I made top ten lists for 2007 and 2008 a while back (this time last year, I think), and for a while I’ve been wanting to revisit them and try to remember why they left an impression on me. I’m of course not saying I endorse everything about them, just that they stuck out. I’m sure my thoughts about each of them are unbalanced, since I’m relying on memory and therefore being very selective. I’ll try to give a good sense of what they’re about though, in case some of them scratch where you might be itching. Enjoy!
How to Read Genesis by Tremper Longman III – A very readable introduction to the book of Genesis that pays attention both to its original historical context as well as how the whole story fits together. I remember it being one of the most helpful books I’ve ever read about a single portion of Scripture, and certainly the best I’ve read on Genesis. In particular, he talks about the creation and flood narratives in relation to other similar stories of the time, and makes the crucial point that Genesis was told and written specifically to counter then-current assumptions about God and humanity.
The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker – Basically, Becker argues that fear of death is the fundamental human motivator. We fear death because we love life, so we try to deny our death in all sorts of ways: increasing our security to minimize danger, increasing our strength to look and feel less liable to harm, seeking friendships so we aren’t alone and unprotected, improving morally so we deserve to continue living, etc. Becker calls all of these efforts “the vital lie,” and argues that in these ways we repress our knowledge of our own mortality (also that these things rest at the root of anxiety and mental illness). Becker’s book is complex and interesting, and while there are some problems with his overall thesis, I find it fascinating that this non-religious student of human behavior comes to similar conclusions as the author of Hebrews: at the core, we human beings fear death. But there is no savior for Becker, just the (in his mind) truly heroic act of facing the reality of death and accepting it as it is.
The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views by Greg Boyd, et al – As with all “four views” books, some parts of this one are better than others. Particularly good are Boyd’s explanation and defense of Christus Victor – the idea that Jesus’ death and resurrection is primarily about the defeat of evil; and Joel Green’s “kaleidoscopic” view – we shouldn’t try to raise any of the different atonement models above the others, but rather allow them all to complement one another. Also a chapter on “penal substitution” – the teaching that Jesus’ death was primarily about Jesus absorbing God’s wrath so we can be forgiven, but others have explained that view better. The fourth entry is a waste of time.
A Peculiar People by Rodney Clapp – One of the early books that shaped my view of the church as a counter-cultural community. He goes after the idea of our job being to make the world look like the church, and his thought represents a good push back on the current over-emphasis on contextualizing everything about the gospel and the church based on different cultural contexts (as well, of course, as the “culture wars” paranoia that laments and fights the death of Christendom). He argues that the church is its own culture, and to an important degree he’s right. I also remember the chapter on worship having some great insights. [I just found a quote that I’ll put in the first comment.]
Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer – I read this for one of the last Fuller classes I took; it was very different from what I was reading at the time, or really from most of what I’ve read since. Basically, Gadamer argues that in the modern world we have shrunk truth down so that the only way to get at truth, or rather the only kind of truth that matters – true truth – is that at which we can arrive through scientific reasoning and which we can express in bare statements or propositions. We have lost the truth to be found in art, or in relationships, for example. He is not a truth-denier in the least, but a truth-expander. If you like philosophical stuff a lot, be brave and give this a shot. Probably one of the most difficult books I’ve read. (Also challenged some of my hermeneutical assumptions.)
Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society by Ted Peters – Similar to Becker but from a Christian theological perspective, Peters traces all sinful activity back to anxiety or the fear of loss. “Anxiety arises when we anticipate some sort of diminishment of who we are, when we anticipate the possibility that a part of us or all of us is going to die.” To put it not so simply, it is “the fright we feel at the prospect of losing our existence, of dropping into the abyss of nonbeing.” (I’ll put another quote about this in the comments.) This was the first really good book on sin I’d read. In a way he traces sin as a process or journey (both personal and collective), keeps an ear tuned to important psychological insights, discusses new age thinking, and tackles “radical evil” in a unique and interesting way.
Transforming Fate Into Destiny by Samuel Wells – I don’t remember a whole lot about this book, except that it’s a summary and explanation of the theology and ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. I liked reading Hauerwas a lot then (still do, but not as much I guess), but reading him is always difficult for me, so I think I liked this book because it gave me a basic framework from which to go back and read Hauerwas himself. If you don’t have any idea who Stanley Hauerwas or don’t care, feel free to ignore this book forever. If you do and would like to “get” him a little better, check it out.
Discipleship as Political Responsibility by John Howard Yoder – This is a very short book that lays out some of Yoder’s basic teachings about what following Jesus means for us politically. It is a much shorter version of The Christian Witness to the State, and is recommended to everyone remotely interested in these issues (hopefully as an introduction to Yoder’s other works, which I’m just sure you’ll want to read after this one). J
Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth – I remember reading this book over Christmas vacation as we travelled to visit Beth’s and my families. Barth is a theological giant who witnessed against Hitler’s regime and re-centered evangelical theology on Jesus. This is the best introduction to his thought, and I especially remember his wonderful theological defense of Jesus absorbing God’s wrath in our place against the accusation of “divine child abuse” or whatever; he put the Trinity back in atonement, so to speak.
The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder – I don’t think at the time I realized how important this book was for me. I would definitely call it my “book of the year” for 2007. First, he argues that our social ethic can be rooted in Jesus. In other words, we can look to Jesus and find guidance for more than just personal morality; Jesus is not irrelevant to larger social and political questions. At the time this was a major statement in the field of social ethics, and it would still change everything today were we to take it seriously. His dual tactic for showing this was (1) a list and simple rebuttal of all the ways we set Jesus aside, and then (2) an analysis of the “politics of Jesus” from the Gospel of Luke (which New Testament scholarship at the time considered the least politically dynamic Gospel). Second, he shows that the central aspect of the New Testament’s social ethic was suffering love or suffering as a result of “social nonconformity.” This, he argues, is the way in which we are called to follow the example of Jesus Christ and specifically his death on the cross. (Oddly, we are often called to follow Jesus’ example in many other regards, and I think rightly so, but we often miss this one.) We don’t conform to the patterns of the world or fight with its weapons, and we may very well get crucified for it. He also has a great chapter on what “justification by faith” meant for Paul, and a great one on the book of Revelation. Some of the specifics of Yoder’s exegesis haven’t stood the test of time, but his overall thesis has never been refuted so far as I’ve seen; unfortunately, neither has it been taken seriously by most Jesus-followers.