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.
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