The idea of a desert island as a stimulus to thought and conversation is no new one. The game is played in various guises. In this instance we propose removing a believer to a desert island for an unspecified length of time in order to learn something about the books they would most recommend others to read. The ground rules are simple. Certain books are already on the island - The Holy Scriptures (in the version or versions of your choice); John Bunyan's inimitable Pilgrim's Progress; Matthew Henry's superlative Commentary on the Whole Bible; and, finally, the works of John Calvin.
"What need of more books?" you may ask. But these works are so widely esteemed, or at least have been in the past, that we thought it only fair to place them on our island for all. What remains is for the castaway to take a tour of the Evangelical Library before departure, selecting just five further books for their sojourn. Our castaway this time is an extremely close friend of the editor, Darby Gray, from Kidsdon.
Narrowing down to just five books is no easy task. One is thankful to have the Bunyan, Henry and Calvin available. In thinking about this, a number of great favourites have had to be by-passed, such as Spiritual Disciplines by Don Whitney, a book I have very much enjoyed more than once.
Like many other castaways I am keen to take a biography with me. Reading the lives of others is both pleasant and instructive. The two volumes by lain Murray on Dr. Lloyd-Jones instantly spring to mind as does Roland Bainton's volume on Martin Luther. Dallimore's two volumes on Whitefield or even his single one on Spurgeon are attractive possibilities too. Dallimore and Murray are superb biographers. The latter's large work on Edwards and his smaller one on John Murray are also contenders.
However, I think I will plump for Ned B Stonehouse's wonderful Biographical Memoir of J. Gresham Machen. There is a slight degree of hagiography involved here no doubt and much of the attraction is the atmosphere the book breathes - leisurely, verbose, refined, from a bygone age. Machen's life was no easy one, however, as he struggled with the attractions of German liberalism, served in France in the Great War and defended the faith in the face of a vicious onslaught from modernism, being instrumental in founding Westminster Theological Seminary. His attitude to fundamentalism, temperance, Billy Sunday, Church relations, the Sabbath, etc, are interestingly revealed. It is hard to think of a more moving or a more challenging 20th century biography.
The "Princeton" atmosphere is so fine that I really would like more than just one smattering for my desert island reading. I did think of trying the trick that others have used and ask for a set of works, namely ten volumes of B B Warfield. However, some of that would involve hard work on my part and so I will instead take the easy option and go for the next best thing to biography, Church history, and order the two volumes by David B Calhoun on old Princeton Seminary, Faith and Learning 1812-1868 and The Majestic Testimony 1869-1929. Partly, it is the writing but chiefly it is the subject matter of these lovely descriptions of experiential Calvinism that hooks me. From log college to premier university, the story is a fascinating one on many fronts. The glimpses of the Alexanders, the Hodges, Machen, Warfield, as well as a host of lesser known men, is fascinating. The persistent re-emergence of vital godliness amid thoroughgoing and painstaking theology is no small part of the attraction that the books hold. The one snag with such a book would be the references to other books just out of reach. There is an interesting description, for instance, of J A Alexander beavering away in a New York hotel during the summer months on his commentaries on Psalms, Acts and Mark, lost deep in thought or getting frustrated and breaking for a half an hour of Dickens or a walk in the streets. "Well, this is the most delightful and exciting occupation I can conceive of," he said, "it is better than any novel that I ever read."
At the risk of wallowing, basking even, more in the glory of old Princeton and Westminster let me add a third less obvious choice. If I wanted another obvious one I would have gone for J W Alexander's Thoughts on Preaching. However, I want something doctrinal. I know little of the late Edwin H Palmer except that he was a Christian Reformed pastor, a lecturer at Westminster Theological Seminary and executive secretary of the committee that produced the NIV Bible. The same clarity he brought to that project is found in the two books he authored, one a study guide on The Five points of Calvinism and the other (my choice) on The Holy Spirit, His Person and Ministry. Here are 16 clear, well set-out, warm-hearted, simple studies that it would be a joy to re-read and to study again.
My final two choices would both be by Puritans. I notice too that like two out my last three choices these have both been published or republished (these two as Puritan paperbacks) by the Banner of Truth Trust. How thankful we ought to be to God for the Trust's continued commitment to the Reformed faith. First, I mention John Flavel's Mystery of Providence (as it is known). I will never forget reading it for the first time and being introduced to the whole idea of providence. It led to my seeing things and discovering things about God's goodness that I never would have seen otherwise. First published in 1678 there is not a book like it for opening up the subject of God's providence. What a joy it would be to contemplate, even if banished to a desert island, the goodness of God revealed in providence. The book is in three parts. Firstly, it deals with the evidence for Providence; then the duty, method and advantages of meditating on it; and finally the practical implications and problems and the advantages of keeping records.
My final choice was written just over 25 years earlier. Another Puritan work, Thomas Brooks' Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices was first published in 1652. The very title teaches a lesson and the contents pages themselves contain more lessons than many books produced since, for all their boasts. I believe he lists some 41 devices and over 200 remedies. Obviously time has moved on and written today such a book would no doubt have different things to say, but as a manual for the daily fight with Satan (from which a desert island would offer no rest) nothing can beat it. Perhaps the section warning against false inferences from the cross actings of providence would come alive on a lone desert island. Books would help me to see that many things contrary to our desires are not contrary to our good and that God's hand against me does not mean his love and heart are not set on me. He would help me to see that such a cross providence would do me good (no doubt through reading these books) and help me on my way to heaven.
This article original appeared in The Evangelical Library Bulletin under the name of my alter ego Darby Gray.