Heirs of Eden: Creating the World We Want With God’s Help and for God’s Glory
David McDonald is a good friend of mine and released an amazing book this year. It’s hard to define the genre of Heirs of Eden, which is part of why it’s so amazing. It’s like one cup artsy coffee table book, one cup devotional book, and one cup “deep theology made pastorally understandable” book. And just to make this book shine even brighter, it’s on a wide-view Bible topic that has become central to my understanding of Scripture and philosophy of ministry. If you’re unfamiliar with the Biblical themes of creation, creating, and new creation, then this is a book that you should read. It will help you get a better grip on why you’re here, why you matter, and what you’re supposed to be doing.
Tolkien Dogmatics: Theology through Mythology with the Maker of Middle-earth
C.S. Lewis’ fantasy work is pretty allegorically clear: to quote a popular meme, “Jesus lion goes rawr.” Indeed, the clearness is part of why I love Narnia so much. On the other hand, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “fundamentally religious and Catholic” fantasy buries rich Christian themes deep within his world and story. It’s not allegory per se—indeed, it can’t be, because it’s supposed to be a tale about what happened on our planet long ago—therefore, you can’t have an allegorical Jesus coming to save us when such an event lies well within the future of our planet. What you can have, however, is thematic and theological echoes of Scripture, because Scripture echoes itself over and over again throughout the 66 books that make it. And so allegorical echoes of Scripture exist throughout all of Tolkien’s writing and world-building and this book is the perfect scholarly companion to help you see what Tolkien’s up to. In Tolkien Dogmatics, Austin Freeman gives us such a rich understanding of Tolkien as a person and a writer that we can’t help but want to go back and read and watch all of The Lord of the Rings again and again.
The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible
It’s hard to trust me because I say this a lot, but I may have added Robin A. Parry’s, The Biblical Cosmos, to my top 10 favorite books of all time. The geography and landscape of the Bible is bizarre. Based on the way the Bible writers describe the universe, it sometimes feels like we’re reading mythology. This is because the unscientific writers of the Bible had a very unique and different way of looking at the cosmos, and Parry brings it all together neatly in this book. There are phrases and concepts you’ve read in the Bible a hundred times and didn’t give much thought to it, but this book will force you to pay attention to it. While the cosmos of modern science is pretty cool, the cosmos of ancient people is epic. And even if ancient Bible writers are wrong about science, their theological implications are beautiful and wonderful. Read this book. You can also check out the message I preached at Westwinds Church for a quick look into this worldview to get your feet wet.
Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right
Randall Balmer’s, Bad Faith, is a very short book that is well worth the read for any Christian here in the states. Reminiscent of the important and convicting historical church studies of Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne and Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise, Balmer sets out here to clarify recent church history. He shows us how unrepentant racism in the church’s past has played a part in creating the strange political-Christian paradigm in which we now live today. The “Religious Right” is not what the church has always been, but is rather a recent development that has grown to extreme heights today. I am quite passionate about this topic because I find Christian nationalism to be a deeply dangerous spiritual development in the American Church that denies all that the Scriptures teach. If we do not repent immediately, we will find ourselves in a ruder awakening than what we’ve seen in the last few years. This short book can add some much needed conviction to the church.
Discipleship in a World Full of Nazis: Recovering the True Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Speaking of religion and politics, Mark Thiessen Nation’s Discipleship in a World Full of Nazis is the perfect read to help us see what happens to Christianity when it marries the state. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an important theologian in Nazi Germany who had to figure out how to live out the ethics of Jesus with the threat of Hitler over his head. Not only did he have to preach a real Jesus in the time of Hitler, but he had to preach a real Jesus in the time of the nationalistic Reich church that made itself compatible with nazism. In his time, Christianity and politics became one in heretical union. Nation’s book does a terrific job of showing us how Bonhoeffer tried to navigate that world, ultimately getting himself killed by the government.
And it’s here that Nation offers us a minority view that really makes sense to me. While it is widely accepted that Bonhoeffer participated in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, many Jesus-shaped-pacifists (such as myself) can’t figure out how this makes any sense for Bonhoeffer in light of all of his pacifistic teaching. Mark Nation wonders if Bonhoeffer really ever participated in such a thing and offers mounds of research as to why we may be wrong here (which popular scholars like Scot McKnight and Stanley Hauerwas seem to agree with). While Nation cites lots of thoughts for his case, I’ll quote a summary of his case from my recent seminary paper here:
To summarize their research, they believe that Bonhoeffer became a part of the Abwehr so he couldn’t be drafted for military service, as suggested by his brother-in-law. He was later arrested, not for the attempted assassination of Hitler (since the authorities never found out who was responsible for the act), but because he tried to save fourteen Jews. The court records of Bonhoeffer’s case show that he was then imprisoned for attempting to get himself and others out of military service. Bonhoeffer was also a conscientious objector, which was considered a capital offense at the time. While Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s biographer, put Bonhoeffer into the realm of conspiracy and Niebuhrian realism, Bonhoeffer’s best friend Franz Hildebrandt was sure he wasn’t a part of the plot. The fine details of Nation’s well-researched case make this view more convincing than many might think, and it certainly makes more coherent sense of Bonhoeffer as a person, as well as his teaching.Jamin Bradley, SOC-THE 723NE/Theology & Political Action, Final Paper, Session #14
(Full disclosure: my professor clearly disagreed with this view and recommended I read more Bonhoeffer. She knows him better than I do so maybe she’s right, but Nation’s book has over 500 footnotes, so he’s not simply grasping at straws to make his case here. There have been many Bonhoeffer writers out there like Eric Metaxas who have taken Bonhoeffer completely out of context for their own purposes, so I understand my professor’s fear that I’m reading Bonhoeffer conspiracy instead of scholarship. On the front of bad Bonhoeffer writing, see Stephen R. Haynes’ book, The Battle for Bonhoeffer.)
The Cross and the Lynching Tree
James H. Cone brings us another great work of black liberation theology. The Cross and the Lynching Tree is a hugely important read for a church still struggling to come to terms with its own racism in a world that is screaming for its attention. Cone shows us how the tragedy of the cross has carried on into today’s world with the oppression of people of color. This a powerfully convicting read from a wise theologian and the white church would be wise to listen to him immediately.
The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age
Biographies can be a bit dry sometimes, but Patrick Parr’s, The Seminarian, is written entertainingly and insightfully to keep the reader going. This book gives us a quick look at MLK’s early life to help us see the roots that formed him as a person and turned him into the theological activist he was. King’s clever pacifistic techniques and powerful preaching remind us how badly we need new leaders of love to rise up today in the fight against racism. If Christians once again renew their minds to the sermon on the mount like Bonhoeffer and King did, we can truly create King’s beloved community among us.
In Bondage to Evil: A Psycho-Spiritual Understanding of Possession
For me, 2022 has been a year of exorcism. I’ve worked with many to help them find freedom from the demons that have unknowingly assaulted them for years. Within the realm of deliverance ministry, there are many kinds of books. Most of them are written by charismatic Christians and can get a little wonky. While good material is within such books, they don’t always cut to the core of deliverance ministry. There are better books out there written by counselors who understand that deliverance ministry is really founded in inner healing and therapy—if you want to get the thing out, Jesus needs you to take care of the issues that let it in in the first place; otherwise, it will just come back in soon after you cast it out. (For a great work on counseling-deliverance ministry, see David W. Appleby’s book It’s Only a Demon.)
But rarely have I seen a scholarly-deliverance book like T. Craig Isaac’s, In Bondage to Evil. This, of course, is because scholars tend to spend much of their time in the realm of reason and don’t always leave a lot of space for supernatural ministry that tends to defy our understanding. But Isaac will have none of it. He dives headlong into a scholarly Christian study of deliverance ministry, taking both from the Bible and modern stories. While I wouldn’t call this book “practical” per se, it makes for a unique contribution to Christian deliverance ministry.
Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World
I’ve written and preached elsewhere recently on abortion, pulling from Michael J. Gorman’s, Abortion and the Early Church, as a primary source. Gorman’s work is an important read for this sensitive issue as it shows us how the topic of abortion was viewed in Jesus’ time and how the church responded to it. This is surprising to some because abortion feels like a modern-day issue that only came about because of modern technology, but that is not the case. While abortion methods were different in the ancient world, it was common practice. Gorman brings this all to light and offers us Biblical and historical research to help us have better, more insightful pro-life conversations today.
Altogether Lovely: A Thematic and Intertextual Reading of the Song of Songs
It probably sounds weird to admit this, but I am fascinated with the Song of Songs. It’s such an odd book to have in the canon of Scripture and it has had so many unique interpretations throughout history. It has been a book over the last few years that I have returned to time and time again to understand better. As you might imagine, there’s plenty to *ahem* discover in this book once you start looking into it. Of the studies I’ve read on it so far, Havilah Dharamraj offers the densest, most unique scholarly view of the book. Altogether Lovely takes a look at a collection of overtly sexual passages in the Bible in an attempt to make the Song pop out in deeper, nuanced ways. And in case you find her intertextual look unconvincing, the amount of research Dharamraj does on the Song itself is worth it. This lengthy book is certainly more scholarly and has a bit of a slow start, but I found it very worth it in the end.
Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining
While I’ve been doing deliverance ministry this year, I’ve encountered a lot of trauma in people’s lives. When I came across this scholarly study on trauma, I grabbed it to see if it might be helpful. In Spirit and Trauma, Shelly Rambo gives us an intriguing parallel between trauma survivors and Jesus’ descent into Hell. For trauma survivors, the trauma feels like a death of sorts. Jesus identifies with our trauma by taking on the trauma of the cross and descending into the death of Hell, showing us that there is no place we can go that God cannot reach and has not already been. Even in our pain and death, he can bring about resurrection life. Jesus meets us in that place to bring us hope and help us out of our pain.
Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings
If you’ve ever wanted a good, condensed look at how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien influenced each other’s lives and writings, Bandersnatch is the book! Indeed, we might wonder if we would have ever been given Lord of the Rings if it wasn’t for Lewis’ encouragement when so many others mocked Tolkien for it. Diana Pavlac Glyer has given me one of the more intriguing biographies I’ve read over the years.
Wonderfully Made: A Protestant Theology of the Body
As I recently preached this Christmas, the body is a strange topic in Christian circles. Some view it as a hindrance that only ever gets in the way of living right. Some are very gnostic in their view, hoping to shed the body and never see it again as they become nothing more than spirits. Others are so focused on the body that life becomes all about fitness and looking like a Marvel superhero or a fictional photoshopped model. The topic of the body has been abused in both of these ways and John W. Kleinig does a great job at circling us back to a more proper and healthy theology of the body in his book, Wonderfully Made. This is a good work to center us on the goodness of the bodies God has given us so that we might treat them correctly in all of their various ways.
God Has a Name
The divine council is one of my favorite theological bubbles to pop for people. The classic evangelical view of the supernatural worldview of the Bible is not anywhere near deep enough. My favorite work on this subject (indeed, my favorite book of all time) is Michael Heiser’s, The Unseen Realm. But this kind of scholarly teaching almost never trickles down into the church because pastors are afraid to teach on it (indeed, I was featured in a podcast episode with Heiser on the topic of what it’s like to teach this content in the church). That being said, imagine my surprise when I read a book from popular pastor, John Mark Comer, where he openly addressed that very subject! That being said, if you know little about this subject, Comer’s book, God Has a Name, is a good way to get your feet wet. You can also learn more in a message I preached that was featured on the No Small Churches Podcast.
Exploring the Bible
Exploring the Bible by Eric D. Barreto and Michael J. Chan is a quick recommendation I want to make for anyone wanting to go deeper into their Bible. Yes, it’s scholarly, but written in a way that everyone can understand and provides the basics that Christians need to know about the Scriptures that they usually don’t. This was a book I had to read for one of my Seminary classes that I thought would be super dry, but it was surprisingly very good. It’s insightful and condensed and reminiscent of something I might expect The Bible Project to provide. Worth a quick read.