2018 Book List with Recommendations

It’s that time of year again! No, I’m not talking about Advent or Christmas. It’s end-of-the-year book list time!

In a typical year I like to read between ten and twenty new books. This year our family transitioned from Los Angeles to St. Paul, Minnesota, where I’ve become the pastor of Roots Covenant Church. So it hasn’t been a typical year. However, I did manage to read twelve new books. Here’s my list (from most to least recently read) with some thoughts and recommendations:

1. Being Human by Rowen Williams

This is a very brief but poignant book. Williams packs a lifetime’s worth of reflection and study on what it means to be human into a very small package. I enjoy reading his characteristically British way of writing. I found it accessible yet profound, but I don’t know that I’d recommend it to just anyone. You’d have to be the type that enjoys a philosophically-dense read with very little “application.” For some, that’s perfect. Others might ask “What’s the point?”

2. Paul: A Biography by N. T. Wright

When I saw that Wright was releasing another book on Paul, I thought “How much can one person stand to write about Paul?” Apparently, the answer is a lot! Of course Wright has already written a ton on Paul’s theology (e.g. What Saint Paul Really Said, Justification, etc.), and he’s even written what might be the definitive work on Paul: the 1,700-page Paul and the Faithfulness of God. But, this book is much different. This book is a bit more of a story that tracks along with Paul’s life as we learn of it from the New Testament. At times, it’s eye-opening, even for someone who has studied quite a lot of Pauline theology. Wright delves into Paul’s “dark night of the soul” and the “lost decade.” Those were the most fascinating parts to me. I’d recommend this book to just about anyone interested in Paul, the person, not so much Paul’s theology.

3. Rethinking Incarceration by Dominique Gilliard

This book combines two of the subjects that most interest me: 1. Racial justice/righteousness; and 2. Atonement theology. Dominique Gilliard is the Director of Racial Righteousness for my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). And he’s been a pastor in multiethnic churches all over the U.S., from Oakland to Atlanta to Chicago. In this book, he builds upon the work of authors like Michelle Alexander and Bryan Stevenson, who have shined a light on the racial injustice of mass incarceration, including it’s not-so-well-known history. But, then, the book takes a surprising and fascinating turn. Dominique gets to the root cause of the “justice system” in America’s injustice: a retributive vision of justice. He traces the development or mass incarceration to the concepts Christians have held for hundreds of years about what exactly God was up to in the Cross of Jesus. Dominique’s critique of what’s called the “Penal Substitution” atonement theory is pointed and poignant. It will infuriate staunch proponents and encourage skeptics. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in either topic.

Here’s my more detailed review.

4. Seeing Jesus in East Harlem by José Humphreys

This is another book written by an ECC colleague. José is a pastor and church planter in New York who is black and Latinx. I’ve known José for years and have learned so much from him. This book is an excellent distillation of much of his hard-earned wisdom for multiethnic church leaders. Not only does José tell much of his own church planting story in intriguing detail, but he also teaches readers the undergirding theological foundations of his ministry. “Showing up and staying put” is a great way to introduce people to the principles of incarnation and missional urban ecclesiology. José does it with charm and wit as well as sharp theological insights. I highly recommend this book to all those interested in urban ministry, multiethnic ministry, or just being a presence of shalom in your community.

Here’s my more detailed review.

5. The Unseen Realm by Michael Heiser

Heiser is a new name for me this year. He was recommended by Tim Mackie, the resident theologian at The Bible Project, during their podcast series on God. In that series, Tim and Jon had to tackle the complex topics of “elohim” (“gods”) and the unseen realm which is part of the worldview of the biblical authors. Since Tim recommended Heiser’s work on the podcast, I skipped over to Heiser’s podcast to hear from him. I’d hoped that, like The Bible Project, he’d be the kind of scholar who doesn’t subscribe wholeheartedly to a particular theological tradition, and then pretend to be neutral. I was very, very disappointed in what I heard in the episode I listened to. Heiser took an entirely partisan position informed by a very particular tradition and attempted to passed it off as an objective reading of the Text—the very thing I’d hoped he wouldn’t do. When I complained about this publicly on Facebook, my friend Myron (who I think said he’d taken classes with Heiser in seminary) defended him and recommended this book as an example of his more direct speciality. I admit that this book does a much better job dealing accurately and fairly with the Text than my first sampling of Heiser’s work. That said, it wasn’t the most compelling book I read this year, and a lot of it has already escaped my memory. He does a good job of challenging skeptics and some assumptions about ancient near eastern worldviews. But, overall, I wasn’t deeply impressed with this book. I’d be more likely to recommend God at War or Satan and the Problem of Evil to those interested.

6. Mo Meta Blues by QuestLove

My wife routinely teases me that I only read books on theology. So, partly in an attempt to read something outside my norm, and partly because I’ve been a fan of The Roots since childhood, I picked up Amir “QuestLove” Thompson’s memoir. Overall, I really liked the book, as a fun “beach read” kind of book—especially since it’s one of the few non-theology books I’ve read in years. However, some of the name-dropping and salacious tea-spilling got a bit repetitive and ultimately boring. It’s clear that QuestLove has lived an amazing life, seeing the behind-the-scenes in the lives of so many celebrities we idolize. That said, he also references his religious upbringing quite a bit in the book but doesn’t reflect meaningfully on his own faith journey at all. That, to me, was a waste. I would have appreciated the book a lot more had he discussed his relationship to faith. If you’re a fan of pop culture, you’d love this book. If you just like memoirs, you’ll probably enjoy this one too. But it’s probably not for everyone.

7. Reality, Grief, Hope by Walter Brueggemann

I’ve read a lot of Brueggemann’s work over the years. He’s easily one the most prolific and influential biblical scholars/theologians alive today. This isn’t one of his more in-depth books, where he opens up whole worlds into the thinking of ancient Hebrews. But it does draw upon large themes in the Hebrew Bible. Brueggemann is excellent at distilling those large themes into categories and teaching readers the movement of thought from one theme to another. He’s famously done at the with the Psalms and prophets. In this book, he turns his gaze toward the post-9/11 West. With his trademark economic lens, he critiques Western capitalism and the church’s complicity with his wonderfully poetic and theologically rich prose. This is a great book for those who are looking for sermon fodder.

8. Mujerista Theology by Ada María Isasi-Díaz

In my theological reading, I’m convicted to read more perspectives than just white males, particularly more female theologians and biblical scholars of color. That’s why I picked up this book. I was looking for something akin to Womanism, but from a Latina perspective. Mañana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective by Justo González is one of my all-time favorite books, which I recommend constantly. So, I was hoping this book would be a lot like that. It started out strong, with potential. But at some point the author began arguing that decolonizing indigenous Latin American theology could be reconciled with occult practices like Santeria. That’s where the author lost me. I’m very open to Liberation theology, but there has to be a line at which we recognize that not all practices are healthy and life-giving. Some practices malform their practitioners. While an important book, for sure, I’m not sure I can recommend it.

9. Narratives of a Vulnerable God by William C. Placher

God’s vulnerability has been a topic of interest of mine for many years now. I’ve been particularly interested in learning from those who draw upon the passionate portraits of God in the Hebrew Bible and in the Cross of Jesus. This book is an excellent example of that. I happened upon this book in a bookstore that did not have a large selection of books on theology, and I was not familiar with Placher before buying this book. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found it to be really rich and accessible. While Placher does engage with some very heady concepts and ideas, I didn’t find the book “too academic.” I also found his writing style to be very expressive, almost poetic. I underlined a lot of passages. I’d highly recommend this book to just about anyone.

10. One Blood by John Perkins

John Perkins is a living legend and prophet. He’s been calling the church in the U.S. to racial righteousness since the 60s and he’s just as good at it as he always has been. This book felt like a farewell. Dr. Perkins recognizes that he doesn’t have much more time left in this life. But he is finishing the race strong. This is very good summation of the message he’s been preaching for many decades. I’d highly recommend it.

11. Reviving Old Scratch by Richard Beck

When we lived in LA, I became friends with Tripp Fuller, the host of the Homebrewed Theology podcast. He had a graduate studies and nonprofit incubator in Redondo Beach that I would visit when he had conferences or guest speakers. When he told me he was having a panel discussion on the devil with N. T. Wright, Greg Boyd, and Richard Beck called “Devilpalooza,” I didn’t know much at all about Beck, but the idea of having Wright and Boyd in the same room talking about the devil was a dream come true. It turns out the event was in promotion of Beck’s book on the devil, which I subsequently read. Now I understand why people are Richard Beck fans. He has a very charming yet challenging writing style. He sets you at ease with his wit and humor, but also packs a powerful theological punch. In this book, Beck sets out to challenge those who have long ago dismissed “Old Scratch” as irrelevant or superstition. He uses his own experience as an academic thrust into the world of prison ministry as an entry point for fellow skeptics. His own wrestling with the reality of the “demonic” gives readers permission to wrestle as well. Beck also reframes the demonic by using sociopolitical and psychological insights. This will likely frustrate Conservatives for whom such talk may seem to delegitimize the biblical worldview. However, I think Beck’s book brilliantly reenergizes a conversation that has long fell out of favor. I’d highly recommend this book to those who are interested in learning more about what we mean when we talk about “the devil.”

12. The Pietist Option by Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III

This was the first book I read this year, and I began reading on the flight back from Midwinter, the annual pastors gathering ECC. The ECC is proud of its Pietist heritage, but also a little defensive. A lot of people have bought into the stereotype that Pietists are “pietistic,” meaning more concerned with a private spirituality than social good. Of course, historically it’s precisely the opposite. But that image has been hard to shake. The reality is that Pietist have been very good at maintaining a dynamic relationship between personal piety and public activism. And that dynamic is what the authors of this book believe is most needed in the American church, given that its been so polarized along precisely that fault line. Pietism, understood historically and accurately, is a potential solution to the “Culture War” divide that runs right through the middle of the church in the U.S.. That’s why I think this book is very timely and important. I’d highly recommend it to just about anyone, but particularly to American pastors who are trying to reconcile divided congregations.