So I decided to write out my story of 2009 . . . in books. I read my heart out in 2009, and I’ve wanted to do something to see what I remember from what I’d read. I also just wanted to write, and I couldn’t think of a whole lot to say. Now that I did it, I’m very glad I did. If you like to write, you should totally think about what you could write the story of your year (or decade, etc) around – music, movies, relationships, your choice drink at Starbucks, etc. For me it was books. The story is mostly about what I read, whether I liked it, and what I remember, but I do throw in a few comments here and there about life in general. Two fair warnings: this post is way too long and probably a little pretentious. I thought all last year about posting monthly reports on what I was reading, but I thought it might seem indulgent. I have no idea if or how this is any better, but since we all know maturity is measured not by how much we read but by how well we love, I decided to go for it.
I spent the first week of 2009 preparing for a six-week class I then taught on the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John, so my reading began accordingly. I first read Lord or Legend? by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy. Lord or Legend? was nothing groundbreaking but it was solid and did an above average job of factoring in the importance of orality studies for historical reliability questions. Basically, we in the world of printing tend to assume that cultures who pass information along by word of mouth will not preserve information as well as we do. In short, this is false. Then I read Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus?, and though I’m sure it was good I don’t remember anything specific from it. The next two were from N. T. Wright – Who Was Jesus? and Judas and the Gospel of Jesus. The former has one of the best popular level single chapter summaries of Jesus I’ve ever read. (I remember after Rusty read it, he called me in and said jokingly, “I’ve just accepted N. T. Wright into my heart.”) If you ever want to teach a class on Jesus and don’t have much time to think about how to structure it, follow the outline of that chapter and fill in details as you go. Wright wrote Who Was Jesus? as a polemic against some goofy Jesus books that were gaining steam over in Europe. The second was a response to the recently discovered Gospel of Judas and some of the claims being made about it in the popular media. What I especially remember is that he uncovered some of the cultural assumptions regarding neo-paganism that drive much of the pseudo-skepticism toward the New Testament Gospels. So far as I could tell, the class went fairly well.
I’m pretty sure I got tired of reading books about that topic (“apologetics” doesn’t do a whole lot for me, to be honest, probably in part because I read people who read Barth). So I then read a book that aimed to survey the contemporary scene in terms of “new ways of imagining and doing church.” Tom Sine’s The New Conspirators was enjoyable enough, though I think I expected too much so I was a tad disappointed. (Eddie Gibbs’ Churchmorph, which I read later in 2009, was better IMO.) For whatever reason I followed this up with Vintage Jesus by Mark Driscoll. People love to take potshots at Driscoll, especially on blogs, and I have absolutely no interest in participating. But this really was not a good book, as least in terms of clarifying who Jesus actually was and is. There was only one mention of “kingdom of God,” and it was in one of the short chapter response sections from Gary Breshears (who technically co-authored it). (Jesus ministry was more “all about” the kingdom of God than anything else.) And I don’t remember any mention of “the politics of Jesus” (for lack of a better way of putting it) or explanation of the various Jewish groups vying for influence in Jesus’ day, etc, without which I don’t see how a book is really about the real Jesus.
I think the next book I read was for a reading group I’m in – Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation. I’d read it before and I like it. I’m not sure “power over vs power under,” which Boyd makes central to his argument, attends well enough to the dynamics of power, but so much of the book is affirmable that this wasn’t that big of a deal. I’m not going to say much more here because it’s such a potentially volatile subject and I can’t say enough on a blog to ensure not being misunderstood. If you want to know more about what Boyd thinks, read the book; if you want to know more about what I think, ask me. I read one more book in January and it was probably the best book I read in all of 2009: What About Hitler? by Robert Brimlow. Brimlow basically walks through all the best arguments against pacifism, dismantling some but, more interestingly, agreeing with others. In the end, he admits that being pacifists may very well mean we are susceptible to some of the critiques against it (from Orwell to Bonhoeffer), but Jesus still says what he says so ultimately the critiques don’t make any difference. It is not an easy book to read, either in terms of its prose or its honesty. But regardless of your opinions on the subject, you’ll be better for having worked through it.
I kicked February off with Vinoth Ramachandra’s Subverting Global Myths. I liked it more than my friend Andrew, which made me nervous because he’s better than me at spotting compromise with liberal political assumptions. You will learn a lot from this book if you read it. What I do remember I’m pretty sure didn’t sink in until I read his other stuff later in the year though. I followed it with Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity, which became a turning point for me (though I’ve just about turned back around). He (with George Barna) argues two basic points about virtually all of the current church’s practices – from preaching to youth ministry to paid pastors to churches with buildings, etc, etc: (1) They are rooted in pagan practices that the church uncritically adopted throughout the centuries. (2) They are not only un-biblical, they actually work against the model of ministry assumed and presented in Scripture. On the more positive side, he emphasizes the importance of letting Jesus be the “functional head” of the church’s meetings and making “every member participation” a necessary part of church life. He argues that the “clergy system” keeps the church from being the church. This obviously was and is a difficult argument for me to take seriously, since being “clergy” is how I pay my bills and provide for my family; moreover, I sensed a call to vocational ministry a long time ago and have only had that confirmed throughout the years. I’ve since some to see some pretty serious holes in his arguments, but at the time I didn’t see them and it was very worrisome. (And there’s always the chance that I “see holes” because not seeing holes would be too costly for me. We’ll see.) To make matters worse, I then read The Fullness of Christ by John Howard Yoder. Viola is not in Yoder’s league as an exegete or historian, but that didn’t matter on this point because Yoder, a Mennonite, basically confirmed what Viola claimed about the practice of ministry during the New Testament era. (My smart-a response to both of them is, “Easy for you to say when you get paid by writing books that Christians read.” But I try to suppress those kind of thoughts as much as possible.)
Then I read a book that had been on my shelf for a while – Cornelius Plantinga’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be. It’s a book about sin, and though this may seem strange to say, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book about sin that wasn’t very much worth the time and energy. Plantinga is Reformed and I am not (at least not theologically) so it isn’t what I would have written about sin in some ways, but it is one of the best of its kind. The title alone is worth reflecting on.
I think around this time a close friend confronted me about having heard that my thinking on “the atonement” (how Jesus’ death and resurrection bring salvation) was problematic. Someone heard I didn’t think Jesus’ death was necessary for our salvation. I was angry and hurt, but moreso angry because it was the stupidest thing anyone had ever said about me. I guess it made me insecure enough to try to read some of “the other side” for a while, which was hardly a bad thing. I read three books on the atonement next, representing different voices within the (often misguided) debates: The Atonement Debate by the London Symposium, In My Place He Stood Condemned by J. I. Packer, Scot McKnight’s A People Called Atonement. None of them were awesome, to be honest. There were a couple of good articles in the first one (it was a compilation) – one by Joel Green, one on the book of Hebrews, and one on atonement and cultural analysis. I respect J. I. Packer, but I don’t think he’s a great exegete; and the Bible is what matters to me, not someone’s evangelical credentials. (There, I said it.) And McKnight’s, whom I love and respect as well, kind of fell flat as much as I can remember.
The other two books I read in February were Ron Sider’s Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger and Charles Colson’s God & Government. Sider’s is a must-read (I can’t believe I hadn’t read it sooner), even if it is a bit simplistic (someone meaner would probably call it naive).
My first book in March was Greg Boyd’s book about “spiritual warfare” called God At War. I liked most of it, except that his sources were weird and he didn’t seem to be interacting with the best scholarship in some areas. But it offers a needed corrective to readings of Scripture that under-emphasize God’s battle against evil as a huge part of what the Bible (and thus the world) is all about. Then I read Steve Sjogren’s Irresistible Evangelism as an assignment for a pastor’s retreat. Part of what I love about working at Real Life is that I am asked to read books like Irresistible Evangelism.
After this I put down Robert Webber’s The Younger Evangelicals, which is kind of like Sine’s New Conspirators in that it surveys the scene of who is saying and doing what in the church today. Ultimately the book blossomed into this, which I think is one of the better things I’ve put together, so I am certainly grateful for the book. After this I needed to relax so I read Donald Miller’s Searching For God Knows What. Miller makes me laugh out loud, sometimes uncontrollably, as he did in the (first or second) chapter about visiting a Christian writing conference and sharing his ideas about superhero nuns or whatever. The next day I finished a very different book that I had been piddling at for a while – Terence Fretheim’s The Pentateuch. It was just okay for me. It did make me want to read the Bible itself, which is good.
After Miller and Fretheim I turned to Marva Dawn: first Power, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God, and then (with Eugene Peterson) The Unnecessary Pastor. I love both Dawn and Peterson, but both of these books left me with less than I wanted. Dawn especially is puzzling for me, because even though I almost always love what she’s saying and I know she’s a solid writer, there’s a disconnect there that I can’t get past. I think it’s that we live in such different worlds in terms of the kinds of churches we know and love. But I love anything about the New Testament language of “powers and principalities,” especially from someone deeply influenced by Jacques Ellul (and Yoder).
James K. A. Smith’s Introducing Radical Orthodoxy was one of the better books I read all year. I can’t do justice to “Radical Orthodoxy” in a two-sentence summary of this book written a year after I read it, but it is something worth paying attention to for you theological types (or for anyone wanting to truly understand our culture). RO folks do a better job than most of fleshing out the claim that the world system in which we live is itself a “religion.” I didn’t get the heavy metaphysical stuff (I’m not much of a philosopher), but for those of you who know better than me what this means, Smith ultimately traces our politic back to an underlying ontology, and then he attempts to show that a liberal politic (not like “liberal vs. conservative, but what they both hold in common) is incompatible with an ontology that begins with a God who is love. If I remember right. Again, however, I have little idea what that even means.
I should add that around this time Beth and I suffered our third miscarriage, on Good Friday no less. This is no doubt a large part of why I read so much during these months. I had no idea how to grieve this kind of loss again – all my suffering resources were depleted. So I did what made me feel normal – I read. I’m not sure it was a great idea, but I’m not sure it hurt anything either. I suppose I could have done worse. I should have read something about grieving because I was deathly afraid that I wasn’t grieving well, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so – maybe I feared confirmation that I was, in fact, doing it all wrong. At any rate, through my wife, my family, my friends, and my enemies, God got me through it, and now I write hoping I’ll finish this “story of 2009” before baby Claire arrives!!
I kicked April off with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s New Monasticism, an insider’s look at one of the groups surveyed in books like Sine’s and Webber’s (the group that includes the better-known Shane Claiborne). The “new monastics” are much more interesting than most other “new” groups (especially “emergent”) in large part because (a) they remain committed to a gospel that is more not less faithful to Scripture than the traditional one, and (b) they offer and embody a more substantial critique to the church’s accommodation to Western ideological forces. Around this time we visited one such community – Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco, which is made up of about three dozen people living in close proximity to one another, sharing a common purse, and pursuing a truly alternative way of life to mainstream Americana. WH’s book introduces them quite well. Next came Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear by Scott Bader-Saye, which wasn’t as good as it could have been, and then The Liberating Image by Richard Middleton. The Liberating Image is probably the best book I have read on what it means for the Bible to say humans are made “in God’s image” (though I admit that I haven’t read a lot on that). Parts of the book either didn’t resonate or seemed wrongheaded, but it was definitely worth the read. I have used stuff I learned there in multiple contexts at Real Life. One thing I remember in particular was Middleton’s convincing argument that being created in God’s image in biblical times and places (i.e. ancient Mesopotamia) was reserved for kings. It was a way of expressing the king’s role of representing and establishing God’s reign over the world. In Genesis, however, this concept is “democratized” or expanded to include all of humanity. Correlatively, being created in God’s image is about our purpose or the task to which we’ve been called (rather than some static aspect of our makeup that separates us from the animals). It is about our calling to reflect God’s loving reign to one another and to all creation.
I switched gears with David Benner’s Sacred Companions, which is about spiritual direction and friendship. I remember enjoying it, but I don’t remember much about it, except that he talked about reading people’s dreams, which is fun but dangerous. (Dreams aren’t necessarily about anything, so they can potentially be about anything.) Continuing the pattern of having no pattern, I read The Fall of the Evangelical Nation by Christine Wicker. I am entirely unsure whether historical patterns are anywhere as predictable as books like Wicker’s suggest. It is interesting though that right after WWII the “mainline” denominations (Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, etc) in America experienced a growth boom. So they all built big buildings and assumed things would continue on the up-and-up, only to be profoundly mistaken. It is entirely possible that the same will happen with Evangelicalism. It remains to be seen whether that is the case, whether it is a bad or good thing, and whether we’ll ever agree on why it might happen or what God might be judging us for. (Okay, the last one is pretty easy to predict – No, we’ll never agree on what we might call the Falwell vs. Wallis question.)
My reading group chose to read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Frankl, a brilliant Jewish holocaust survivor, tells of his experiences in concentration camps. It is invaluable as a story of what that was like on the inside, as well as how someone brilliant and previously highly esteemed processed through it. It was also interesting, as a Christian, to observe the interaction between Frankl and God.
The next two books were both disappointing. Norman Kraus’s Jesus Christ Our Lord, presented as “a disciple’s christology,” had two or three excellent chapters, but more that were subpar. I can’t remember if the atonement chapter was one of the better or worse ones. I suppose all any of us can hope for is to say good things about Jesus most of the time, so I don’t want to be too critical. Next I borrowed John Stackhouse’s Finally Feminist from a good friend and while I really liked some of it, in the end the argument he actually put forth didn’t seem very substantial. I didn’t really know what to do with it, from what I can remember.
The next few books were better. William Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved? was classic Willimon, which meant it was fun to read even though Willimon hardly ever actually answers the questions he helps you raise. In the end it was a beautiful, thoroughly humbled, and at times poetic exploration of salvation in Christ. And his answer to the question was something like, “That’s not a question God has asked us to answer.” Or to put it as Willimon would, “Worry about your own damn salvation.” David Bosch’s Believing in the Future might have been the smallest book I read all year, and I confess that part of why I read it is that it would be an easy addition to my list. (This is why I don’t often set specific goals; I’m too sinful not to let them run my life.) It was a good book nonetheless, developing the now standard idea that our task in the present is to embody God’s future; we are a preview or foretaste of the age to come, or as Yoder puts it, “The church is the new world on the way.” Bosch’s bigger book proved to be too much for my 2009, so it’s on my top ten to read in 2010. We’ll see.
Greg Boyd is probably my favorite pastor-theologian-writer, so I read my fourth Boyd book of 2009 next: The Myth of a Christian Religion. It broadens out the basis for his argument in Myth of a Christian Nation, that we are called to embody God’s heavenly kingdom in our earthly present by being, as he puts it, “a giant Jesus” for all to see. This by nature makes us revolutionary, as was Jesus. The Kingdom of God is revolutionary not because revolutions are fun but because the world is the world. He then applies this line to all sorts of contemporary issues: ecology, war and peace, racism, sexual promiscuity, and secularism. It is very readable and I’d encourage anyone to read it.
I followed my fourth Boyd with my third N. T. Wright book of the year: Following Jesus. This is a collection of sermons, and if Wright’s sermons were more widely read then Wright’s critics would be shorn of not a few stupid accusations and wrongheaded critiques. In the first half Wright preaches “book sermons” on Mark, John, Colossians, and Revelation (I think that’s it), all of which are among the best quick looks at those books as a whole that I have come across. I take this to be one of Wright’s greatest skills as a teacher. The second half looks at themes like new creation, resurrection, heaven and hell, etc. Highly recommended with two disclaimers: (1) I have a non-sexual man crush on Wright, about which I am not in the least embarrassed, so I always recommend him, and (2) he is British so he has a writing style that often seems weird to us Americans at first.
After reading Confession of Faith in A Mennonite Perspective next, I remember thinking to myself (and saying to my friend Drew), “This is pretty nearly exactly what I believe, and I never could have said it that clearly myself.” It’s not an exciting book, but if you like meditating on truth, have at it. Though not quite as substantial or meaningful, my next book was, I have to admit, a bit more “interesting” – The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, long-time New Yorker columnist. The book came out when I was in college and I dabbled, but I never actually read it. The Tipping Point is about how social change takes place, and in particular what stands out is his analysis of the three main kinds of people who tend to be at the center of such changes. I’ve tried to convince myself I’m one of the three, but I’m not.
Click here to read part 2.