This is part two of “My Story of 2009 . . . in Books.” You can read part one here.
One of the reasons I decided to keep track of what books I was reading in 2009 is so I could address any imbalances I saw (or at least be aware of them). So I began June with a practical ministry book by someone who I didn’t think would think like me: Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches. I was right – he doesn’t think like me – and because of this the book was good for me to read. A few months ago I’d have said that I think the model of church Stetzer is pushing simply won’t work in our culture for much longer. That may very well be the case, but I’ll offer the more honest observation: the model of church Stetzer assumes and encourages is not one I’d be interested in “planting.” I’m not hatin’ of course, I’m just sayin’.
In the fall of 2009 we led some of our RLC men on a retreat we call Renovate. The express purpose of Renovate is to deal with the (often hidden) sin in our lives, and the specific angle we took this year was idolatry. So my next book was the first of a few I read on idolatry: Gods That Fail by Vinoth Ramachandra. I’m not sure how much of it I used for the retreat itself, but it was the best of the idolatry books I read. It deals more with the idols we as a society have constructed and to which we bow whether we realize it or not. In particular he uncovers our “scientism” (not to be confused with science, which is great) and the ways in which we are still children of the Enlightenment (not that anyone really doubts this). Most helpful was his overall analysis of how idolatry works; for me this germinated and eventually became this.
Maybe in part because that book was so good, the next two were, alas, disappointing. Actually it had little to do with Ramachandra and more to do with my expectations. The two books were Robert Webber’s Who Gets to Narrate the World? and William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed. In the end I expected too much because I loved other books by these authors and I loved the title of these two books in particular. It turned out that neither one was as good as their other works. Webber’s rehashed something like the old Huntington thesis that the world is headed toward a great clash between the West and Islam. (Not that there aren’t elements of truth to this, but to say it like that is extremely problematic.) The question itself is still one of the most important we can ask: “Who gets to narrate the world?” It’s just that in terms of where I live and the people in whom I am working to see Christ formed (including myself), the bigger threat is not radical Islam but the Western worldview against which radical Islam has set itself. But maybe I’m wrong. Cavanaugh’s book wasn’t bad (I’m not sure he can write a bad book), but it paled in comparison to his earlier Theopolitical Imagination.
The reading group again determined my next book – The People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. I was excited to read it (call me nuts, but I like thinking about how evil takes root in human hearts and cultures, and I especially like hearing the thoughts of someone who specializes in a field about which I know very little – in this case, psychoanalysis). Parts of it were quite good (especially the chapter in the My Lai massacre and group evil, as well as the chapter on exorcism, though it was a bit theologically mistaken and self-indulgent), but Peck’s life makes it hard to take his work seriously. (Jesus wasn’t above an occasional ad hominem, so neither am I.)
July brought me back to Ramachandra, and this time I read his book on “world religions” – Faiths In Conflict. I forgot to mention earlier that Ramachandra is Sri Lankan, which provides a unique perspective on these issues. It is one of the two or three best books I’ve read on world religions, in large part because he exposes the many deceptions covered up by the phrase “world religions.” If you like to think about this stuff, I recommend it.
My next idolatry book was by a duo made up of a psychologist and an Old Testament scholar, Breaking the Idols of Your Heart by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III. It turned out to be a reflection on Ecclesiastes. It was not bad but it wasn’t anything real special. Apparently I finished reading it on July 29, along with two other books I finished on the same day. (Yes, my list is that detailed.) The other two were Bill Search’s Simple Small Groups and Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change. Search’s book was fine; if you’re in charge of a small groups ministry and can’t get your heard above water, give it a read-through. Though I’m always afraid to say this publicly, I loved McLaren’s book. I think his best two works are easily this one and The Secret Message of Jesus. I try not to let the fact that I don’t follow the footsteps he’s currently marking out cause me to forget how much I like some of the earlier stuff. In part McLaren is both good and bad because he’s easy-to-read (same is true on another level of John Dominic Crossan). Anyhow, EMC helped me in that he attempted (whether successfully or not) to pull together all of what’s happening in our world and present it in a comprehensive yet simple way that at least attempts to be centered on Jesus. It is a very imperfect book, and I have no interest in defending McLaren (as I said, I don’t follow his more recent moves), but this one is worth reading.
The first book I read in August was and still is the best of all the “missional church” books that I have read: The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch. I think I started reading it earlier in the year, but I lost interest. When I picked it back up the interest was back. Some of the middle chapter are a bit laborious, but if you’re in ministry you should read this book (but not before Resident Aliens, of course). Second in August was a Jewish book on idolatry by Kenneth Seeskin called No Other Gods. I don’t remember anything about it, except that it has a blue cover. The next book was one of my most enjoyable, hilarious, and disturbing reads of 2009: Kevin Roose’s An Unlikely Disciple. A typical liberal kid from the east coast and student at Brown University (I think), Roose decided to enroll in the uber-conservative Liberty University – the school founded and run by the late Jerry Falwell, with the intent of writing about his experience. No other book has helped me see evangelicalism from an outsider’s perspective better than this one. Of course “evangelicalism” is much larger and quite different from Falwell, but (and this was part of the lesson for me) not necessarily to an outsider. I also loved it because Roose was not in attack-mode at all; he even came to love many aspects of his life at Liberty, and had to work very hard not to fall in love. If you went to Bible college or you minister among people who hate the church, read this book as a way of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
Until right now I hadn’t thought about the connection between that book and the next one: Reimagining Church by Frank Viola. Now I can see that I would probably have been open to whatever Viola said, after seeing the inside of a “church” very much in need of “reimagining.” But I don’t want to psychologize away the impact Reimagining Church had on me. It is Viola’s more constructive follow-up to the de-constructive Pagan Christianity I had read a few months prior, and I recommend it as well to anyone working in or with the church, or anyone who feels burned by the church. I’m not sure if the future will look more like Viola would like, and I’m not sure if that’s a bad or good thing. I am sure, however, that Viola needs to be heard even by those of us who aren’t yet ready to find non-pastor jobs, sell all our church buildings, and start participating in meetings with a much softer form of leadership. From this specific argument I turned to a broader perspective in Eddie Gibbs’ Churchmorph. This was the third and final 2009 book that attempted to survey the church scene, and I do think it was the best. In particular he has a chapter on how the world has changed that I almost turned into a blog series; I still think about it often.
I was hungry for something with some theological meat, so next I read Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. In short Moltmann argues that all our thinking about “god” must begin with the fact that he allowed himself to be killed. It may sound simple but it is rarely done. The book’s influence on me can be seen in my answer to Jim’s question about what makes for great theology and/or great theologians (see here). We must let the cross define God, or we’re talking about the wrong God.
In September I started meeting regularly with a group of guys in their early twenties (a “D-group” if you speak Ozarkian), and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my 2009 (as well as 2010). I started them off with Andrew Murray’s Humility, mainly because I knew that’s what my friend Mike would want me to do, and Mike is the one who first d-grouped me. I have a very intelligent theogian friend named Thom who once remarked that this book was “too deep for him.” I believe Thom was reading through Marx at the time, but he was right, and of course the depth he was referring to was not intellectual. I don’t know if reading books like Humility makes me any more humble, but my friendships with the people who both love and hate the book certainly have, at least as much as I let them.
When I graduated from Ozark in 2000, I first enrolled at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, to study the New Testament under Ben Witherington and Joel Green. We came to California instead and I went to Fuller, and as soon as I graduated in 2007 Green came to Fuller as well. I was a little mad at God for not bringing him there sooner, but I guess it’s no big deal. I read his little book Salvation next, and it was really good. He dove into many aspects of salvation that today’s evangelical world either ignores or marginalizes, which is actually worse than just ignoring it, but he also ignored some of what is currently over-emphasized. Specifically, accenting Yahweh God as our Healer and especially our Liberator is good and necessary, but God as Judge is also good news after Jesus, and we don’t get much of this in the book. A great book though, really. I think it made my 2009 top ten list.
In mid-September I began thinking about, planning out, and reading for a six-week class I taught in January 2010 on the life and teachings of Jesus. I started with a book I’d had for a while: Marcus Borg’s Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus. This is Borg’s published dissertation I believe, and it is by far better than anything else he’s put out (some of which is not worth much at all). [A little personal background – as we drove out to California in 2005, I read Borg and Wright’s The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. I had to be honest and admit that I resonated more with Borg’s Jesus (!), at least in terms of how I then thought about and practiced my own spirituality. Because Wright’s Jesus was so obviously closer to the biblical Jesus, the real Jesus, I immediately set myself to repenting and re-learning Jesus. In the next months I poured myself into the Gospels and Wright’s larger works, and the rest is my history. Wright saved me from a Gnostic Jesus.] Anyhow, what I remember about Borg’s book is that in the new prefaces, Borg says he wishes he’d paid more attention to economic questions and Wright disagrees and says he was right to focus on zealous nationalism. I’m not sure who is right, but Borg’s book was helpful to me in that I walked away with a better understanding of what “purity” means in a cultural sense, and in that it stretched my thinking on just what was Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees. Not the best book on “the historical Jesus,” but if you read in that field, read this one too.
With my reading group I then read Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto. I came in expecting a lot, hoping that I would have to think through some serious challenges to my faith. But the book left much to be desired; it just wasn’t good at all. I can’t remember if he tried to argue that Jesus never lived, but it was just about that bad in terms of historical scholarship. Offering quite a contrast was Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. I think this was literally the only work of fiction I read in 2009 (shame on me!), and I read it because I promised Beth I would. It is a work of historical fiction that explores the story of the biblical prophet Hosea set in the world of mid-19th century California. I loved it. If you need a story about the persistence not only of love (especially God’s) but also of our inability to receive it, read this book.
The last book our reading group read was Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight. I love McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed but so far I have found his books good but a little disappointing. This one promises to point a way forward in our attempts to overcome Scripture complex witness and to live it out faithfully. McKnight admits that everyone “picks and chooses” and that the key is to pick and choose rightly, and he promises to show us how to do that. The book is great to guide someone into how truly complex living with the Bible can be, but it does not guide us back out. The last section on the place of women in the church is not bad though. On the same day that I finished Blue Parakeet, I also completed Richard Hughes’ Christian America and the Kingdom of God. His earlier Myths America Lives By may be the best book I’ve ever read on America (maybe), but this one was very disappointing. He assumes the portrait of Jesus in much of John Dominic Crossan’s writings, and he compares this to one of the shallower critiques of capitalism I’ve come across. I hoped this would be a more scholarly version of Boyd’s popular level books, but it was not. I’d tell anyone to read Hughes’ earlier work; I wouldn’t tell anyone to read this one.
Sometime in September I decided to enter into the thick of the Piper vs. Wright debates on the meaning of justification in Paul. I confess that I think (and thought long before September 2009) that there is no way in heaven or hell that Piper is more right than Wright, either on this specific question or on their larger visions of salvation in Christ – and by “more right” I mean more faithful to what Scripture itself teaches. I’m sorry if you disagree; I love you (or I would if I knew you), but I think you are very wrong. Neither Piper or Wright is perfect and both are worthy of respect in different ways, but as exegetes the duel is not close. Anyhow, I first read Piper’s The Future of Justification. I walked away with the following impressions: (1) Piper really does care about the church, and he thinks Wright is dangerous. (2) Piper doesn’t understand Wright, part of which is his fault for not reading Wright more closely and part of which is Wright’s fault for not always being perfectly clear. (3) In particular, Piper doesn’t seem to hear Wright when Wright points out that he’s not denying much of what Piper (together with the Reformers) teach, but that it isn’t what Paul meant by the words “gospel” or “justification.” (4) Piper is very good at breaking down a single text into its disparate parts, but he is not as good at seeing how whole books fit together. (5) Piper thinks Wright isn’t faithful to the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin (et al), and that as such he isn’t faithful to Paul himself. I could go on, but you get the point. Then I read Wright’s Justification and worshiped most of the way through it. I praise God for John Piper, without whom we wouldn’t have this book. Wright proved superior in his ability to grasp both the trees and the forest of the apostle Paul, as well as his deeper faithfulness not to the Reformers but to that to which they themselves were trying to be faithful. I know that my critique of Piper and my affirmation of Wright here is thoroughly biased and not all that substantial, but this is a blog, and if you have problems with that my argument shouldn’t like Piper’s either. 🙂 After all, he says what he says in a published book, and the argument he offers isn’t much better.
About that time I travelled back to Tulsa for a visit with family and to study for my January class on Jesus. I decided to do two things: (1) Read a book about each of the four Gospels, and (2) familiarize myself with some of the literature that tries to take seriously the “political” dimension of Jesus. To be honest, I read way too much way too fast, and as a result I didn’t absorb as much as I’d wished. Here’s what I do remember. Warren Carter’s Matthew and Empire did a pretty good job presenting the way the New Testament world – that is, the world over which the Roman Empire ruled – actually worked. His chapters on imperial theology, politics, and economics were well worth the time. He also argued that Matthew presents Jesus as offering both a theological challenge (through his claims to be the Messianic King of Israel) and a socio-political challenge (through his gathering of a counter-cultural community) to the way of empire. The thesis as a whole is pretty hard to argue with, but some of his detailed exegesis seemed stretched to me. In The Way of the Cross, Joel Green walks through the Gospel of Mark. I had just studied Mark for the Fan or Follower? video we did at Real Life, so not much here was new. Mark’s Gospel has two distinct sections. In the first eight chapters Jesus establishes himself as the Messiah, through his healings, exorcisms, and other miracles, as well as his authoritative teaching. This culminates in the disciples’ affirmation that Jesus is, in spite of the many false opinions about his identity, the Messiah. But from there we encounter a dramatic turning point, as Jesus (and Mark, in the way he tells the story) re-defines not only what it means to be the Messiah, but what it means to be the Messiah’s followers. All will walk, as the book’s title indicates, the way of the cross. Suffering will be the means of achieving God’s purposes of redemption/liberation. Also from Joel Green, I read Theology of the Gospel of Luke. All I remember is that he pointed out how the first few chapters were “political” to the core. And for the first time I was led to think about what Mary raised Jesus to believe. Her magnificat (the song she sang) is pure political dynamite; in other words, Mary raised Jesus to ignite a revolution of one kind or another.
I never finished the book I planned to read about John, but my wife Beth has been teaching John now for a few years, so I certainly picked her brain (and having her in the actual class was more than helpful). I did read a few other works on Jesus. Richard Horsley’s Jesus and the Spiral of Violence was interesting. His actual portrait of Jesus and his ministry in the second half of the book was not very good at all really, but in the first half he describes how empires, including ancient Rome, tend to work, with an emphasis on economic injustice. Maybe it was because by this time my head was spinning, but I found William Herzog’s Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God not only disappointing, but quite unclear. I don’t think the book is very good, but this particular problem was likely my own fault. Lastly that week I read Dale Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. He began by admitting that he’d never write the book he used to want to write – the one that pulls together a somewhat comprehensive portrait of what Jesus was about. This set in me a degree of skepticism: if you don’t have much of an idea of how it all fits together, how can you adequately address the specific parts. I’m sure the book was better than I remember, but by this time my brain really was fried.
As I often do when my brain needs un-frying, I read Donald Miller next. His Million Miles in a Thousand Years was not as funny as the earlier ones, but it was still entertaining and it was a bit more meaningful. He tells the story of how a couple filmmakers approached him to make a movie out of his life after he had early success as a writer. The book is about him coming to terms with the fact that his story wasn’t really worth telling, at least not without making up a bunch of stuff. If your story is boring, read this book and see where God leads you.
I guess I’m a glutton for punishment, because then I read a few more books about Jesus. I took my d-group through The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, which was good to the degree that it is based on N. T. Wright’s larger stuff. Chalke and Mann are a bit punchier, and this book got them into not a little controversy over into the U.K. As far as basic introductions to Jesus go, however, this book is better than most. (Though, I must say, most aren’t very good at all. They’re either faithful to Scripture and really boring, or really interesting or moving but not very faithful to Scripture.) N. T. Wright’s The Original Jesus was a breath of fresh air, but this is one of his most surface-y books on Jesus. It’s not a bad introduction, but I’m not sure if it’s still in print. His last chapter on the distinctives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is good. Paul Louis Metzger’s Consuming Jesus is about Jesus, consumerism, and social and racial divisions within the church. I suppose that subtitle set me up for inflated expectations. I remember one chapter was good, but that’s all I remember. It is an important set of questions though. Along similar lines, I then read Naming the Powers by Walter Wink. It is the first in a trilogy exploring “the language of power” (i.e. powers and principalities, etc) in the New Testament. Wink eventually goes lots of places I can’t follow, but he is extremely profitable to read. He draws attention to a crucial and often ignored biblical theme. He’s kind of the anti- Greg Boyd on some of these questions: Boyd over-spiritualizes the language whereas Wink over-politicizes it (or to put it more accurately, Boyd under-politicizes whereas Wink under-spiritualizes). I’m sometimes afraid to admit it (because then people will assume I buy Wink hook, line, and sinker, which I certainly do not), but The Powers That Be hugely impacted me. The last book I read in 2009 on the historical Jesus was The Historical Jesus: Five Views with contributions and critiques from John Dominic Crossan, James Dunn, Luke Timothy Johnson, Darrell Bock, and Robert Price. They mostly talked historical methodology, which can be pretty boring, but if you’re studying such things this will be a helpful resource.
We’re getting down to the last few weeks and books. I got to read John Howard Yoder’s last book The War of the Lamb (actually it was published after he died, but he had planned it already). I cannot say enough good things about this book, not because it was the best book I’ve ever read, but because there really are so many specific things he does well. There’s a chapter that outlines the logic of just war in superb fashion (which, for the record refers to justifiable war and not wars that we think fit our definition of “justice”), and if you’re a Christian and not a pacifist, you should know this stuff. The most memorable part of the book for me, though, was his concept of “cosmological conversion.” I can’t remember if he’s talking about Tolstoy, Gandhi, King, himself, or all of the above, but he talks about coming to the realization that pacifism isn’t strange, but rather that it makes the most sense given the truest truth about our world. I am of course aware that most of you think I’m crazy for this belief, and that’s fine (thankfully, my beliefs are not dependent on whether or not other people see me as sane! 🙂 ). But I may have had my own such conversion as I read this book. I should add though, that Yoder’s prose can be demanding.
Less demanding from a literary standpoint but no less challenging in every other sense was John Perkins’ Let Justice Roll Down. In this book Perkins, long-time Christian civil rights activist and sufferer of the worst injustices short of death, tells his story. It truly is a magnificent story and you should certainly read it. (If you’ve read to this point in this post, you clearly know how to read. 🙂 The title is taken from the biblical prophet Amos. When I’m thinking about what I learned from whom and I come to the question, “Who convinced me that justice (or “social justice”) matters to God and is important for Christians?” the answer is quite simply Amos and his friends the other prophets. Anyway, Perkins book is a gem. I followed it with a very different but in some ways similar book: War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges. Hedges left the New York Times because they wouldn’t let him tell the truth, and he has written a number of books. He did on-the-ground journalism during many wars of the past centuries, and he speaks as one who has seen that of which he speaks. The Academy Award winning film The Hurt Locker opens with a quote from this particular book: “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The book itself leaves no one guiltless, and I include myself, for the bloodshed we’ve witnessed in the past century. (Hedges makes it very clear that he’s not a pacifist, by the way.) Finding this kind of thing interesting, I went on to read William Polk’s Understanding Iraq. Polk is a leading student of the Middle East, and this book does a fabulous job of placing current hostilities in proper historical context. It’s history so the pages don’t turn themselves, but it is very readable. And, since very few of us know the history of Iraq, it is very important as well.
A couple days later we travelled back east to visit family for Christmas and New Year’s, and for Christmas my mom gave me What is the Missional Church? by Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren. I finished it on December 31, just in time to be included in this list. Along with Forgotten Ways and Reimagining Church, it is one of the three best books I’ve read about church and ministry, etc. This is by far the most user-friendly; the whole final section is about how to put into practice what they’ve said needs to happen. If you’re in ministry and both confused about where to take things and too busy to read much, start with the second half of this book.
Well, there it is – my story of 2009 in books. I have no idea if anyone remained interested enough to make it this far, but if you did, thanks! I have no idea if reading that many books in one year was a good idea, or if I’ll ever do it again, but if I do I will definitely revisit the list later and see how much I can remember. Not only has this been valuable for me, it has been lots of fun! Cheers . . . to books and to you (especially you if you’ve made it this far!).