It's that time of year again: a new beginning, time to exercise more and eat healthier. Author and philosopher/theologian Kenneth Richard Samples appreciates these typical resolutions, but he challenges believers to get more intellectual exercise and consume a healthy diet of good books.
For the past two decades, Samples said he's been talking to people about "cultivating the life of the mind," and there's no better time to start than in January. Many Christians don't seem to recognize that serving the Lord requires using all the qualities and characteristics he gives us, Samples said.
"And that includes God's incredible gift of the human mind."
Neglect of the mind, he said, has led to charges of anti-intellectualism in today's evangelical church.
"Critics of Christianity often assert that Christ's followers have both 'soft hearts' and 'soft heads.' Or, worse still, in the words of outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, 'hard hearts' and 'soft heads.'" Samples suggested that more Christians should seriously consider the motto of The United Negro College Fund: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."
According to Samples, a senior research scholar at Reasons To Believe, his "pursuit of the life of the mind to the glory of God" began soon after becoming a Christian as a sophomore in college. As a result he's accumulated a personal library of between 3,000 and 4,000 books.
In addition to his work with Reasons To Believe, Samples is a lecturer in Christian apologetics at Biola University and a former consultant at Christian Research Institute. Because of his passion and expertise, people often ask for recommendations, which led to his yearly challenge.
For 2012 Samples suggested six classics:
"Confessions" by St. Augustine. In this autobiography, Augustine talks to God the way the Psalmists did. He confesses his sins, his newfound faith and the greatness of God.
"I often think he's writing about me," Samples said. "I think Augustine was so clever; he wasn't really just writing about himself. He was talking about every human soul's search for God."
Samples said he spent a good part of his early life searching for something. First he wanted to be a professional baseball player, then a famous rock 'n' roll star.
"I think Augustine was right; I was searching for God."
"On the Incarnation" by St. Athanasius, with an introduction by C.S. Lewis. Samples described this as "an excellent book about the person and nature of Christ written by one of the most wise and heroic figures in Christian history."
"Cur Deus Homo" (Latin: Why the God-man?) by St. Anselm. This powerful theological work explains "why Jesus Christ had to have been both God and man in order to have redeemed sinful humanity," Samples said.
"On the Bondage of the Will" by Martin Luther. According to Samples, "this is one of the most important theological works of the Reformation era written by the Father of the Protestant Reformation himself. Luther's influence on the Christian world is truly profound."
"Pensées" (the Penguin Classics edition, 1995, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer) by Blaise Pascal. Written by one of the founding fathers of modern science, this book is "considered a masterpiece of Christian thought," Samples said. The French word pensées translates as "thoughts" or "reflections."
"Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. The first Christian book he ever read, Samples said he appreciated this book's clear presentation of Christian doctrine and apologetics.
A precious gift
Jessica Schlotter said she first saw this particular reading list four years ago while attending Samples' Sunday School class at Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, Calif.
"Ken mentioned how many books he reads in a yearit was in the hundreds, gasp!so when he outlined a plan to read just six books in a year, I thought, 'I can do this!'"
After class, Schlotter said she turned to her mom and said, "I'm gonna do this!" Her mom wanted to, also, and so did her friend, Kristina. Between the Sunday School room and the sanctuary, they told others about the idea and "it spread like wildfire!"
When Schlotter told Samples they were forming a ladies book club, he said that discussing the books would make them "come alive in a unique way."
Within weeks, Schlotter said, more than 20 women signed up.
"I was grateful for the excitement and support," she said.
It was like a light bulb came on revealing a new way to grow in the knowledge of the Lord and "it felt possible." Schlotter said she hoped the ladies would encourage each other and provide accountability, as well as get to know each other better.
While doing the recommended reading, Schlotter said she "loved Martin Luther's style and fiery personality; was in awe of Athanasius; was grateful for Augustine's passion and clarity; thought that Lewis's ability to simplify, make analogies and tell stories was unparalleled; and was wowed by Pascal's skills and gifts."
Even more importantly, Schlotter said she was "proud and humbled" to share the same faith in Jesus with these outstanding Christians.
Looking back, Schlotter said, that taking up Samples' challenge changed her.
"I learned that the Christian classics were accessible to everyone and that there is a rich Christian tradition and history that I'm part of," she said. "I also developed deeper friendships and bonds with the Christian women who were part of our book club."
Now Schlotter doesn't fear readingeven when she thinks a book might be over her head.
This January, the ladies book club will start their fifth year, said Schlotter.
"Ken inspired us to read and pursue the life of the mind," she said. "What a gift!"
And a New Year's resolution worth keeping.
Samples' latest book "7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity's Most Dangerous Ideas" will be released in May. It can be preordered on Amazon.com. His blog can be accessed at http://reflectionsbyken.wordpress.com.