Revisiting the Best Books of 2012
Back in December, before I had resumed blogging, a few friends posted my article on the best books of 2012. Since I’ve started blogging again, several people who didn’t see the article have asked that I publish it one more time. So here it is.
It’s that time of year again . . . time for top ten lists of every sort. The only lists I care about are those of the top ten books of the year. As with every year, so too in 2012, it’s hard to keep it to ten. So I didn’t. My list this year, as in the past, is a hodgepodge of differing genres. I’ll start with number ten and work toward the top.
(10) It all begins with a tie! I simply couldn’t bring myself to exclude either of these books, so I expanded my list from ten to eleven. Oddly enough, these two volumes both address the state of “religion” in America, but from differing perspectives.
In his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 337 pp., New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes a compelling case that our problem in the U.S. is neither too much religion nor intolerant secularism but rather bad religion, “the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses. . . . Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, Douthat argues, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption” (from the dustcover). The only bad thing about this book is that Douthat is right.
The other “tenth-best” book of the year is T. M. Luhrmann’s, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 434 pp. There is a bit of a misnomer in the title, insofar as this massive and meticulous investigation into the dynamics of prayer and biblical spirituality focuses largely on the way it has come to expression in churches affiliated with the Vineyard. Other, non-charismatic, evangelicals will take umbrage at being identified with those whom she analyzes.
Tanya Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist who teaches at Stanford. In order to write this book she attended two different Vineyard congregations (one in Chicago, the other in San Francisco), each for two years, and was deeply involved in the small group life at both churches. This isn’t a book review, but something needs to be said about what she does in its pages. Luhrmann seeks to account for the spiritual life, emotions, attitudes, and actions of charismatic Christians from a strictly psychological and social-scientific point of view. Her analysis of the claim of these believers to having heard the voice of God (hence the title) is based on hundreds of interviews and can be, at times, quite cynical. She critically parses out every word, belief, and cliché in the Vineyard world (although she also examines mainstream evangelicals such as Rick Warren and his Purpose Driven Life). Many will find her approach and conclusions offensive, but I was fascinated by this “confession” on the final page:
“I have said that I do not presume to know ultimate reality. But it is also true that through the process of this journey, in my own way I have come to know God. I do not know what to make of this knowing. I would not call myself a Christian, but I find myself defending Christianity” (325).
(9) Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love, edited by Kyle Strobel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 348 pp.
Wait a minute! Isn’t this supposed to be about books written in 2012, not in the 18th century? Well, yes, but this volume is more than merely what Edwards wrote. Kyle Strobel has provided us with a running commentary on Edwards’ famous exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 that makes this volume worth re-visiting time and time again. Although I chafe when I read Edwards’ failed attempt to defend cessationism, this is one of his best yet most neglected works. If for no other reason, get it to immerse yourself in the incomparable chapter, “Heaven is a World of Love.” Here is what I wrote as an endorsement for the book:
“As best I can tell, this is a first in Edwardsean studies. No one has done with Charity and Its Fruits what Kyle Strobel accomplishes here – providing us with an enlightening commentary and a readable text of one of Edwards’s most important, though highly neglected, treatises. All who love Edwards (and everyone should) will profit immensely from this exceptional volume.”
(8) Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism, edited by Robert L. Plummer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 256 pp.
This is a fascinating book that I highly recommend. If you want to know what these faiths entail, and especially why an individual who is committed to one makes the monumental decision to “convert” to another, this is the book for you. I enjoyed this book for another reason: I’m personally acquainted with several of the contributors. Wilbur Ellsworth, former pastor of First Baptist Church in Wheaton, Illinois, became an acquaintance of mine when I taught at Wheaton College. I had the privilege of preaching in his church (after he had left FBC) before he embraced Eastern Orthodoxy. Gregg Allison, who writes in response to Francis Beckwith (who returned to the Roman Catholic Church after many years as an evangelical Protestant), is a close personal friend. And I’m especially close to Lyle Dorsett who describes his journey into Anglicanism. I attended for four years the church where Lyle was senior pastor. Yes, I used to attend a charismatic Anglican church, and loved it (even though I was then, and remain to this day, a credo-baptist).
The contributors are all fair and balanced in their treatment of the others. I especially recommend this book to any Protestant who is being lured by Catholicism. Please get it and read Allison’s chapter.
(7) The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Reflections on the Humanity of Christ, by Bruce A. Ware (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 156 pp.
Although short, this book is long on fascinating insights into the humanity of Jesus. As evangelicals who rightfully defend the deity of Christ, we have at times acted as though any focus on his humanity was tantamount to yielding ground to theological liberals who believe he is nothing more than man. Ware’s book will go a long way in reversing this obvious gap in evangelical thinking about the person of Christ.
I should also mention that this book is not without controversy. Ware tackles the thorny question of whether or not Jesus could sin, which is to say, was he impeccable or peccable? All Bible-believing folk acknowledge that Jesus didn’t sin, but was it possible that he might have? Ware says no. I’m not so sure. Yet another volatile issue is the matter of Jesus being male. Could our Savior have been female? What role, if any, did the gender of Jesus play in our salvation? And the best part of this book is Ware’s defense of the thesis that Jesus lived and ministered not in the strength of his divine nature as God but through the Holy Spirit with whom he was filled, on whom he depended, and by whom he was empowered. You’ll love reading this book, even if you end up on the other side of such questions.
(6) The Hole in our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, by Kevin DeYoung (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 160 pp.
Here’s another short one from Crossway, but like Ware, DeYoung has hit a biblical home run. DeYoung writes with clarity and conviction and his prose is a delight to read. His ideas are, as Piper notes, “ruthlessly biblical” and, in my opinion, altogether persuasive. So what is the “hole” in our holiness? “The hole in our holiness,” says DeYoung, “is that we really don’t care much about it” (10). Yes, he explains why we don’t care and provides a plethora of biblical and practical reasons why we must. I loved this book! By the way, don’t hold your breath waiting for a year in which one of DeYoung’s books doesn’t appear on my top ten list!
(5) Engaging the Written Word of God, by J. I. Packer (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), 331 pp.
This book from J. I. Packer was published in 2012, but not written in it. It is a collection of Packer’s writings on Scripture drawn from a lengthy and incredibly productive ministry over the past forty years (Packer refers to it as a “mass of fugitive pieces”). These essays were first published in one volume in 1999 by Paternoster Press and I’m tremendously grateful to Hendrickson Publishers for releasing this newer and updated edition.
The book brings together the best of Packer on three primary topics relating to the Bible: biblical inerrancy (nine chapters), interpreting Scripture (seven chapters), and preaching the Word (seven chapters). Packer recently turned 86 years old and is still actively writing. If you are looking for a book that will cover the most essential themes relating to the Bible, you can do no better than to start with this one. Highly recommended!
(4) Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, by Gregg R. Allison (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 494 pp.
Every time I ran into Gregg over the past several years I asked the same question: “When is your book on the church coming out?” Well, it’s finally here, and it was well worth the wait. Whereas the volumes by Ware and DeYoung, also from Crossway, were brief, this one is a substantive 494 pages. It covers virtually everything you’d want to know about the doctrine of the church, from church discipline to government, from Elders to ordinances, together with an excellent treatment of how spiritual gifts function in the body of Christ.
Perhaps the most controversial and intriguing part of the book is Allison’s rigorous (convincing?) defense of the multisite church model. I was honored when Gregg asked me to write an endorsement. Here is what I said:
“No longer can one regard ‘evangelical ecclesiology’ as a contradiction in terms. Among the many recent evangelical volumes on the doctrine of the church, Allison’s will undoubtedly prove to be the standard treatment for years to come. This excellent book is biblically faithful, historically informed, and pastorally relevant. One need not agree with Allison on every point of interpretation to profit immensely from his insights. I struggle to think of another volume on the subject that combines both theological depth and practical wisdom in such readable fashion as does Allison. I cannot recommend it too highly.”
(3) The Intolerance of Tolerance, by D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 186 pp.
My greatest fear about this book by Carson is that it will go largely unread by many evangelicals, and especially by those non-evangelicals who most stand in need of its penetrating truths. It is a challenge to read but please don’t give up on it. The rich harvest is well worth the initial plowing.
So what does Carson mean by the “intolerance” of “tolerance”? He is using these terms to refer to a not so subtle shift in how people envision and define “tolerance”. The older “tolerance” referred to “accepting the existence of different views” (italics mine), whereas the newer “tolerance” has in mind the “acceptance of different views” (italics mine). Please don’t miss the distinction. Carson is pointing to the shift “from recognizing other people’s right to have different beliefs or practices to accepting the differing views of other people” (3). Again, “to accept that a different or opposing position exists and deserves the right to exist is one thing; to accept the position itself means that one is no longer opposing it. The new tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own. We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid” (3-4).
Don’t think that Carson’s book is merely theoretical. He provides a vast array of examples and disturbing illustrations of this shift as seen in virtually every sphere of human activity. This is Carson at his best. Don’t pass it by.
[Choosing between number two and number one wasn’t easy. After I go back and read both of them again (which I fully intend on doing), I may well flip-flop on my decision.]
(2) Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation, by Oliver D. Crisp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 260 pp.
All I can say is “Wow!” Well, not really. I can actually say much more about this book. Oliver Crisp may well be the most informed and articulate theologian writing on Edwards in our day. He is Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.
This is a demanding book, and those not already familiar with Edwards may find it a rough go. But Crisp is amazingly crisp (!) in his prose and has a remarkable knack at taking complex theological and philosophical ideas in Edwards and making sense of them for his readers. For those up-to-date on Edwardsean scholarship, Crisp both dedicates the book to Sang Hyun Lee and then proceeds to take him to task! I won’t go into what is involved here, other than to say that Crisp takes dead aim at and, in my opinion, successfully slays the interpretation of Edwards popularized by Lee. [I suppose it is important for you to know that the book on Edwards by McClymond and McDermott, which last year was number one on my list, defends Lee!]
On the back cover, Ken Minkema (Executive Editor and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University) writes the following: “Once every generation or so a book comes along that redefines prevailing interpretation of a figure or event. This is just such a book for understanding Edwards . . .” So, if you love Edwards, as I do, get this volume. You may not agree with how Crisp engages with Edwards (he actually has problems with Edwards’s concept of the Trinity) but you will, I trust, be challenged and led into breathless worship of the God whom Edwards proclaimed.
(1) Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt (New York: Liverright Publishing, 2012), 307 pp.
I wrestled for some time over how I should describe this book, and finally decided to let it describe itself. Here is the description it provides:
“Of all the mysteries that humankind has confronted, the deepest and most persistent is the mystery of existence. Why should there be a universe at all, and why are we a part of it? Why is there Something rather than Nothing? . . . In Why Does the World Exist? Jim Holt takes on the role of cosmic gumshoe, exploring new and sometimes bizarre angles to the mystery of existence. His search for the ultimate explanation begins with the usual suspects – God versus the Big Bang. But as he proceeds to interrogate a distinguished and colorful series of witnesses – including the Nobel Laureate in Physics Steven Weinberg, the Christian theologian Richard Swinburne, the mathematical Platonist Roger Penrose, and even the late novelist John Updike – the list of ontological suspects begins to lengthen. Holt’s metaphysically intrepid investigation takes him from New York’s Greenwich Village to unlikely spots in Pittsburgh and Texas, and thence to London and ultimately to Oxford’s hallowed All Souls College. . . . Why Does the World Exist? is a rollicking medley of physics and philosophy, of theology and mathematics, of travel reportage and personal memoir.”
I know it seems strange that I should think so highly of a book written by an unbeliever, a man who at the end of his investigation refuses to acknowledge the existence of the God of the Bible as the only answer to his question. But this book actually turns out to be a marvelous, though unintended, apologetic for Christian monotheism. The reason is that again and again throughout his search Holt finds the explanations of philosophers, mathematicians, and physicists to be utterly devoid of consistency and persuasive power.
The simple fact is that such intellectuals have no way to account for why there is something rather than nothing. They know, and must finally admit, that their theories don’t work. So why won’t they (and Holt) simply concede the obvious: that a self-sufficient and eternal God created the Something? Because they don’t like Him! To acknowledge his existence and creative power is to come under his Lordship, both intellectually and morally, and they can’t bear the thought of it.
Holt is a long-time contributor to The New Yorker and is an excellent writer. I plan on reading this book several more times in the years to come. I hope you do too.