Ben's Book List 2017
Another year of books and a chance to pass on some recommendations. Many of the good books and authors I read come to me through the recommendations of others, and I love to pass that gift along. Here are a few of the books from my pile the past year: some were great and some were just good, but I gleaned something from each of them. Enjoy!
"Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical" by Tim Keller is at the top of my list of must-reads and recommended books. Making Sense of God acts as a prequel to Keller's excellent "The Reason for God." Where The Reason for God offers apologetic defenses for Christ, the Bible, and faith, Making Sense of God lays out a compelling case for the existence and need for God. Keller raises questions about the role of God in our world that need to be answered: questions about morality and justice, self identity, and the divide between faith and secularism. Chapters one and two start a bit slow; wade through them and you will be rewarded. I had the chance to read and discuss this book with a group of friends, many whom don't share my faith in Christ or belief in God - I don't think it would be overstating to suggest that they found it a thought-provoking contribution and worth the time to read.
"Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World" Alec Ryrie, historian at Durham University (UK) gives a fairly comprehensive tour of the Protestant story from the time of the Reformation up to recent times. Necessarily skipping over some details, he still manages to cover an enormous amount of history while telling important, inspiring, and sometimes disturbing stories. Along the way he usefully points out how Protestant ethics, thought, and independence have shaped our modern world.
"The Gene: An Intimate History" by Siddhartha Mukherjee is a BIG book, telling the story of mankind's search for the key to heredity and eventual discovery of the gene. It travels through dark periods, where knowledge and discoveries coupled with prejudice and bias led to abominable acts. But it also explores inspiring discoveries of the gene, its role in determining our human attributes, and global efforts to map the human genome. All of this culminates in what we see in today's headlines: gene manipulation, the new ability to manipulate the genome to prevent and cure diseases and (frighteningly) create a designer race. Shortly after reading this, a friend of mine found himself as a cancer patient enrolled in a clinical trial for a treatment, based on this very technology - so far very successful! These discoveries also present important ethical considerations which we are just beginning to grapple with. As one scientist friend commented, "We are currently able to do things whose implications we don't yet fully understand. We should proceed with humility." This book is a hopeful and cautionary tale all at once.
"Hillbilly Eligy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J. Vance is a memoir about growing up poor in white working class America. An insightful look into "middle America" and the plight of an often overlooked group of Americans (though perhaps not so overlooked after the 2016 election). Reading this book is at moments like tasting hopelessness: you are left wondering how anyone could escape the trap of poverty they were born into. You don't have to agree with everything in his story to glean something from it.
"Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates was not my favorite book to read, but I learned from it. Coates, revered as one of the great writers on race in America, can leave you feeling defensive at the turn of every page, and maybe that is the point. If you only read to feel good, skip this one - but if you want to better understand how others who may look at the world differently think about things, especially on the issue of race, then read on. I bristled, objected, grieved, and formed mental arguments in response. In the end and after some reflection, I learned a bit about how some of my brothers and sisters see life and the world we live in together. You don't have to agree with everything in his story to glean something from it. (You may notice that I have repeated that phrase a few times now...)
"Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe - and Started the Protestant Reformation" by Andrew Pettegree wins the award for longest book title. This book came to me as a gift from a friend who heard I was visiting University of St Andrews in Scotland (Pettegree teaches there), and it became one of two books I read on the Reformation this year (which happens to be the 500th anniversary of the Reformation). On the surface, this book proposes to focus on Luther's savvy as a branding/publishing savant. It does that, but it does much more. A reasonably quick read, it gives you the amazing and seemingly impossible story of a little-known monk whose bold stand in the face of the Catholic Church for a more biblically-rooted faith ("Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides - Only Scripture, Only Grace, Only Faith") managed to leverage the nascent printing industry and spread "The Word" to the world.
"The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate" John Walton is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College (IL) whose specialty is ancient near eastern writing (PhD, Hebrew University, NY). In The Lost World, Walton offers a unique and compelling interpretation of the creation narrative as God's declaration of the purpose for his creation. I won't use this space to wade into the origins debate other than to say that I see the conflict between science and faith as inflated and unnecessarily caustic on both sides: science is, and should be, the discovery of God's creative design in the universe. My friends of faith in the science community will find this book particularly interesting, as it offers a reading of scripture that is compatible with scientific consensus. If this topic interests you, I would also suggest this white paper at BioLogos by Tim Keller: "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople"
"Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor" by Paul Stephenson was one of three books I read on Roman history this year as Tammy and I prepared for a trip to Rome (the other two being Dying Everyday and Imperium, a historical fiction novel). Stephenson attempts to give a measured view of Constantine, revealing him to be a political pragmatist who saw the blossoming of Christianity as a way to unite the Roman empire and his own authority. While not a "Christian book" it will give people of faith pause to consider what happens when Christianity and political power mix.
"George Muller: Man of Faith and Miracles" by Basil Miller is an old, short classic that I read many years back and recently came across again. I offer it here because I increasingly find the value in reading the stories of great heroes of the faith. Muller came to faith after seeing someone fervently praying on their knees: the idea of prayer captured his heart and changed his life. He famously gave up his regular source of income and instead prayed for his daily needs (he tells that God answered more than 50,000 of these daily requests). His prayers focused on the orphanages he built and the thousands of children they cared for.
"The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith" by Tim Keller is a classic and a good place to start if you are just discovering Keller's writing. In The Prodigal God, Keller explores the story of the prodigal son and how the two brothers in the story reveal much about each of us and the heart of God towards all of us. In Keller's retelling of the story, we find plenty of new truths to learn from and apply.
"The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches, and the Small Thinking that Divides Us" by Karl Vaters. This book came to me as a recommendation from a friend in a smaller church setting, and I am glad it did. An important reminder of the good work God is doing in churches of all sizes and the challenges and opportunities small churches have. As we began our work with the Thrive Conference on Cape Cod in 2016, this book proved to be an insightful teacher.