Several are like fast-food––they can be good and filling in the moment. Sometimes you just don’t have the time or energy for anything more. You know you shouldn’t make them the staple of your diet, but they have their place. And we’ve all craved a chalupa at some point. (Right? Right??)
Some are a bit better than that––more like Applebee’s. It’s… good. Not the highest-quality fare, but… good.
And then there are the ones like Malone’s––a premier steakhouse in Lexington. You don’t go when you only have 30 minutes for dinner (or when you only have $10). But when you take the time to enjoy it, you won’t regret it. You know that whatever you order, it will be high-quality fare.
And on the other end of the spectrum, there are a few that you really shouldn’t go to at all. They keep getting a C from the Health Department. You’ve been warned: eat this, and you may get food poisoning.
From my observations and sampling of Christian book bestsellers, I think the majority of American Christians’ diets consist of McDonald’s and Applebee’s. The New York Times Bestsellers lists are full of Crazy Love and Love Does and Radical and Not a Fan. Ask a random reading evangelical, and they’re likely to have read one of those, if not all four. Now please hear me when I say that I believe these books have their place. I’ve read Crazy Love with two different groups! It produced good conversations. I may even read it with another group in the future. I love Platt’s and Chan’s sincerity and conviction. Their lives challenge me. I hope they challenge others, too.
What upsets me isn’t that these books sell and are read at all. It’s that many Christians think these are as good as it gets. It’s like a friend looking up from his Applebee’s sirloin and saying, “I think this is the best steak ever made.” Oh, friend…
How dare I be so elitist, you say. My friend may not be able to afford better than Applebee’s, you say. This is one of the wonderful places where my analogy falls apart. Those high-quality fare books often won’t cost you any more than the fast food ones. And some of these are just as easy to understand. The difference is in their depth, not their accessibility. A different time and energy investment, probably… but not a different financial or intellectual requirement.
And if the expense were equal, I’d have Malone’s much more often, McDonald’s and Applebee’s much less.
With that, I want to suggest a few books for anyone living on a fast-food diet. Just like Malone’s, this menu has some things that are really heavy––you’ll probably need them in small doses––and others that are much lighter. Whether heavy or light, though, they come with the chef’s stamp of approval. This is real food. (These are books I think most people can read. I’m not including high-shelf scholarly works. Those are like… that great restaurant in the woods you have to hike to––might be hard to get there without building up your endurance, and the trek might not be worth it to some people.)
APPETIZERS & SALADS
These are lighter selections––a great place to start that shouldn’t overwhelm you.
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
This is probably the lightest fare on this list as ease-of-reading goes, though the subject matter is hardly light. I’ve talked to several people who wished they had read this years earlier. It’s the most self-helpish book on this list, but I appreciate helpful books. It provides good categories for those who are too slow to say no or too slow to say yes. (Although I fear it may give people too quick an excuse to be selfish and say, “That’s just my boundary.”)
This is a clear and accessible presentation of the core of Wesleyan theology. And Wesleyan theology changed my life, so I’m a fan. If phrases like “original sin,” “prevenient grace,” or “Christian perfection” are unfamiliar or a bit fuzzy for you, this book will be a great help. It’s light and quick reading, outstanding substance.
The True Story of the Whole Worldby Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew
If you’re not sure you have a firm understanding of the biblical narrative, this book may be exactly what you’re looking for. An easy read that will help you understand how these 66 books of the Bible tell one cohesive story.
And if this book doesn’t quite fit your palate, may I suggest instead The Story of God, the Story of Us by Sean Gladding? It will accomplish much of the same, but in a more narrative format. If non-fiction is easier for you, start with Goheen and Bartholomew. If you’re usually a fiction reader, choose Gladding.
The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer
There’s some debate about putting this on the appetizers menu. It’s like those buffalo chicken wings––you could have it for your meal. It’s just not quite as much as the things listed under entrees. It’s as full of conviction and challenge as Chan and Platt, but with a lot more to bite into. It has been the most influential book in several of my friends’ lives. A modern classic.
These will all take a while to digest, but they’re worth it. Savor them. This part of the menu has a few major headings that include several items underneath. Imagine the server saying, “You can’t go wrong with our steaks.” That’s how it is with some of these.
C. S. Lewis
You really can’t go wrong with C. S. Lewis. If you get to choose only one right now… I’d go with Mere Christianity (the modern classic of all modern classics) or maybe The Great Divorce. Lewis puts profound concepts into language and analogies that are relatively easy to understand.
You can also pick at blind from the Bonhoeffer menu and know that you’re getting something great. Discipleship (aka The Cost of Discipleship) is his best. Life Together is maybe the easiest starting point. Even if you don’t have the time or appetite for the whole book, chapter 1 of Discipleship could change your life.
Celebration of Disciplineby Richard Foster
You could really read anything by Foster. Or choose Dallas Willard, if he suits your taste better. These are the devotional masters of our time. They’ll teach you how to orient your life toward listening to God and hearing from him.
Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright
Again, most any of the popular works by Wright will do. (He also writes scholarly books. You’ll know them by the extensive footnotes and 900-page sizes.) I choose Surprised by Hope as the best starting point for most people. Wright is helping re-orient American Christians to a salvation that means more than heaven.
Glittering Vices by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung
This isn’t the most popular dish on the menu (it’s Lewis and Bonhoeffer that you’ll hear about in all the magazines), but it might just be my favorite. It’s just so good. I think you’ll love it. DeYoung will introduce you to some deep historical Christian theology, give you tools for a solid self-examination, and delight you with the way she writes, too. Who knew examining our vices could be so enjoyable?
When you’ve saved room, this is the cherry on top.
G. K. Chesterton
Chesterton deserves more than “cherry on top.” He’s far more substance than just that. But when I’m really getting Chesterton, it seems like dessert. He makes me smile and shake my head at just how good it is. He’s very different––maybe not to everyone’s taste, but you should really give it a try. Orthodoxy is his classic.
Everything I’ve included here is a “new” book by historical standards. I thought these might be an easier place to start for most people. If you keep coming back, you should check out the secret menu. It has some great classics from previous centuries. (Those classics are hardly secrets, but they’re often sadly overlooked in our popular culture today.)
Hey, if all you have time and energy for is fast food, go ahead and grab it. It will at least fill you up for a bit. Just know that there’s even higher-quality fare out there. You can’t eat it in your car at stop lights, but if you can make the time to sit down and really enjoy it, I think you’ll agree it was worth it…
Have you ever heard a sermon or Bible study that presents a text in a way that you had never considered? Those sermons and studies have always stood out to me. They force me to think in a different way about the whole biblical narrative and my faith. They make me want to go back to other passages in the Bible and read more deeply, in case what I’ve been seeing from them was too shallow, or perhaps even missed the point entirely.
Tom Fuerst, one of the pastors at Christ UMC in Memphis, regularly does that with Scripture passages. Tom is a prophet and scholar and story-teller. He reads the Bible with a critical eye, looking for those small details that may be crucial to the whole. And then he tells stories about the Bible and about life today in a way that engages and comforts and challenges.
Because of all that, I was excited to learn that Tom had written a book––a Bible study for Advent. It’s a book that does exactly what I would have expected from Tom, combining all his prophetic, scholarly and story-telling skills. The book is titled Underdogs and Outsiders: A Bible Study on the Untold Stories of Advent. It focuses on the five women in the genealogy of Jesus and sheds new light on each of their stories. I highly recommend it to you for your own reading, and even more if you can find a group to read and discuss together during Advent.
Even if you don’t read the book, I think you’ll enjoy my interview with Tom below. You’ll pick up on some of his approach to reading Scripture and also gain from his call for brutal honesty in the church.
See the transcript below, or listen to the audio here (right-click to download).
Teddy: My name is Teddy Ray and I’m here today with Tom Fuerst. Tom is a longtime friend and someone who is doing some great work in pastoral ministry and also in theology. I was so excited to hear… Tom, you’re finally writing something, and I was waiting for this––for you to put something out that I can hand people. Tom, just this year has written a book called Underdogs and Outsiders. It’s a bible study on the untold stories of Advent… I’m going to hold it up [we recorded in video] because Tom is posting all over his Facebook page these advertisements that are LeBron James and Mickey Mouse and anyone under the sun holding up his book.
I’m really excited to talk to you about this. It’s funny that you’ve done that goofy advertising campaign for what is a very vulnerable and deep sort of study.
Tom: Yeah, yeah, it definitely is. I’m trying to provide some juxtaposition between lightheartedness and “Oh wow, this book is kind of intense.”
Teddy: Yeah. I think you introduce it really well. In your introduction you say, “Jesus Christ did not come into a perfect family filled with perfect people who didn’t need saving. He came into a wrecked family filled with wrecked people who needed a savior.” It seems like that’s a theme that you keep capturing over and over again throughout the book. Not only in the lives of these women, but in your life, too. How did all these start to come together for you?
Tom: Yeah, I mean that was it. I feel like a lot of times what happens when we get together for church is we put on our best faces, we put on our best clothes, and we put on our best behavior, and we ask our children to be on their best behavior, and so we sort of put on this air of having it together. It seems to me when I read the New Testament that the church doesn’t have it all together, and on some levels, they’re not even pretending to have it all together. When you read the letters of Paul, they clearly are not pretending to have it all together. They’re bickering and arguing and they don’t get it right and there are people just at each other’s throats. Paul is writing these letters saying, “Hey, listen.” He is not saying be authentic, he is not saying, “Hey put on an air and pretend like everything is okay,” but he is saying like here is a cruciform form way to handle conflicts. Not to avoid them, not to pretend like they are not there, but acknowledge them and work through them in the method of the cross in that direction.
It just occurs to me that so much of the way we do church, and so much of what we assume about the Christian life, doesn’t involve this sort of brutal honesty about our imperfections and these vulnerabilities. So far as we are not being vulnerable with one another, acknowledging both our individual brokenness and also the brokenness of us together collectively, we really can’t be the church, right? I mean the church begins with confession. “I am a sinner and I am a man of unclean lips and I live with people of unclean lips and I need some help.” So far as we don’t acknowledge we need help, we can’t be the church.
Teddy: That’s great, that’s beautiful. Did you preach this through at any point? Did you preach through these characters or something similar?
Tom: Yes and No. I mean I’ve preached on the women. I’ve preach on Tamar, and I have taught many lessons going through Genesis and so I did Genesis at my service here a couple of years ago. In fact, I had a whole sermon on Tamar and I’ve taught lessons on her. I don’t think I’ve preached on Rehab. I think I have preached on Ruth, and I don’t know that I have preached on Bathsheba. So some of it I have preached on and I have done work on and some of it was really fresh and others I started from scratch.
Teddy: Yeah, so the things that you wrote here, the ways that you approach these stories. This was very different from the Sunday School version of these stories. Especially I think about the story of Rahab and you are talking about these Israelite soldiers in a totally different way than I have ever heard them presented. Where is this coming from? Is this scholarly opinion that we never actually get, or where did it come from?
Tom: Yeah, it’s drawing from the implications from the text. Obviously doing the work with the text, but then also reading commentaries. And understanding that the commentaries are trying to sound very professional, but they’re talking about very not professional texts. And so, these commentaries are making it scholarly and they’re drawing these connections with other texts and saying things like, “This is the symbolism happening here,” and really the symbolism is incredibly scandalous! But the commentaries will say, “This is scandalous.” But they don’t make you feel the scandal. I think ancient Israelite readers would have felt the scandal, they would have understood the symbolism and the references and they would have felt the scandal. I wanted to sort of draw out that feeling in a way that it would help us have some context for that feeling as well.
Teddy: Yeah, you did that well.
Tom: Oh, well thanks!
Teddy: Yeah, as I’m reading I was like, “Okay, nobody is going to miss this.” You can’t go on and go, “Oh that story of Rehab is just this nice little story about soldiers that she protected.”
Tom: Some of it is, it comes down to the realization… Again going back to the idea that these people are not perfect, they are a mixed bag and if we assume that even our biblical heroes are a mixed bag of sinfulness and brokenness like you and I are, then that gives us space to cringe when they do something. It gives us space to sort of chuckle when they’re out of line, it gives us space to wonder about their motivations. Of course I don’t want to go beyond what the text says, but at the same time, there are clues within the text about what is happening in these stories that we just have a difficulty picking up on because they’re 6,000 years later or something.
Teddy: Right. Speaking of that, we’re 6,000 years removed. You are a white man, who is a pastor in a church writing about these women 6,000 years ago, or some less than that. How did you overcome all those different sorts of barriers to put yourself in some of these people’s shoes?
Tom: Yeah. I’ll say this, obviously I can’t overcome those barriers. The idea will be more, how do I acknowledge that they’re there and work with them, understand that they’re what they are and try to bring in other voices. I relied heavily on a couple of female scholars who gave a different kind of approach to the text that wasn’t outside of the bounds of good protestant theology, good orthodoxy, but still reflected deeply on the experience of women and how the experiences of women under regimes of oppression or under patriarchal cultures might have responded to this and what they were trying to do. So I tried to listen very deeply to what they were saying.
Then the other thing was just to try to be as familiar as I can be with the text and ask questions of the text. You know, our inductive Bible study in seminary, you and I had inductive Bible study together actually, and it taught me to ask questions.
It taught me to say, “Hey, why is this little piece in the text? It seems like it’s insignificant.” And yet I realized that the authors of these texts don’t waste words. They don’t have the time and energy to waste words. They’re being very precise. Why are these little details here, why does it matter that the Israelites are camped at Shittim right before they crossed into the Promised Land? You know, that connection between prostitution, the Israelites prostituting themselves and idols, and then they’re going in and the first person they meet is a prostitute. That’s not just mere coincidence. I have to ask questions about that, and I think any good interpretation has to bring those two things together.
I think relying heavily on some female scholars is a help, and then just doing the work with the text and just really wrestling with it.
Teddy: This is one of the things that I have loved about your approach to any theological question is, there is this deep searching of the scriptures to say, what is actually here? You consistently refuse to accept the easy answer or the quick answer or the answer that’s already out there. What’s really underneath this, and I think people are really going to benefit from that.
Tom: I appreciate that. Not everybody does!
Teddy: Quit messing with our world, right? We already know what to believe about this. Stop introducing new things.
Teddy: What are you hoping people might gain from this, if they’re studying on their own, if they’re studying it in a group, what are you hoping will come?
Tom: I think at the end of the day, the realization that, if Jesus’ family tree was filled with all these broken branches before he arrived, then that’s all that he works with now. I mean he is dealing with these broken branches now, and it’s okay, we don’t have to hide these things. We don’t have to put on our best face and our best clothes and make our children behave. We don’t have to suppress depression or mental illness or anger or divorce or any other thing that’s happening. That we really can be open about these things. In fact we can’t be the church unless we’re open about these things.
I don’t know that I have some big revolution in mind. I’m just not Rob Bell or anything. I think if the small number of people that might be interested in reading a book like this can just simply get a glimpse of the fact that God works with sinners, that God works with broken people, and if He doesn’t then He doesn’t have anybody to work with, then maybe there can be little smoldering revivals here and there.
Teddy: You keep talking along those lines and you share so personally throughout this book about your own experiences. Was there a moment or a few moments of that kind of revelation for you that really changed things?
Tom: I think not growing up in church was probably a huge part of the way I approach this. I think everything I preach and everything I teach and everything I write is in some way related to my family. You see it on the first page when I dedicate the book to my mom, and this is in hopes that all of your pain and all of your suffering might find redemption. There is this sense in which the entirety of my ministry and the entirety of the way I think about these things is grounded in the assumption that our stories have a redemptive arc and that God is working our stories, individually and collectively, to this resurrection kind of end. We may not see that. We may just see just a small part of it, just as these five women didn’t really see the full outcome of what God was going to do. I think for a long time, I’ve just had this back of my mind realization that this includes my family, that this big story of redemption includes my family, whether I see it or not. And it includes me, and it includes my brokenness, so let’s engage that stuff, let’s talk about it. So the book is probably really a natural overflow of how I preach then.
Teddy: Yeah, I can hear that, definitely. How did you choose these five women? How did you choose Advent? How did you choose the form of a bible study sort of book? How did all that happen?
Tom: Great question. First Abingdon approached me about it. They were looking for an Advent study and they asked me if I had anything I might be interested in writing about, and I knew immediately that I wanted to write about these five women. Pretty much everything about the book is Abingdon’s idea except for the subject and the actual writing. They chose the bible study, they wanted it to be Advent, they wanted it to have five chapters and an introduction, and so it was basically, “Hey, do you have an idea for five chapters and an introduction?” And I said, “Yeah. Let’s talk about the women in the genealogy of Jesus. Let’s really dig in here.”
And I knew immediately what I wanted to write about, because again, it just seemed natural to do it. Advent is a time where our brokenness ought to be acknowledged, our waiting, the fact that we recognize there is a redemptive arc, and so Jesus is coming, but he’s not here and we can’t see it, and we feel this desperation from our own brokenness. And I didn’t want to just talk about that abstractly. I didn’t want to just say, “Hey, we’re waiting for redemption.” I wanted to say, “Look, these are women who waited for redemption and didn’t necessarily even see it.”
And so, the waiting we feel, at least we have Jesus 2000 years ago. You and your situation right where you are and the imperfections of your family and your own soul, you may feel like this is not going to end, but there is a redemptive arc to this, and these women are the promise of that.
Teddy: Okay, I’m gonna ask the opposite of the easy question.
Tom: All right.
Teddy: Who should not read this? Who is this book not for?
Teddy: Okay. As in children to what age?
Tom: I would say leave that up to the parents…
Teddy: When are you going to let your daughter read it?
Tom: Yeah, my daughter is seven, she’s not going to read it until we’re properly ready for her to… There is sex in there, right? I mean that’s the thing. The bible is an adult book and it’s not always PG-13. Sometimes it is downright rated R or even worse in certain passages. I took on a few of those passages. I mean it’s not smutty, it’s not super overly graphic or anything but it deals with sex, it deals with rape, it deals with the way men use sex to hurt women. And those are pretty, I think in light of certain political things happening now, it’s pretty relevant, but it’s not necessarily the kind of thing I want my seven year-old to read. I would say, I would leave it up to parental discernment.
Then maybe people who are easily scandalized and don’t want to see these things in the Bible, they’re going to see it as unholy or something. I could say they should not read it, but at the end the day, I mean they may be the people who would benefit the most from seeing the scandal of the Bible.
Teddy: Yeah. Anything else you didn’t get a chance to say that you want to talk about here?
Tom: Yeah, what stood out to you? What was a chapter or a thing that really stood out to you, that you said, “This is interesting,” either an interesting approach or something you hadn’t thought about that way before?
Teddy: Right. I named the one that had stood out the most which really was, man the way you treated Rahab. I had never thought of that entire story that way, that these are unrighteous people coming to her and that she did the righteous thing in the middle of it, just turning all of that upside down. That was brilliant. I really appreciated that.
Tom: That whole thing about circumcision, it occurred to me, the king comes to her and he says, “Hey, have you seen these people?” He’s like, “How would she know they’re Israelites?” Well. She knows. Yeah and I think she is so compelling because she is the person they’re told to destroy. They come in and they’re going to use her body and then throw her away with the rest of the Canaanites, but she makes the greatest confession of faith in the entire book. To me that communicates, whatever unease we might feel with the Canaanites genocides, I think the writer of Joshua probably felt the same.
Teddy: Do you think that’s just one more piece of when Israel read that, do you think they just read that and were cut to the core, “What is wrong with us here?”
Tom: I would at least hope that there was enough cut to the core that they realized, “Hey, we’re not a whole lot better than the Canaanites here. But for the grace of God, we would be them.” What makes us holy is not that we’re more morally pure than the outsiders, it’s simply that God has said this is the community through which I’m going to reveal my son to the world. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong, and sometimes we act just like the Canaanites.
I think the thing that really probably stood out to me in studying this was the Bathsheba chapter. I had not really given a whole lot of consideration to her, whether she was seducing King David or whether she wasn’t but agreed, or whether she didn’t even have a voice. I think I was reading Brueggemann through that section, and he just talked how she didn’t have a voice, like she didn’t talk during the whole thing. And I thought, “This is what happens.”
This is the text’s subtle way of saying, not that she is seductive and initiates this, this is the text’s subtle way of saying she did not have a voice. Women did not have a voice. Even best case scenario, is she really going to be able to say no to the king? I mean, really? It really gave me a different look and I just love Nathan there. I just love what Nathan does and the way he… I think the difference between a… How do I want to say this? I want to say this very clearly but not in an inflammatory way. He illustrates what prophets do. We have preacher stories; he tells parables. We’re talking about this great golf shot we had or some cute little narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I love stories in sermons, but this guy comes with this full out story that is so subversive to the king’s power and challenges him on sealing of this ewe lamb. So I just love Nathan there, but I didn’t want to get distracted by that. I just wanted to keep focusing on Bathsheba there because she is the one who doesn’t have a voice, and I just kind of wanted to air her story.
Teddy: To focus on her in that story, it makes you realize how uncommon that is because she doesn’t speak.
Teddy: It’s easy to move to David and to Nathan because these are the principal actors. She can end up viewed almost just as an object, which I think is what you draw out.
Tom: Yeah and one of the commentators, if I remember correctly, I was actually looking at this recently. David is actually enacting what Samuel said the king was going to do. In Samuel 8, Samuel said, “Listen, the king is going to take and he is going to take and he is going to take.” And then what you see, you have all these take verbs in the David and Bathsheba story. So Samuel is not just talking about Saul, he’s talking about any monarch, that power is inherently un-self-critical and it takes. Amazing stuff.
Teddy: Yeah. All the way through it was. Your research is so evident in all of this. Really appreciate it.
Teddy: I think it does exactly what you said. The deeply researched, scholarly researched, but then you present it like a normal person, which I think you know has always been one of my big things is, talk to people like they’re normal people. Because otherwise it just gets lost in, “Oh, this is scandalous,” without painting that picture in the same way.
Teddy: Well, Tom thank you. Really appreciate this.
Tom: I appreciate it buddy.
Teddy: People can get this at Abingdon’s website. They can get it at Amazon.com. Anywhere else?
Tom: Those two will work.
Teddy: Okay, either of those. Underdogs and Outsiders, I would highly recommend it for anybody, whether you’re doing an Advent study or you grab it on your own. I ended up just reading it on my own and loved it for that. I can see where it would be a lot better if I were discussing it with a group. Go pick it up, enjoy it. Tom thanks again. Appreciate it.
I have eight categories in my reading rotation (see that whole neurotic system here). Here’s the best book I read in each category this year.**
My book club had a selection from Young Adult (YA) books, and we choseI am the Messenger by Markus Zusak (best known for The Book Thief). This was a delightful read. I wonder if the YA genre would do better with a different name, or if more people realized that these books aren’t just good for young adults. It was probably our book club’s most-enjoyed book of the year.
The structure of the book was enjoyable, the protagonist was real and likable, it made me laugh out loud several times, and it was hard to put down. A fun book with lots to discuss.
Two Honorable Mentions:
Mosquitoland by David Arnold – David is a good friend, so I wasn’t sure I could give this my honest, unbiased “best book.” But I can say it was the most fun and funny book I read this year, yet also gets into several serious issues. Since I’m biased, check out the gushing reviews from the likes of USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, and lots of Best-of 2015 accolades. (Though it’s called a YA book, read a bit before you run get it for your 12 year old.)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – The rest of my book club loathed this book, but I enjoyed it. Wilde’s irony makes me smile. Even though they didn’t like it, we had a lot to discuss because the book is packed with important themes. You can see why it’s considered a classic.
I under-appreciate the psalms and was looking for some help. The Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham was an excellent solution.
If you’re not familiar with canonical reading of Scripture, you should be. That kind of reading has opened a different and better world for my approach to the Bible. Wenham focuses on a canonical reading of the psalms. He gives penetrating insights to difficult psalms, like the psalms of lament and imprecatory psalms (all those psalms that sound like bitter complaints or that even call down curses on others).
This book should deepen your appreciation for the psalms and also provide an easy entry for anyone interested in canonical interpretation.
Philosophy, Psychology, and Other Religions
I interviewed Stanley Hauerwas earlier this year about his newest book, The Work of Theology. It goes here because most of Hauerwas’s books go in the broader “ethics” category. I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Hauerwas reflects on, defends, and extends a lot of the work he has done. When I’m able to follow him, Hauerwas makes brilliant points and is very funny. For someone looking for an intro to Hauerwas, this could be a good start. His chapter on theology and ministry was outstanding. I wish more pastors would understand the points he’s making about ministry and the essence of the church. His chapter on retirement was also very good.
Honorable mention:The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley – Rarely do you find a book where the author (or person featured, in this case) has a serious change of beliefs near the end, and yet preserves most of the book with their previous belief system intact. This was a fascinating account.
Tim Keller is so good. He’s an excellent writer and an excellent thinker. Center Church puts all of that on display with a systematic approach to ministry in cultural contexts.
Keller is great at providing categories. He gives helpful handholds for considering theology, church and culture interactions, and the tensions between movement and institution. His calls to the city and church-planting are compelling.
Keller’s Reformed influence comes out occasionally. This can tinge or water down some of his perspectives. His version of “sanctification” is weak, and I think he could see cities with more positive eyes if he were working with a solid doctrine of prevenient grace. Regardless, I’ve recommended this widely.
John Wesley revered Scripture as “a man of one book” but never laid out a clear doctrine of Scripture. Because of that, some people hijack his approach to make him a fundamentalist––affirming a modern version of inerrancy and a sola scriptura that rejects all other sources for the church’s belief and practice. Others make him a liberal by misunderstanding and overstating his use of “experience.”
This book provides a better and multifaceted perspective on Wesleyan reading of Scripture. It helps to understand Wesley’s approach in context and also suggests belief and practice for Wesleyans today. Even if you’re not a Wesleyan, read it for its take on canonical and theological reading. It’s uneven, as all essay books are, but worth reading.
I chose social sciences for my special category this year (next year: biographies). The list this year included several excellent books on leadership. The most interesting and useful was The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.
What happens when you cut off a spider’s head? It dies. Cut off a starfish’s leg, and it grows a new one––and the leg likely grows a whole new starfish. The book helped me think about movements vs. institutions, especially in an age of new possibilities thanks to the networking power we have now. I wrote “The Rise and Fall of the Great Denomination” largely based on insights from here.
Most clear: creating a starfish organization requires letting go of some control. But it also has greater spreading power. This is a great systems-thinking book for people in business, ministry, or movement-making.
This category covers a broad range of books that don’t fit anywhere above. I decided to reread Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book.
Adler says that if we walk away from a practical book and don’t do anything different, either it was a bad book or we were bad readers. I was a bad reader the first time––thinking it interesting, but not implementing much. This time, I decided to read books the way Adler suggests. My quick testimonial: that change has upgraded the quality of my reading tremendously. It may not be too much to say that it has doubled my comprehension and retention.
* 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.
** I only listed seven books for this year. I decided not to include anything from Doctrinal Theology. I thought about including Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), volume 1 of his esteemed series on The Christian Tradition. There were some brilliant parts, but just too many parts that I had to trudge through, or where I couldn’t follow his prose. I know I’ve already lost credibility in some of your eyes. Sorry. I’m still planning to read volume 2 next year.
Next year’s reading list will be about half from this category because of a research focus. So I’ll surely have something to recommend here then.
One reviewer has called Dr. Hauerwas, “probably the most creative, provocative, and exasperating theologian in the English-speaking world.”[1. from The Times Literary Supplement‘s review of his Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics] This book continues to show off his creativity and showshow some of it has developed. It also serves as a response to those Hauerwas has provoked and a defense against those he has exasperated. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and enjoyed the opportunity to talk with him about it even more.
Our interview covers his responses to critics, why he gives so much emphasis to the church, and some advice for young pastors and their congregations. You can listen (right-click here to download), watch, or read the transcript below. [1. My deepest gratitude to Jason Huber for producing this. His studio, graphics, and detail work made it all possible.]
Teddy Ray: Stanley Hauerwas was named the “best theologian in America” by Time magazine in 2001. Despite that, he’s also been accused of not caring about the poor, not caring about human rights, and not actually doing “theological” work. He thinks retirement is a bad idea, and he’s having some more time to reflect on that now that he’s retired. His newest book is called The Work of Theology, and I’m honored to have a chance to talk with him about it.
Dr. Hauerwas, thanks so much for your time this morning.
Stanley Hauerwas: I’m pleased to be here.
TR: I’m going to jump to the end of your book because it seems like something you say on almost the last page is the basis for a lot of the book. You say about doing theological work, “You finally cannot stop because what you have said makes it necessary to respond to the problems that are created by what you have said.” Is that what a lot of this book is?
SH: Yes. I think that’s a good… I hadn’t really thought about that as being a kind of summary of the book, but I think you’re quite right. That’s what the book’s about.
TR: In particular, I was struck by the way you kept coming back and saying, “Here’s what people have accused me of, and let me set the record straight. Or let me say a little more to try to help them understand what I’m really doing.” How do you, as such a public theologian, handle all of the different criticisms? You’re a big target, obviously. How do you handle those when people take you the wrong way, or when people say things that you feel like aren’t fair or aren’t true about you?
SH: Well, you’re never happy about being misunderstood, but you have to take responsibility oftentimes for being misunderstood, because you think you haven’t put it as well as it could be put. So even misunderstandings are a gift that make you think again about what you need to say, given that you’ve created this misunderstanding. Often, one of the problems that you confront when you’re trying to change the questions, not just the answers, is that people insist on interpreting you by saying that you must be meaning what they would mean if they said the kinds of things I said. And I’m not in the same position they are in. So it really is a mostly generational problem, just to the extent what I represent, I think, is a different set of considerations than have been characteristic of particularly American Protestant theology in the last fifty years.
TR: That’s interesting. So when you say you’re in a different situation, you’re really referring to people younger and people coming from different traditions—Nicholas Healy coming out of the Catholic Church—addressing different things than you’re trying to address.
SH: That’s some of it, though I think he is a very good critic, and while I’m not particularly sympathetic with every kind of argument he makes against me, I take him very seriously.
TR: Let me go to one of the quotes—I think I counted this at least 10 times in your book—and it seems to be one that people have especially come back to you about over and over. You say, “The first task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.” Could you say more about that? Pastors and churches are told a lot of different things about their first task, and I’d love for you to say why that’s how you’re naming it.
SH: Well, of course, it draws on the Gospel of John. You don’t know that there is something out there called the world unless there is an alternative to that, and that’s called church. So the fact that there is a gathered body of people around the world that are interconnected through the Holy Spirit creates an alternative that is named world.
Now world is God’s good creation, that has taken the time of God’s grace not to be church. That doesn’t mean everything about the world is wrong, but it does mean that the world simply lacks the possibilities that the church has been given by God’s good grace. And that’s an eschatological set of judgments about why it is that God has called out a people from the world to be for the world, so that the world might know what it means to worship God.
TR: That’s great. I think you even said somewhere else that some of your critics have claimed your stress on the church tempts you and those influenced by you to ignore the world. From what I hear you saying and everything I’ve read, it seems that they’re confusing ignoring with being separate from the world. Is that a fair distinction?
SH: I certainly… Everything you do as church is to be a witness for the world. So you have to take the world very seriously, indeed.
TR: I think what I love most about reading your work is that you help me love the church more—as a pastor and as a worshiper. And it’s not just the church that could or should exist. It’s the church that actually exists.
SH: Well, I certainly hope so. People accuse me of having an idealistic view of the church, and I say, “How can that be? I come out of Methodism!” You can hardly have an idealistic view of the church. I go to a wonderful church, and I’m very happy that we’re there, but I don’t assume that we’re without blemish. We’ve got all kinds of problems.
TR: And by no means do you avoid those.
SH: No. I try not to.
TR: So for me, at least, what you’ve done for me isn’t so much to discourage me. It compels me to keep urging the church to be the church. And that’s what I appreciate. There’s this high, lofty thing, but it’s also to say, “This is who we should actually be, and let’s not give up on the church when we’re not that. Let’s keep striving to be that.”
SH: I keep saying, “It’s a miracle that the church exists.” I mean, that it just exists. What an extraordinary thing, in the world in which we find ourselves, that there exists a body of people set aside to worship God! I mean, that’s a miracle!
TR: That is very true. And I think with that, of everything in your book, the piece I loved most––and maybe it was because it spoke to me directly as a pastor––was chapter six on theology and the ministry. It seems like that’s where how we live as the church and how pastors pastor the church really come out. You emphasize the need for pastors and priests to be theologically astute, but you also acknowledge several times all the different demands of ministry and all the different directions we can be sent. A lot of the people I’m talking to are young preparing pastors and young pastors. What do you recommend for both them and for their congregations? How do we create that atmosphere for them to be the kind of ministers we need.
SH: I think it’s very important for people in the ministry to train their congregations on why, as ministers, they need to have time set aside to pray and to read. I know that sounds odd, because one says, “Well, they probably are doing that all the time.” No, I just think you need time set aside for study, and study is a form of prayer. And the congregation needs to value that in the minister as something that is crucial if they are not going to burn out.
TR: What do you recommend we do less of, then? For pastors to say, “I don’t have the time to do these things,” or “These shouldn’t be priority things so that we can actually prioritize prayer, study, and reading.”
SH: You have to visit the sick. You have to take the Eucharist to the sick. You have to care for the broken. No one knows, other than the minister, how many marriages are out there just hanging by the thread. And you can’t ignore that. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got to fix it. You’ve got to help people get places that can help them get it fixed.
I think people in the ministry have spent too much time being nice, in the sense they have to make sure they’re interacting all the time, and showing that they’re good people, and so on. And I think that takes a real toll after a number of years. I mean, who wants to go through life always being nice? And so I think that to claim that to be ordained sets you aside to have very particular commitments that require study and prayer is very important. I think the amount of time spent on preparing sermons is important.
TR: Yeah, you really emphasize that. You said, “One of the most fruitful genres for theology remains the sermon.” I love that you keep emphasizing the importance of your works that are sermons, and your Matthew commentary, that people don’t seem to be paying as much attention to as some other work, and you’re pointing to those as primary theological work.
SH: Right. No, I don’t think the Matthew commentary is read very much. I think it’s read by people that are ministers, which I am very pleased about.
TR: So when you say, “not read very much,” it’s not read by laity?
SH: It’s not read by other theologians.
TR: Oh, okay! That makes sense. They think there’s more serious work to be done in the theological books. I had somebody once tell me that if I really wanted to understand Augustine’s theology, I needed to read his sermons.
SH: That’s true! His sermons are terrific.
TR: So let me ask along those lines… Jaroslav Pelikan describes this movement in history, where most of the great early theologians were bishops, then there was a shift, and they were monks, and then after the Reformation, a shift to academics. If you accept his premise in the first place, do you think we’re poised for another shift?
SH: I think there’s a good possibility that that could occur. Obviously, the American university is increasingly secular. It has… What were once, quote, religious schools, have no place for theologians in the undergraduate curriculum. They might have a seminary, and they can exist there. But how long seminaries will be valued by secular universities is gonna be a real question. So my hunch is that theologians will increasingly come from out of the parish. And some of them may be ordained, some of them may not. But it’s gonna be a big change.
TR: Is that one that you would say you celebrate, or just one that you would say, “It is what it is.”
SH: It is what it is.
TR: There are so many other things I’d love to talk to you about. Let me ask just one last question, though. You said, “The theologian always begins in the middle and the theologian’s work is never finished.” Is there any work you’ve especially wanted to get to and it just seems you never get around to it, never get the time for it?
SH: It always seems like whatever you’ve done is only to scratch the surface. And you keep wanting to go back and say more about the virtues. You keep wanting to go back and say more about language about God, and why it’s so fragile. You keep wanting to go back and revisit questions about how the church can become a more disciplined community, and so on and so on. So it’s never over, and that’s great! I mean, just think about how boring it would be, if it was.
TR: That’s where I love how you present retirement. Now you just have more time to keep on working on those things. I don’t understand the concept of retiring and just quitting on things like that, either.
SH: I’m very fortunate to have a task that’s never over!
TR: The job is never done. Nice job security.
Well, Dr. Hauerwas, our time’s up. Thanks again for being so generous with your time this morning.
SH: Well, I was pleased to do it, and I wish you well.
Dr. Hauerwas’s most recent book isThe Work of Theology. We’ve just barely skimmed the surface of so many topics he addresses there. For more, pick up his book. You can find it here.
I’ll have more interviews like this forthcoming. To see them all, sign up to receive my blog updates, along with other exclusive subscriber content.