Top 10 Books of 2015

Well, another year has almost come and gone, and another year I present you with a number of books that I’ve found helpful. Maybe you’ll find something here that strikes your fancy and pick up your own copy and we can have some discussion? In any event, here’s what I’ve got.

Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. This book was, by far, one of the best books I read all year. Harry Stout, the author, kept my attention the entire time. Superb scholarship, well-written, an important topic.

Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? While not necessarily the go-to book on this issue, I think DeYoung does a good job of giving readers a basic understanding of what the Bible says about this controversial topic. His responses to the most common objections are clear and, in my judgment, insurmountable for those who argue that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. By all means, however, if you’re not convinced by DeYoung’s arguments, then please consult Robert Gagnon’s masterful and massive treatment, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics.

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting an Ancient Vision. I resonated with this book because I can identify with its premise: Pastors are to be theologians! Pastors aren’t CEOs, pastors aren’t primarily politicians, and pastors aren’t primarily therapists or glorified life-coaches. Pastors have a simple job description: Preach the Word, shepherd the people (along with the elders), and live a godly life. That’s a simple job description but it can only be lived out by grace. With that said, the authors argue that the idea that theologians belong in the academy and not in the pulpit is ill-advised. They propose a threefold taxonomy for pastor theologians: 1) The pastor as local theologian; 2) the pastor as popular theologian; and 3) the pastor as ecclesial theologian. You’ll have to read the book to find out more!

Peter Scazzero with Warren Bird, The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives. Like the previous book, the premise of this book is simple as well: “It is not possible for a Christian to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature” (50). I would say it this way: Spiritual maturity necessarily involves personal transformation. Scazzero asks us if the following people remind us of anyone in our church:

  • The board member who never says “I was wrong,” or “Sorry.”
  • The children’s church leader who constantly criticizes others.
  • The middle age father who’s addicted to pornography.
  • The husband busily serving the church who neglects his wife and children.
  • The Sunday school teacher struggling with feelings of bitterness and resentment.
  • The exemplary “servant” of the church who takes on too many projects and doesn’t care for herself.
  • The people in your small group who are never transparent about their struggles or difficulties.

Scazzero, I think, gets at the premise of the book by asking this question: “Why is it that most people in our churches seem to be radically different on one level from their neighbors—they pray, read the Bible, go to church—but on another deeper level, they are very similar?” I fully understand that our walk with Christ is a long, slow-paced journey toward Christlikeness, but it’s not okay for someone to be walking with the Lord for many years, and see no change in his or her character. After identifying the problem, the rest of the book lays out some ways to help people get to the root of their problems. Again, you’ll have to buy the book if you want to learn more. (FYI, just because I found this book helpful doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says.)

Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. This is the first book by Tim Keller that I have read in its entirety. And I’m glad I read this one. My respect and admiration for Keller has grown over the years, so when I saw he wrote a book on prayer, I knew I wanted to read it. Simply put, this book includes both theology and doxology; it seamlessly weaves together the best of ancient and medieval practices, as well as the most helpful contemporary aids to strengthening one’s prayer life. Do yourself a favor and read this book.

Jonathan Grant, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision for Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age. This book is a slightly tweaked version of Grant’s master’s thesis written while a student at Regent College, Vancouver. First, Grant lays out how our modern culture influences the way we view dating, sex, relationships, and marriage. At the end of almost every paragraph I found myself saying either “Amen” or “Ouch!” While I agreed with him, I found myself convicted and lamenting how the culture impinges upon my own life. We are far more influenced by our culture in this area than we care to realize. Secondly, Grant spells out how the church can chart a new course. Without going into all the details, he argues that discipleship in local churches must delve into sexuality and relationships, detailing how our walk with Christ demands holiness, purity, and self-sacrifice.

John Piper, Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God. I had heard some time ago that this book should be read by all parents and then passed on to their children. After reading the book, I would say I definitely agree. As the title of the book suggests, it is about thinking—learning how to think properly, learning how to reason and think through arguments—all to the glory of God. I suppose one might wonder why he or she should read a book about thinking, but I can assure you: you won’t be bored reading this book. And you don’t have to be an intellectual to read it. According to Richard Hofstadter, intellectuals are already fully aware that they’re not appreciated by our world (“It is part of the intellectual’s tragedy that the things he most values about himself and his work are quite unlike those society values in him” [Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, 33]). And I think essayist Joseph Epstein is correct in his assessment: Most people don’t like intellectuals because they’re too opinionated (see his book Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays). Of particular importance is Piper’s chapter on relativism. We’re all aware that we live in a day where people openly deny the existence of truth. That is, they make the absurd truth claim that truth doesn’t exist. Piper responds:

Claiming truth for a statement that nullifies truth is self-contradictory. But if you are not claiming your defense of relativism is true, why do you expect me to listen?. . . . People don’t embrace relativism because it is philosophically satisfying. They embrace it because it is physically and emotionally gratifying. It provides the cover they need at key moments in their lives to do what they want without intrusion from absolutes (102).

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan, The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. As you can see, this is the second book I’ve read on pastors as theologians. However, this book is different from the one above by Hiestand and Wilson. Strachan lays out the historical details of how the pastorate went from being considered a theological office to a helping profession. Then Vanhoozer spells out exactly what a pastor-theologian is to do. You’ll have to read the book to find out for yourself, but suffice to say that this book is not only for pastors. I think people in the pew should read this book so that we can begin to change peoples’ perceptions about what a pastor is actually supposed to be and do. Our culture has a dramatically sub-biblical understanding of a pastor’s calling. We can do better. Here’s a good line: “Pastoral ministry is a local campaign in the broader war between the living God and the principalities and powers of the air (Eph. 6:12).”

Jonathan Leeman, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Stated simply, Leeman lays out what the Bible says about church membership and how this might be carried out in a local church setting. Before doing that, however, Leeman deals with why Americans seem to have a built-in allergy to membership. In general, most people I come in contact with seem to want to have a “friends with benefits” relationship to the church: They want to enjoy all the trappings of membership but without the commitment. People complain about not being able to experience true community; but they’re the ones who want to hold on to their own autonomy. That way if things get messy it’s easier to bail. Hence they prefer to remain “ecclesially promiscuous.”

Jon Bloom, Don’t Follow Your Heart: God’s Ways Are Not Our Ways. This book consists of a series of mediations by Bloom. They’re all chock-full of Scripture and filled with much wisdom. The chapters are short, but if you take the time to meditate on what he says, you’ll be all the wiser for it. Make the investment.

Honorable Mention

Jason B. Hood, Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Richard Hayes, The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey through a Country Church.

Jeremy Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology.

 Although 2015 may be over, I’m already looking forward to some of the books I’ll be reading in 2016. In addition to the ones I’ll be plowing through for my doctoral program, in my free time I’m excited about sinking my teeth into the following monographs (consider reading some of these yourself):

Bryan Chappell, Holiness by Grace: Delighting in the Joy That Is Our Strength.

Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.

James Carper and Thomas Hunt, The Dissenting Tradition in American Education.

Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain, eds. The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, & Morals.

David Howard and Michael Grisanti, eds. Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using the Old Testament Historical Texts.

Shelby Steele, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country.

George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.

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