Books of the Year that Was, 2019 ed.

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books I’ve read since January. As with each year’s list (see 20182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2019 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

As a seminary student (with a full-time job and four kids), I also should give a special shout-out to our library’s excellent selection of audiobooks, without which I would not get to read nearly as many things as I’d like.

Christian Theology and Practice

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
This is haunting and, for theological conservatives whose blood pressure goes up at the mention of Cone’s name, christologically and exegetically robust. A very painful contextualization of the gospel message to the American scene, made more painful by the fact that Cone goes straight at a part of our history that has been systemically erased from our collective conscious (and conscience). By identifying the injustice of spuriously legal or extrajudicial murder of innocent African Americans who dared to question the status quo of Jim Crow with Jesus’ crucifixion, Cone sheds light on aspects of the power of the gospel witness that are often overlooked by dominant cultural groups.

On the Road with St. Augustine by James K.A. Smith
Not that I ever expect Jamie Smith to let me down, but this book was astonishingly punchy, deep, and tender. I picked this up right after finally reading The Confessions, and it provided quite the chaser, deepening the takeaways I’d made from the classic. In many ways a passion project attempting to rescue Augustine from a mask of dour, proto-medieval theology and show (with the aid of Smith’s trademark weaving of philosophy and pop culture) how he is instead a guide and traveling companion for Christians seeking to follow Christ in a dark, hungry, and confusing world.

The Book of Pastoral Rule by Gregory the Great
For the past couple of years, I’ve been part of a local reading group of the Paideia Center. The group itself is marvelous, and our Chattanooga chapter includes men and women from multiple denominations and age groups. This fall, we read Gregory’s appeal for churchmen retreating into monasticism to consider the weighty calling of pastoral ministry instead. In his practical application of Scripture to people of various personalities and experiences, Gregory is chock full of worthwhile counsel—reading like a more complex and thorough enneagram resource from the 6th century. His allegorical interpretations of Scripture make some hermeneutical leaps that seem foreign to modern ears, but they are worth wading through to have our interpretive frames challenged by Christians across the ages.

All That’s Good by Hannah Anderson
A gifted writer (who, I might add, also curates one of the most insightful Twitter profiles around), Anderson always brings to her books a wealth of metaphors, reminding us that seeing a well-worn truth through the refraction of a new facet reveals new depths of blessing, reproof, and call. Here, she considers the spiritual discipline of discernment from a variety of angles, making a fine case for the cultivation of a “taste” for the wonder of the world and the joy of following Christ.

Separated by the Border by Gena Thomas
The decades-long humanitarian crisis unfolding in many central American countries has finally begun to capture the attention of U.S. Christians, thanks in large part to revelations of the federal government’s policy of separating migrant and asylum-seeking children from their parents. Gena Thomas (who I’m proud to call a friend and co-worker) and her family provided foster care to one of these children for several months, and were able to see her reunited with her mother in Honduras. In this gripping story, Gena simultaneously produces a tender, vulnerable memoir and a bold call for justice for the immigrant the oppressed and the orphan.

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Fundamentalist U by Adam Laats
As an alumnus of Bryan College, a non-denominational Christian liberal arts school birthed out of the heyday of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy (in the town where the 1925 Scopes Trial took place and named after its star prosecutor) that has seen more than its fair share of recent debacles, I was intrigued by this historical analysis of independent Christian higher ed. Laats has produced a remarkably fair yet hard-hitting history of bible institutes, colleges, and universities that ends up connecting many themes of the broader American Christian movement in the 20th century—from church splits to evangelical obsessions with politics to global missions and domestic opposition to civil rights.

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist
All my life, I’ve been told that American slavery was an outmoded institution that would have died out eventually in the face of technological advances and modern labor practices, but Edward Baptist is not buying it. Through this book, he makes a compelling case that Southern enslavement was, instead, a foundational driver of the massive explosion of wealth and productivity of the industrial revolution, a thoroughly modern institution integral to the building of a global economy. The book was not without controversy when released, with some accusing Baptist of revisionism with an eye toward the full discrediting of capitalism, but I found his arguments to stay focused on this institution and era. As such, I think he forces a needed reckoning with a part of our history so few of us have been willing to even countenance. Baptist’s telling, in particular, makes the Civil War so much more understandable, offering a clear picture of why the North would be politically willing to do battle, but also a better picture of why Reconstruction so quickly devolved into sharecropping and Jim Crow—the world market’s demand for cotton did not, after all, slow down. This is a painful work, but one that Americans need to read. See a longer review at goodreads.com.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Looking back, I think 2019 was a year of educating myself on the ways our culture and law in the U.S. has historically dehumanized and abused non-white people, particularly our African American brothers and sisters. Kendi’s massive “history of racist ideas” demonstrates the rot of the doctrine of discovery in Western thought and law since 1493. He writes engagingly, tying historical discussions in various epochs to a few central figures and their work for or against the advance of racist policy and practice (Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis). Perhaps his strongest contribution is the observation that racist ideas do not generate racism, so much as they are attempts to codify and justify racist attitudes and actions motivated by greed and pride. A painful but important book.

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Just as Baptist covered the effects of dehumanizing policy and practice in economics and Kendi in politics and culture, Jemar Tisby explores these themes in the American Church. Tisby’s work is remarkable in that he ambitiously covers so much ground in a slim volume (just over 200 pages, in contrast to the 500+ of Baptist and Kendi). He starts off with a short discourse about the discipline of history and acknowledges that his project here is to offer a survey, a necessarily shallow introduction to a massive subject. His goal is to illuminate the big arc of the story and encourage readers to go “upstream” into the multiplicity of deeper sources he cites. Read my full review.

Dignity by Chris Arnade
Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong with America” takes, Chris Arnade’s is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose. Read my full review, and this commentary on what this book has to teach the church.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I’d heard several people recommend this book, and upon reading it I was floored. What a gift! Kimmerer, an accomplished botanist and university professor, is a member of the Potawatomi Nation. In this book—part memoir, part field guide, part history, part scientific survey, part conservation manifesto—she explores the ecology of Eastern North America through the lenses of her indigenous heritage and her botanical training. Through a loving exploration of the interconnectedness of plant communities and the role of animals and humans in every ecosystem, she casts a vision for a culture of reciprocity that resists the temptation to take all we can get. Aglow with common grace and wisdom, and beautifully written as well.

Literature/Poetry/Criticism

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
I’ve been making the effort to stretch my language muscles by reading (and writing) more poetry over the past few years, and I’m convinced that we’re living in a golden age of the art form. Far and away the best collection of new poems I read this year was Kaminsky’s narrative arc of a town under cruel military occupation in which the populace feigns deafness together as an act of resistance. Simply stunning, especially in the way he bookends the story with two poems commenting on contemporary life in the U.S. Also a highlight of the year for me was running into Kaminsky, who holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech, recently in Atlanta (seriously, I just bumped into him at the botanical gardens) and getting to tell him how much I appreciated his work.

"At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?"

For the Time Being by W.H. Auden
Speaking of poetry, if any one poet is responsible for drawing me into the art, it’s Auden. This year, during Advent, I finally read his Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being”. Written in the bowels of World War II, his sense of the radical light of incarnation in contrast to the darkness of the world is as prescient and moving as ever. It will be a Christmas tradition for me from now on.

Though written by Thy children with
   A smudged and crooked line,
Thy Word is ever legible,
Thy Meaning unequivocal,
And for Thy Goodness even sin
   Is valid as a sign.

Paradise Lost by John Milton
It’s part of the “canon.” It’s certainly a poetic achievement (and Satan is the best character). It’s also the source of a lot of bad cultural imagery of Satan, overemphasis of gendered sin patterns, etc. And yet it does still represent a powerful artistic achievement. I think it is also Milton’s honest wrestling with existence—Why would God allow the whole of humankind to be born in sin and misery after Adam & Eve’s fall? Why not just allow the curse of death to work immediately and start fresh? Isn’t that the height of cruelty? Milton’s answer seems to be that the cross, the great inversion of power (which is threaded throughout Scripture) is the point of existence, not the patch. An intellectually satisfying answer? Not fully. But it is perhaps “the sum of wisdom.” Maybe hoping higher is not good for our soul, even as we long for Christ to make all things new.

Merciful over all His works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things. By things deem'd weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; That suffering for truth’s sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And, to the faithful, death the gate of life;
Taught this, by His example whom I now
Acknowledge my redeemer ever blessed

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior
Literature has value in and of itself as story—the wonder of exploring the joy, sorrow, and mystery of people in the image of God. The best of literature also is among the best teachers of what a life well-lived might look like. To that end, Prior explores several classics (from Pride and Prejudice to Huckleberry Finn to The Road to Flannery O’Connor’s stories) to explore the virtues and how their depictions in good stories help us understand how to cultivate them in our own lives. Along the way, she does a good deal to unpack how virtue functions in the first place, a discussion worthy of publication in its own right. On Reading Well is a delight-filled reminder of why any of us read in the first place, abounding in wisdom and joy.

Giving the Devil His Due by Jessica Hooten Wilson
Regarding literature, one of the common excuses I’ve heard from Christians over the years for why they don’t read more is that they do not like dark or depressing stories—in other words, they conflate the portrayal of sin, and evil, and brokenness with the endorsement of such. In this excellent short book, Jessica Wilson (an acquaintance of mine and fellow devotee of the Walker Percy Weekend) shows convincingly that the dark side of literature is often where great authors do their best soulcraft. Chiefly, she applies the work of Rene Girard to the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor to show that the great choice of life is not belief in God or belief in oneself, but submission to God or submission to Satan (whose slavery lurks behind every idol, including even our own self). If you’ve not read Dostoevsky and O’Connor (particularly The Brothers Karamazov and The Violent Bear It Away) this one is hard to follow. If you have, it will make you cherish these writers and their work all the more.

Re-reads

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” 

Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr
There is an ever-present tension in the history of the spread of the gospel between the authority of Jesus and the reality of culture—between rejection of some cultural authority in Jesus’ name and faithful cultural engagement. Perhaps no one captures this as well as H. Richard Niebuhr, who says that where this balance is lacking, “Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by His name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord” (p. 68). I read this in college, and didn’t get the depth of what Neibuhr was saying; 15 years later, his work still makes a ton of sense.

My Antonía by Willa Cather
Cather has become one of my favorite American authors, and so I deeply enjoyed that my wife chose My Ántonia for her turn in our bi-monthly book club. This is bittersweet and beautiful as American lit gets. As I wrote on this blog after my first reading several years ago, “I never thought of Nebraska with such tenderness. The themes of place, home, family, unrequited love, coming of age, and immigrant experience are deftly handled and give the story weight, but it is the American-ness of it all that gives it a worthy place in our national canon.”

Also-reads

These books are not necessarily “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order are all the other books I also read in 2019.

Act of Grace by James C. Petty
Chinnubbie and the Owl by Alexander Posey
Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
Dubliners by James Joyce
A Field Guide to Becoming Whole by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic
Free at Last? by Carl Ellis
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Our Secular Age by Collin Hansen
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Whose Religion Is Christianity? by Lamin Sanneh
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Year of Our Lord, 1943 by Alan Jacobs

Image: Little Opossum Creek, Hamilton County, Tenn., December 2019.

But He Died!: The Cross and God’s Sovereignty

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 25, 2011.

My dad has often said that the older he got, the more convinced he was of God’s absolute sovereignty and the less sure he was of his own free choice in the developments of his life and faith. A younger me was less inclined to see things that way–something about our human nature always chafes against any notion that we aren’t in control of our daily lives—but now I couldn’t agree more.

We are born into this world thinking ourselves the masters of our domain, seeking every opportunity to manipulate our situation to our advantage. Paradoxically, we learn to expect that our demands will be met whenever we make them precisely because we are utterly helpless. A parent doesn’t meet the needs of a child because the child’s cries obligate action; rather they do it out of love and concern for their child. A parent, not their child, creates and sustains the proper environment necessary for growth. From this, we grow up predisposed to believe that our parents exist to serve us, and we drag that image into our understanding of God.

Immature prayer often sounds like a more polished and polite version of a young child’s begging: “Lord, please give me (insert desire here);” “Lord, please take away (insert bad situation, illness, or difficulty here).” Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, as we are exhorted to ask God for His good gifts—even self-centered prayer acknowledges God as the source of the blessing. When the content of all our prayers is centered on such supplication, however, we are clearly missing something. A God powerful enough to give us these blessings and good enough to answer when we ask is deserving of so much more in our relationship to Him. Just as we (hopefully) grow to see our parents as so much more than providers, we should mature in our understanding of God.

Theologically, this teases itself out in debates about the nature of salvation, righteousness, and responsibility. Who is the actor when we pass from death to life? How can we do right and cease from sin? Why do bad things happen in the world if God could stop them? Most of us, at least at some point, struggle with the interplay between personal autonomy and God’s absolute authority. The Scriptures, which reveal both God’s eternal power and the drama of human choice, give precious little on which to build a sound case for the unilateral triumph of either position.

To put it too simplistically, we can look at it this way. Those who see God’s authority rigidly, to the point of not allowing man responsibility for anything, view God’s sovereignty correctly—He is either sovereign over all or not at all—but they impute to Him man’s motives and attitudes in the application of that authority in such a way that misses the vastness of His love and mercy. Those who see man’s autonomy rigidly, to the point of diminishing God’s power, correctly see that we are responsible for our choices, but they impute God-like motives to us that undercut the depth, darkness, and totality of our sinfulness.

I’ve known people who grew into belief in God’s sovereignty and then have had that confidence shattered by personal experiences or simply an overwhelming awareness of the trauma of life in a fallen world. When we witness a horrific crime or natural disaster, we can’t help but wonder how and why God would allow such things. To some, the assurance that “God is in control” is no comfort and seems a hollow brush-off of visceral suffering.

God is in control, though, just as He was in control the day His beloved, holy, innocent Son, Jesus Christ, was brutally beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. The cross of Christ (vís-a-vís God’s sovereignty) is not simply a lesson in how God’s plan through what appears to be abject evil is in reality an unimaginable good (a la Gen. 50:20), though it is the ultimate example of that. The crossEcce Homo is not just a lesson in the ways in which God’s plan is beyond our understanding, though it is that too. Though a display of His grace and power and authority to erase our sins, it is still more. Perhaps the way the cross most boldly proclaims God’s sovereignty is through showcasing His willingness to suffer.

Christ was God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), not another created being. Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:6-8). He came from a position of equality with God and yet became a man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He came down to know the full measure of temptation (Heb. 4:15), pain, and separation from the Father: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).

The suffering which culminated at the cross included 33 years of life in this broken place. Christ lived with the poor sanitation, poor health, and poor food and water quality common to all in the first century world. He lived through three decades of human strife, quarrelling, brutality, political tension, sickness, sorrow, and death. Even more than that, He was born into poverty, a member of an oppressed people group, living in a town and region of low reputation as far from the power centers of the Roman world as one could get. He was probably maligned all His life by those who knew that His birthday and Joseph & Mary’s wedding day didn’t add up. He was probably envied and maneuvered against by His siblings and neighbors. Perhaps His carpentry shop was robbed or vandalized. In his years among us, He took into Himself the fullness of human misery so as to be unassailable in His compassion for us.

When Satan tempts us to believe that God is somehow out of touch or incapacitated by the scope of natural and moral evil in the world, we have to cling to the cross. When he tells us that God could not know our pain, could not feel our inner turmoil, and is not interested in the details of life in this world, we have to throw the battered, bloody body of Jesus in his face and shout, “But He died!”

When we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and compassion, when we read of divinely-ordered genocide (as in 1 Sam. 15) in the same book as we discover His everlasting lovingkindness (and are told to see this as a contradiction that undermines our faith) we have to fall on the cross. The justice and love of God are both predicated on the finished work of Christ: He knows “everyone whose name has…been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8). Everything about our understanding of and relationship with God has to hold up under the power of the cross; otherwise, it is incomplete and is “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).

The longer I follow Christ, the more I embrace my dad’s statement. The driving factor in this shift hasn’t been so much that I’ve learned more about God’s sovereignty from growing in His Word (though I have), but that I am daily confronted with the magnitude of my sin and the ways mine and others’ sins are reflected in the systems of the world. The more I recognize my own rottenness, the more I recognize that any standing I have before God is His doing alone. The less sound my case seems in the face of God’s holy justice, the more His love breaks through in all its glory. If I thought I deserved even a snippet of it, it would be cheapened to me beyond recognition. I’ve got no right whatsoever to live with God, but He died!

Charles Wesley’s words ring true: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”  Amen.

Photo: Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri, Public Domain.

Considering Our Options: Reviewing Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, by Rod Dreher, 2017, New York, Sentinel.*

Jeremiads against the corrupt culture of the surrounding world are nothing new in Christianity. The looming collapse of the social order has been forecast time and again, with a standard of accuracy that would make meteorologists into clairvoyants by comparison. Why, then, consider the subject again? What value could there possibly be in stirring up despair and provoking jeers from those outside the faith?

For one thing, the Jeremiad has fallen out of favor, within the church as much as without. We in the West don’t want to see the problem. Rather than wringing our hands waiting for the apocalypse, we are often twiddling our thumbs and trying to get the most out of our comfortable lives here and now. In this sense, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is not a Jeremiad at all, but more akin to the work of another prophet: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD….‘” (Isa. 40:3).

There is a plenty in the book that weeps for the state of our culture, but Dreher focuses his criticisms and prescriptions on the Western church—namely our unwillingness to see how the ground beneath our feet has shifted. The time has come, he argues, to look around, make a strategic retreat from the familiar battlefields of the culture war, and shore up our homes, churches, and institutions against the quicksand of what he calls “liquid modernity.” We can no longer “fight the last war,” attempting to persuade non-Christians through politics and preaching to return with us to the (largely fictitious) halcyon good old days. The majority has turned against the teachings of Scripture, and we must instead build a case for the truth and goodness of Christ and His church, as well as the structures and commitment to live that out.

Dreher’s approach here is neither new nor untried, and he engages in the text with several contemporary authors (Russell Moore, Yuval Levin, James K. A. Smith, and others) sounding similar themes. He has several advantages in this space, though. As a journalist rather than a professional theologian, he has taken the time to observe culture from a more critical remove, seeing the flood rising across denominational and regional lines, and finding stories of silver linings in unlikely places. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, he has been steeped neither in the culture of hyper-spiritual gnosticism that so often has infected fundamentalists nor the individualism and over-emphasis on relevance that has often hollowed out the mainstream American evangelical worldview. As somewhat of a political “crank”, broadly conservative but standing outside of either major party, his ideas push well past political solutions to the problems he identifies. His even-handed, ecumenical tone acknowledges the divides between the various constituenciesbenedict-option_w-copy he addresses while calling attention to the divide that runs through each of them: their relative unwillingness to acknowledge the dissolution of the faith taking place under their collective noses.

Because Dreher has been talking about these themes in public (largely through his blog at The American Conservative) for many years, The Benedict Option as a book is a chance for him to clarify (and answer critics) of the Benedict Option as a concept. It is rare for a work to come to an audience who have so many settled opinions on it (see here and here for a couple of recent examples), and Dreher’s good-faith effort to make his case here has been broadly successful. In just 244 pages, Rod manages to distill a decade of blog posts, seminars, and conversations into an adroit summation that covers vast ground with earnest clarity while avoiding undue simplification.

Continue reading

The Example of Jonah

Originally published in Disciple Magazine, April 2014. Part 5 of 5

At last we come to the great “showdown” of this story—when Jonah finally speaks honestly with God and, in spite of his rage and despair, the Lord teaches him graciously yet again who is sovereign and just.

Jonah (after taking a rather, shall we say, circuitous route) obeyed God, delivering a fiery warning of coming judgment to the people of Nineveh. To his surprise, they listened and repented, and, “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (3:10).

Far from the reaction you might expect after what looks like a “successful” delivery of his prophetic message, Jonah reflected bitterly on Nineveh’s repentance: “But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry” (4:1). In his grief and anger, Jonah cried out to the Lord: “He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life’” (4:2-3). Continue reading