My Favorite Reads of 2014

As 2014 comes to a close, I’m thinking about the books that inspired me, enlightened me, challenged me, and fired my imagination this year. I must add the qualifier, though, that these are not necessarily books that were released in 2014; this was simply the year I read them.

Faith and Culture
“How (Not) To Be Secular” by James K. A. Smith

Eminent Oxford chair of philosophy, Charles Taylor, wrote a tome (900 pages!) on how we got to be the ‘secular age’ that we are (in the West), and what it means for people of faith. It’s said to be a landmark work but remains largely inaccessible to the average person. Enter, Jamie Smith, philosophy prof at Calvin College. In a tenth of the length (90 pages or so!), Smith gives us the basic overview of, and a critical engagement with Taylor’s work. The result is that pastors can now understand a bit more about the world in which we are trying to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel.

Favorite snippet: The ‘secular age’ is like a playing field above which the dome has been closed, but everyone is so consumed with the game on the field that no one even asks about the stars. (In other words, we aren’t preaching to people who already feel a “God-shaped” void.)

“Evil and the Justice of God” by N. T. Wright

I’ve read (just about) every one of Wright’s ‘pop’ level books, which, as it turns out, still require some serious thinking. I’ve also read significant sections of his thick academic books. I have to say, this is pretty darn good summary of some of his best (and least controversial) ideas. Academics will quibble with the sweeping statements and broad brush strokes with which he paints the biblical narrative, but for the layperson, this is just what we needed. The book gives an outline of the ‘new problem of Evil’, a description of what God in the Old Testament did to limit and contain Evil, how Christ took the weight of Evil (its force and its judgment) on Himself, and how Christians live (and forgive!) in light of this reality. Readable and concise, it’s the perfect book to start with for those unfamiliar with Wright.

Biblical Studies
“Reading Backwards” by Richard Hays

How do the Gospel writers use the Old Testament? Do they read ‘scriptures’ as predictive prophecies? As a failed ‘Plan A’? How would a ‘figural reading’ open up new horizons of understanding? Written from a series of lectures given by Hays, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, there are insights on each of the 110+ pages that are enough to fuel a dozen sermons. Hays works through each Gospel, showing how each Gospel-writer’s use of Old Testament language and imagery articulate their belief that in Jesus YHWH has come to Israel at long last. There is some technical (academic) language and a fair amount of Greek, but not so much as to be ignored outside the academy. Trust me: this is a preacher’s treasure trove.

Worship and Liturgy
“Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy” by Melanie C. Ross

You wouldn’t expect a professor of liturgy at Yale to give an even-handed defense of ‘free church’ (read: non-denominational) ecclesiology and worship expressions, would you? That’s more or less what Ross does. She refuses the well-worn critiques by academic liturgical snobs (my word, not hers!). Yet, she names the flaws of the free church movement and its worship practices, in part by rightly tracing its roots to the Frontier Revivals. Her inclusion of two chapters based on her in-depth field work with two non-denominational churches (non-mainline denominations) add texture to her argument. The result is a promising bridge that gives us language for conversing across the ‘camps’ and opens the door to mutual learning.

Sociology (ish)
“Watching the English” by Kate Fox

This is just plain fun. I read it (or most of it) for two reasons. One, my sociologist supervisor (I have two supervisors for my doctoral research– a theologian and a sociologist) said it’s a fascinating example of ‘participant observation’, a technique employed by anthropologists and sociologists– and one I’ll need to learn for my field work next year. Secondly, having traveled to England 8 times in the past 16 months, it not only helped me understand my professors and peers, it gave me a good chuckle every time I read it.

The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

OK, this is where you either love me or hate me, or at least get concerned about my salvation. Here’s the deal: I started reading these books this year because I wanted to see if we’d ever want our children to read them. And because I needed something to keep the ‘reading muscle’ in use when the ‘grappling with tough theological concepts’ muscles were tired. I viewed it as a low-weight, high rep workout for my noggin.

What I discovered is an extraordinary work of literature that belongs among the best ‘world-making’ like Tolkien’s books. (Baylor lit prof Alan Jacobs agrees.) Furthermore, the arc of the story bends toward the great themes of sacrificial love and courage, which, of course, reminds me of another Story. (Tim Keller agrees.)

For those concerned about the ‘magic’, a few notes:

Anyway, the fun for me was reading many of these books whilst on a train from King’s Cross station in London up to school in Durham, where many of the scenes from the first few movies were filmed. So, will I let my children read them? Probably. But when they’re a lot older– since they don’t have to wait a year for each book now.

Alright. Those are some of my favorite reads from 2014.

How about you?

Science, Miracles, and God

It is largely assumed that miracles are inherently unscientific. But let’s examine the premise for this belief. Science, it is said, shows us a predictable universe, one that follows uniform laws and rhythms. Miracles, by definition, are an aberration of those laws, a suspending of the norms of nature, and therefore are improbable if not impossible.

The secular philosopher David Hume wrote in his Essay on Miracles
that there are two questions to be answered: “Do miracles occur?” and
“Is Nature absolutely uniform?” Because he answers yes to the latter
question, he answers no to the first one. But, as C. S. Lewis points
out, Hume has engaged in philosophical sleight of hand for the two
questions are the same one. By asking is miracles occur you are simply
asking in another way if nature is always absolutely uniform. So, the
real question we have to wrestle with is the one of nature’s uniformity.

How do we know that the universe follows a uniform pattern of behavior?
Our first response tends to be: by experience or by observation.
But the truth is all we can say by experience and observation is that during the period of time that we have observed nature, we have observed her to behave is such and such a way. Even the longest periods of observation– decades for many things, centuries for a few things– is a relatively short period of time in light of the relative age of the universe. For scientists who believe in an earth that existed millions of years before mankind, even the short history of humanity (6000 years at our best guess?) is not enough to to answer the question of nature’s uniformity by experience alone. In fact, when we try to say that we believe in Nature’s uniformity because of our observation and experience, we are simply saying that we believe that the patterns we have observed are ones we believe to have been around before our observation and experience and will continue even beyond our observation and experience. And you would officially be in a circular argument.

Our second response is that we wish it to be so. This, of course, is irrational. And yet, highly practical. We couldn’t live day to day if we did not count on some level of predictability or reliability in nature. Life would be disastrous. And since it is beyond our control anyway, we assume that things will continue tomorrow as they have today, and that tends to work out in general. But such an answer cannot be enough.

Our third and most honest response is that science depends on a predictable universe and if we have up the sense of uniformity and order in nature we would lose science. We are now getting closer for we are admitting that science is predicated on a kind of faith: a faith in the general orderliness of the universe.

But what sort of belief system allows for that conviction? For the pure Naturalist– the one who believes Nature is all there is, that there is no God, no Spirit, no Force, no Mind– he is in a bind. The Naturalist is forced to admit that since there is no guiding Force or Mind, his own “deepest convictions are merely the byproducts of an irrational process” and therefore cannot be trusted. A person’s convictions– about the uniformity of the universe or anything else– is simply a fact about that person (like the color of his hair) and has no grounds for treating his conviction as more valid or reasonable than anyone else’s. (C. S. Lewis in Miracles wrote on this in Chapter 13). The Supernaturalist– one who believes in a Rational MInd/Force beyond nature– has the best grounds for accepting the uniformity of nature. He believes there is a great rational force that has set the universe in motion and its motion follows a sense of rationality for He is rational. “Men became scientific because the expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (Lewis).

The “catch’, however, is that the same grounds that lead you to accept a rational, uniform universe allows leaves you defenseless against the possibility of miracles. For if there is a God– a rational, creative Being– then we can expect the universe to be orderly; but we must also admit that if that God chose to break into His creation He could.

What sort of God would break into His creation? Here is where we turn away from what science alone can tell us and ask what religion tells us. The bulk of religion chronicles man’s search for God. But it is the Jewish-Christian story that begins with God’s search for mankind. “Adam, where are you?” God said in the beginning of our story. For the Jew and the Christian, God has always broken into time and space. And those occasions are often called “miracles”. For the Christian, the ultimate invasion of God into His world is in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Him we see the most dramatic miracles: the virgin birth, the incarnation itself, the resurrection.

By no means does science prove God or miracles. But neither does science preclude it. Furthermore, because science itself needs to believe in an orderly universe, it admits the possibility of a “God”. But by admitting the possibility of a “God”, it must admit the possibility of miracles. So, our answer to Hume’s questions are yes, miracles can occur; and, yes, the universe is generally almost always uniform. It is my view that the Christian story best reconciles these questions. And it does so it a breathtakingly beautiful way.

[NOTE: I am indebted to Chapter 13 of C. S. Lewis’ Miracles for the content of this post. If you are intrigued, I recommend his book for further reading. You can also listen to my recent sermon on “Miracles and the Christian” HERE.]