2015 End of Year Review of Books
December 18, 2015
As we inch towards the end of 2015, I thought it might be helpful for some of our contributors and a few of our frequent guest writers to offer some reflections on books they've especially enjoyed this year. I trust you'll find the nominations fascinating and the glosses offered instructive, too ~ Editor
Favorite devotional: Knowing Christ, by Mark Jones. In Puritan style, its intertwining of Christology and devotion makes it my favorite book to recommend
Favorite book on biblical sexuality: What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality, by Kevin DeYoung. Clear, concise, readable, wise, God-honoring, accessible to all readers--this is a timeless resource and I am thankful for it.
Favorite book on Christian Living: Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ, by Matthew Barrett and Michael A. G. Haykin. I have loved all of the books that I have read in this series, "Theologians on the Christian Life." I aspire to read all of the books in this series ...maybe in 2016?
Favorite book on culture: Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, by Russell Moore. God has raised up Russell Moore for such a time as this, and I am truly grateful for his tireless compassion and this book.
Favorite book that humbled me: Bumbling into Body Hair: A Transsexual's Memoir, by Everett Maroon. Everett is a FTM (female-to-male) transsexual and a former graduate student of mine from Syracuse University. It is painful for me to see the fruit of my former life and the lives that I hurt.
In my humble judgment, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation, written by Michael Allen and Ref21's own Scott Swain, deserves book of the year status. Allen and Swain present a vision for Protestant engagement with the Church's past and the saints that populate that past that every evangelical Christian really should read. Particularly insightful are the chapters on sola scriptura ("scripture alone"), which both reinforce the book's argument in toto and illustrate "retrieval" through some fine engagement with Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, and others. Allen and Swain demonstrate that sola scriptura, properly understood, is a claim for, not against, both church and tradition (again, properly understood). They argue, in other words, that sola scriptura in its original form was never meant to foster, as it so often does today in evangelical circles, confidence in one's self (however spiritually glossed) to read, understand, and apply the Bible, and so to think about God and his ways, without any input or direction from the saints who have gone before us and have, funnily enough, also sought to read, understand, and apply the Bible and to think about God and his ways.
Allen and Swain also argue very compellingly for the need to position our thoughts about biblical authority in relation to other theological truths (for instance, the truth of God per se, or God's saving intention toward us when he speaks). In short, their treatment of sola scriptura might prove a most helpful corrective for persons prone to employ that very slogan to mask an ambivalent relationship towards the Bride of Christ's history (if not that Bride herself), and for those who can envision no better way forward for conservative Protestant reflection on Scripture than to regularly rehash conflicts of centuries past, no matter the fact that their enemies have, more often than not, exited the battlefield.
This year-of-reading wasn't one of my best. Sure, I read plenty of books, more than I read in 2014, but I didn't enjoy many of them. The best books I read this year were five children's novels from the 1960s, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. I stumbled across them while looking for something to read aloud to my children and ended up reading them all to myself. Alexander drew upon Welsh mythology to create the world of Prydain, and like other fantasy epics the books feature a struggle between good and evil. Epic battles, however, make up the background. The novels are really about one boy named Taran who over the course of the five books grows into a man. The books remind us of the importance of humility and kindness. We learn, along with Taran, that hard work and patience are better than wealth and rank. Sprinkled throughout the narrative is the idea that perhaps the quiet glory of the faithful farmer or craftsman is more important than the spectacular glory of the warrior. We also see examples of love and loyalty, as well as characters willing to sacrifice themselves for their friends and their country. One of the strongest themes in these books is that true leadership is characterized by service. These are messages that both children and adults need to hear and hear again.
I really enjoyed Garry J. Williams's new book His Love Endures Forever: Reflections on the Love of God (IVP, 2015). This is a clear, penetrating, accessible exposition of the classic Reformed doctrine of God's love. It looks at how God speaks in a "creaturely" way to us in the Bible, how his love is perfectly proportioned, and how he does not need us (but loves us anyway). He unpacks some tricky doctrinal issues to do with aseity, impassibility, omniscience, and justice (e.g. does love win, as some say, over justice?), but without either dumbing down or blinding us with theological science. The best thing I can say about it is that it reminded me of Packer's Knowing God -- in that I felt whilst reading it that I was encountering through it the same gigantic, stupendous, beautiful God as I do when I read Uncle Jim's masterpiece, and that with the aid of a reliable interpreter and deft communicator. Like Knowing God, I expect I will re-read this one too (and you don't say that about many books these days).
Actually, I got into audiobooks this year, and I listened to Jane Eyre, the first time I had 'read' it. There's some pretty nasty clergymen in it, but it is a deeply Christian book in many ways, too. The love of Rev St John Rivers is so pure and fierce that it cannot really also include a love for Jane, and Jane is wise enough to see it. Mr Rochester, the bigamist who she really loves, is through his suffering cleansed. I also listened to Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed which charts the new shaming moralism of the internet in horrific but fascinating detail. Be careful what you tweet, even in jest. I read On Thinking Institutionally by Hugh Heclo, a very wise account of the role of institutions and a lament at our contemporary individualism that so degrades these bodies. Getting even more cross, I read Our Culture, What's Left of It by British doctor Theodore Dalrymple. Trying to get a handle on the young professional women in the area I minister in, I read Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham - a kind of memoir of joyless sexual encounters and loveless desperation. On the other hand, David Brooks' The Road to Character was a delightful and challenging book explaining (it seems to me) why Lena Dunham's life is so miserable. I read Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology vol I, and Hans Urs von Balthasar's Love Alone is Credible and Heresies and How to Avoid Them, edited by Ben Quash, which actually may have invited its readers to pursue some heresies at points. Beth Felker Jones' Faithful - A Theology of Sex was a terrific read. I keep reading Roger Scruton - pretty much anything he's written. He's a delightfully sensible British conservative. I really find American political conservatism rather alarms me. But the British kind, as expressed by Scruton and Dalrymple, is temperate, thoughtful, and even a little bit Christian.
Michael Morales has written an excellent book, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of Leviticus (IVP), that I hope will help people to better understand the purpose of Leviticus, and in particular the nature of true biblical worship. Highly recommended.
Tony Reinke picked a gem of a theologian to work with in Newton. Some of the books in this series are really well done, with Bray's on Augustine at my bedside table right now. But Reinke's Newton on the Christian Life: To Live is Christ (Crossway) stands out to me as a pastor.
Sean Lucas has written a book on the roots of the Presbyterian Church in America, entitled For a Continuing Church (P&R). I confess that my knowledge of this topic needs enhancing, and this book is a valuable place to start.
I've not read an enormous amount of new books in 2015 but if I was to recommend three they'd be - Knowing Christ by Mark Jones. This is a much needed book that focuses on the Saviour. The second is Matthew: All authority in Heaven and Earth by Douglas Sean O Donnell - in the preach the word series. It's a 1000 page monster but worth ploughing through. O Donnell is easy to read, the notes and index are an invaluable help for preachers. Staying Fresh: Serving with Joy by Paul Mallard is a very helpful book particularly for ministers. It is full of wisdom and draws the reader to a deeper knowledge of, and love for, the Lord Jesus - written by one of the UK's best preachers.
Lastly I spend more time reading kids books than is good for me - Douglas Sean O Donnell's Two Fat Camels by CFP is a great read for children and parents.
Sinclair Ferguson's Child in the Manger is hot off the Banner press. A short book that packs a punch. Ferguson tells the story of the incarnation of the Son of God, weaving together a very close reading of the biblical text with warm pastoral insights and punctuated with some wonderful carols and hymns. This book not only instructs - it edifies and leads one to worship. A great gift if you still need ideas, but maybe read it first before it gets wrapped up and adorned with a ribbon ...
Francesca Murphy has edited The Oxford Handbook of Christology (Oxford). While I haven't read all of it just yet, the essays that I have read are superb. Not only has Murphy drawn together one of the finest casts of contributors I've seen, but the scope is comprehensive enough that no stone is left unturned. If you have some extra shekels - and by extra, I mean a lot - treat yourself to this terrific collection.
The final book I want to recommend is Peter Brown's The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Harvard). Typical to any book written by Brown, this is an incredibly fascinating read. He explores ideas related to how the early Church understood the afterlife, how to get there, and the role that grace and or money played in one's vision of the Christian life.
Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship (Baker). Among the greatest challenges for saying anything about early worship is the lack of detailed records. This forces historians often to read between the lines, which is the spark of numerous debates. McGowan has a light touch in his writing and avoids too much speculation about the gaps. One section that raised eyebrows is the discussion on the widespread practice of Christians kissing in worship--a topic certain to rank high on the list for germaphobes and those discussing recovering Reformed Catholicity.
Marilynne Robinson, Death of Adam (Picador). Many are aware of the beautiful book Gilead by Robinson, the story of a pastor's dying letter to his 7 year old son. Gilead won the Pulitzer, but in this book she stakes her claim to being a new Francis Schaeffer--albeit from the side of literature than philosophy. Her argument, in essence, is that the philosophies of modernity provide stale bread to a world that hungers for truth. In its place she asserts a robust (though undetailed) Reformed perspective as the best for grounding truth, love, humanity, and art.
Justin Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Know the Creeds and Councils (Zondervan). Teachers and pastors are always looking for simple books to help describe to disciples the essential confessional identity of the church. No less do we look for helpful books to describe the pitfalls of theological thinking. Both of these books serve us well to these ends.
Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicea (Baker). It can be a tough argument to suggest that Arius was not a demoniac sprung from the head of false doctrine. What Anatolios shows, though, is that Arius is an extreme version of theological thinking swirling in the 3rd and 4th centuries. What the reader learns along the journey is how we ought to take care with the challenge of speaking of the triune God in human speech and the numerous triggers for weak thinking on this important biblical doctrine.
In preparing to write a book on the doctrine of God, I have had the opportunity to read several fine volumes published on the topic in 2015. I have had the opportunity to read several less than fine volumes as well but, mercifully, Marky didn't ask for a list of those... Among the former are Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament & Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament (Oxford); Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (Eerdmans); Paul Rorem, The Dionysian Mystical Theology (Fortress); Andrea D. Saner, "Too Much to Grasp": Exodus 3:13-15 and the Reality of God (Eisenbrauns); Mark Sheridan, Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism (IVP Academic); and Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Fortress).
Although these books present a variety of viewpoints, methodologies, and foci, each of them shares the ability to navigate with technical skill and (often times) instructive wisdom the complex relationship between biblical exegesis, the reception of the Bible in church tradition, and constructive Christian doctrine. As David Yeago somewhere observed, the recovery of classical Christian doctrine in our time will only come about with a renewed appreciation of the patterns of biblical reasoning from which that doctrine emerges. Each of these books is valuable, in its own way, for its contribution toward learning to read the Bible with respect to its central doctrinal subject matter, the blessed Trinity
R. Kent Hughes and Douglas Sean O'Donnell, The Pastor's Book (Crossway). This book is an extremely helpful handbook on all aspects of the pastoral task.
Francis J. Beckwith, Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge). Given the growing pressure on religious freedom, it is important for Christians to understand how the law works, both institutionally and culturally. These connected essays by Frank Beckwith are superb.
Roger Scruton, Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left (Bloomsbury). I read everything I can by Scruton. Witty, learned and always very helpful. Any man who can speculate as to whether there is more to Habermas's theory of communicative action than 'his inability to communicate it' is well worth reading.
P J O'Rourke, Thrown Under the Omnibus (Atlantic Monthly). My Christmas holiday reading. A fat selection of the best writing of one of the funniest political and cultural commentators around.
Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Christology, by Geerhardus Vos
The translation work being done by Dr. Richard Gaffin and the team at Lexham Press is invaluable. An excerpt: "Even under the old dispensation, God's church had no other prophet, priest, and king than the only Mediator. Thus, while these office-bearers point forward as types to the body that would come, at the same time they point back as organs to the eternal image of this body as it was present in God's counsel of peace." Ah, Geerhardus Vos--or, as a certain six year old I know calls him, "The Hardest Boss."
A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, by John Frame
Dr. Frame's "Van Tillian" reading of Western philosophy is a clear-headed account of sophisticated unbelief. His treatment of the history of theology is generous and insightful. Both weave together in this helpful volume. I have especially appreciated what Frame calls the "conservative drift" that has characterized modern theology over the last century or more.
The Speechwriter, by Barton Swaim
This book offers a hilarious yet insightful account of the author's stint as an under-appreciated speechwriter for a southern governor eventually disgraced by scandal. Swaim is a graduate of RTS-Charlotte.
Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, by Roger Scruton
Scruton is a contender for the "most interesting person in the world" award. Famous English philosopher, anti-Communist activist, opera composer, self-confessed "wino" (his book on philosophy and wine is titled, I Drink Therefore I Am). Here he turns his guns on the major leftist thinkers of the last century.