Last week, I began a countdown of 20 books written in the last 20 years that (I believe) Christians should read. I received some great feedback on that list and, as promised, I am back with part two! To check out books 1-10 and read a few very important disclaimers about this list, click here.
I encourage every Christian I know to read at least one systematic theology text before they die. This is one of the best ones available and has served as an introduction to Christian doctrine in college and seminary classrooms for almost two decades. Its prose is well suited for reading straight through or utilizing as a topical reference.
The major achievement of Grenz’ volume is his ability to root the whole of Christian teaching in the divine community of Father, Son, and Spirit. Grenz uses this relational picture of God to frame God’s relationship with creation and human beings, the saving work of Christ, the communal life of the church, and the redeemed community awaiting us in the eschaton.
At 723 pages this is by far the longest book on the list, but it is a mountain well worth the climb.
This book really woke me up when I first read it and I have frequently returned to it over the years. Willard writes for Christians, challenging us to live out our faith by practicing the way of Jesus. Painting a vivid picture of discipleship rooted in the Sermon on the Mount, Willard cuts to the heart of the gospel, presenting Christian spirituality as the answer to the meaning of life.
For anyone puzzled about what it actually means to follow Jesus, or especially for those who think that being a Christian is primarily about going to heaven after you die, The Divine Conspiracy reveals the secret of what a Christ-centered life ought to look like before you depart from this earth.
Did Jesus come to rescue us from a vengeful God? Is Good Friday an instance of divine child abuse? Why did Christ need to die to save us from sin? These are some of the questions Mark Baker and Joel Green wrestle with in this important book, offering a biblical and historical perspective on how the church has traditionally interpreted the cross.
The authors offer an excellent critique of penal substitutionary atonement (the belief, originating in the 11th century CE, that Jesus was punished in place of sinners to appease God’s wrath) and examine other orthodox interpretations of the cross. Their argument isn’t so much against any one theory, as much as an affirmation of the variety of ways Christians have understood Christ’s sacrifice throughout the years.
This book is a short (72 pages) but spirited manifesto calling Christians to embrace a radical, biblically-centered platform of economic justice. Unpacking the economic laws of the Hebrew Bible along with Jesus’ handling of money in the New Testament, Myers offers a hard-hitting critique of modern capitalism and proposes an alternative model centered on the notion of Sabbath.
Scripture has more to say about money than almost any other topic related to human life. Myers takes those teachings and gives them teeth by concretely relating them to our participation in a capitalist system grounded in scarcity and greed. His alternative centers on abundance and self-sacrificial love, providing an economic platform that is nothing short of revolutionary.
If you’ve ever struggled to read and understand the Bible, this is the book for you. Bartholomew and Goheen summarize the entire narrative of Scripture using the structure of a 5 act play (a method of storytelling that orignated in ancient Greece, was perfected by Shakespeare, and continues to influence contemporary film and television).
Laying out the acts of Scripture as: (1) Creation, (2) Fall, (3) Israel, (4) Jesus, and (5) Church, the authors present the Bible as a coherent narrative that is still going — Christians find ourselves in the midst of Act 5, continuing the story of God’s redemptive love as we engage the world as followers of Jesus. The 5 act structure is also incredibly useful for everyday study, providing a framework that allows us to place any Bible passage within the larger narrative of Scripture.
For anyone looking to expand their spirituality and find new practices to incorporate into their time with God, this book is a great resource. Calhoun surveys over 50 spiritual disciplines and practices, providing the tools necessary for anyone — novices and experienced mystics alike — to encounter God in a new way.
Unlike some other books on spirituality that examine a handful of practices in depth (Foster’s Celebration of Discipline comes to mind), Calhoun’s book aims at breadth. She spends 4-6 pages on each discipline, getting to the heart of the practice, explaining how to do it, and directing readers to other resources for more information. She even includes study questions with each discipline, making this volume a great tool for group discussion.
It’s been fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr. labeled 11am on Sunday morning the most segregated hour in America. So how are our churches doing at racial reconciliation? How far have we come since the 1960s, and what works remains to be done? Gilbreath offers a moving testimony, acknowledging both the failures and progress of the church on issues of race.
Writing as an African American “insider” to White Evangelicalism, Gilbreath gives a stunningly honest account of the state of race in the church. Offering loving correction, Gilbreath challenges white and black Christians alike to acknowledge the prejudices that continue to reside in our pews and our hearts, so that we can continue the difficult work of reconciliation.
As an acclaimed theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne is one of the most qualified voices of our day on the relationship between science and faith. Holding both reason and religion to be essential in humanity’s quest for truth, Polkinghorne argues convincingly that faith and science are not enemies but can actually enrich one another.
There are a number of similar books on this topic, many of which go into much more depth than this volume. I’ve chosen to highlight Polkinghorne due to the clarity of his writing, especially for non-specialist readers. He’s an engaging thinker and in addition to addressing the faith-science divide, his book covers some important ground related to free will and the problem of evil.
I first encountered Michelle Alexander when she gave the keynote address at the bi-annual meeting of my denomination (American Baptist Churches USA) one year ago. Her book is a must read for Christians concerned with justice as it highlights one of the biggest injustices of our time: the mass incarceration of young African American men.
Alexander exposes the racial imbalances that continue to plague our justice system here in the states and the effects of mass incarceration on poor communities. Packed with data, this is a heartbreaking (and yet inspiring) book that should push us all into action. The text is especially relevant in light of recent debates on drug laws here in the USA and also given the problem of prison overcrowding impacting states like California.
Glen Stassen was a close friend, mentor, and professor of mine whose recent passing still seems unreal to me. It was just a few months ago that I was sitting in his Sunday school class, listening to him talk passionately about his love for Jesus and desire to see Christians follow him more closely. This book is his magnum opus, the concrete delivery of that passion in written form.
Stassen challenges all Christians to move toward a thicker understanding of Jesus. Unpacking the transforming initiatives of the Sermon on the Mount, this book casts a bold vision for pursuing discipleship in an age of secularism. Theologically-rich but written with a tone that anyone can comprehend, it’s a great read for anyone looking to understand Jesus and become one of his disciples.
Here’s your weekly sampling of news and other items of interest I’ve been following from around the web this week:
First up is a solid article for anyone who has been following the story of Danny Cortez, the Southern Baptist minister who publicly accepted his gay son, adopted a progressive stance on homosexuality, and was promptly denounced by his denomination’s leadership. The piece was published by the Associated Baptist Press and written by American Baptist minister Alan Bean, who argues that the church needs a “third way” on homosexuality.
You can read the article here.
Second is a piece from Relevant magazine written by Careese Rials on how to simplify your life. Her advice is totally practical, including steps to reduce clutter, simplify your wardrobe, and get by with less. Check it out.
For podcast fans, the latest episode of Common Sense with Dan Carlin offers a unique and oddly optimistic perspective on the situation in the Middle East, particularly as it relates to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Carlin is a historian and he tells the story of how the Middle East came to look like it does today, and why allowing the present situation to play out — with limited Western intervention to minimize casualties — might be the best hope for long-lasting stability and peace in the region. Fascinating stuff.
I also discovered a great new app this week for managing prayer requests. The app is called Echo and it allows you to set randomized reminders to pray for those in your life who have requested prayer. I’ve been using it for about a week now, receiving random prayer reminders three times a day.
With this app, the days of saying “I’ll pray for you,” and then promptly forgetting are over. And while the app is pretty limited, the website teases some great new features that are in development (including using the app to sync and share prayer requests with your church, small group, etc.). It’s a handy tool, and best of all, it’s FREE.
Last but not least, here’s a funny little video from Conan this week where Triumph the Insult Comic Dog busts on World Cup fans. It’s pretty funny and slightly offensive. You’ve been warned…
Summer is officially here and one of my favorite traditions of the season is the summer reading list. This time of year the blogosphere is rife with recommended books, but before I throw my own list into the mix, two disclaimers are in order:
First, it almost goes without saying that these are not the only 20 books Christians should read. Nor are they the 20 best books published in the last 20 years. These just happen to be 20 really solid books (among many) that I think every Christian should read, eventually.
Second, this list is obviously limited to books I have read. Evangelicals are disproportionately represented, as are Westerners. That’s not to say that Christians should only read books by Western Evangelicals, quite the opposite! But these 20 books left a special impression on me. So I suppose this list could just as easily be titled, “20 Books Written in the Last 20 Years that Shaped Dan.”
Keep that in mind and we’ll be on the same page.
The extermination of Jews during WWII is one of the most horrific events in recent history, made even darker by the fact that many European Christians passively condoned (if not outright supported) the Nazi regime. This is a terrible scar on the church’s history that many Christians have yet to critically reflect on.
Gushee’s book helps Christians work through our involvement in the Holocaust and learn the important lessons that can prevent similar tragedies in the future. Examining primary sources from Christian communities in Europe that bucked the trend — opposing Hitler, standing with the Jews, and protecting their Jewish friends and neighbors — Gushee asks the question: What made these “righteous Gentiles” different from their peers?
The answers are eye opening, shedding light on what it means to follow Jesus and live ethically in our world today.
In her book, Nancey Murphy takes on an ideological divide that has marked the church for over a century. Exposing the shared indebtedness of Christian liberalism and fundamentalism to modern philosophy, Murphy charts an alternative path grounded in postmodern thought. The result is an approach to theology that is holistic in its understanding of meaning, language, and metaphysics.
While her book is more “academic” than many on this list, concise summaries at the end of each chapter make it a surprisingly easy (and enlightening) read. Those interested in getting beyond the liberal-conservative paradigm in theology should definitely check it out.
A contemporary classic, this book offers Bishop Tutu’s reflections on his experience working for peace as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa. Readers are exposed to the moving, inspiring, and oftentimes frustrating work that goes into reconciliation, coming away with a richer understanding of forgiveness and its transformative potential in today’s world.
Embodying the love for enemies that Christ taught his disciples and revealing the limitless possibilities of the gospel when applied to human conflict, Tutu’s testimony is a must-read.
Christians have been alarmingly silent on the issue of creation care. Whether due to a simple lack of awareness, opposing political views, or an escapist spirituality that disregards the physical world, many Christian disciples are indifferent to the greatest calamity of our generation.
Armed with environmental data and solid biblical exegesis, Bouma-Prediger writes as an Evangelical calling his fellow Christians to join in the effort to save our planet. He argues persuasively that limiting our impact on this earth and being good stewards of creation is biblically-sound, Christlike, and honoring to God — not to mention an act of love toward our co-creatures and future generations.
This book was a milestone in my own intellectual journey, turning me on to the changing complexion of the church and its impact on Christian thought and practice around the world.
Jenkins examines the rapid expansion of Christianity among native peoples in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (delivering tons of fascinating statistics), coupled with its decline in Europe and the USA. He then teases out the implications of Christianity’s global shift for our understanding of what constitutes “normative” Christian identity as the church enters its third millennium.
No longer a “white man’s religion,” Jenkins argues for Christianity’s status as the first truly global faith and helps us understand why this achievement is so important.
If you grew up in church, you probably remember learning about “purity” in youth group. The classic example involves having the kids scarf down a bunch of oreos and doritos, then passing a glass of water around the room that everyone spits into. That glass is then analogized as what happens to a young girl’s body if she commits the mortal sin of having sex before marriage.
Winner’s book goes a different direction, resurrecting the ancient virtue of chastity as a discipline that all Christians are called to practice. Applicable to married and single Christians alike, this is one of the best books I’ve found on Christian sexual ethics. And the fact that it’s written by a woman means that we get to avoid chauvinistic object lessons comparing women’s bodies to tainted glasses water — bonus!
Greg Boyd is one of my favorite preachers and his writing is just as honest and thought-provoking as his weekly sermons. In this book Boyd exposes the profoundly un-Christian nature of U.S. imperialism, contrasting the way of Jesus with the American way and exposing the danger of Christian flirtations with political power.
Hard-hitting and convicting, Boyd’s writing comes as a wakeup call to anyone who has ever struggled with an idolatrous relationship to political ideologies (as I have) and puts forward a constructive, nonviolent platform for living as a citizen of God’s kingdom.
Christians need to listen to our critics. And while Sam Harris’ writing is often polemical, delivering rants against religion that are painfully lacking in nuance, his critique of American Christianity gets an awful lot right. Of the “New Atheist” authors that have sprung up in recent years (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.) Harris is by far the best.
Getting personal in this book, Harris unpacks the ways mainstream American Christianity has turned him off from religion and reinforced his own atheism. Admittedly, about 20% of this book is garbage — over-generalizations, unsubstantiated claims, foundationalist logic, etc. — but the other 80% delivers a rock solid critique that Christians need to take seriously if we want to present a compelling picture of Christ to a world that needs the gospel.
N. T. Wright has been called the C. S. Lewis of our time, and this great little book goes a long way toward supporting that claim. In its pages, Wright unpacks the vast (and largely untapped) beauty of the Christian hope for the future and its relevance for how we live in the present. If you think Christianity is primarily about gaining entrance to heaven and avoiding hell — think again.
I really love the historical perspective provided by this book. In our calamity-obsessed culture with its penchant for divining the future, it’s easy to get distracted by alarmist, pseudo-theological depictions of the end times in written and visual media (Tim LaHaye and Kirk Cameron, I’m looking at you). Wright’s book reminds us that while speculative eschatology has always been a temptation, the church has historically looked at the return of Christ as a hope-filled and already-initiated event that comes as good news to all people.
For those who have never used a prayer book, this is a perfect place to start. Not to be confused with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, this text collects one year’s worth of prayers, hymns, and Scripture readings intended for use in any Christian denomination. With a different morning prayer for each day of the year, evening prayers matched to the days of the week, and a single midday prayer that remains constant throughout the year, there is plenty of fodder here to ignite your prayer life.
I especially like that the authors connect the liturgical year with important events in recent church and secular history. As someone who wasn’t raised in a liturgical tradition this book has greatly expanded my understanding of prayer, routinely pushing me out of my comfort zone.
If all goes according to plan, look for part two of this list to drop by the middle of next week!
Lately, I’ve heard a lot of people bad-mouthing theology. Whether in comments from friends, complaints of disgruntled seminary students, or dismissive remarks from church pulpits — it seems like many Christians just don’t see the point of theology. Some even think it does more harm than good.
Now, I’ll be the first to critique ivory-tower types who theologize in a vacuum, divorced from the believing community. But that’s a stereotype and (generally-speaking) a pretty inaccurate one. The majority of theologians I know are passionate followers of God who care deeply about the church.
So it hurts a bit when we see the discipline to which we have devoted a significant portion of our lives thrown under the bus.
Theologians can take solace in the fact that our area of study is not the first to wind up on the shit list of many Christians. Evolutionary biology, philosophy, psychology, cosmology, etc. — a number of fields are treated with suspicion by certain sectors of the faithful.
But it’s time for academics to stand up for ourselves; and in that spirit, here are five reasons I think theology is important:
1. Theology is biblically mandated.
When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he replied with, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 1:29-30, NIV). This is the opening verse of the Shema — a prayer repeated by faithful Jews every morning and evening — and would have been recognized by many as the “right” answer.
Jesus famously added on to this verse by citing Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” linking love for God with love of neighbor. But this is not the only thing he added.
The original command from Deuteronomy only specifies loving God with one’s heart, soul, and strength. Jesus added the command to love God with our minds, putting forward a holistic picture of divinely-oriented devotion that includes the mental dimension. Paul does something similar in Romans 12, linking bodily worship with the renewal of the mind:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:1-2a).
What does it look like to love God with our minds? And why is mental devotion connected to the physical? I think the authors of Scripture were on to something. They understood the importance of reason to faith and human nature. Human beings are intellectually-attuned creatures. Thus, Scripture calls us to think through our devotion in order to worship God more fully.
St. Anselm called it “faith seeking understanding.” I’d call it theology.
As a discipline, theology is concerned with relating the whole of human knowledge and experience to God. If God is the author of all things, the all-determining reality, then every source of information we have about reality must be traceable to the divine. That sounds an awful lot like Paul’s command to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
2. Theology is interested in truth.
To outside observers, theology often appears speculative. We ask seemingly unanswerable questions and grapple with the most elusive subject matter known to humanity — God. But in reality, theology is concerned with statements human beings make about God. We investigate doctrines, testing them to determine their truthfulness.
Theologians are not comfortable with the passive acceptance of dogma or the maintenance of belief without proof; we put our most cherished convictions through the wringer, testing them for coherence and believability. Theologians do this by asking questions like:
- Do our beliefs make sense?
- Are they reasonable?
- Do they fit within tradition and square with Scripture?
- Do any of our doctrines contradict each other?
- Does that which we hold true about ultimate reality (i.e. God) make sense in light of what we know to be true about the reality of the world around us?
These questions are not posed for the sake of being iconoclastic, but because theologians are concerned with truth. We take Jesus seriously when he declares that, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Rather than fearing the truth, Christians need to embrace it –wherever it lies — so that our faith can be strengthened.
While apologetics takes the truth of Christianity as a given and argues for its reasonableness, theology uses reason to diagnose weaknesses in our belief structures and construct more accurate proposals. Like lifting heavy weights, theology tears down the “muscle” of our faith so that it can be rebuilt into something more true and reasonable.
3. Theology is an expression of worship.
The Jewish tradition has a long history of embracing theological study as an act of worship. This was retained in early Christianity, embodied by generations of teachers, preachers, monks, and mystics who devoted their lives to theology.
But at some point in the modern West, theology became a career. No longer the calling of all Christians, theology morphed into a specialized field pursued by a select group of affluent professionals. But I think it’s high time for the church to reclaim theology as a spiritual discipline and commission all disciples to engage in this ancient act of worship.
Like all spiritual disciplines, theology is a practice that is never mastered. It demands time and patience, uncovering the darkest parts of our souls in the hope of bringing us closer to God. Like Jacob wrestling with the Lord, theology is a struggle that can leave us marred even in victory. As German theologian Jurgen Moltmann affirms, “to know God is to suffer God.”
Similar to fasting and prayer, theology tests us, exposing our true selves. To do theology well, one must enter into the fear of God, bask before the glory of God, and participate in the joy of God, emerging (hopefully) with a deeper knowledge of God. It is in this sense that theology is an act of worship, a calling for every person to commune with the divine.
4. Theology is liberating.
Missionaries have recognized for generations that in order for Christianity to take root in a new land, churches must become self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating. About 25 years ago, missiologist David Bosch pushed this formulation further, adding a revolutionary fourth step: self-theologizing.
Bosch realized that while Christianity was flourishing in a number of new contexts, the theology in many native churches was little more than a regurgitation of the doctrine imparted by foreign missionaries. It’s not until people begin grappling with the tough questions of faith — and articulating their own responses — that the gospel has truly taken root a new culture.
This is because there’s something liberating about theology. For a community that was once alienated from God to begin grappling with God, reflecting on historic doctrines and re-articulating them in their own cultural garb, indicates that they are coming into their own as a Christian people.
Theology’s liberating effect can also be seen in minority groups right here in the USA. Women, African Americans, Latin@s, etc. — all have found empowerment by formulating theologies that are no longer tied to the presuppositions of their oppressors.
Just think of Christianity’s transition in the African American community from a religion imposed by slave masters to a vibrant, native expression of worship and freedom in the Civil Rights era. For oppressed groups, self-theologizing is one of the keys to self-actualization.
As a teacher of theology, I have witnessed this effect time and time again. From the young Christian, growing up in a church where doubt was the enemy, who saved his faith by learning to ask tough questions, to the soft-spoken woman who discovered that she too had what it takes to construct a strong theological argument.
And I’ll never forget the Latino student who approached me after discovering the writings of Justo Gonzalez, confiding with tears in his eyes that, “I never knew my people could do theology.”
Now that’s liberating.
5. Theology is inevitable.
I’ll keep this one short and sweet. If you think you’re living and operating in this world without theology, you’re wrong. Everyone (even atheists) proceeds through life with certain ideas about ultimate reality and meaning. Whether it’s God, your career, unrestrained consumerism, or something else entirely, we cannot get by in this life without relating ourselves to something ultimate.
There is a lot of bad theology out there — theology that is destructive, untrue, oppressive, etc. And one of the most proactive ways to deal with bad theology is by countering it with good theology. That’s what I’m trying to do, and I commission you all to do the same.
I’ve come across a number of enlightening items on the web this week, and in this post I bring them to you! Who knows — if I can sustain it, this might even become a regular feature here at Full Color Faith.
First up are a couple of insightful offerings from other blogs:
Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, MI, made headlines about a week ago with his post, “Five Questions for Christians Who Believe the Bible Supports Gay Marriage.”
DeYoung’s commentary has been making the rounds around the web this week, and it’s no surprise given the hard-hitting and important questions he raises related to this issue. His words deserve careful thought and consideration, regardless of where your ideology lies.
Also worth reading is Graeme Codrington’s equally thought-provoking response to DeYoung’s five questions, where he offers up the other side of the argument. Both of these guys do an excellent job of presenting their views in a manner the promotes constructive dialogue — something the Christian blogosphere could use a lot more of.
While my recent post on marriage equality doesn’t quite connect with the focal point of these two offerings, the topics are related enough that I decided to share.
On the news front, The Economist magazine put out a fascinating article about Amazon.com in their latest print edition, offering both hard-hitting critique and respectful admiration of the internet giant. The article highlights Amazon’s enormous market share and critiques its questionable business practices. This caliber of journalism is an example of why The Economist remains one of my favorite sources for news and information.
The article about Amazon is available online for a limited time. You can read it in full here.
Last week, I also had the pleasure of listening to a solid sermon on 1 Timothy 2:12 from Greg Boyd and Nikole Mitchell at Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. The verse is a famous clobber passage where Paul instructs women to remain quiet in the church and writes that he does not allow them to hold power over men.
Greg and Nikole do an excellent job of unpacking the passage, placing it in its cultural context to shed light on what Paul is saying and why. They also offer some helpful practical guidelines for discerning whether a teaching from Scripture is timeless and universal or culturally-conditioned and temporary, resulting in a powerful message that affirms female leadership in the church.
This is really a non-negotiable issue for me. I won’t join any church that doesn’t recognize female leadership and encourage gifted women to pursue the call to ministry that God has placed on their hearts.
But what I really loved about this message is how much I learned from it. Greg and Nikole uncover some things that I had never heard before, shedding light on a few of the seemingly nonsensical components of Paul’s letter that I have always struggled to understand (like The claim that women should submit to men because Adam was created before Eve — wassup wit dat?).
Click here to watch or listen to the sermon.
And for something a little lighter, here’s a silly video that was brought to my attention buy the guys over at Screen Rant. It’s an honest trailer for the movie TOP GUN. Pure genius!