This was a fairly productive year of reading for me (I think… it’s actually the first year I’ve truly documented every entire book I’ve read so it’s hard to tell what constitutes as “productive” for me). In general, I spent time in every topic and in every genre I intended to explore in 2017. It was really hard to narrow my top 10 list, but the exercise was a fruitful one for me, because it occasioned the opportunity for me to reflect on some of the major themes of 2017 for me, since these works occupied my thought-life. Here are my top 10 books of 2017:
10. Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken – David Powlison
The best thing I’ve ever read on the topic. So much hope, so much sobriety. Powlison, at several points in this little book, nearly frightens me with how penetrating his insights are. I think every Christian, in this incredibly confused and sexually broken time, needs to read this book.
9. Eve In Exile: And the Restoration of Femininity – Rebekah Merkle
This book is incredible. Readable, poignant, timely, winsome, funny, and downright challenging. Mrs. Merkle paints a breathtakingly beautiful picture of femininity with a signature wit that could only come from a “Wilson” or a “Merkle” (or, in this case, a “Wilson” who became a “Merkle,” which is, in and of itself, a powerful apologetic for what she advocates for in this book). The lofty vision of womanhood advanced here dwarfs the anti-femininity of “feminism” to its left, and the demeaning, reductionistic anti-femininity of 1950s tamed-domesticity to its right. Mrs. Merkle advocates for, and demonstrates, a careful interaction with various philosophical positions–which may be assumed wittingly or unwittingly by Christians–and in the end shows how only a uniquely Christian take on femininity gets you all the glory and beauty and dignity and meaning and strength of true womanhood without any of the unnecessary baggage that settling for a sub-Christian take on femininity necessarily brings. But don’t let that analysis fool you into thinking that this book is purely theoretical without any sort of brass tacks application. Merkle refuses to separate what God has joined together in keeping theory and practice wedded together, which means that this book is not only philosophically insightful, it’s immensely practical as well. All things considered, this little book easily found a comfy position in my top 10 books read in 2017.
8. Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
This was one of the most thought-provoking books I have ever read. It is a heart-breaking book, and it is tragic for many reasons. It is tragic because of the experiences that shaped it–because of the repeated and abiding sins that characterize the stories. It is also tragic because Ta-Nehisi Coates is a naturalist, and his only solace in the face of all of the injustice that occupies his mind is the struggle to understand and cope with the injustice.
From a philosophical point of view, this book is incoherent. This is not a critique on the organization of content or the style of the book; these are Coates’ memoirs to his son and the book shouldn’t be criticized as a philosophical treaties. But his worldview does not comport with his emotions or many of his analyses (which is something he readily admits, particularly when he–with one breath–mocks Christianity as simple wish-thinking while also admiring Christians for their ability to experience the same injustices he is subjected to with a poise and hope that he cannot account for). He believes that there is no God, yet he objects to cosmic injustice. He believes that there is no ultimate purpose in life, yet he is driven to struggle and fight and live with intentionality that screams of purpose and value. Coates acknowledges mystery, but rules out Christian theism from the outset. For that simple reason, I’m afraid this book will fall on deaf ears for my brothers and sisters in Christ who would otherwise benefit from it. Many won’t be able to get past the fact that, intellectually and philosophically, Coates is standing on a different foundation.
For my own part, the reconciliation of gained insight from this book, given the chasm between my worldview and Coates’, is simple. He doesn’t agree with my views of teleology (in fact, there really is no teleology for Coates) or ontology or epistemology, but he can’t help but live in the same world as me (that is, God’s world); his analyses will take for granted rules of logic and morality and purpose that my worldview can account for and his cannot. He has given me eyes to see things that I would have otherwise been blind to, simply by virtue of his own individuality, and my differing conclusions and presuppositions only mean that I gain more benefit from his observations than he could have ever hoped to give me. Coates helps me to sharpen the focus on injustice and sin in this world, which enables me to grieve with him, but his worldview limitations mean that he is unable to take another step forward with me to cry, “Come! Lord Jesus, come!” and to have actual expectation for actual reconciliation and actual restoration of the world that is so royally marred and broken by sin. In other words, he points to the brokenness of this world and the brokenness of our society and RIGHTLY observes, “Only the miracle of resurrection could solve this problem; hopes in policies and people and the ‘goodness of human nature’ are futile.” But then, he is forced to conclude, “Too bad there is no God to resurrect, and miracles don’t happen,” and therein lies the tragedy of this book.
7. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry – G.K. Beale
This book was incredible. Beale can be a little difficult to read, but only on account of his thoroughness. He argues his case very well. Beware, however, for this isn’t truly “A Biblical Theology of Idolatry” as the subtitle would lead you to believe, rather, it’s a “A Biblical Theology of Idolatry’s Effect.” In other words, Beale, isn’t primarily concerned with drawing out a biblical-theological definition of idolatry and its origin (or even its appeal), rather, he’s primarily concerned with what idolatry does. So even though it didn’t scratch my precise itch, it proved to be well-worth the time nonetheless. A very important book.
6. Gilead – Marylinne Robinson
I chipped away at this book over the course of several months whenever I had time (the laid back memoir style made it easy to pick up after not reading it for a while). This book is marvelous. Surely it’s a mark of a great fiction writer if the book makes you feel nostalgia about an imaginary history that does not even remotely resemble your own.
In a real way, this book is a parable of progressive sanctification. Even exemplary, holy, faithful old men will have to run their entire race on this earth; if one is breathing on this side of eternity, one is in need of sanctification.
This book also has a great deal of wisdom for fathers; the entire work hinges on father-son-relationships at every turn. As a young dad who thinks often about the heritage I’ll leave behind for my children, “Gilead” gave me all the feels.
5. Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church – Gregg R. Allison
A fantastic work. Allison does a marvelous job at showing the relevance between a theology of the church and the polity of the church. Much of what Allison has to say here is incredibly helpful, but I was particularly edified by his emphasis on the church’s paradoxical identity on this side of eternity: she is a community of “elect exiles;” cherished inheritors of the kingdom and yet sojourners and strangers.
As an aside, I was really fascinated by Allison’s discussions on multi-site churches. Some of the churches he cited as examples of multi-site done well are no longer in existence (Mark Driscoll was quoted at length, for example) or have begun the process to transition from multi-site to autonomous congregations and have thus become irreverent. I found his arguments less than persuasive on their own right, but I’d be interested to see what Allison would have to say about the topic now that the climate has begun to shift and experience (at least in the case of some of the churches he cited) has begged to differ with his conclusions.
4. Redemption Accomplished and Applied – John Murray
This book is amazing. Murray does a great job at offering the bare bones arguments for definite atonement, but more importantly, he does so in a deeply doxological way. This is theology at its finest because it isn’t stoic, it’s exuberant. I’m so glad that at the cross, Christ didn’t merely die to make salvation possible, he died to save.
3. Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and Its Inversion – Richard Lints
I stumbled on a goldmine for my dissertation in this volume. Lints takes his cue from Beale and goes on to do what I was hoping Beale would do in We Become What We Worship: he works at a definition of idolatry and explores its relationship to man’s nature as image-bearers. He also (obviously) ventures out into the hazardous arena of defining “image” (which is tantamount to begging to be attacked by scholars of all shapes and sizes).
2. Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel – Andreas J. Kostenberger and Scott R. Swain
Superb. This book is interdisciplinary collaboration at its best; NT scholarship and Systematic Theology working as God intends: in unity. The big idea: John’s trinitarianism is manifested in his theology of mission: the Father sends the Son by the power of the Spirit. In turn, the church’s mission is fundamentally trinitarian: the Son ascends to the Father and sends the Spirit to empower his people to continue this Triune mission that was planned out from eternity past and initiated when the Word became flash. The church’s unity is therefore fundamentally a reflection of the Trinity’s, and the church’s missional invitation is nothing less than an invitation to be swallowed up into the Trinity’s love: the love that the Father, Son, and Spirit have been enjoying for all eternity. Breathtaking.
1. The Triune God – Fred Sanders
Such a great and necessary work. Sanders does a fine job at identifying the actual problems at the heart of various trinitarian debates which have occurred and will certainly continue to occur. The strength of this book is its emphasis on methodology: how does one formulate dogmatic statements about the doctrine of the Trinity? There a few major ideas that resurface over the course of the book, and they are (among others): the idea that doctrine of the Trinity should be understood in terms mission (ad extra) and procession (as intra), that the definitive revelation of the doctrine of the Trinity is the mission of the Trinity executed in the incarnation and Pentecost (the mission of God the Father sending the Son and the Spirit), and that the NT documents are inspired Revelation that recount that act of revelation. This is why one shouldn’t expect to find rigid formulaic summaries about the Trinity explicitly in Scripture: God’s triune nature is assumed and alluded to in every biblical theological category–they can’t function unless God is triune. And this, of course, has extreme implications for how we formulate trinitarian dogma. If God reveals himself to be trinity in terms of mission and procession in the Scriptures, our discussions about the Trinity, and the personal relations therein, should primarily exist within those categories, as opposed to, what Sanders calls, “piece-meal” anecdotal Scripture references that are seldom exposited in their missional-processional contexts.