My Best Books of 2018

December 8, 2018 — 2 Comments

As I reflect on 2018, here are my best books of the year. (No albums or movies since I didn’t engage enough of either – thanks Spotify/Netflix – to merit awarding my favorites):

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Best Christian Life Book (Classic)The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. I confess I hadn’t read Lewis’ classic work in total, only in bits and pieces. Almost immediately I could see why this book has been highly lauded all these years. Written from the diabolical perspective of a senior demon to his apprentice, The Screwtape Letters is as apropos for today as it was when published in 1942. So much of Lewis’ insights about the Christian life are exactly what many in the church need to hear today. His writing particularly on the temptation of Christians succumbing to the desire for cultural acceptance felt almost prescient to me. Outstanding! Lord, please give your church more thinkers like Clive Staples Lewis.

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Best Biblical Studies/Theology Book (Classic)Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, Vol. 1 by Herman Bavinck. I have read at least five different  systematic theologies (and dabbled in others). I teach it eight months out of every year. My doctoral dissertation concerned the intersection of systematic theology and adult spiritual formation. Needless to say, I like systematic theology. However, I felt the need to sink my teeth into a kind of systematic that wouldn’t be toned-down for laypeople (e.g., Grudem) because those tomes tended to frustrate as much as benefit me. I had heard Bavinck’s four volume systematic theology was the gold standard of reformation thought in the field. Halfway into Vol. 1 (which is merely Bavinck’s introduction to his systematic theology!) I could see why.

Reformed Dogmatics has a gravity, precision, and brilliance about it that is unparalleled in my experience. It’s also the hardest systematic I have ever tried to read because it assumes a reader who is versed in church history, philosophy, and other areas of knowledge. Frankly, it’s the first systematic theology in a long time where I resonated deeply about its portrayal of God – grand, mysterious, beyond knowing (and yet revealing knowledge). It asked better questions, sought better answers, and was okay knowing its limitations. Reading Bavinck feels like climbing Everest. It’s time-consuming and difficult, even excruciating at moments, but the view you get at the end is unforgettable.

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Best Biblical Studies/Theology Book (Modern)Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith. Jamie Smith is Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College and the author of a trilogy called Cultural Liturgies of which Desiring the Kingdom is the first volume. I  read Smith’s Awaiting the King (Vol. 3) early in the year and could have easily replaced Desiring with it but am letting my original decision stand.

Desiring the Kingdom is an engaging, winsome, well-written argument for the worship service as spiritual formation. Smith is an admitted traditionalist and argues that the historical practices (or traditions) of orthodox Christian worship (e.g., call to worship, creedal recitation, confession of sin) are the very things that can be antidotes for the community of faith in a post-Christian culture. Those practices are habit-forming and, as such, can be deep channels of grace whereby God grows us and keeps us faithful to him. One could argue that Desiring the Kingdom is the kind of book the North American church will need to read…and likely heed to some degree if she is to remain effective in her forming disciples of Jesus in the post-everything future.

Best novels in 2018:

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Best Fiction – Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I’m convinced I need to write a blog post on why high school students shouldn’t read classics they’re not ready for yet. With that said, this is my second time to read Moby Dick. The first was in high school where, due to my boredom with the text, I essentially tried to “Cliff Note” my way through the second half of the book. It felt like just one more boring read  I had to suffer through in order to pass my class. In my rekindling of my love for reading, I’ve recently reengaged the idea of reading the classics (as the rest of my “best of” attests to), so I put Melville’s novel back on the nightstand.

Moby Dick is regarded by many as the “Great American Novel” and why Nathaniel Philbrick, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist himself, called it as close as we get to our “American Bible.” Interestingly, Philbrick published a book called Why Read Moby Dick. The late theologian R.C. Sproul also wrote an article calling for the same, believing that “the greatest chapter ever written in the English language is the chapter of Moby Dick titled ‘The Whiteness of the Whale.'”

Reading Moby Dick as a mid-life adult was a completely different experience for me. I found Melville’s novel to be transcendent, sublime, and magisterial. His articulation of soul and its desires/questions/temptations via a whale hunt is almost otherworldly. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s difficult (e.g., numerous whaling terms). Yes, it’s demanding. But yes, it’s a story that can leave you enraptured and grateful for journeying with the Pequod. Today, I completely understand why many consider it the greatest novel ever written.

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Best Fiction – To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Unlike Moby Dick, this is a classic I had never read before. Of course, I heard innumerable people praise Lee’s tale of a young Alabama girl named Scout dealing with race along with her father Atticus Finch in the 1930’s. A book also contended as the “Great American Novel,” To Kill A Mockingbird asks many questions of the reader concerning race and justice: Can I walk in someone else’s shoes who’s suffered? What is my response to racism today? How much am I blind to in the culture I live in? I was blown away at how real Scout felt as a character. The story is heartbreakingly wonderful. There are moments of laughter, many of righteous indignation, and even a few where I was simply left in tears. To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t just a good book, it’s one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading because, while it may be a book you put down, it’s one that never leaves you.

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Best Fiction Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Last year I read Stegner’s Crossing to Safety which became one of my favorite reads of 2017. Stegner has a way of writing beautifully while striking at the heart of things in a way that the reader can rest in, reflect upon, and even make resolutions in light of. Angle of Repose, a 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner, concerns four generations of a family (spanning from the late 1800’s to the 1970’s) trying to make it in the West. It’s a story of marriage and endurance and how things pull on them both. Stegner’s narrative ability is superb while his powers of natural description are phenomenal. In short, I’ve become a big fan. Angle of Repose spoke to me as a man who’s in the initial movements of the second half of his life. This is the kind of book I love to walk with. 

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Best Fiction Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. This is another classic I had never read before. It’s also another book, after reading it, where I realized why it was a classic. Power, censorship, and media-think control the narrative theme. Written by Bradbury during the McCarthy Era of the 1950’s, it’s easy to see how that political backdrop informed Fahrenheit 451. I read this pondering how appropriate it was for 2018 where we, as a nation, are driven in our thinking by technology (i.e., social media) to the degree that alternative ideas and opinions are berated/heckled/lampooned (dare I say almost ‘socially censored’). This was one dystopian novel that unfortunately didn’t feel so dystopian. A powerful read for today.

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Best Fiction from a Debut Author A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. My wife, a reader in her own right, finished this book then proceeded to be in tears the rest of the day. She repeatedly told me between bouts of weeping that this was one of the most touching books she’d ever read. I was powerless to resist. I picked up the book and started reading that day. Mirza, who published her book at the young age of 26, writes about a Muslim family whose children are finding their own way to being modern-day Americans while both embracing and distancing themselves from their faith of their immigrant parents. It asks questions of love, identity, family, and faith. Think of this as the Muslim equivalent of the prodigal son. Upon reaching the end of the novel I realized why my wife was so upset. It brought me to tears as well. I won’t give it away but if you are a parent (no matter your faith), there’s no escaping the feelings Mirza expects for you to be engulfed in at the end of her beautiful book. 

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Best Non-Fiction – God God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State by Lawrence Wright. I didn’t read many non-fiction books this year but of those, I thought Wright’s book was the best. He is a Pulitzer-prize winning author whose book on Texas is essentially a commentary on the Lone Star State. His talent for writing is unmistakable. His stories are engaging and the facts he gives about Texas (e.g., the city of Houston; impact of Texas) are fascinating. Another thing you can’t miss about Wright’s writing is that it is definitely slanted toward politically liberal ends. There were some parts where I simply thought his chapters should be titled, “Why I’m mad Texas is generally a Republican state when I wish it was a Democratic one.” To be fair, it’s his book. He can write from whatever perspective he wants. However, I felt there were too many times he came across as an evangelist for the political Left arguing not from facts but from assumptions and ad hominems. Again, it’s his book. But if he wants more Texans to read it (which I’m not sure is a big concern of his), he might could have been a little more fair-minded to the other side. Regardless, I found Wright’s book to be engaging and worth the read.

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Best Worst Book  – Invisible Monsters by Chuck  Palaniuk. I really thought the movie Fight Club back in the 90’s was a challenging but groundbreaking tale of men struggling to find identity and meaning in their lives. Though not for the faint of heart, I considered it a movie of consequence. I know many men who still highly regard it today. I had always thought of Palaniuk, the author of Fight Club, as a kind of shock jock for authors. His tales are usually graphic, explicit, and brutal. However, I took a chance on reading him thinking that those are simply the kinds of constructs he uses to tell tales that matter. While that might still be true, I didn’t get that from Invisible Monsters, the book considered by most to be his best. I appreciated the story’s attempt to talk about what’s real in a world given to appearance, but the sexually graphic content felt gratuitous and completely unnecessary. I’m not one to shy away from “tough content” (I mean, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is my favorite book of all time), but there were a few moments that had to put the book down and wonder if I would pick it back up again. Ultimately I did, each time thinking, “Surely the inclusion of these kinds of scenes will make sense in the end.” For me, they didn’t. One of my unwritten rules of reading is if I start a book, I must finish it. Invisible Monsters almost made me break it. Almost. Easily my worst book of 2018 and maybe ever.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

That statement has been haunting me lately. It’s attributed to one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor. I’m not positive she actually said this but it wouldn’t surprise me if so, since this kind of quote is right in her Southern Gothic wheelhouse. Nevertheless, it’s arrested me ever since I came across it over my sabbatical this summer.

Because I think it’s true.

It’s a riff on Jesus’ words in John 8:31-32, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The idea is that following Jesus not only brings us into a life of truth but a truth that leads into real freedom. Of course, I agree with Jesus. I can do no less. But O’Connor1 takes Jesus’ words about the life of a disciple in another direction. And not an opposite one I might add. She argues following Jesus will also “make you odd.”

Indeed, it might be truer today in our post-Christian world than the 1950’s America in which O’Connor lived where Christianity (for right or wrong) had a more esteemed place in the culture. In our age, Christians are increasingly seen in a more negative light than the past. In the eyes of post-moderns, followers of Jesus are a pretty weird bunch.

  • They believe Jesus (who still rates as a good guy to most everyone) is God’s Son. He was born of a virgin, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and (get this!) is supposed to return one day with the fullness of the kingdom of God. And even crazier, they think he’s the one way to salvation! Can you say non-inclusive?!?!
  • Christians also think God exists in three distinct persons but somehow is one God. What gives? Can’t these people do simple math?
  • These people affirm that the Bible, something rapper Macklemore famously said is just “a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago,” is the actual Word of God. Like it’s really a book inspired from start to finish by the God of the Universe? Please!
  • Consequently, these Christians believe the Bible is to guide them in their conduct. Like, it’s THE authority in their life. This is where they really look out of touch! For example, they think there are gender roles in the church and home. How regressive! The fact that they still believe gender is static and not dynamic is crazy in itself. They also think sexual ethics revolve around the sanctity of marriage whereby they use outdated old world ideas like “virginity” for the unmarried and permanence of the bonds in marriage. Don’t even get us started on what they think of same-sex relationships!
  • These people gather each week to sing old songs, pray prayers to their invisible god, give (read: throw) away their money, get people wet in some weird ceremony called baptism, and to top it off, they eat bread and drink wine thinking somehow Jesus is magically with them in the event. They do this all in “church” as one big exclusive family (err, cult).

The list could go on, but suffice to say the schism between authentic Christian expression and the spirit of the age has widened over the years and will only continue to do so. Biblical Christianity in the West will increasingly be less appealing (and more appalling) to the world around it. Simply put, we’ll appear odder and odder as time goes on. And no one likes odd.

This is where the pressure comes for the Jesus follower. Part of taking up your cross and following Jesus will likely mean how well you can handle being seen as odd – to being the different person, the one unlike your non-Christian peers.

What to do? Frankly, some Christians/churches/denominations capitulate. They have decided that being accepted by the culture is more important than being faithful to Jesus and the Scripture. You open them up and they say the same things the fallen world says (and ironically what the Bible explicitly teaches against, justifying their interpretations with weak if not bizarre rationales). This reminded me of some insightful comments from a secular article discussing New Atheism where a couple of commenters shared what they believed to be the reason why it hasn’t taken root in culture.

Commenter one: There are many people who identify with a religion, but don’t at all live up to it in practice–gay Catholics, for example, or the entire Episcopalian denomination. It is probably more tactful for progressivism to say that it “embraces all religions”–while in reality, of course, this means that it “embraces all people who call themselves religious, but are willing to accept progressive orthodoxy.” Lapsed believers who can’t bring themselves to change how they identify, comfortable sinners who don’t mind shirking the commands of their faith, and the vast spiritualist hordes will flock to them. New/militant atheism alienates all those people, and there are many of them.

I would also suspect that this is a far more effective way to undermine religion. Let people call themselves believers, but gradually erode the traditional meaning of what it is to believe, until there’s nothing problematic left. It’s probably what the New Atheists should have done, would have done if they were more devious and organized.

Commenter Two: This is my sense as well. Establishment progressivism is too invested in hollowing out Mainline Christianity and wearing it as a skin suit.

What’s the win as they describe the “progressive” church? There isn’t one. Even atheists realize that churches who abandon the “oddity” of their orthodox, historic faith are actually seen as something less than the Christians they claim to be. This kind of Christianity-as-mere-skin suit doesn’t even fool atheists. They clearly see that some who profess faith in Jesus have jettisoned (or “hollowed out”) enough biblical Christian orthodoxy that they don’t even speak anymore for the faith they say they represent. This isn’t a win for progressive thought in the church but the glorious failure of it, and one of the chief reasons why mainline denominations have been losing folk at alarming rates for generations.

I’d argue faithful Christianity needs to embrace the oddity of their Christian-ness. It will be part and parcel of Jesus’ call for his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow him. (cf., Lk. 9:23) We’ll look differently, speak differently, live differently than the world around us. I don’t mean this in some fundamentalist way that is weird for all the wrong reasons (e.g., anti-intellectual, anti-arts, etc.) but a difference that is evidenced simply because our allegiance is to a king and a kingdom not of this world. Believe me, that alone will make us stand out. It will make us odd.

I get a taste of this every time I talk with someone who, later in the conversation, finds out I’m a pastor. Immediately, the topics change, the tone adjusts, and the body language shifts. To them, I’m not a regular guy anymore. I’m different. I’m odd. Among my uncomfortable oddities is that I must believe things (like really strongly) that probably are in conflict with their values, decisions, and lifestyle. So, instead of just having a regular conversation like a real person, it’s easy-stepping around the pastor-dude until an exit strategy from the conversation is found.

I’ve got some advice for you if you’re a Christian really trying to follow Jesus today. Get used to it. What I experience will at some point mirror what you experience as your faith bubbles out of your everyday life. You’ll more and more be the odd one. At least you should be.

But don’t let it scare you. Embrace it! That’s right. Embrace your oddness! In a world where people are looking for hope, it won’t be found in the carbon copies of worldly similitude. Those dead-end answers are being regurgitated everyday by culture and it’s pretty clear they’re found lacking. But the church – and the historic, orthodox gospel it both proclaims and demonstrates – can be a life-giving alternative in the cultural wasteland. As we live out the mission of Jesus and his gospel in winsome, loving ways we demonstrate a different city that lives by a different story for a different purpose contrasting the myriad of soul-shrinking narratives the world runs after.

It’s not the oddness of living out of our faith that hurts us, on the contrary, it’s the fear of being odd that holds us back. Indeed, our difference may be the best weapon we have in showing the world who Jesus is and the kingdom he brings.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. – 1 Peter 2:9-12

One of the more dominant themes I see in society (increasingly in younger generations though it can be evidenced in some form or fashion in all) is the complete comfort of asserting to be a Christian while being well at-odds with the clear ethics of Scripture. I don’t mean coming to different conclusions because of honest exegetical work. That kind of sincere dissonance is par for the course in the church and witnessed throughout her history. I’m talking about individuals or groups who consider themselves part of the historic, orthodox Christian faith but reject the historic, orthodox teachings of Scripture (e.g., sexual ethics) and have no substantive answer to the challenge of their positions outside of the regularly subjective speak-your-own-truth retort – which is packed with terminology and phrases from culture but absent of Scripture in any substantive sense.

This came to mind while reading a selection from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, which is a systematic theology of the Christian faith. Writing about the Holy Spirit and the Bible, Bavinck notes,

And the testimony of the Holy Spirit with respect to Scripture as Scripture consists in the fact—not that believers receive an immediate heavenly vision of the divinity of Scripture, nor that they immediately infer its divinity from the marks and criteria of Scripture, or, even less, that on the basis of the experience of the power that is unleashed by it they conclude that it is divine, but – that they freely and spontaneously recognize the authority with which Scripture everywhere asserts itself and which it repeatedly expressly claims for itself. In this connection it is not the authenticity, nor the canonicity, nor even the inspiration, but the divinity of Scripture, its divine authority, which is the true object of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. He causes believers to submit to Scripture and binds them to it in the same measure and intensity as to the person of Christ himself. 1

Bavinck asserts that the Spirit of God not only testifies to the authority of the Word of God for Christians but “causes [them] to submit” to it as he does them to Jesus himself. One implication of such thinking is that a frank unwillingness to submit to the clear ethics of Scripture, and even more so an outright rejection of them, might less indicate a Christian’s hardness of heart as much as a lack of authentic faith to begin with.

This seems to be the same line of reasoning Scripture itself takes. For example, 1 John 5:3 says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments…” Recognizing and submitting to the authority of Scripture is a mark of a person’s love of God in Christ – a characteristic of genuine faith. This isn’t some kind of slavish or forced submission for the Spirit recalibrates our hearts to obey our new king in Christ. This is why the rest of v.3 says, “And his commandments are not burdensome.” This doesn’t mean followers of Jesus won’t struggle to obey or need to grow in their obedience. They most assuredly will. But that is far different than someone who professes to be a Christian yet refuses to recognize, much less submit to, Scriptural authority.2 That type of “Christian” is like a unicorn: non-existent.3 No wonder Jesus himself said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

It’s because of the clear biblical teaching about authority, the Bible, and faith, that I so deeply resound with this thought from Bavinck:

…far from gradually outgrowing this authority, Christian believers rather progressively learn to believe God at his word and to renounce all their own wisdom. On earth believers never move beyond the viewpoint of faith and authority. To the degree that they increase in faith, they cling all the more firmly to the authority of God in his word.4

Recognition of and submission to biblical authority may be seen as optional for many who claim to be followers of Jesus but for those who have been genuinely converted, a growing submission to the Word of God isn’t just part of their initial step in the faith, but of every one afterwards. Bavinck reminds us this is so because the Spirit has promised to work in us for these things. And it is also why you can’t claim Jesus if you won’t submit to the Scriptures that proclaim him.