As 2014 comes to a close, I’m thinking about the books that inspired me, enlightened me, challenged me, and fired my imagination this year. I must add the qualifier, though, that these are not necessarily books that were released in 2014; this was simply the year I read them.
Faith and Culture “How (Not) To Be Secular” by James K. A. Smith
Eminent Oxford chair of philosophy, Charles Taylor, wrote a tome (900 pages!) on how we got to be the ‘secular age’ that we are (in the West), and what it means for people of faith. It’s said to be a landmark work but remains largely inaccessible to the average person. Enter, Jamie Smith, philosophy prof at Calvin College. In a tenth of the length (90 pages or so!), Smith gives us the basic overview of, and a critical engagement with Taylor’s work. The result is that pastors can now understand a bit more about the world in which we are trying to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel.
Favorite snippet: The ‘secular age’ is like a playing field above which the dome has been closed, but everyone is so consumed with the game on the field that no one even asks about the stars. (In other words, we aren’t preaching to people who already feel a “God-shaped” void.)
Theology “Evil and the Justice of God” by N. T. Wright
I’ve read (just about) every one of Wright’s ‘pop’ level books, which, as it turns out, still require some serious thinking. I’ve also read significant sections of his thick academic books. I have to say, this is pretty darn good summary of some of his best (and least controversial) ideas. Academics will quibble with the sweeping statements and broad brush strokes with which he paints the biblical narrative, but for the layperson, this is just what we needed. The book gives an outline of the ‘new problem of Evil’, a description of what God in the Old Testament did to limit and contain Evil, how Christ took the weight of Evil (its force and its judgment) on Himself, and how Christians live (and forgive!) in light of this reality. Readable and concise, it’s the perfect book to start with for those unfamiliar with Wright.
Biblical Studies “Reading Backwards” by Richard Hays
How do the Gospel writers use the Old Testament? Do they read ‘scriptures’ as predictive prophecies? As a failed ‘Plan A’? How would a ‘figural reading’ open up new horizons of understanding? Written from a series of lectures given by Hays, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, there are insights on each of the 110+ pages that are enough to fuel a dozen sermons. Hays works through each Gospel, showing how each Gospel-writer’s use of Old Testament language and imagery articulate their belief that in Jesus YHWH has come to Israel at long last. There is some technical (academic) language and a fair amount of Greek, but not so much as to be ignored outside the academy. Trust me: this is a preacher’s treasure trove.
Worship and Liturgy “Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy” by Melanie C. Ross
You wouldn’t expect a professor of liturgy at Yale to give an even-handed defense of ‘free church’ (read: non-denominational) ecclesiology and worship expressions, would you? That’s more or less what Ross does. She refuses the well-worn critiques by academic liturgical snobs (my word, not hers!). Yet, she names the flaws of the free church movement and its worship practices, in part by rightly tracing its roots to the Frontier Revivals. Her inclusion of two chapters based on her in-depth field work with two non-denominational churches (non-mainline denominations) add texture to her argument. The result is a promising bridge that gives us language for conversing across the ‘camps’ and opens the door to mutual learning.
Sociology (ish) “Watching the English” by Kate Fox
This is just plain fun. I read it (or most of it) for two reasons. One, my sociologist supervisor (I have two supervisors for my doctoral research– a theologian and a sociologist) said it’s a fascinating example of ‘participant observation’, a technique employed by anthropologists and sociologists– and one I’ll need to learn for my field work next year. Secondly, having traveled to England 8 times in the past 16 months, it not only helped me understand my professors and peers, it gave me a good chuckle every time I read it.
Fiction The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
OK, this is where you either love me or hate me, or at least get concerned about my salvation. Here’s the deal: I started reading these books this year because I wanted to see if we’d ever want our children to read them. And because I needed something to keep the ‘reading muscle’ in use when the ‘grappling with tough theological concepts’ muscles were tired. I viewed it as a low-weight, high rep workout for my noggin.
What I discovered is an extraordinary work of literature that belongs among the best ‘world-making’ like Tolkien’s books. (Baylor lit prof Alan Jacobs agrees.) Furthermore, the arc of the story bends toward the great themes of sacrificial love and courage, which, of course, reminds me of another Story. (Tim Keller agrees.)
For those concerned about the ‘magic’, a few notes:
There is a clear line in the stories between magic use for good and the ‘Dark Arts’;
The kind of magic used (in the terms C. S. Lewis used regarding magic) is ‘incantational‘– it assumes a magical world (like, say, the world of ‘Star Wars’)– rather than ‘invocational‘– which calls on an Evil power to do the magic (like, say, the occult)– though some argue magic plays no more of a role in the Potter books that ‘powers’ do in the X-Men movies;
Rowling herself said recently that the only ‘belief’ that would have been out of place at Hogwarts (Harry’s school of wizardry) is Wiccan.
Anyway, the fun for me was reading many of these books whilst on a train from King’s Cross station in London up to school in Durham, where many of the scenes from the first few movies were filmed. So, will I let my children read them? Probably. But when they’re a lot older– since they don’t have to wait a year for each book now.
Alright. Those are some of my favorite reads from 2014.
How about you?