One of the easiest ways that I think we can go against the relaxation/entertainment obsession of our culture is by reading. In an age of smart phones and social media, we don’t read books as much as we used to. Many people find it hard to sit down and focus and read a book. Even when we do read, we don’t read in the way we used to. People will skim around looking for the essential sound bites and bits of information they’re interested in.
However, reading in whatever format helps to break this pattern and actually retrain our brains to think more critically and more linearly.
I could go on extoling the benefits of reading, but instead I’m going to give a few reading suggestions from books I’ve read in the past calendar year.
So, what follows is a couple of suggestions of books you might add to your summer reading list with some brief explanations of what the book is about and why you might want to read it. These are all books I’ve read in the past five months. I’ve tried to focus on books that have come out in the past couple years, but there are a few that are outside of that.
Theology and Biblical Studies
This book is amazing. It’s intended to be a sort of prequel to Keller’s popular book, The Reason for God, which goes through apologetic arguments for God. According to an interview Keller did on the podcast Mere Fidelity, he realized that this earlier book did not start back early enough for many people. He was arguing why the Christianity is true, but many did not even understand why they should even want that to be true in the first place. And of course since most of what we believe is determined by non-rational or pre-rational factors, people who wanted God to be real found The Reason for God to be really compelling and those who did not, did not find it compelling.
In Making Sense of God, Keller breaks down some of the assumptions that many secular people have about Christianity, religion and irreligion. Some of these include the idea that people are becoming less and less religious (globally, they’re not), the idea that secularism is a kind of default or neutral philosophical/religious position that doesn’t need to be argued for, and others. He argues that secularism does a worse job of making sense of the world than Christianity. In particular, he focuses on the persistent notion of moral facts (i.e. the idea that people believe certain things are objectively and universally wrong) as well as the struggle to find meaning and purpose in our lives.
In a lot of ways, this book feels like a kind of Mere Christianity for the 21st century. I know that that’s high praise, but I mean it. Keller has a kind of C. S. Lewis approach in that he understands that Christianity is not merely some set of propositions that we affirm, but that it is also a lens or a framework through which we view the rest of the world.
Finally, this book avoids one of the persistent problems of apologetic books. Most apologetic books are extremely helpful for believers, but leave skeptics and unbelievers largely unconvinced. In other words, they’re confused about who they’re actually writing for. Keller is not. He has written this book for skeptics and secularists. This is the kind of book that even non-Christians will likely find compelling and challenging, even if they don’t end up agreeing with everything that Keller says.
This book was one of my surprise favorites of the year. I was floored by how well-written this book is, how well-developed the theology is, and how accessible it is. There’s a reason that this book was Christianity Today’s book of the year for 2017.
Warren’s book is essentially an explanation of what it means to live out the faith in day-to-day life. But this is not a book on “Christian living” in the usual sense; this is a book on theology, or better yet, the intersection of theology with everyday life.
Warren uses both the liturgy and an average day in her life as the framework for her discussion. So for example, she talks about how getting up each morning is like baptism. She is also very influenced by folks like James K. A. Smith who emphasize how daily practices and actions form and shape us and our desires. So, for example, in Warren’s book she contrasts the practice of getting up every morning and checking her phone first thing versus taking time to sit in silence and pray. It’s not to say that looking at one’s phone is bad, but the point is that what we do with the first moments of each day shape us and what we desire.
Warren goes through other parts of her day, paralleling them to various parts of the liturgy and thereby shows how theology becomes not merely a set of propositions, but something that is lived out day-to-day in both the mundane and the profound moments of life, but especially the mundane moments.
It’s a rare treat to find a book that is so simple and accessible, but yet also so deep.
This book is aimed at pastors and other teachers of the faith, but I think that the content is still thoroughly accessible to laypeople.
The basic question that this book seeks to explore is the place that the Old Testament ought to have in the life and teaching of the church. He begins my arguing why it is important to teach and preach from the Old Testament and then explores how one might bridge the gap between the Old Testament, and then discusses how various genres in the Old Testament will need to be treated differently to be taught from effectively.
I think this book is really important because Christians are normally really bad about completely ignoring the Old Testament in favor of the New. Of course another problem is that when Christians do teach from the Old Testament, they do so poorly, often finding Jesus under every rock and behind every tree, regardless of whether or not this is actually what the text is about. At this point, Wright is extremely helpful. He discusses various ways that we might make the move from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Different methods will be more appropriate for different texts, but it’s important to understand that there are different options so that we aren’t stuck with ham-fistedly shoehorning in Jesus into every verse in the Old Testament.
This is a memoir by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanathi who was diagnosed with a rather advanced form of lung cancer in his early thirties. He was just finishing residency and had an extremely promising career ahead of him and then finds that all of that is being taken away from him. Kalanithi reflects on his own life’s journey and his search for meaning and significance. Despite being in the medical field and pursuing scientific research, he was particularly fascinated by literature and felt that things like art and literature are far more helpful in the pursuit of meaning than science alone.
Kalanithi’s writing is brilliant and it rings with a profundity that is a rare find in books of any kind.
While it’s not at all a focus of the book, Kalanithi also discusses his own journey out of and back into faith. I found it particularly interesting to hear about what Kalanithi found particularly compelling about the Christian story. In retrospect, it seems to me that Kalanithi found compelling many of the things that Keller talks about in his book, Making Sense of God (above). That is to say that he found that he add to admit that things like love, goodness, truth, and beauty were real. And if these things are real, then the universe cannot be just matter and energy. There has to be something more.
This is another memoir, this time written by a woman who grew up in a polygamist Mormon cult run by the infamous murderer, Ervil LeBaron.
The author has intentionally crafted this story and told it with a particular focus that gives what could easily become a catalog of hardships a definite and pointed shape. She focuses in particular on how the people in the cult treated her and how the unequal treatment caused by the polygamy bore itself out in the lives of this group of people. She also spends a decent amount of time focusing on how even after she left the cult, the effects of the cult followed her and others for years and years afterwards.
I think it’s particularly important for those of us in religious communities to be aware of how the kinds of abuse, spiritual and otherwise that LeBaron and others have experienced happen in religious communities of all sorts. Of course, your average church is not a murderous cult, but that doesn’t mean some of the same dynamics that LeBaron discusses don’t show up in their own smaller ways.
This book and especially the next book are not for the faint of heart. They’re not really impenetrable, but these are definitely deeper and more detailed than anything else on this list. Just a fair warning.
Hart’s basic thesis is that American Protestantism is normally grouped into two categories: Conservative/Evangelical on the one side and Liberal/Mainline on the other, however these categories are misleading. Rather Protestantism should be divided into Pietist and Confessional varieties.
According to Hart, American Protestantism has been dominated by Pietism, which he defines with several criteria, including an emphasis on the individual and individual experience, an emphasis on the transformation of society, and a rejection of traditional ecclesiastical structures. Pietism can of course exist in both conservative and liberal varieties, but Hart argues that the liberal proponents of the social gospel and the conservative revivalists and moral majority are simply two breeds of Pietism. This is in contrast to confessional churches who find the center of their identity not in individual experience or the transformation of society, but in a confession of the faith and a corporate identity as a collective church that is more shaped by doctrine and practice than societal transformation.
Hart surveys American church history to demonstrate his point giving particular attention to the Great Awakenings, revivalism, early Presbyterianism, J. Gresham Machen and the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, the growth of evangelicalism and the role of the liturgy in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, among many other things.
I found this book particularly compelling because I’ve always found the traditional categories of evangelical and mainline as woefully insufficient for describing American Protestantism. I might have more in common theologically with the Evangelical wing than the Mainline, but I can’t say that my tradition or I can rightly be categorized as Evangelical in any meaningful sense.
This book gets really technical, and honestly if you don’t read Greek or aren’t willing to put up with a book that analyzes Greek, then this might not be for you. I say that, but honestly this book is so well done that I can’t not recommend it for those who would be willing/able to work through this.
Rowe’s basic thesis is that Luke uses the term “Lord” (κύριος) to develop what he calls a narrative Christology. Long story short, Jesus is referred to as Lord in a dynamic, multifaceted, and multivalent way such that Jesus’ story is inextricably wrapped up in the identity of the story of the Lord, i.e. Yahweh of the Old Testament. These dynamics are often obscured by modern translations which will render κύριος as “sir.” Of course, this is a legitimate translation of the word given certain contexts, however the word also carries unique Old Testament resonance, since it is the word that the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, uses to render the divine name, Yahweh. This means that in Luke’s Gospel, characters will call Jesus Lord, which for them might mean little more than “sir,” but in the context of the Gospel, the character speaks far more truthfully than they realize. In other words, they are right to call Jesus sir/Lord, but not merely because he is worthy of their respect, but because he is also the Lord of the Old Testament.
Rowe’s analysis is extremely detailed, and while it can get sometimes get a bit tedious, he does an amazing job of demonstrating how intentionally and profoundly written the Gospel of Luke is even with respect to his use of this one word.
 See Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010).