Archives For Culture

Best of 2016

December 9, 2016 — 1 Comment


Like last year, since I read a bit, my best of 2016 contains categories of books. To qualify, the books don’t have to be published this year but read within it. With that in mind, here was my best of 2016.

Best Christian Life BookLife Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had read Bonhoeffer’s classic The Cost of Discipleship years ago but hadn’t read Life Together in full until my small group wanted to use it as we closed out the year together. I don’t know why I waited so long. Bonhoeffer’s work is a stunning picture of how he believes Christian community should function. There are statements he makes that should cause any North American follower of Jesus to think twice about how he or she lives out the gospel with other believers.

Best Biblical Studies/Theology BookOld Testament Theology by Bruce Waltke. This book received ECPA‘s 2008 Bible Reference & Study Book of the Year and rightfully so. While it took me some years to finish it, Waltke takes an in-depth look at the Old Testament in a way that’s both insightful and yes, engaging. I kept saying to myself after reading a section or two, “Man, I don’t really know the Old Testament like I should.” Don’t let that stop you. The introduction alone is worth the price of this book because it helps Christians better understand how to approach the world and literature of the Old Testament. I’d suggest reading this in a cohort and commit to reading the Bible alongside it (or vise versa).

Best Ministry BookPreaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Okay, there are some critiques about preaching the good doctor makes that seem so preposterous in degree it made me laugh out loud. One could feel that to Lloyd-Jones there’s an “abomination” around the corner of most pulpits. While the dogmatism of this book might turn some off, I was enchanted by it. I never had to wonder where MLJ felt about an issue. What he does say about preaching is so good, rich, and helpful it almost makes some of his more bizarre “abominations” become like endearing idiosyncrasies. This was our CCCC preaching cohort‘s summer read. Once we finished, the word “abomination” quickly made it into our lexicon of evaluating preaching.

Best Fiction: Drama – The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry. The author’s Western epic Lonesome Dove is one of my all-time favorites.1 I wanted to delve a little more into McMurtry’s canon by seeking out his most critically acclaimed works. That brought me to The Last Picture Show which is a coming-of-age tale set in a small North Texas town (a thin disguise of McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City, Texas). Featuring two high school boys, Duane Jackson and Sonny Crawford, wondering what paths they should take after high school. McMurtry’s narrative is parts humorous, tragic, and yet earnest throughout. Being from a small Texas town, I found the tone of the book perfect pitch. It was both a novel and a time machine for me. While some elements2 might be foreign to the readers who grew up in small-town Texas, the majority of life in McMurtry’s Anarene has been and is being played out all over the state.

Best Fiction: Comedy – A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole. This book was referred to me by a couple of friends who I trust when it comes to literature.3 They both claimed it would be a “laugh out loud” read. I demurred. For some reason, it has to take a lot for a book to truly be humorous to me. However, about a fourth of the way into it I fell under its spell. Dunces is hilarious! Sadly, this novel was written by a man who took his own life, never to see the Pulitzer Prize his effort would achieve. The longer I read, the funnier it got. Ignatius J. Reilly is a character who I won’t soon forget.

Best Fiction: Historical Fiction – Silence by Shusaku Endo. Okay, this book, which is about 17th-century Portuguese Catholic missionaries to Japan, messed me up unlike any book I read in 2016. As a follower of Jesus, I found it not only thought-provoking but convicting. Endo speaks about what it really means to believe, doubt, and persevere (or not) in the midst of persecution. I am always humbled to read about Christians who give their lives for Jesus. It makes me check the depth and authenticity of my own faith. I can’t escape it. Endo’s book is both beautiful and horrible. A must-read.

Best Nonfiction: Current Events – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. This book is a 2016 New York Times bestseller for good reason. Vance tells the story of growing up as a white working-class kid in a middle-class world who can’t escape the demons of the former in the midst of the latter. This book is sad, graphic, tragic, hopeful, and instructive. I can’t believe the author is 32. This is book gives insights to political, social, and spiritual dynamics of social class which likely determined the presidential election of 2016.

Best Nonfiction: General – On Writing by Stephen King. Listen, you don’t have to like the genre in which he writes but I’d argue King will go down as one of the greatest authors of his generation. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine recommended On Writing to me. I am glad I took their advice. I’m no writer. I don’t pretend to be. I’m a speaker who writes. However, I love to learn about writing better. King’s book is so chock-full of wisdom about writing and what it takes to compose good stories I found myself continually mesmerized by the book. It may have been the fastest read of the year for me. Absolutely fantastic!

Best Just for Fun Book The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. Cronin, a Houstonian, has written such a fantastic apocalyptic trilogy – beginning with the wonderful The Passage4 – I had been waiting all summer for the final installment. Written with depth and intelligence, author Justin Cronin writes a thinking man’s fantasy thriller. The added bonus for me was that much of what takes place in The City of Mirrors is exactly where my family ranch is located. Like, exactly where it is! In fact, reading the book while in the hills west of Kerrville, Texas, made the experience even better. This book is part action, philosophy, and drama. A great trilogy from start to finish. Kudos to a fellow Houstonian!

Best Album A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead. If you’ve followed my blog, it’s no secret that Radiohead is my favorite band of all-time. While acknowledging potential bias, I must say that my best album of 2016 is their latest offering. It’s a mixture of rock, classical, jazz, and so much more. I was a little trepidatious of what their latest album would hold for listeners. Goodness, it blew me away. It’s easy to see why Rolling Stone’s readers picked A Moon Shaped Pool as one of their 10 Best Albums of 2016. My favorite songs: Burn the Witch, Daydreaming, Ful Stop, and True Love Waits.

*Honorable Mention – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill Simpson. Simpson is Waylon Jennings reincarnate. I grew up listening to Outlaw Country, so anyone who can revive the spirit of Jennings, Nelson, Cash, et. al., will easily get on my radar. I tell people I don’t hate country music, I abhor modern country music which is manipulated, formulaic, safe, bro-country pablum that dominates the airwaves today. Sturgill is a throwback. I had the pleasure of seeing him in Houston this year as he promoted his latest offering, a concept album about the birth of his son. He was absolutely fantastic. Simpson remains true to traditional country music while also pushing its boundaries.5 Best song: Breakers Roar.

Best MovieSicario. While I’m a genuine Star Wars fan, Denis Villeneuve’s story about a stand-up FBI agent in the middle of the Mexican drug cartel war is not only suspenseful and thought-provoking but far better than J.J. Abrams’ offering The Force Awakens. Accompanied by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s masterful soundtrack, this movie won’t let you go. I’m into border literature6 and Sicario fits perfectly. Benicio del Toro is masterful amongst a cast that holds up their own end. I love movies that don’t have syrupy, triumphalistic endings and Sicario definitely qualifies as a complex, nuanced story. I loved it.

Best Moment of 2016 – No question. It was celebrating 20 years of marriage to my wife. While 2016 had my brother winning a seat to U.S. Congress,7 it still paled in the light of two decades of marriage to my beautiful bride.

It’s the end of the world as we know it.
And I feel fine.

Those words famously crooned by Michael Stipe in R.E.M.’s eponymous 1987 hit song have come to mind this week as the Supreme Court of the United States ruled gay marriage should be legally recognized in all 50 states. Some might think I’m lamenting the end of defining marriage in a way that, as the Supreme Court itself has noted, has been embraced by virtually every culture in every age.[ref]It is lamentable and I have spoken about it.[/ref] But R.E.M.’s tune comes to mind because the SCOTUS’ action confirms what has been in the works for a while: it’s the end of Christendom.

I grew up in a world where the majority was fairly defined by biblical modes and means. The Bible was esteemed, not mocked. Evangelical Christians were embraced, not marginalized. Christianity and its moral ethic were exemplary, not just “someone’s truth.” For the most part, American culture and Christianity more than got along, the former was highly influenced by the latter (aka, an Evangelical Christian majority). But that wasn’t always a good thing. For one, it produced cultural Christians who thought they were believers simply because they adhered to a certain moral code, offered attendance at a church, and agreed to certain ideas about Jesus. However, it was a “faith” which didn’t penetrate the heart. Essentially the church was seen as a club. To say you were a Christian was like saying your were an American…later, a Republican. But repentance, spiritual growth, missional living, and a sense of personal holiness were absent. In fact, being a good church attender was simply a shrewd thing to do – it might help you get more business or raise your social status – everyone can trust you’re a stand-up person. So you joined the church (and Christ) with your body but not your heart.

But the Supreme Court’s verdict sends a clarion call to everyone that Christendom in America is gone. That way of life, that type of culture, and the socially beneficial dynamics that went with it have quickly evaporated. It’s the end of the world as we know it. What do I think about it all? Well, just continue Stipe’s words.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

Now we will enter into a Christianity that is closer to the one that began 2,000 years ago. It won’t be popular to follow Jesus as King, to espouse a biblical ethic that’s lasted more than two millennia, and say that biblical authority is our rule and faith. We will have to lovingly and graciously demonstrate the gospel in both word and deed by the Spirit’s work instead of being tempted do it by the tools of political power or social coercion, the two things you lose when Christendom dies. Indeed, in the future, becoming a Christian may hurt your business or, at least, lower your social status among other negatives. In short, it will cost you something to follow Jesus. And I welcome it.

Why? It will purify God’s church, make her stronger, and penitently see the errors and compromises of her past. It will reveal those who truly wanted to follow Jesus and those who merely wanted to wear the t-shirt until it cost them something. Real Christian churches will likely get smaller, but they will also be more authentic, truer to Christ, less show/more substance. This is cause for me to rejoice, not at the Supreme Court’s decision but at the chapter it likely closes for the American evangelical church. The death of Christendom. A death that may mean new life for the Bride of Christ. Frankly, I’m glad I’m alive to see it. It may just mean that God isn’t finished with the American church but has in store a long needed revival for her. Oh, do I hope so! It would give me one more reason to sing…

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching,
for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
– 2 Timothy 3:16-17

It was a moment indelibly imprinted in my memory. I was an undergrad student at Baylor and speaking with one of my religion professors about the exclusivity of salvation in Christ. The professor was kind to entertain the dialogue, and it was a friendly, good-spirited encounter. But what stood out in our conversation was a comment he made. In our discussion I referenced a Pauline passage in support of the idea that God saves people solely through the Person and Work of Christ and asked what he thought about that specific biblical text. He simply responded, “Well Yancey, I hope Paul was wrong.” It wasn’t a debate on whether the text in question was genuinely scriptural of whether I might have misinterpreted the passage, my professor simply believed that the apostle was wrong. I was taken back by his frankness but appreciated his honesty.

As an evangelical Christian, I believe the entire corpus of the Bible is inspired by God. The technical definition is verbal-plenary inspiration. In essence, I believe the original writings of the Scriptures (known as the original manuscripts) contain all the words God wanted for them, and none that he didn’t. In short, it’s all the Word of God. My job as a follower of Jesus is to read it faithfully, interpret it soundly, and apply it sincerely. There is no question in our studying the Bible we will encounter difficult to understand passages (cf., 2 Pt. 3:16) or sections which push against our worldview, yet our call is to know what the Bible says as God’s Word and apply it as such. The option followers of Jesus don’t have is to dismiss any Scripture simply because we disagree with it.

That’s why when I hear professing Christians today offer explanations for their rejection of positions or beliefs God’s people have held for literally millennia from reading their Bibles (e.g. sexuality, gender roles, marriage), I hear the echo of my old professor’s voice belying his trust in the total inspiration of Scripture. But culture is a mean mistress, for in order to be embraced by her, she calls followers of Jesus to separate from biblical authority by either deluding them to conjure fantastical if not bizarre exegetical claims of fairly straightforward passages or, as in the case of my professor, to simply deny their inspiration altogether. Consequently, the Bible is treated like the drunk uncle at the family reunion. You have to keep him around because he’s family, but you’re embarrassed by him every now and then for what he says and does. Thus, you’re always either having to tell your friends “what he really means” or just ignore him altogether.

This exposes not the weakness of Scripture, but the one who, in trying to be embraced by the world, seeks to tweak it, silence it, or apologize for it. In their attempt to “dress up” the drunk uncle of Scripture with new interpretations and understandings that no believer in two millennia would ever conclude, they merely display their embarrassment of the Bible. It says things that now might make us persona non grata in the public square, marginalize us in national conversations, or just keep us from being the cool kids anymore. That’s why if we can’t make certain biblical passages disappear, we invent ways to make them more socially palatable, hoping the culture doesn’t shift any further lest our drunk uncle embarrass us even more.

Others take the route of my old professor. Instead of looking silly trying to convince everyone that the Bible doesn’t say what it clearly says, they advocate biblical authors were simply wrong. Recently Rob Bell, the former pastor and current self-help guru for Oprah, when asked what he thought of the church’s refusal to embrace same-sex marriage, replied, “I think culture is already there [with same-sex marriage] and the Church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense.” [ref]http://www.relevantmagazine.com/slices/rob-bell-church-moments-away-accepting-gay-marriage[/ref] The Bible? Listen, the Scriptures are wrong on this. Christians need not look to it as an authority on this issue and follow the culture. At least Bell is honest, the rest give off the idea they’re simply embarrassed.

Neither of these approaches to Scripture cut it. The Bible doesn’t give an easy way out for those who claim to follow Jesus. Passages like 2 Tim. 3:16-17 affirm the totality of the Bible’s inspiration, not to mention Jesus’ own endorsement of Scripture (cf., Mt. 5:18) and its authority. I’m mindful of John 6 where, after Jesus taught some “hard sayings,” verses 66-68 record, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.'” Wrestling with what God’s Word says is part-and-parcel of following Jesus, but rewriting or rejecting what it says, isn’t.

It’s only embarrassing.