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.)

Theology
“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.

Fiction
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?

The Trouble With Exodus

As the buzz would have it, there is much to find troubling about Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Mainstream reviewers are bemoaning the lack of meaningful dialogue, the strangeness of God-as-an-11-year-old-boy, and even the racism in the casting. One critic, writing for OnFaith, suggested that the value of the movie is in the way it projects our discomfort onto the ancient story, giving voice through Pharaoh to a question we have longed to ask: “Is this your god? Killer of children?”

Yes, Exodus is troubling. And there is no ‘solving’ it. But we can at least locate it in the story the Bible tells. In a sense, the trouble with Exodus is that it is only Episode 1.

There are many ways to paint the arc of the Biblical narrative, but one way of seeing it as with Exodus as the beginning. After setting the backdrop of a good world that God made on purpose and with pleasure, the Bible shows us how everything began to fall apart at the seams. Humankind’s relationship with God began to fray, as did the male-female union. It’s not long before brother is killing brother, and by Noah’s day gangs of tribal violence are having the day. At Babel, society is fragmented. By Genesis 11, it seems that all that God has joined together, humans have torn asunder.

And then, God call Abram. And soon, there is a family—three generations with the call and covenant restated and reinforced. But this family finds themselves in trouble. Brothers once again are turning on one another and soon, they find themselves in Egypt. God meets them there, in this strange land, and for a season, they enjoy prosperity. It isn’t long, however, until Egypt began to oppress the foreigners and exploit them for their own gain. This is where the Exodus story begins.

Episode 1: God comes to save his people and judge their enemies.
This is the central theme of the Exodus: God hears the cry of his people, and God acts to save them and to judge their enemies. The killing of the firstborn male in Egypt is a symbolic act of striking down the strength of the enemy. Furthermore, it is a act that stops evil in its tracks. No offspring will carry this wickedness to another generation. It is God’s mighty “Thus far, and no more” announcement to the embodiment of evil and oppression in that day. As uncomfortable as this might be for post-modern sensibilities, even in our world, we have been confronted with evil so heinous we have no choice but to say, “This must be stopped.” There are people who need to be rescued; and there is evil that needs to be ended.

The Old Testament shows a God who offers little explanation for evil but plenty of action to limit and contain evil. Why this incomplete action? Stay tuned…

Episode 2: The people who need saving also deserve judging.
There were hints of this even with Abraham: his lying and his wife’s unbelief. There were foreshadows of the fracture when Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery. But eventually, the seeds of discord bore the fruit of destruction. After the height of glory during Solomon’s reign, the nation splits in two. The succession of mostly wicked kings in the northern kingdom, Israel, lead to their doom at the hands of Assyria. But the southern kingdom falls some 200 years later at the hands of Babylon. God’s people need judging, and God isn’t afraid to use wicked nations to do it. 

Episode 3: The people who deserve judging also need saving.
The story doesn’t end with the realization that everyone has got it coming from God. After all, hadn’t God promised to use Abraham’s family to bless (i.e., ‘save’) all the families of the earth? Now that Abraham’s family had a share in the wickedness, would God scrap his project of creation and decide not to save anyone and to judge them all instead? The story of Jonah—among others—shows us a God who remains committed to saving all people, even the ones who were clearly ‘the enemy’. Ninevah is representative of all the empires who oppressed God’s people. And yet God sends a prophet to Ninevah.

It is at this point in the Old Testament that we find that things are more complicated then they seem. There aren’t simply ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’; God’s people and pagans. The people who need saving also deserve judging, and the people who deserve judgment also need saving. But how?

These three movements in the Old Testament bring the story to the edge of a cliff. Would God abandon his plan to save his world? Or would God forget his promise to do it through Abraham’s family? How can God judge even those he wants to save and save even those he needs to judge?

Enter, Jesus– the seed of Abraham and the representative of Israel; the everlasting God himself, come in the flesh at long last. In Jesus we see not only the faithfulness of God but also the wisdom of God. Jesus is the surprising, unexpected Episode 4.

In Jesus, YHWH comes to save and to judge. But Jesus accomplishes this in a most unexpected way. Jesus, the Gospel writers find many ways to tell us, is fully human and fully God– and thus he is the one doing the judging and the one receiving the judgment, the one doing the saving and the one being saved from death through resurrection. He is the warrior who conquers by losing, the Savior who rescues by dying. Jesus takes the weight of all that is evil and sinful and wrong in the world upon himself, standing in not simply for ‘Israel’ but also for ‘Rome’—not only the covenant people but also the enemies and outsiders.

Jesus saves and judges by taking the judgment upon himself.

And that is tremendous news.

So, as you watch the movie and read and re-read the Exodus story, it’s quite alright to be troubled. Just keep reading. It’s not the end. That’s the trouble with Exodus– it’s only Episode 1.

“Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”– Jesus.