Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best Books I Read in 2014

As 2014 comes to a close I want to recap some highlights of the 127 books I read this year. It was tough but I narrowed it down to my top 20. They are in no particular order, however, I have reserved the number one spot for the best book. I have also written a quick blurb on why I loved each book. You will find on this list a fairly broad range of topics (psychology, fiction, theology, biography). I do not claim to have been comprehensive in my reading nor have all of these books been written this year. However, these are the books that have stayed with me the longest. So, without further ado...the list!

1) How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith (Best book of the year)

This is an absolutely breathtaking work. It is dense in some areas (although far less dense than Charles Taylor's massive work which Smith summarizes) but so important for understanding why our world is secular and what that means. This is a book I cannot get out of my head and it has shaped the way I think and read and understand the world.

2) Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

I liked this book far more than I thought I would. It is entertaining, helpful and encouraging for us introverted types. A great read!

3) El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo

This book makes the list for two reasons. First, it gives you a glimpse of the major drug issue confronting Mexico and challenges you to think about the issue in new ways. Second, it is just gripping with unforgettable stories. Ioan gets you so close to the underbelly of Mexico you fear for HIS life. This is a great read.

4) Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

If you can make it through the first two to three hundred pages, you are confronted with some of the best historical research and reconstruction that you will ever read. If you read this book, you will never be able to read the Gospels the same way again. The downside is, the book is pretty massive.

5) The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene

Go ahead and laugh. I don't care. This is an excellent work of fiction and is far deeper than the movie might have you think. If you want a pulse on our secular, nihlistic youth culture, you need to read this book. At its core, it functions as a love story between two competing philosophies--that of Heidegger and Kirkegaard. I have probably reflected more on this book than almost any other book on our list. Read this in conjunction with How (Not) to Be Secular for a good understanding of our current culture.

6) C.S. Lewis: A Life by Allister McGrath

This is a great biography about a great guy. McGrath doesn't paint Lewis as a flawless character but I came away from this book with an even greater appreciation of him. Well worth your time reading.

7) PROOF: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace by Daniel Montgomery and Paul Timothy Jones

This book is my new favorite book when talking about Calvinism. I use it in all my Bible classes because it gets to the heart of what Calvinists mean when we talk about God's grace. Beautiful work.

8) River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

This book was actually on my short list for book of the year. I love this book so much that Candice Millard is now on my "I'll Read Whatever She Writes" list. The story is amazing, the writing is fast-paced and it left me...well...just stunned. It is a book I still can't get out of my head six months after reading it.

9) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is a book of letters by a fictional pastor who is dying to his young son. There is no plot twist. There is no real linear plot...just a lot of random reflections. And I bawled like a baby...three times. Maybe it's because I used to be a pastor but this book just floored me. It is beautiful and Robinson has such a command of the English language that it is just a joy to read. I loved it.

10) Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin

Full disclosure: this is a book for "kids" and was written at around a 6th grade level. Nevertheless, it is the best history book I've ever read. It is fast paced, intense and genuinely insightful. It made history come alive. It is one of the few books I just couldn't put down and I finished in just a few short hours. Then, I couldn't stop talking about it. So good.

11) Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Disturbing. Profane. Thrilling. Those three words sum up Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. It isn't an edifying book but it is a page-turner. It makes my list just because of how unforgettable it is.

12) Evangelical Theology: A biblical and systematic introduction by Michael Bird

This is my vote for the best new systematic theology on the market (replacing Wayne Grudem). What makes Bird's work so great is that he merges systematic and biblical theology together. Further, the book is genuinely funny. I have never, ever laughed out loud while reading a systematic theology until I read Bird's work. If you are a reader of theology, this absolutely has to be on your shelf.

13) The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

This book is so good because it reads like a work of fiction but is actually non-fiction. Without giving away the ending, the book is about a man-eating tiger that a group of men in Russia is hired to kill. Oh, and did I mention the tiger is crazy smart? One of my favorite books of the year!

14) Divine Fury: A History of Genius by Darrin M. McMahon

I don't know what it was about this book, but I found it fascinating. Perhaps what is best is how McMahon describes how our understanding of what constitutes genius has changed. It is a great work that traces the history of geniuses. The book doesn't get bogged down in minutia and keeps things moving along well. Definitely check it out.

15)  On Writing by Stephen King

I loved this book. Why? First, it functions as a great memoir of King's life. Second, it actually will teach you something about writing. Finally, it ends with a list of King's favorite books. You just can't beat it.

16) All Things for Good by Thomas Watson

So in order to appreciate this work you have to appreciate the Puritans, their style of writing and their frame of reference. If you can get by some dated language, what you will find in Watson is one of the deepest, most practical theologians ever. This work I have found particularly helpful when addressing the problem of evil. Watson's position is unabashedly theocentric meaning that he doesn't mess around with a lot of modern theodicy. A fantastic work and one that I found particularly helpful as I dealt with personal family issues.

17) Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David Murray

Another book that was on my short list for book of the year and was probably the best biblical studies work I read all year. Practical, insightful and well-written Murray manages to pack a whole lot in just a few pages. Normally I don't think of biblical studies books as page turners but I think this book is the exception. Perhaps most importantly, it is written at a level where both academics and your every day Bible readers can read and appreciate it.

18) The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness by Kevin DeYoung

My faith tradition talks a lot about grace and the gospel, which is awesome. However, we tend to not talk as much about holiness. DeYoung seeks to remedy that issue by balancing grace and holiness into one practical guide. It is a short book but super convicting. It packs a bunch in one book.

19) Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller

I don't know about you, but my prayer life is pretty erratic. Often times I feel like I am not praying in the most effective manner. Tim Keller seeks to remedy that by providing a biblical and practical guide to prayer. What is great is that Keller covers a ton of ground in this book. He dispels popular myths about what prayer is, covers the biblical evidence of prayer, covers historical perspectives on prayer and then gives a practical guide to prayer. Holy cow! And have I mentioned the extensive footnotes?! It is like getting a whole other book. Definitely check out this book!

20) Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme by Stephen Westerholm.

This book clocks in at just over 100 pages. Yet in 100 pages Westerholm demolishes the New Perspective on Paul, the new cosmological vision of Paul and E.P. Sanders proto-NPP view of Paul, all while enforcing the traditional perspective of justification. It is astonishing what Stephen could accomplish in just a few pages and is really a testimony to his clarity of writing. Pick it up if you want some clear, level-headed thinking on the issue of justification in the New Testament.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Reclaiming Participation Book Review

Interest in the theological idea that we are united with Christ or participate in Christ has started to catch on in Protestant circles as of late. I don't know if this is rooted in a rediscovery of our Eastern Orthodox roots or if it is linked to a renewed interest in orthodox, relational, Trinitarian theology. Either way, we have had a fair amount of monographs come out on the topic of how exactly we live our lives in Christ and mature in Christ. More specifically, the topic of theosis or deification of the Christian is what this conversation centers around. How much of the divine nature do we actually partake in (2 Pet. 1:3-4) or possess?

Enter Reclaiming Participation: Christ as God's life for All by Cynthia Peters Anderson. Anderson argues that in order to have a firm, orthodox understanding of what it means to participate in Christ we actually need to look back to Cyril of Alexandria and the early church's thinking on our relationship to the divine. Only then can we fully appreciate and safely explore contemporary discussion on what it means to be in Christ.

After a chapter exploring what the early church and Cyril of Alexandria taught concerning theosis, Alexander brings Cyril into dialogue with Barth and Balthasar's more complex thinking on this topic. Using Cyril, the author critiques and helpfully advances the conversation. The solution forward is by looking back to our rich heritage.

The book is nuanced and complex (and heavily footnoted). It would be impossible in a review this length to cover every topic. However, I do want to briefly comment on the issue of sanctification and its relationship with participation in Christ. Alexander does a really great job of showing how our telos is to be like Christ but that has immediate ramifications for now.

Alexander argues that the Protestant argument for imputed righteousness and the Catholic argument for infused graced are not as diametrically opposed as many on both sides believe (Loc. 5358). She asks a series of telling questions like,

"Is it possible that on the basis of Christ's righteousness and saving activity on our behalf, we receive an infusion of grace that makes this action transformative in us as a result of the Holy Spirit's work within us? Can we not be at once accounted righteous as a result of Christ's alien righteousness, but also--as a pure gift of God relying solely on the power of the Holy Spirit=-be made righteous as we are infused by grace and transformed into the people god intends us to be as a result of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ?" (Loc. 5358)

Alexander rightly points out that while the idea of bearing fruit in salvation can lead to the mindset of salvation by works, it does not necessitate it. I agree completely. Works play an important role in showing a declaration that has already taken place in Christ. I know of few Protestant churches that would not affirm that statement.

My largest issue with Alexander's book is that I wish she would have interacted more with the Bible. I recognize that this was largely a work of systematic theology and comparing the thinking of Cyril, Barth and Balthasar. Yet, by the end of the book I didn't really feel as if there were any definitive conclusions made. It wasn't a bad book but it left me with very little to cling to.

Due to the technical nature of this work, it would probably be best read by pastors, seminarians and scholars. It is worth reading and I do think it contributes to the discussion of theosis, especially as it relates to the thinking of Barth and Balthasar. I would recommend this work.

*Thanks to Fortress Press for providing a free ebook copy in exchange for a fair review*

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How Christians Watch Movie (Part II)

In the last post on how Christians watch movies, I outlined three different ways.

"What is the content" simply asks how bad a movie is content-wise.

"What is the worldview" simply asks how this movie either coincides or contradicts the Christian worldview.

"Where is the Gospel" asks how can we see where the Gospel is in any movie we watch. The main difference between this view and the "What is the worldview" perspective is that asking where the Gospel is is largely a constructive endeavor while asking, "how does this contradict my worldview" is largely a destructive endeavor.

So what is my position?

My Position
I think that any one of these perspectives is open to some dangers, which leads me to my own perspective which I'll call, "What is the point?" My own view is that Christians must take into account audience, gospel and holiness when talking about any movie. Taking into account those three things should lead us to ask the overarching question, "What is the point of me watching this movie?"

We need to gauge who the intended audience is. A film discussing adult themes in realistic ways is not intended for children. We should not expect a movie talking about sexually explicit themes to talk about them in a PG or even PG-13 way. Further, movies that are attempting to depict realistic violence are not intended for younger audience.

This seems overly obvious but it is important to say. Much Christian culture evaluates all movies using a line that says, "This movie doesn't line up with my G or PG" standards. It may not. But an R rated film is also able to explore to a great level things that adults really do encounter. We must take note who the audience is.

This point really has two elements to it. If every human heart was designed for relationship with God, then we should expect that many movies will echo that longing in some way. We should also expect that without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, many directors will provide the wrong solution to that yearning. Therefore, when looking at any movie we need to ask:
  • 1) Where do we see a Gospel-driven yearning? Where can we connect this back to God's big story of redemption?
  • 2) Where does this movie provide the wrong answer and where can we, as Christians, provide the right one?
Those principles allow us to engage in a manner that is both constructive and destructive. We construct by building a bridge and affirming what is God-glorifying. We destroy that which sets itself up as a solution to the God-shaped hole in every heart.

Finally, we as Christians need to ask if a movie we are watching will aid us in holiness and help us think thoughts that are glorifying to God. For instance, Paul lays down a fairly clear instruction regarding the life of the mind in Philippians 4:8 when he writes,

"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." (NIV)

Unlike some movie viewers, I think that there are some films that are simply off-limits to Christians. The idea that we are called to redeem every part of culture, while sounding good, can often lead to blatant disregard for what God has called us to do. Kevin DeYoung, in his book The Hole in Our Holiness, writes 

"God doesn't ask us to get familiar with sexual immorality on the big screen, TV screen or smart phone screen so that we can engage the culture. He commands us to get away." 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is a clear warning against sexual immorality. Paul's command in verse 18 is particularly important: "Flee from sexual immorality."

I highlight this issue because sexual immorality is so prevalent and destructive and it is portrayed so realistically in movies and TV, that we need to exercise real discernment in what we watch. We need to flee from movies that are dominated by sex. We need to flee from TV shows that are dominated by sex. This is one of the reasons why I skipped the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. Even though it was critically acclaimed, it was also saturated in sex.

It doesn't really matter if we can connect it to the gospel. It doesn't matter if we can use it to engage culture. We need to flee! 

The Big Question: "What is the point?"

All of this leads to the big question, "What is the point?" In other words we need to ask, "Why am I watching what I am watching?" Is it going to harm you? Is it going to advance the kingdom? Is it going to help me engage in culture in a way that is glorifying to God? Is the content something that I am clearly told to flee from?

If the answer is no, then by all means go watch it! Watch and ask where we see the gospel! Delight in the beauty of movies and the story they tell!

If the answer is yes, however, strongly consider skipping. The life of the mind is too important to jeopardize for a movie.



Thursday, December 4, 2014

"God Ahead of Us: The Story of Divine Grace" Book Review

God Ahead of Us: The Story of Divine Grace by Paul O'Callaghan is probably the toughest book I've ever had to review. Why? Well for one, I am a Protestant and he writes as a Catholic. Therefore our understanding of certain key ideas like justification and (more importantly) grace are going to be different. In some cases the gap between our theologies seems too large to be crossed.

Second, I am not totally sure who this book is written for. It is too scholarly to be of much benefit for laity (maybe more advanced members in church) and yet there just isn't really a thesis advanced here to make it of much use to scholars. In other words, God Ahead of Us feels like a book without a home.

However, one of the largest things that makes this book difficult to review is how much I can affirm in this work as a Protestant, while simultaneous disagreeing with so much. Virtually everything I affirm would need to come with qualifications.

So let's begin in what I affirm...

O'Callaghan's basic argument is that all of God's workings in history flow from His grace. He states, "...God is the one who searches for human beings, placing them joyfully on his shoulders as the shepherd does with tired, wounded, and needy sheep (Luke 15:5)." (Loc. 100) Further, he says, "...Christianity has little else to contribute other than grace, although many other things derive from it and give it full expression." (Loc. 143). So far, O'Callaghan sounds like someone in the Reformed branch of the Protestant church.

To demonstrate this basic idea (that grace is central to Christianity) he explores how grace impacts various issues in systematic theology like predestination, vocation and holiness, justification, the Holy Spirit, sanctification, ethics and free will. I would imagine that just from the opening chapter, most within my tradition would celebrate what O'Callaghan is advocating.

But things get tricky as we go along. For one, the author seems to assume that while grace is based upon God's initiative, it is our responsibility to stay within God's grace. In other words, we can fall from grace. Further, because the author blends justification and sanctification into one act, moral transformation and the act of being declared just are literally inseparable. That is problematic because the author insists that it is our responsibility to practice true virtue in light of the grace we have received. But if my justification is tied to my own moral progress that I must make, then I fail to see how justification truly functions in a gracious way. The author states, "Right until the end of our lives we can make the sad choice of separating ourselves from God and losing the grace he has given us. Final perseverance is guaranteed to nobody." (Loc. 652) This again strikes me as the very antithesis of what grace is. Grace deals with us in our rebellion. Grace deals with us in our stubbornness. Grace is what causes us to persevere. So what it seems that the author is saying that grace functions as a "gift" because God did not need to offer us anything. Therefore, it is our responsibility to respond to this grace.

There were other times that the lack of precision in language confused me as to the author's beliefs. For instance he states, "Humans carry within themselves a mysterious and indestructible desire for God." (Loc. 631). Desire? I have no doubt that humans have a need for God and may even be aware of there need for something "other." However, Scripture is clear that we do not yearn for God and that we are rebels against the divine (see Rom. 3 and Rom. 5). It is precisely because we are rebels that God's grace shines so brightly! In was in His love and mercy that He freely chose to covenant with us and rescue us!

O'Callaghan's view of election could be viewed as a problem as well. He seems to follow Barth (although I do not think he states that he is following part) in a Christocentric model of election. What this means in his model is that Christ is elected and so all who are part of his Body, "partake of this predestination." (Loc. 311) Without diving into much detail on this contentious topic, I'll just say this: I find it hard to square this view of predestination with Romans 8:29-30. There, Christ has predestined us and therefore we are saved by God's plan worked out before time. Here, Christ is predestined and so we can believe and be saved. Some might argue that this is mere semantics. That is fine. But it seems to me that if we want to talk grace, we need to talk about how we ourselves are predestined before time to be in Christ as well as (if you wish to say it this way) the predestination of Christ.

So in conclusion, I think that my issues with this book flow out of a bigger issue: I am not Catholic. It is terribly unfair for me to give a negative review for a book where I was not the target audience. Further, I would hate to sound as if I am not desirous of being ecumenical. I desire unity in the Body of Christ, not division.

However, I feel like this book highlights the exact reason why there is a divide between Protestants and Catholics. Even when some within my own tradition are attempting to close the gap on the issue of justification (like the New Perspective on Paul) between Catholics and Protestants, I just cannot affirm what this book states. I feel as if every statement must be qualified.

But perhaps that is one of the goals of theology: dialogue. We serve a big God and our knowledge of Him is imperfect. Having these conversations are necessary. Therefore, I can affirm this book because it helped sharpen my own thinking on the issue of grace and what I mean when I talk about the grace of God. Isn't that what a good book is suppose to do?

I will leave off with a quote that I found particularly stirring from Paul O'Callaghan:

"Grace in other words is not something 'instrumental' that God 'invents' with a view to resolving contingent problems arising within human history. For Paul, grace is everything. It determines the entire course of human history. Humans are created in order to live in eternal communion with God, that is in the grace of God. The meaning of their existence, the beginning, development, and fulfillment of life, is to be found in grace." (Loc. 221-22)

I believe that we can all respond to that with an "Amen!"

*Thanks to Fortress Press for providing me a free copy of this ebook in exchange for an unbiased review*