The Rule of St. Benedict by Benedict of Nursia

St. Benedict of Nursia writing the Benedictine...
St. Benedict of Nursia writing the Benedictine rule, portrait in the church of Heiligenkreuz Abbey near Baden bei Wien, Lower Austria. Portrait (1926) by Herman Nieg (1849-1928) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though it sheds light on how monasteries functioned in the Middle Ages, The Rule of St. Benedict sheds even more light on the theology behind the monastic movement. Benedict of Nursia wrote his rule around the year 530, hundreds of years before the Reformation. Yet the seeds of a works-based theology seem already to have been firmly planted.

Consider this from the prologue:

“For we ought at all times so to serve Him with the good things which He hath given us, that He may not, like an angry father, disinherit his children, nor, like a dread lord, enraged at our evil deeds, hand us over to everlasting punishment as most wicked servants, who would not follow Him to glory.”

In other words, our salvation is not secure and God, like an angry father, may snatch it away from us at any moment and send us to hell, depending on our behavior. Sadly, assurance of salvation is a foreign concept to Benedict.

His view of justification is problematic as well. Throughout the work, it is evident Benedict believes our justification before God depends upon our ability to follow the rules, primarily of course the Benedictine rules:

“If we desire to dwell in the tabernacle of His kingdom, we cannot reach it in any way, unless we run thither by good works.”

This is the very thing against which Martin Luther so strenuously fought many centuries later. To make matters worse, the works prescribed here are not even those things to which the Bible calls believers. Benedict seems primarily interested in external compliance as exhibited by certain types of asceticism:

“The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root, so that no one may presume to give or receive anything without the command of the Abbot; nor to have anything whatever as his own, neither a book, nor a writing tablet, nor a pen, nor anything else whatsoever, since monks are allowed to have neither their bodies nor their wills in their own power.”

This is more akin to the false religion of the Pharisees with their multiple man-made rules than to the Christian concept of salvation by grace through faith. It also stands in direct opposition to scriptures such as Colossian 2:21-23

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” ( referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”

As Martin Luther realized hundreds of years later, no amount of asceticism or self-flagellation can make us holy. Only the grace of God through Jesus Christ can do that.

There are other issues too such as his belief that the abbot stands in the place of Christ in the lives of the monks and the frequent violence done to scripture by removal from context and misapplication.

Whether I recommend this book depends upon the goal of the reader. It’s an excellent book to read if you’re looking to gain an historical perspective on medieval monastic life but if you’re looking for a treatise on living the Christian life – look elsewhere.

How Sermons Work by David Murray

How Sermons Work by David Murray
Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I want to learn to build a birdhouse or make Coq au vin or speak German there are any number of simple,  step-by-step guides from which I can choose. But what if I want to learn how to prepare and preach a sermon? Though there are many books on preaching, my experience is none of them is what you’d call simple and straight forward. Most read like seminary text-books (perhaps that’s because many of them are seminary text books!). But, David Murray’s How Sermons Work, is not like that at all.

This is the best book on sermon preparation I’ve read. Murray approaches preaching as a skill that can be learned, not a mystical talent delivered from on high to a select few. While it is true certain men are more suited for ministry than others, it is equally true that having a “calling” to ministry does not negate the need to learn good sermon preparation techniques. Murray makes it clear that a man called of God to deliver His word has a responsibility to put in the time necessary to become good at what he does.

The book is very logically organized with chapters on how to select a text, how to organize the information and how to apply the text in a way that is helpful to the listener. Never having been to seminary, the most helpful part for me was the chapter on exegesis. I found the list of exegetical questions particularly helpful. I’ve created a template of these questions and have begun using it to prepare Bible lessons.

While a systematic approach and simplicity are the book’s strengths, Murray doesn’t assume those are all that’s needed to teach God’s word. He has an excellent chapter on preparing to preach that emphasizes the importance of prayer and familiarity with scripture as prerequisites for God-honoring, life-changing preaching. He also emphasizes the importance of character in one who teaches the Bible, quoting Al Martin:

Next to the presence of Christ, there is no greater companion to the minister than that of a good conscience. To have the Lord at your side and a peaceful conscience in your breast – these are the preacher’s two greatest companions.

The only complaint I have about the book is not about the content but the Kindle version I read. There was no active table of contents, in fact, no table of contents at all. I find the table of contents helpful both in getting a feel for a book before reading it and in gathering my thoughts about it for things like this review after I’ve read it. With that in mind, you may want to consider the print version of this book unless that has been changed in the Kindle version.

If you teach the Bible either as a pastor or otherwise, this is a book to read and add to your library. Like William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (which interestingly Murray references in his book) this is a book I will review periodically and keep handy as a reference.

How Sermons Work

One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

How do you portray the horrors of a totalitarian state? One way is with statistics. Everyone is familiar with the number of people murdered by Hitler’s regime during the holocaust. And while data like that has its place, it’s sometimes difficult for people to relate to numbers. In One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn chose to use the events of a single day in the life of an individual to expose the reality of life in Stalinist Russia. Like Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl, this up close look at the impact of totalitarianism on a single person is more powerful than a nameless list of victims because you can imagine yourself in the shoes of the victim. What if this happened to me? How would I live under circumstances like that? Could I survive such an ordeal? As I read this book I asked myself all of those questions and more.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, committed the crime of being a POW during the Second World War. Stalin was extremely suspicious of all returning prisoners, especially ones who escaped from the Germans as did Shukhov. He was sure such men were not really escapees but spies, deliberately let go in order to return to the USSR and spy on their homeland.

The book opens in Siberia in the frozen pre-dawn hours. Prisoners are awakened by a hammer sounding reveille against a metal pipe. It ends several hours later at lights out in the same freezing barracks. In between we are introduced to life in the camp through the eyes of Shukhov. Shukhov is a decent, honest man. The kind who takes pride in his work laying bricks even while falsely imprisoned in a concentration camp. He is resigned to his fate but makes the best of it, finding happiness in the few pleasures available to him such as meal times and the occasional smoke. In short, Shukhov is the kind of citizen nations need in order to build a stable and successful society. As the day goes on we learn that very few real criminals inhabit the camp. There are instead men who fought bravely in the war, men who are deeply religious and men who are skilled professionals.

Though the book is about one man and one day, Solzhenitsyn shows us that the cost of totalitarianism is not just paid by individuals like Shukhov. The culture as a whole suffers when hard working, honest people are preyed upon by the state. He reminds us there is something wrong with a society when the criminals are in power and decent citizens are locked away, where the purpose of laws is to protect the government from the people and not the other way round.

If you’ve never read Solzhenitsyn, this is a great place to begin. It’s a short read (I finished it in just a few hours over a couple of evenings) but still gives you a sense of his skill as a writer. It was one of those books where the world faded away while I was in its pages.  After finishing it, I felt as though I’d been to this camp. I could almost feel the cold and the hopelessness of the men. I was left wanting to know Shukhov more, to find out what happened to him. A writer who can do this, especially in translation, is skilled indeed.  I can only imagine how powerful the book must be for those who can read it in the original language.

If you’d like to read One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, you can order the Kindle version here:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Southern Prose and Poetry by Edwin Mims & Bruce R. Payne

Southern Prose and Poetry
US stamp honoring Sidney Lanier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The principal purpose of this collection is to inspire the youth of the South to a more earnest and intelligent study of the literature of that section.” So begins Southern Prose and Poetry. I came across this volume in a collection of books retrieved from storage at my wife’s parents’ home. It was published in 1910 by Charles Schribner’s Sons and was complied for the above purpose by the head of the English department at Vanderbilt University (Mims) and the president of Peabody College for Teachers (Payne).

It features works by well known nineteenth and early twentieth century southern writers such as Edgar Allen Poe, John James Audubon, Joel Chandler Harris and Sidney Lanier. But, it also showcases writing by famous southerners not known primarily as authors. For example there are personal letters written by Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson as well as speeches by Henry Clay and Henry Grady. I particularly enjoyed Grady’s eloquent 1886 address to the New England Club called “The New South.” In it he speaks of my home town, Atlanta, Georgia:

I want to say to General Sherman, who is considered an able man in our parts, though some people think he is a kind of careless man with fire, that from the ashes he left us in 1864 we have raised a brave and beautiful city…

I also enjoyed several of the personal letters. The poignant letter from Robert E. Lee to his sister telling of his difficult decision to resign his U.S. Army commission and fight for his native Virginia and the letter from Thomas Jefferson to his young daughter speaking of his love for her and his hope for her future. In all these letters the writing compares favorably with the work of the “real” authors in the book, reminding me there was a time before email when personal correspondence was as much an art form as literature.

But my favorite section of the book is poetry. The civil war poetry written from a southern perspective, such as “Ashby” by John Reuben Thompson or “The Sword of Robert Lee” by Abram Joseph Ryan, is not the kind of thing you find in poetry anthologies very often. Coupled with these are also more well-known poems by Edgar Allan Poe and Sydney Lanier.

If you’re a poetry lover or a lover of history and literature, this is an excellent book to have around. I’m still reading through the poems and some of the prose and am sure I’ll get many more hours of enjoyment from this old book.

If you’re not fortunate enough to come across an original edition, Southern Prose and Poetry can be purchased as a reprint from Amazon:

Or, read for free on line here:

Southern Prose and Poetry

How I Organize My Kindle Library

How I Organize My Kindle Library

The ebook revolution has not only changed how we read but also how we store books. No longer is my ability to store books limited by shelf space. Now, it’s only limited by the amount of memory on my ereader, or as is becoming increasingly the case, the amount space available in the “cloud” somewhere.

I have 315 books on my Kindle. To put this in perspective, I have 371 books on the shelves in my office between my general and reference collections (see: The Secret to Maximizing Shelf Space – Book Triage). So I have the ability to carry on my person, almost as many books are there are in my office (in reality much more than that as I’ve come nowhere near using the maximum space on my Kindle).

Just as with a physical library of this size, a virtual one should also be organized. Here’s what I’ve done.

Kindle Book Collections

Kindle gives you multiple ways to view your books. You can organize them on the device by Most Recent First, Title, Author or Collections. The only one of these I use is Collections. Every time a book is added to the Kindle, you can either add it to an existing collection you’ve created or create a new collection for that book. Every book I add is assigned to a collection. My current collections,  in no particular order, are:

  • Writing
  • Business
  • Blogging
  • Reading Now
  • Bible Commentary
  • Theology
  • Fiction – Mystery
  • Fiction – Other
  • History
  • Reference
  • Read (past tense)
  • Poetry
  • Critical Thinking
  • Christian Living
  • Language Learning
  • Spanish
  • Investing / Finance
  • Health & Fitness
  • Bibles
  • Politics
  • Teaching
  • Borrowed (via the Kindle owner’s lending library)
  • Efficiency & Organization
  • Gardening
  • Art & Music
  • Biography
  • Children
  • Short Stories
  • Devotionals
  • Philosopy
  • Science Fiction
  • Games (playable on the Kindle)

You can name a category anything you’d like so it’s very easy to customize the list for your own reading interests. Initially I often had to add a new category when I added a book, however, over time that has become less necessary. Now it’s rare for me to download a book that doesn’t fit into one of my existing categories.

All but three of my categories are genre types. The three that are not (bolded above) are based on the reading status of the book. Kindle allows you to add a book to multiple categories at once so any time I start a book I add it to my Reading Now category in addition to it’s genre category. When finished, I remove it from Reading Now and add it to Read, leaving it also on the appropriate genre list. This way I can easily scan the books I’m reading or have already finished. Also, any time I use the Kindle Owners Lending Library, I store that book both in a genre category and in my Borrowed category.

One thing to note. Kindle reorders your categories each time you access a book so that the category most recently viewed rises to the top. As of now, there’s no way to change that. Ideally I’d like other options for the categories such as an alphabetical or custom order but that’s not available at the moment.

How do you organize your Kindle books ?

Are there any categories I’ve not thought of that make your library more useful?