The summer is always a great time to get some extra reading done, preferably outside with a Lutheran beverage in hand. So here are some of my suggestions of books that I’ve read in the past year. Some are theological; some are not, but they’re all worth your time.
I don’t know why, but I love memoirs. I find it compelling how the author has to construct a meaningful narrative out of what can easily become the random and meaningless events of their life. The story that they choose to tell about their life and what they have experienced is how they are able to a meaningful whole and a direction. This is an essential part of what it means to live an examined life. The skills of reflection displayed by the authors of good memoirs are what can also enable us to examine our own lives, and when we examine, we can grow and change; we can begin to see God at work in our life; we can see our story fits into the larger story of God and his people.
Educated by Tara Westover
Westover was raised in rural Idaho by a Mormon family of what one might call survivalists or preppers. This book is similar in style to the cult-memoir, although Westover was not really part of a cult in the strict sense. The strange views of her father had a profound effect on her and her family are something that she does have to learn how to escape so that she can live a normal life. Westover’s memoir is excellent at constructing meaningful narratives out of chaotic events. She examines the effects of ignorance and abuse and asks questions about what it means to tell the stories of our lives. And on top of that, her writing is phenomenal.
Surprised by Oxford by Caroline Weber
Weber was an agnostic when she arrived at Oxford for her Masters work studying poetry, however because of the friends she makes in Oxford, she begins to ask questions she never asked herself before and begins a long journey into Christianity. Weber’s book catalogues her experiences and her struggles as she walked through this process: the questions she asked, the breakthroughs she had, etc. Weber’s writing is also phenomenal. I really loved how she writes her memoir in the style of a novel, giving it the descriptive detail and dialogue that one finds in novels rather than memoirs. This is a stylistic departure from a “just the facts” style memoir, and the change in style only serves to highlight the story Weber is telling.
Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
Bowler is a church historian who discovers that she has a serious case of cancer. One of the ironies is that much of her research has been on the prosperity gospel movement in the United States. She narrates her experience while simultaneously walking the reader through this popular Christian movement. She reflects on what it means to trust in God in the midst of tragedy and suffering, what it means to feel abandoned by God, what it feels like to be preparing to leave everything you love behind. Bowler’s book is raw. This is not a light book, but that makes it all the more profound.
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath
The Heaths seek to ask the questions why some ideas stick so well and others don’t. Perhaps you’ve had the experience listening to speakers where one person is so hard to listen to and remember but another instantly grabs your attention and you can remember things that they said years later. This is the difference between sticky and unsticky ideas. The Heaths talk about a lot of the barriers that get in the way of communicators. One of the most prominent being the curse of knowledge, the fact that once you know something, it becomes almost impossible to understand what it’s like to not know it. This becomes a problem if you’re trying to communicate with people who don’t already know what you know (which is most of our communicating). The Heaths lay out some specific and concrete ways that you can make your ideas stickier and thereby communicate more effectively and memorably.
Ethics and Sexuality
This past year I’ve been doing a lot of research on theological sexual ethics. I think this is one of the most pressing issues facing the contemporary church and many of our responses only exacerbate the problem. The following three are some of the more helpful books I read in my research.
Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age by Jonathan Grant
One of Grant’s central points is that Christians have become captive to the sexual and relational scripts of our surrounding culture. This is why so many Christians find the Christian vision for human sexuality hard if not impossible to live out. This is why Christian teaching on sexuality not only fails to be compelling, but often seems to be a repressive wet blanket. In other words, if we want to have a legitimately Christian understanding of sexuality that is lived out joyfully, then we must go beyond articulating rules and regulations, and instead question our assumptions about how relationships and sexuality work in the first place. Furthermore, Grant argues how contemporary assumptions and practices surrounding sexuality and relationships set us up for failure and disappointment. This isn’t merely an issue of obedience, but it’s an issue of finding actual fulfillment in the good creation that God has designed.
Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian by Wesley Hill
Hill is well-known for being a gay and celibate Christian, but in this book he argues that in our culture we have lost the practice of having committed and close friendships that brought so much meaning to people in the past. We now demand that our spouses fulfill the role that close friendships used to fill. Unsurprisingly this has taken a toll on our marriages and left us lonelier and unhappier as a result. Hill recounts his own attempts at putting this sort of thing into practice, the struggles he’s face with it as well as how he has failed. Hill is a great writer, a brilliant theologian, and an excellent guide into a much-needed discussion.
Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality by Nancy Pearcey
This is the most philosophical of the three books in this section. However it’s simplicity and brilliance is surprising and refreshing. Pearcey has a rather simple thesis with wide-reaching implications. She argues that we have allowed there to be a split between bodies and persons, that our body is something distinct from our personhood, our identity. The result of this is that our bodies become little more than meat machines and our personhood becomes detached from our bodies; it becomes something that we can construct at will. Pearcey argues that this misunderstanding of the human person is at the heart of modern secular worldviews and she demonstrates how it has shaped the way that we’ve approached issues like abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, casual sex, transgenderism and others. It’s easy to think that all these social issues are separate, but Pearcey convincingly shows how contemporary approaches to these issues has a common philosophical root.
The following are rather academic books that are not for the faint of heart or the casual reader. That being said, these books have been game-changers for me, and I highly recommend them if you’re up to the challenge.
A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue Ethics by Joel Biermann
Biermann argues that contemporary Lutheran theology persistently struggles to speak meaningfully about how Christians ought to live. Lutherans too often get stuck in a reductionist Law-Gospel dichotomy which has no place for instruction in Christian living. Biermann argues that this issue is entirely unnecessary and is actually a result of a departure from the Lutheran tradition. Biermann argues that the theology of the Lutheran tradition not only has a place for instruction and exhortation to Christian living, but is also a legitimately integral part of it. He argues that the approach of virtue ethics is the key for Lutheran teaching and proclamation to reclaim this essential part of the teaching of the scriptures.
One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions by C. Kavin Rowe
Rowe is quickly turning into one of my favorite authors. I loved his book that I included in last year’s summer reading list and this one is even better. In this book Rowe compares early Christianity and late Stoicism as rival contemporary traditions. However, this book is much more than a historical comparison between two important ancient traditions. Rowe questions what it means for us to compare these sorts of things in the first place. He argues that rival traditions like Stoicism and Christianity cannot be broken up into the constituent parts and then compared piece by piece. Rather, they must be taken as a whole; they cannot be separate from the life that one lives in light of these teachings and stories. If we take what Rowe has to say seriously, it really is a game changer in how we approach not just ancient history, but how we think about and discuss anything that seeks to give answers to questions that really matter.