludes to the biblical narratives in her reporting, suggesting that the Christian communities represented are witnesses to the gospel as communities, not simply as individuals. Hospitality is a major theme. So is suffering. When leaving Iraq, Vargas refers to the movement as an exodus, and when the refugees wait to board their plane, it is called an ark.

    Vargas tells us of Christians in the city of Erbil who are part of a small church community named Mar Elia, receiving brothers and sisters from neighboring Qaraqosh. Qaraqosh was once home to one of the largest population of Christians in Iraq, but has been overrun by ISIS forces. Churches have been desecrated and relics have been destroyed. Communities have been displaced.

    In the report, we meet the priest serving the people of Mar Elia. His name is Douglas Bazi. Under Bazi's leadership, Mar Elia established a refugee center, and has extended hospitality to those fleeing persecution and violence. Bazi, once a victim of persecution himself, comes across as a man filled with joy and love. Once the refugees arrive safely in Slovakia and Bazi prepares to leave, he was embraced and the people wept. I was reminded of Acts 20:36-38.

    I watched the entire report, which you can view here. The headline that drew me in, however, was an excerpt from the sixth or seventh segment, showing a conversation between Vargas and a young Iraqi Christian named Myriam. Here is a quotation from the "20/20" report:

    A young Iraqi Christian girl, whose family has been living in a refugee camp after fleeing ISIS threats, says she forgives the terrorist group and shared her hope for the future.

    “Yes I forgive them,” Myriam told ABC News “20/20” co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, adding that “as Jesus said ‘forgive each other, love each other the way I love you,’ that is what we need to learn. Forgiveness.”

    Myriam is 10 years old.

    Myriam understands the gospel, and its implications for life.

    In Matthew 18:3-4, Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." I am also reminded of Isaiah 11, and what our world is like for those who receive the shoot who has come up from the stump of Jesse.

    May we learn forgiveness.


    George Herbert: The Call

    Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
    Such a Way, as gives us breath:
    Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
    And such a Life, as killeth death.

    Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength;
    Such a Light, as shows a feast:
    Such a Feast, as mends in length:
    Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

    Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
    Such a Joy, as none can move:
    Such a Love, as none can part:
    Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

    - George Herbert, "The Call"

    George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. He was a Welsh born Englishman, and an Anglican priest. He is remembered best for his poetry. His little book, The Country Parson, should be read by all ministers. If you are not familiar with his poem "Love (III)," take the time to click and read.

    As for the poem above, the first stanza uses a familiar grouping of three words. It is in John 14:6 where Jesus says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Herbert composes a progression: by being the way, we are given breath, by being truth, strife ends. With breath bestowed and strife removed, death has died, and Life remains.

    My favorite line in the poem occurs in the second stanza. Here, Light, Feast, and Strength build one upon the other. The light reveals, the feast heals, and strength binds. The word "mend," as it appears here, means both to restore to health and to repair what has been worn and broken. Christ, displaying his strength through weakness, has brought us unto himself as those invited to his table. We are his guests. I have often joked that there are too many who think, "Of course Christ died for me! Why wouldn't he? I'm such a wonderful person!" The reality, however, is that he has made us his guests because of his great love for us, "while we were yet sinners."

    Which leads us nicely to our third stanza. Joy, Love, and Heart. Joy is often understood as a changing emotion rather than as a state, but Christian joy expresses itself as thanksgiving in times of plenty, and hope in times of want. The soul of the joyful person is unmoveable, because they are bound to God in an inexhaustible love. That person's heart, then, constantly bubbles forth joy upon joy, for the love that gives birth to such joy is a wellspring unending.

    Dallas Willard was correct in saying that God is the most joyous being in the universe, for God is love.

    In Ephesians 3:14-21, it is Paul who prays that we would know "how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ." He then says that this love "surpasses knowledge." But in this knowledge, we are "filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."

    It is in that love that we are called.


    Saturday Reading Notes

    Slowly but surely, I continue to read.

    John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion

    I continue plodding through Calvin, reading a passage here and there when I find a free moment at home, or when routine tasks are completed sooner than expected. I continue to be impressed by Calvin's range, and his tone, which have been emulated by his disciples.

    This passage in Book III.7.1 is quite good:

    We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.

    Conversely, we are God's: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God's: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God's: let all parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal [Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19]. O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone.

    Thomas Oden's Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry

    While Oden's Pastoral Theology is clinical and systematic in approach, this might be one of my favorite reads in quite some time. Pastoral work is so maligned. Eugene Peterson has written that the pastoral vocation itself is in trouble--and I agree. Peterson's critiques often target religious entrepreneurship and spiritual salesmanship. Peterson's concern is that pastoral work, and the discourse surrounding it, has been corrupted by the language of the market. Oden's work is terrific grist for the development of a counter-imagination.

    In Oden's chapter "The Care of Souls," he records "Maxims for Effective Pastoral Counsel." Here is what he recommends:

    • Do no harm.
    • Respect the parishioners' right and responsibility to choose their own spiritual guide.
    • Allow people time to arrive at long-awaited moments of insight in which their self-perception or interpersonal life elicits growth not thought previously possible.
    • Do not woodenly assume that either quiet listening or active confrontation is always the obligatory way to engage in pastoral conversation.
    • View spiritual formation not merely in terms of short-term crisis management, but rather in terms of long-term development of the whole person.
    • View the pastoral caring process as taking place within a community of caring, rather than just an isolated interaction, as if the believing, supporting community did not exist.

    So simple, yet so wise.

    Walter Brueggemann's Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now

    Concerning Sabbath-keeping, Brueggemann writes:

    When taken seriously in faith by Jews--and derivatively by Christians--Sabbath-keeping is a way of making a statement of peculiar identity amid a larger public identity, of maintaining and enacting a counter-identity that refuses "mainstream" identity, which itself entails anti-human practice and the worship of anti-human gods. Understood this way, Sabbath is a bodily act of testimony to an alternative and resistance to pervading values and assumptions behind those values.

    Strong claim. Two key terms: testimony and resistance. To prayerfully disengage from daily demands of production, consumption, and performance creates the space necessary to give witness to God's reality and the alternative calling placed upon our lives. Our value is not in what we produce, our capacity to accumulate, nor in ambition or achievement. Our value is in Christ, in and through whom all things were made. 

    In Sabbath as Resistance, Brueggemann explores the peculiar identity and counter-identity of the people of God. Some of his conclusions I disagree with. But I appreciate his engagement with the Old Testament.

    Other Reading Notes

    This afternoon, I took the time to read this report by the McClatchy Washington Bureau: "Irradiated: Will the Nation's New Nuclear Age Yield More Unwanted Fallout?" It is a lengthy investigation into the human cost of producing and maintaining nuclear weaponry. I recommend reading it.

    I also began reading Michael Connelly's The Gods of Guilt (A Lincoln Lawyer Novel). Crime fiction.

    More notes in a week or so.

    Happy reading.