Time for my annual list of the best books I’ve read this year.
Every year I set a goal for myself to read 52 books – one per week. After years of coming close, I finally hit the mark back in 2011. This year I fell way short again; by the time I finish up my current read, I’ll be at 23 books for the year. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, the prime one being that I spent the first part of the year defending and editing my doctoral thesis which tipped the scales at 161 pages. After graduating in May, I decided to binge on some fictional material which was quite lengthy. I re-read both of the first two entries in Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy (each one checks in at over 800 pages) in anticipation of the final volume, which was supposed to be released this October but has since been pushed to 2015. I also read all five of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books in the past few months and, if you’ve read them, you know that they’re not quick reads. (A Dance with Dragons is well over 1,000 pages.)
All of which is probably just a long-winded way of making excuses as to why I didn’t meet my goal!
Anyway, here are the best books I’ve read in 2014:
- Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola. First of all, the title. A theography isn’t the same thing as a biography, which deals with a human life. Instead, a “theography” would be the story of a divine life. That’s what Sweet and Viola set out to do here with Jesus: A Theography, a sequel of sorts to their earlier work Jesus Manifesto. This theological biography tells the story of God’s interactions with humanity through Jesus Christ. As with some of my other favorite works in recent years, this is a work in narrative theology. In John 5:39 (NLT), Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” Sweet and Viola operate out of this Christocentric approach to the text to give a thorough (400+ pages) and meticulous (over 1,800 endnotes) account of the testimony of Jesus at every turn (every page?) in Scripture. I found this book at times fascinating, frustrating, incredibly deep, and overly simplistic. More than anything, I found this book challenging. It is a theologically rich yet incredibly accessible testimony to the most essential Truth of all: the person of Jesus. The historical critical camp will understandably push back from much of what is written here, but I’m at a point where I’m longing to read Scripture more Christocentrically. I’m convinced. So much so, I think we’re to interpret our entire lives in much the same fashion. This engaging and stimulating volume helped me see the most important things — Jesus, and the text from which He speaks to me — from a new and fresh perspective.
- Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. What is the opposite of fragile? Resiliency? That might be our default answer, but it’s not precise enough for Taleb, a Lebanese scholar, economist, risk analyst, and author of 2007’s The Black Swan. To be resilient means one simply endures through adversity. But the opposite of fragile would be “antifragile,” a quality that implies that an organization or individual actually becomes stronger through difficulty. “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” In this multidisciplinary work, Taleb draws from economics, medicine, politics, and technology as he advances the stream of thought he introduced in The Black Swan. The most formative experiences in life — individually as well as corporately — are often “black swan” events, those negative experiences that we never see coming but seem completely obvious in hindsight. Instead of seeking to eliminate the variability, stress and adversity that attends these black swan events, we should embrace them for the antifragile benefits they bring to human systems. Taleb identifies “antifragility” as the essential feature of those who will thrive in an increasingly chaotic and volatile world. He refers to helicopter parents as “fragilistas” — the modern phenomenon of “neurotically overprotective” and overly involved parents that simply want to shield their children from anything harmful, stressful, or negative. These parents fail to realize how they’re robbing their children of one of life’s greatest growth stimuli; in the end, they are harming the child in ways they don’t even recognize, “fragilizing” their children. This is just one of the applications Taleb makes in this sprawling work. I’ll put it this way: the parts of this book that I understand are brilliant and there’s plenty that I’m still trying to make sense of. This one requires a deep dive and although I think the work would benefit from some editing, Taleb has composed a compelling and rewarding read nonetheless.
- A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. As I said before, I spent most of the fall reading Martin’s outstanding A Song of Ice and Fire series. I feel compelled to say up front that I have never seen the television series. For starters, I hear that it’s pretty raunchy; I guess HBO felt the need to liven things up to attract viewers. Which is a shame, because the narrative here is compelling enough on it’s own. Martin has created a fascinating world of intrigue and betrayal, of family loathing and medieval empire-building. Five volumes in, fans are clamoring for details about the penultimate edition in the series (and given the way Martin loves a good cliffhanger, it’s easy to see why). For my money, I think the third installment in the series, A Storm of Swords, hit all the right notes. By the conclusion of A Dance with Dragons (vol. 5), Martin’s world has become almost a bit unwieldy; it’s become increasingly difficult to keep up with all of the characters, much less remember what happened when we last saw them. But still, it’s a great series and I suspect ASOS will stand out as my favorite when it’s all said and done.
- Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright. One of the pressing questions of our day concerns the authority of the Bible. Either explicitly or subliminally, the question is alive whichever direction we turn: same-sex marriage, immigration reform, environmentalism, militant Islam, women’s role in the church, raising our children properly…beneath each of these “hot button” issues is, for most Christians, an a priori hermeneutical assumption. What do we mean when we speak of the “authority” of the Bible, particularly when the Bible itself asserts that all authority belongs to God? These are the matters that N.T. Wright takes up in this engaging and highly accessible little volume. Wright argues that the Word is one of the primary means through which God remains active and present in our world. He proposes (both here and elsewhere) a helpful way of thinking of the Bible as a five-Act drama: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, church. As “players” living in the fifth Act, the Christian community understands scripture as the means through which God invites us to participate in His work of renewing creation. Scripture is the “script” that provides our location in God’s narrative and reveals the part we’re called to play. We know the final scene of the drama — how it all ends — but in the meantime, we must faithfully improvise based on our reading of the previous Acts. This is the authoritative role scripture plays in our lives. My summary doesn’t even begin to do justice to Wright’s argument, but this one is definitely worth your time.
- The Fire of the Word: Meeting God on Holy Ground by Chris Webb. I highly recommend reading Webb as a companion piece to the Wright volume listed above. Webb uses a familiar scene — Moses removing his sandals before the burning bush — as a metaphor for our engagement with the presence of God in Scripture. “Moses was not changed by a text. He was utterly transformed by a direct encounter with God, an experience which was mediated through the words.” Webb helps us to recover a sense of wonder with regard to the holy text. He encourages us to read as lovers in search of the Father’s voice, not as theorists in search of information and data. While analytical tools serve a rightful purpose in our reading, Webb helped reorient me once more toward an understanding of Scripture as God’s invitation to hear His voice, the living voice alive within the written word.
- The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman. I’ve always enjoyed philosophy and this current read spells out the major differences between two of the greatest thinkers in the ancient world: Plato and Aristotle. The repercussions of this rivalry continue to this day: Plato sees the world mystically, seeking the spiritual ideals that lie beyond the forms of the present; Aristotle, on the other hand, observes the natural world through the exacting lens of science. Western civilization exists in the dynamic tension between these polarities. Herman gives a lively account of the story of Western culture as an attempt to seek balance between the two. I’m not finished with this one yet, so it might rank higher by the time I’m done, but it’s a great read so far.
- Remarriage and Divorce in Today’s Church: Three Views, edited by Mark L. Strauss. This volume comes from Zondervan’s excellent Counterpoints series. The format is straightforward: a panel of biblical scholars offer up reasoned yet divergent views on a particular textual or theological subject. In this case, the authors (Gordon Wenham, William Heth, and Craig Keener) take up the issue of divorce and remarriage in the church. Without getting into the nuances of each argument here, this concise yet insightful book provides readers with scriptural understanding of the three main evangelical views on remarriage after divorce.
- One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season by Tony La Russa with Rick Hummel. This year’s baseball read focused on the memorable 2011 championship run of the St. Louis Cardinals. Obviously this was resonant with me because I’m a huge Cardinals fan, but I think the general baseball fan would enjoy this read as well.
- Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne R. Snodgrass. As you might imagine, I spend plenty of time perusing technical material on biblical studies. I rarely recommend much of this as general reading material for a variety of reasons, but I’m making an exception in this case. Snodgrass’ work on the parables is thorough: he devotes an average of 15 pages each to 32 parables. His conversance with both the biblical text and extra-biblical ancient literature allows him to argue for greater depth of meaning. I recommend this to anyone who plans to teach or preach through the parables, or for curious bible students hungry for practical insight. A great resource book on the parables.
- The Next 100 Million: America in 2050 by Joel Kotkin. There’s plenty of doom and gloom prognosticating out there these days when discussing the future of the United States. Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University, provides a more optimistic view of our next 35 years. By 2050, Kotkin surmises the U.S. will be home to more than 400 million residents (based on current census data). But Kotkin sees this as one of the greatest indicators of our long-term economic growth. A fun, interesting, and hopeful read.
That’s my list. I’d love to know what you’ve been reading this year.