The following is a list of some good books I've come across in the last year with a review of each.
1. Heaven Is a Place on Earth - Michael E. Wittmer
Every once and a while I come across a book that challenge the fundamental ways I approach and view life—a book that doesn’t just tell me what to do but interrogates some of the most overlooked areas of life to get at my worldview. Like Mr. Anderson in the Matrix I’ve often felt things were not quite right but lacked the vocabulary or understanding of what is wrong. I need someone to peel back the skin of reasoning and engrained beliefs and point me to a new world of possibilities. Michael Wittmer does just that in Heaven is a Place on Earth, by challenging many rooted ideas within the modern evangelical worldview that are counterproductive to Christ-following and the kingdom of God. In recent years there have been hundreds of books that deal with the worldviews of modernism and postmodernism and often end up being rants of disgruntled revolutionaries trying to shake up the status quo. While those types of books are okay and needed occasionally they often fail to motivate people to positive action. This book is a challenging critique of modern evangelicalism without being cynical or biting. Wittmer challenges everything from our views of the after-life to our care for the environment and social justice in a way that doesn’t necessarily answer all problems in a tidy reductive way but gets one to at least begin thinking in the right direction. The subtitle to this book is “Why Everything You Do Matters To God”. In reading this book I have found a renewed passion for life from the mundane to the mountaintops.
2. Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell
In recent years Rob Bell has emerged as timely and relevant voice in the church with his Nooma videos and now with Velvet Elvis. In Velvet Elvis, Bell challenges a lot of practices and thinking in the church, not so much as a theologian or revolutionary but, as an artist. I’ve heard many folks compare this book to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz but, apart from its cryptic title, I would say the comparison is not very good as far as content goes. The comparison is true when it comes to the style of writing though. Like Donald Miller, Rob Bell writes in a very creative and engaging way even if he lacks the writing skill to sustain very lengthy stories. However he sticks with his strengths—small chapters told in a narrative way which when brought together offer a repainting of the Christian faith. This is an easy read for even the most A.D.D.-challenged readers while also hitting on some weighty theology in a very practical and approachable way.
3. Simply Christian – N. T. Wright
I can think of no other author that has influenced me more in recent years than N. T. Wright. Wright is without a doubt one of the greatest theologians of our time. However, unlike many theologians who are locked away in the ivory towers of academia, N. T. Wright is firmly planted in the church. Simply Christian is almost an apologetic work on Christianity but rather than falling into the same old modernist arguments that have dogged evangelical debates for so long he approaches the longings in the hearts of humans for justice, beauty, and relationship which are, as he writes, “echoes of a voice”. I found this book very enjoyable though it dragged a bit is some places. Wright succeeds in getting to the core longings of humans and pointing us to the object of our longing. To some this book will be a bit of an acquired taste but others will immediately connect with Wright’s style of writing. It seems that this book was written with non-Christians in mind because it is very accessible to the uninitiated and would be a recommend read to those who are interested in Christianity.
4. The Last Word – N. T. Wright
Wright attempts to tackle the subject of Biblical authority. This is a good intro in to how we should approach scripture. Wright helps us to navigate a path between conservative and liberal biases and through the modernist/postmodernist quagmire to give us a fresh understanding of the Bible as a narrative work with real authority without just being some kind of proof-text to back up our ideologies.
5. Hebrews for Everyone – N. T. Wright
As I mentioned above Wright is a theologian who works and lives within the church. Since C.S. Lewis, I have not found someone capable of writing on so many levels. Wright has authored some seriously dense scholarly works but has always had in mind the everyday “Joe”. With his “For Everyone” series of Bible commentaries Wright has done for theology what Eugene Peterson did for Bible-reading with The Message. Wright goes through verse by verse with personal illustrations from life that help the reader get a handle on what the text is saying but without getting lost in academic language and heady theological discussions. I started with Hebrews For Everyone and have not been disappointed. It has been a helpful aid in Bible study and devotional reading. In addition to this installment Wright has also written “For Everyone” commentaries on all of the Gospels and Paul’s writings.
6. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places – Eugene Peterson
I haven’t finished this one even though I started it back at the first of the year. It’s not because it’s boring but because it’s so rich. This is the type of book you can read 5 or 6 pages and chew on them for a few days. I enjoy this book as devotional reading. Petterson’s conversational style of writing is prevalent throughout the book making the complex simple and exciting. In the introduction of the book he writes how much of this book came out of conversations with friends around the dinner table as well as scholarly circles. It reads like a conversation meandering here and there with frequent profound insights. The section on the-fear-of-the-Lord alone is worth the price of the book. This is the first of several books he is writing on conversational theology that is followed up by “Eat This Book”.
7. Living the Resurrection – Eugene Peterson
In Living The Resurrection, Eugene Peterson takes some of the themes from his other books and delivers them in a more concise manner. This is a book about everyday spirituality in everyday life. I’d recommend this one for folks who don’t like reading much because it’s smaller in scope it’s a good primer for other larger, in-depth works. In Living the Resurrection Peterson has the uncanny ability of wrestling us from mysticism to see the sacred in the common and the divine in the everyday.
8. The Great Divorce – C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis conquers the subject of hell in this brilliantly imaginative work. I’ve often struggled with some of the teachings on hell in the church and found that Lewis has some very fresh, though unorthodox views on the subject. Lewis’ “Hell” is a state of being where the departed still have the choice of heaven and yet they continue to reject it. Issues like pride and jealousy and insecurity are still very real in this hell and keep these ghosts of humans from choosing life and love and ultimately they continue to reject God. So rather than hell being a sealed deal when a person dies C. S. Lewis sees humans as continuing to have the ability to choose and yet being the sum total of all their decisions from their former life. Even though they can choose they can’t choose because their hearts have become hardened. I can’t help but wonder if C. S. Lewis might be on to something here. His thoughts on the subject are at the very least insightful.