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.