This past year was a rich year for reading, and whittling my 2012 reading list down to a top ten was tough, but I’ve given it my best shot. As it happens, only two of these were actually published in 2012, but they’re all timely anyway. It was interesting for me to realize that three are novels, five pertain to public theology, and the other two have to do with history and ecclesiology, respectively.
Gilead (Picador) by Marilynne Robinson. I finished this one on New Year’s Eve, and it was easily one of my very favorite books of the year. Robinson’s prose is poetically earthy, and the themes of the story are profound. The premise may not immediately hook you – an elderly, dying Congregationalist minister in Iowa writing an honest letter to his young son – but if you stick with it, you’ll be deeply moved.
My Name is Asher Lev (Anchor) by Chaim Potok. A novel about a tormented artist who struggles to pursue his craft without abandoning his Jewish faith, something that becomes more and more difficult as his “gift” becomes increasingly evident. It’s an interesting look at the Hasidic Jewish community, a tradition foreign to many of us. And for those of us who aren’t artists in any obvious sense, it’s an insightful look at the life of an artist. As a Christian, I found much to ponder, considering the challenge of being “in the world but not of it.”
The Poisonwood Bible (Harper) by Barbara Kingsolver. I’d wanted to read this one for quite some time, but it was always a bit intimidating to me, both because of length and because of its premise. But I think it’s a hugely important book for Christians to read, especially as we think about the ways we engage with others across cultures. My thoughts on the book, and the difficult questions it raises, are here.
A Public Faith (Brazos) by Miroslav Volf. I had a lot to say about this when I read this in early 2012 (I re-read it this fall), but in brief, he argues that as adherents of the world’s major religions grow numerically, as globalization brings them together geographically, and as they each seek to promote their vision for society, we face the twin temptations of imposition and withdrawal. Volf writes that the Christian faith, when functioning properly, offers a unique vision of human flourishing, as well as the resources to realize it. I wish everyone would read this book.
Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic) by James K.A. Smith. I was too intimidated to actually review this one, but it was a paradigm-rocker for me. Drawing on Augustine, Smith emphasizes that we’re primarily desiring beings, making decisions not first and foremost on the basis on reason or belief, but because of desire. We’re liturgical animals, he says, created to worship. Those who design shopping malls, he provocatively points out, understand this better than do those who lead our churches and Christian schools.
Creation Regained (Eerdmans) by Al Wolters. This book tackles worldview in light of the Reformed understanding of the narrative arc of the Bible, which moves from creation to fall and on to redemption. It may seem opaque, but my biggest takeaway was Wolters’ distinction between structure and direction in creation – in a nutshell, all creation (including people and institutions) is structurally good, but because of the fall all creation is misdirected, which is where redemption comes in. This understanding, I think, has profound implications for cultural engagement. My review is here.
Kingdom Calling (IVP) by Amy Sherman. For some odd reason I never reviewed this one, but it’s a wonderful plea, as the subtitle aptly puts it, for “vocational stewardship for the common good.” Sherman shows how our vocations – the work we do every day – can and should serve the common good and point to the coming of the Kingdom. For those who are not in so-called “full-time ministry” and feel that only pastors and theologians and evangelists and missionaries are truly doing God’s work, this book will encourage you and will equip you to serve God and others through the work of your hands.
Every Good Endeavor (Dutton) by Timothy Keller. This is the best, most comprehensive book I know of on the “integration of faith and work.” Whereas most books like this focus on a single aspect of that integration, Keller takes more of a both/and approach, emphasizing a broader, more cohesive whole, and does so in a more theologically robust way than many others. I anticipated the book here and pointed to it again here.
Church and History
Ancient-Future Faith (Baker Academic) by Robert Webber. I include this one because its themes have stuck with me throughout the year, more than most of the books I read. As we find ourselves on shifting cultural terrain, Webber believes we’ll find key resources for the future in the practices and beliefs of the ancient church, focusing specifically on the implications for our understanding of Christ, church, worship, spirituality, and mission. By the way, for those of us in traditions inclined to mark the beginning of church history in 1517 (and for those with no appreciation for church history at all), we need this book.
Moral Minority (Penn) by David Swartz. I’ll be reviewing this one very soon, but for now I’ll simply say it’s a well-researched, fascinating, historical look at evangelical political involvement in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s getting some very good press from the likes of the New York Times, Christianity Today, and Scot McKnight, all well-deserved in my opinion.