Seven Books I Read and Loved in 2017

I feel like I read a lot of books this year. But it would be more accurate to say that I read parts of a lot of books this year. Graduate and post-graduate education have ruined me as a reader. I have learned, among other things, how to read the first few chapters and the last few chapters, study the table of contents, and track the argument of the book without reading all of it. This works best with academic books, but it hardly passes for deep, immersive reading. But research reading is raven-like, scavenging whole books for the tastiest morsels, the bits most relevant to one’s current appetites and needs.

So. There weren’t too many books I read cover to cover in 2017. There were several sections of several books– and a fair quantity of journal articles too– which I really enjoyed and found immensely helpful as a pastor and as a scholar. But I’m not sure I could say, ‘You should read this!’ about all of them…not to mention the lack of integrity in doing so since I didn’t finished reading them myself! But, as I scanned my stack on my night stand and bedroom bookshelf, there were seven books that I not only read completely, but also enjoyed thoroughly, in 2017. Here they are, in the order I read them.

1. “Destroyer of the Gods”

I love books on the early Christian centuries, the period before Constantine, because of the insight it gives us into how Christians learned to flourish and bear witness to Christ from the margins of society and culture. Though this isn’t full of new insights (there are some notable sections) or written in riveting prose (it’s written by a historian!), it covers some of the key features of early Christian communities, with plenty of wisdom to offer our age.

2. “The Day the Revolution Began”

Though not quite as revolutionary as some might have liked— Wright defends a view of the atonement that would fit broadly within the ‘substitutionary’ views— it is still Wright’s longest and fullest engagement (in popular form) with the meaning of the cross. He blends his work from Jesus and the Victory of God with his work on Paul (his New Interpreter’s Romans commentary among other works), to sketch a multifaceted view of the atonement— one which works somewhat like a stained glass window, holding otherwise disparate pieces together in the right light.

Readers who are new to Wright will appreciate his strong connections to Passover theology and practice as a hermeneutical key in understanding the crucifixion. It provides a much more compelling picture, too, of sin, refusing to allow the Christian to say that humans broke rules so God had to do something about it. The result of this wider-angled lens on the cross is that the very core of God’s original vocation for humans becomes clear.

3. “A Walk in the Woods”

This was pure fun. Bryson is at his comedic best, especially in the early chapters. As the book goes on, the story starts to lose steam, but he held my attention with fascinating historical vignettes and a few beautiful reflections on the treasures of nature in a rapidly urbanizing world. You’ll learn a lot, and the best part is it won’t feel like it.

4. “The Challenge of Jesus”

This is vintage Tom Wright. It was fun to see his early attempts to take his work on the historical Jesus and translate it for non-academics. I think it is crucial, however, to remember that though Wright is constructing an approach to the divinity of Jesus and the historicity of his resurrection that may seem circuitous and cumbersome to evangelicals, he is doing so in response to the skeptic/atheist/agnostic historian. It forms a bridge to their world (and especially the academic quarters of that world), and it is a bridge not easily torn down.

5. “A Theology in Outline: Can These Bones Live?”

I had never read Robert Jenson before. But as the tributes and eulogies flowed in this the year of his passing, I felt compelled to start. This was a fabulous recommendation from good friends. It’s more or less the transcript of his lectures to a group of undergrads on “basic Christian theology”. But in Jenson’s artful hands, it is so much more than basic; it is narrative, it is comprehensive, and it is captivating. Like Wright, Jenson knows his (initial) audience may be mostly liberal (read: not Creedal per se), yet presents confessional articles of Christianity in clear and elegant prose. I see what all the fuss is about now.

6. “Our Secular Age”

If you’re like me, you’ve never read Charles Taylor’s tome A Secular Age, but you’ve read other works on its importance. I read Jamie Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular a few years ago, and this is a worthy companion. It’s less of a summary or re-articulation of Taylor (as Smith’s book is), and more of a “so what?” pastoral follow-up. Each chapter contains contributions from various pastors/thinkers/writers on the implications for ministry practitioners in this new secular age. It’s very readable and contains specific points of reflection for our American context. I wish every pastor would read it and take it seriously. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say, if you only picked one from my list to read in 2018, let this be it.

7. “Practical Theology”

This one is mostly for seminarians, methinks. But it is what evangelical seminaries need in order to overhaul the current approach to “practical theology”. I know: that’s a bold and perhaps brash statement. In my very limited experience, so much of what passes off as practical theology is nothing more than applied theology— preaching, pastoral care, and the like. Meanwhile, the tools and trade secrets of anthropology and sociology are quarantined to “cultural studies” and maybe a few “missiology” programs. But the (dominant) British model of practical theology places theory and practice in a dialogical relationship, counting both as theological. The goal is to parse the embodied and embedded theology of practice (along with its communities, culture, and contexts) and to allow it to critique and shape historical, biblical, and systemictheology— instead of only allowing the influence to flow in the other direction. To be sure, for some this is a path to abandoning orthodoxy. But in Ward’s work, the evangelical reader will find a guide she can trust amidst the myriad of models and methods. For pastors who have completed seminary education, there is so much in here that will help you utilize old tools you learned (along with some new ones) in fresh contexts. After all, we often find ourselves doing practical theology on the fly; we may as well learn how to do it better on purpose.

BONUS: “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”

 This is a ‘bonus’ because I didn’t read this one cover to cover. But, I think if one were to read the early chapters in which Hays lays out his foundation and hermeneutical methodology and then to skip to the topics which interest the reader (as I did), it works quite well. It was immensely helpful to me to watch Hays carefully work through a consistent rationale and arrive at conclusions to ethical questions in ways which honor the authority of Scripture and take seriously the particulars of our context.

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.]