2019 was a good year for reading. I managed to read about 30 books this year, which may be a personal high, but there were several shorter books in the mix! I’ll give you the full list and my top five in a moment…but first, a bit about how I choose what to read.
I often choose reading along certain themes. Late last year, I decided I wanted to read about empires in 2019— not theological reflections or pontifications on Christianity and empire, but histories of empires themselves written by non-Christians.
In late 2018, I finished “Gandhi and Churchill”, which was a poignant parallel of two remarkable leaders whose respective nations would come to clash over ideology and power. The centuries-long presence of the British empire in India may be one of the most world-shaping realities of the modern era. Then, to kick off 2019, I went on to read about the way German church leaders were complicit with the rise of the Nazi regime as seen through the life of one particular pastor, Martin Niemoller, in the book “Then They Came for Me”. It was sobering. I followed that up by reading about the rise of the Roman Empire, from Augustus to its Nero, in Tom Holland’s epic work, “Dynasty”. It was fascinating to see the roots of many of our modern conceptions of power, nobility, and public virtue. But what I loved most was the being able to imagine the political backdrop of the New Testament as I read about the first five Caesars (the Julio-Claudians). Finally, I read Niall Ferguson’s “Empire” on the rise and fall of the British Empire, the largest empire the world has ever known. The influence of Christianity as a moral restraint for the excesses of power and as a justifying reason for their assertion of superiority resulted in a complicated legacy.
I threw in a couple of fiction books to round off my reading on empire. “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster was thoroughly enjoyable, and “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe was a slow but sobering reminder that what is a footnote for the empire is a lifetime of sorrow for one man; the machinations of “progress” must be slowed by attention to its impact on the particular.
The capstone— the book that brought many of the themes in these other books together— was “Dominion” by Tom Holland. I’m about two-thirds through, and it doesn’t seem that I’ll finish it in 2019, nevertheless, it is my Book of the Year. Holland, a secular historian, traces the improbable rise of Christianity, carefully showing how unprecedented its claims and teachings were in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world. It’s persistence and resilience in the face of persecution and the development of theology through careful contextualization are further remarkable features of Christianity. Though Holland doesn’t shy away from the darker chapters in Christianity’s history, he is quick to show when certain actions were aberrations of Christianity teaching and when they were extensions of it. Contra many claims by atheists today, the worst actions of Christians in history were when they had deviated the most from the teachings of Jesus and Paul. In the end, Holland argues that much of the embedded and institutionalized virtues and values of Western society are fruit from Christian roots. Can the fruit remain if it is severed from the root? This is the great experiment of the march of secularization.
The next theme I turned to was how Christianity relates to a secularized age, a pluralistic world, and a humanistic empire. “Seriously Dangerous Religion” is a tour de force of comparative religions through a meta-frame. Provan identifies 10 major questions every major religion or system must grapple with. He then shows how the Old Testament addresses these questions in comparison to other ancient religions or post-modern composites of ancient religions (like the notion that all religions of the “Axial Age” were the same, or the generic spirituality of the New Age). He does show how Christianity (the New Testament) extends the vision that is sketched in the Old Testament and brings it to its fullest expression and completion in Jesus.
“Faith for Exiles” by Barna’s David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock summoned research to outline five practices of young Christians who developed a resilient faith in the the midst of a Babylonian world. It was practical and inspiring, not only as a pastor but as a father. The accessible yet richly theological, “Gospel Allegiance” outlines how fidelity to Jesus the King grounds Christians and gives shape to a robust Christianity no matter what empire we find ourselves living in. It reclaims words that have lost their original textual meaning– like faith, gospel, grace, and works– and shows how the fit together through the paradigm of Kingship and Kingdom. Finally, “Seculosity” demonstrated with observational insight and a sharp wit, how society in the west has channeled a moralistic impulse and appropriated religious fervor and ritual to facets of life like work, romance, parenting, eating, and more.
The rest of my reading can be filed under the categories of pastoral theology and personal enrichment. Here’s a quick bit about some of them. I was struck by the profound integration of social analysis and theological reflection in the collection of sermons from Martin Luther King, Jr, “Strength to Love”; I benefited from Preston Sprinkle’s short books, “Grace/Truth 1.0″ and “Grace/Truth 2.0”, on gender and sexuality; I found the collection of essays on identity, community, and authority in the digital age in “The HTML Of Cruciform Love” utterly fascinating; I loved my pastor’s book, “Remarkable”, on engaging culture in a Christlike way; I learned a lot from Lucy Peppiatt’s succinct summary and fresh perspective of the biblical vision of womanhood (which challenges the assumed patriarchy of many); I normally find reading Rowan Williams to be quite a laborious endeavor, but hist short series of books– “Being Human”, “Being Christian”, and “Being Disciples” — were really excellent and not too dense; I appreciated Wesley Hill’s demonstration of Trinitarian theology at work in Paul’s letters; I found Haley Jacob’s exegesis and arguments in “Conformed to the Image of His Son” really compelling; I was moved and inspired by what I consider the best single book on prayer, Pete Greig’s “How to Pray”; and, I can see why some have called N. T. Wright’s “History and Eschatology” a capstone of his life’s work on the historical Jesus and Christian eschatology.
Alright, here are my top five, followed by the full list.
My Top Five
1. “Dominion”– Tom Holland
2. “Empire”– Niall Ferguson
3. “Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan
4. “Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates
5. “Seculosity”– David Zahl
The Full List:
“The Christological Hymns of the New Testament”– Matthew Gordley
“Paul and the Trinity”– Wesley Hill
“Conformed to the Image of His Son”– Haley Goranson Jacob
“The 3D Gospel”– Jayson Georges
“For all God’s Worth”– N. T. Wright
“Blue Parakeet 2nd Edition”– Scot Mcknight (read 2/3rds)
“Being Human”– Rowan Williams
“Being Christian”– Rowan Williams
“Being Disciples”– Rowan Williams
“Seriously Dangerous Religion”– Iain Provan
“Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women”– Lucy Peppiat
“Gospel Allegiance”– Matthew Bates
“History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology”– N. T. Wright
“Then They Came For Me”– Matthew D. Hockenos
“Dynasty”– Tom Holland
“Empire”– Niall Ferguson
“The Intellectual World of CS Lewis”– Alistair McGrath
“Dominion”– Tom Holland (2/3rd done!)
“Grace and Truth 1.0”– Preston Sprinkle
“Grace and Truth 2.0”– Preston Sprinkle
“The HTML of Cruciform Love”– Edited John Frederick and Eric Lewellen
“Remarkable”– Brady Boyd
“Talking to Strangers”– Malcom Gladwell
“Faith for Exiles”– David Kinnaman
“Seculosity”– David Zahl
“Things Fall Apart”– Chinua Achebe
“A Passage to India”– E. M. Forster
“How to Pray”– Pete Greig
“Prayer: Our Deepest Longing”– Ronald Rolheiser
“Strength to Love” — Martin Luther King, Jr. (2 chapters left!)
“Captain Class”– Sam Walker