By nature, top ten lists are as personal as they are peculiar. One man’s “great read” is another man’s doorstop, and vice versa. Nevertheless, these often idiosyncratic lists are fun to compile. For in the assembling of the list, one has the chance to review much of what has shaped his or her thinking over the course of the past year; and in doing so, the chance to possibly shape the thinking of another. So here, once again, I offer you the very best of the books that I have read over the course of the past year. What about you? Have you read any great books this year? Anything that you think others should read? If so, feel free to comment below.
Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000 by Iain H. Murray. Do you have a sense that something has gone deeply wrong in many, if not most, of the Evangelical churches that dot the landscape of 21st century America? Are you struggling to put a finger on what that “something” is? If so, I believe this is the book for you. For within its pages, you will find a devastating critique of everything from Fundamentalism to Christianity Today to the Billy Graham crusades themselves. Murray is a master teacher and through the reading of this book, class is in session.
Center Church by Timothy Keller. It’s hard to believe that a “how to” manual on church building could crack my top 10 books of the year. But that is exactly what Tim Keller’s most recent tome has done. Employing the computer as a central metaphor, Keller argues that most books tend to focus on either the hardware (theology) or the software (programs) of a church. This book, however, is all about the “middleware” or the firmware. It’s about helping churches develop a theological and culturally specific vision for the communities in which they minister.
Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays versus Christian Debate by Justin Lee. Of all the books that make an appearance on this list, this is the only volume that I am somewhat hesitant to include. In the end, I decided to give it a place on this list because it is what we might call an “important” book – a book that has the chance to mold the larger culture in ways that may be both positive and negative at the same time. Ultimately, I suspect that Justin Lee’s story will make many evangelicals uncomfortable in their preconceptions, even if his exegesis of Scripture doesn’t fully convince them that he can “rescue” the Gospel.
The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform by Roger Olson. Admittedly, the title of this book is not likely to grab the average reader. And quite honestly, had it not been recommended to me by a friend, it is unlikely that I would have even found this gem. But Olson’s work is nothing less than magisterial storytelling, as he takes what is often considered to be an academic subject and infuses it with the gift of insightful narration. Of particular note are his masterful discussions on the early church fathers up through Augustine and the Arminian concerns during the time of the Protestant Reformation.
The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; and Mocking Jay by Suzanne Collins. Late last year, after publishing my Top 10 Books of 2011 in early November, I discovered The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. While some volumes are stronger than others (e.g. Catching Fire), the work as a whole is a compelling tale that drives hard to a finish line that is simultaneously tragic and cathartic at the same time. Some will dismiss the work as overly violent and inappropriate given its intended audience. But for the mature teenager, this is Worldview Analysis 101.
Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt. Building upon Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s bold assertion that “[the first call every Christian experiences is] the call to abandon the attachments of this world,” David Platt makes a strong case that the contemporary North American Evangelical church has become enslaved to the forces of culture and has consequently become marked more by its pursuit of radicalized, individual autonomy and material success than it is by a true, passionate pursuit of Christ and His globalized mission to the ends of the earth.
A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin. It is a well-known belief that sequels rarely live up to the promise shown by an artist’s initial work. But in the case of A Clash of Kings, the age-old adage simply does not prove to be true. For here, in the second part of his Song of Ice and Fire series, George R.R. Martin has once again taken the the scope and the grandeur of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and he has infused it with contemporary concerns such as society’s never-ending quest for personal power, the effects of war on children, and the moral incertitude of even those that claim the mantle of being “good.”
The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf. Can one forget atrocities? Should one forgive abusers? Ought we not hope for the final reconciliation of all the wronged and all wrongdoers alike, even if it means spending eternity with perpetrators of evil? We live in an age when it is generally accepted that past wrongs – genocides, terrorist attacks, bald personal injustices – should be constantly remembered. But Miroslav Volf here proposes the radical idea that letting go of such memories – after a certain point – may actually be the appropriate course of action. (Taken from amazon.com review.)
The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are by Janell Williams Paris. While the biographical nature of Justin Lee’s Torn leaves that book well-positioned to become a culture-shaping text within the broader Evangelical community, Paris’ text is the far more insightful volume on this subject. It’s chief strength lies in its willingness to set aside simple categories of sexual identity (e.g. homosexual, heterosexual, etc…) in favor of analyzing the culturally conditioned nature of human sexuality. Provocative by design, the book is bound to challenge both those on the political left as well as the right.
The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight. The thesis of the book is as simple as it is confrontational. In short, Scot McKnight wants to argue that the majority of Evangelical Christians in present day American churches have missed out on the true meaning of the Gospel. Having settled, instead, for a “personal salvation” that is deeply rooted in the radical individualism that permeates our culture, Evangelicals have failed to see that at its core, the Gospel is not so much about “conversionism” as it is about the announcement and enthronement of King Jesus.
The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright. For years now, admirers of N.T. Wright have been waiting for him to draw together the exegesis he did in his individual commentaries on each book of the New Testament. Now that it is here, the results are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, he has managed to produce a fresh translation that emphasizes informality over and against most translators’ instincts towards overly formal (and often stilted) language. But on the downside, the publishers have opted to produce a translation that lacks the appropriate footnoting that could have explained many of the choices Wright made. While this may seem to be an odd critique, the lack of footnotes was a critical oversight that has severely damaged the work, particularly in the Pauline epistles where Wright’s commitment to the New Paul perspective comes shining through. Overall, this is a tremendous translation that could have been even better with a little time and care on the part of both the author and the publishers.