The best 8 books I read this year*

I have eight categories in my reading rotation (nine if you count my “wild card” category). Here’s the best book I read in each category this year.

brave new woLiterature

I finally read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley this year. Of the dystopian visions I’ve seen, his is the most chilling. I can’t say it better than Neil Postman, who compared it to 1984 this way: “In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.” If you haven’t read this, you should. If you haven’t read it since high school English, I bet you’ll appreciate it more now.

1 2 kingsBible

I read N.T. Wright’s mammoth (in size and scope) The New Testament and the People of God this year. I’m reading that whole series, so I’m going to hold the individual volumes out of my “best books lists.” Otherwise, Wright might dominate this category for years.

Instead, I’m choosing Iain Provan’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings. Provan is consistently interesting. He’ll provide a different viewpoint than you may be used to. For instance, he has no kind words about Solomon from the start. Provan’s introduction—especially as he deals with what kind of literature the book of Kings is––is worth the price of the book. Along with some penetrating insights into the text, he provides personal reflections and application. You don’t need to be a scholar to read this commentary. Provan is a good communicator for general audiences.

TheMisunderstoodJewPhilosophy, Psychology, and Other Religions

The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine is full of fresh and interesting insights about the New Testament. It’s a book about the historical Jesus from a Jewish scholar. She sets out to help us understand Jesus “through first-century Jewish eyes” and to hear him “through first-century Jewish ears.” She also shows the ways that we have misrepresented the Judaism of Jesus’ day to make it the perfect foil for Jesus, ignoring its complexity and depth for a cheap stereotype. A few arguments against Christianity I found unfair or overblown, but this was a very good book overall.

glittering-vices-a-new-look-at-the-seven-deadly-sins-and-their-remediesPractical Theology

You need to read Glittering Vices by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. I loved this book. It helped shape my articles on lust, gluttony, and anger this past year—the other 4 capital vices coming next year. DeYoung gives a historical look at the vices that gets beyond common surface-level treatments.

If you think you understand what the 7 capital vices (or deadly sins) are about, this book will shed new light on them. DeYoung’s treatment shows the depth of the theological tradition on these and provides helpful application. I also liked the way DeYoung situates pride at the root of all of them rather than as one of them. This would be a great book to read during Lent this year, or sooner.

Doctrinal Theology

The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder had been on my to-read list for years, and it didn’t disappoint. Some themes in this book don’t seem as groundbreaking to me as people have suggested. But that may be because of Yoder’s influence, especially noted in Stanley Hauerwas’s work. Perhaps I wouldn’t have already heard these perspectives elsewhere if it weren’t for Yoder.

If any of my posts on the church and ethics (e.g. “Church as Alternate Economy,” “Jesus and Politics,” “Absent from Flesh“) have piqued your interest, I’m wondering if many of those thoughts were due to Yoder’s trickle-down influence, even before reading him directly.

Yoder connects imitation of Christ to submission––both to God and the power structures of this world––which almost surely entails suffering. He shows the church’s very existence, as a true Christian community, as its primary purpose. How does the gospel transform our world? Yoder says the church is the primary social structure for that transformation. A helpful corrective to Christian views that seclude the church from the world or that try to use the world’s structures to transform it.

This is a difficult read, but much easier than some of the others I trudged through this year (I’m looking at you Hauerwas and D. A. Carson). If you want a simplified version, Nathan Hobby has created one that has received good reviews.

triumphGeneral Christianity—History and Special Subjects

The Triumph of Christianity by Rodney Stark was excellent. It could be subtitled “Myth-busting Christian history.” Stark provides a sociological survey of some of the most important points of Christian history and debunks dozens of common myths about history along the way. His conclusions about how Christianity spread, the “dark ages,” the church’s role in the scientific “revolution,” the Spanish Inquisition, and religion in Europe—to name only a few—are convincing rejections of our popular notions.

Stark provides a social science survey that’s interesting and accessible. You should give it a try.

Denominational Works

I was surprised by Bill Arnold’s Seeing Black and White in a Gray World.  My surprise was because of the subtitle—“The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality”—and the relatively small size of the book. I expected it to be a narrowly focused book on sexuality, specific to the United Methodist Church. In the end, I’d recommend it to people outside the UMC with no interest in that ethical debate. Though that debate is clearly where everything leads, this book was a concise and readable introduction to logic and theological method.

Earlier this year, I interviewed Dr. Arnold about the book and provided a two-part review.

mans searchOther

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is the second book I’ve read from a Holocaust survivor. His account is horrific, but gripping. As much as I wanted to stop reading, I couldn’t. Frankl describes the concentration camp experience candidly––both the external realities and the common psychology of prisoners.

Frankl was a neurologist and psychiatrist, evident in his keen observations about his own, and others’ psychology. The second half of the book explains his psychological approach––logotherapy. He likens it to the work of an eye specialist rather than a painter:

“A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is. The logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.”

That was a helpful perspective in counseling for me.

For the comments: what was the best book you read this year?

See my 2013 edition of this list here

* Okay, technically this isn’t the best eight books I read. It’s the best book in each of eight categories. That title didn’t have the same ring, though.

On heresy – taking it more, and less, seriously

hereticMany of us are too serious about “heresy.” Others are too lax. That’s often because we misunderstand what heresy is.

When we’re too serious about “heresy”

I sometimes hear preachers fret that they may accidentally preach heresy. They worry even more that someone else may preach or teach it in their congregation.

A proper definition might calm some nerves. Heresy is about obstinacy. Heresy happens when someone spurns the church’s historic faith. There is no accidental heresy.1

Now you may say something that’s theologically debatable, different from what your tradition teaches, or even flat-out incorrect. At some point, you will. It’s inevitable. But you haven’t committed heresy. Not unless you know that your teaching is a contradiction of the apostolic faith and you keep teaching it anyway.

We need to take that kind of “heresy” a bit less seriously. For one, it’s not heresy.2 For two, we’re going too far when we get ourselves that worked up about theological misspeak. (See “A note on bad theology.”)3

When we’re too lax on heresy

Then there’s the real kind of heresy. The kind that spurns the historic Christian faith while masquerading as “Christianity.” The person who teaches that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead—that person doesn’t have “different opinions,” he’s a classic heretic.

Because some people have over-reacted to any theological differences, others have over-reacted in the opposite direction. They want to minimize classic heresy and just call it a different opinion. Their mantra: “Let’s all just get along! If they love Jesus and you love Jesus, that’s enough.”

I accept and affirm that for true theological differences. One person believes in infant baptism, another in belivers’ baptism? One is a Calvinist, another an Arminian? Protestant and Roman Catholic? We can live with all of these differences.

But we can’t live with legitimate heresy. When someone spurns the core beliefs of the historic Christian faith, and when they do it in the name of Christianity, we can’t turn a blind eye or shrug it off. The early Church got it right to respond with rebuke and excommunication.

Does one of these describe you more than the other? The person who gets too worked up about theological misspeak risks legalism—truth takes precedence over grace. The one who shrugs off legitimate heresy risks relativism—grace takes precedence over truth. Any time grace and truth go out of balance, we’re misrepresenting the Christian faith.

Let’s loosen up about that which is not real heresy. And let’s treat real heresy with the severity it merits.

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I think of this especially as articles about Rob Bell are swirling. Some people want to claim he’s a heretic deserving excommunication—“Farewell, Rob Bell.” Others don’t understand why people get so worked up—“So he has different opinions. He’s still a Christian…”

The issue with Bell is a bit complicated. For as much as Bell influenced me (and I’m not ashamed to say it), I wouldn’t call him a representative of the Christian faith anymore. The things he’s saying, and not saying, go past “different opinions” within Christianity. For all I can tell, he’s a preacher of New Age religion who uses the Bible for source material. I’m not quite sure I’d call him a heretic, but I can no longer call him a Christian preacher. I’ll explain that in more detail later.

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  1. The word comes from a Greek word for choice—making the choice to prefer your own interpretation of Scripture over the church’s historical consensus. This, by the way, may put Evangelicals at greatest risk of heresy. We’re the ones most likely to preference our own interpretations over the historical consensus.
  2. You can actually teach something that’s “heretical” (e.g. Jesus was a human who later became divine) without committing heresy. The same as you can say something false without lying. Intent makes a big difference. We’ve all misspoken at times, but if we thought we were telling the truth, it was an error not a lie. Same for heresy.
  3. In the case of both heresy and lying, we should aim to speak truthfully, but not be so paralyzed by fear of misspeaking that we say nothing.

Let’s have more “boring” testimonies

testimonyA friend just told me he has one of those “boring” testimonies. I told him that’s something to celebrate.

As a father, I’ll be thrilled if the story my kids have to tell about me in 20 years is “boring” in the same way. I would like nothing more than for them to say, “I’ve always known my dad loves me. I’ve never doubted that. Never rebelled against it. I just keep seeing his love for me in new ways and enjoying it. And I love him a lot…” (To be clear—I’m not suggesting there are no bumps along the way, just no dramatic rebellions.)

As a husband, my goal is for my wife to have a similar “boring” story about me when we’re old. No questions, no doubt, no extended periods of hostility. No breaches of faith.

In fact, those aren’t “boring” stories, are they? They can be beautiful stories of love and faithfulness, vitality and growth. These are stories about life change—not because of a drastic course correction, but because of steady, enlivening faithfulness.

Sometimes we downplay these stories because they don’t take a dramatic turn. They don’t excite us like a broken relationship repaired, a corrupt person redeemed. But they’re good stories.

What’s my greatest hope and prayer for my kids, and for all of the kids in our church? That they’ll have “boring” testimonies about their faith when they grow up. I’d love to proudly put one of them in front of the congregation each week to tell a “boring” story about faithfulness.

About how that congregation made a covenant to them 20-some years ago and kept it—a covenant to surround them with a community of love and forgiveness and pray for them, that they would become true disciples of Christ.

About how they had always known God’s love. Never doubted it. Never rebelled against it. Just kept growing in it.

Now I know I can’t control this. Not as a father, not as a husband, not as a pastor. I can influence these things (see especially “Finding a church for my kids”), but not control them. The enemy still leads people into rebellion, even from the best of circumstances.

And when that rebellion happens, we’ll seek out any lost sons or daughters and throw lavish parties for any who return. We’ll put them in front of the congregation to share their “less-boring” testimonies, and the extra drama of those stories may result in more tears and cheers than normal. We’ll probably rejoice more over that one lost sheep that returned than over the 99 who never strayed. And that makes sense.

But for me, I’d love to have more “boring” testimonies. I don’t think they’re really all that boring after all.