My Top Ten Books of 2016–And Three Articles

Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why The Marrow Controversy Still Matters. 

A theologically rich yet pastorally sensitive treatise. The casual reader may be intimidated by the title of this book, but please: Don’t let that stop you! Ferguson takes the reader on a journey back to the 18th century into a small Scottish parish. Along the way he brings to light the background information necessary to make sense of a theological controversy that erupted due to the republication of The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Trust me, this is much more than a piece of arcane theological reflection; it is highly practical. Ferguson exhibits the best of what a pastor-theologian is to be. I would highly recommend this book to every Christian, but pastors will be especially helped by reading this monograph.

Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism.

Levin offers a brief yet thorough overview of American politics since World War II, and argues that frustration in the political arena stems from both parties—Democrats and Republicans—suffering from nostalgia. Both parties are offering the American public nothing more than reruns of past agendas. This infatuation with midcentury prescriptions fails to take into account America’s unique cultural moment, leading to a misdiagnosis of present problems, which then leads to misguided solutions. Although Levin’s arguments require some familiarity with political science and economics, I’m sure novices can make do. If you keep a dictionary close by, you’ll be just fine. This was a fascinating read. I can see why scholars on both the Right and the Left have given this book such a high marks.

Steven D. Smith, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse.

The bottom line is this: words like “justice,” “equality,” “dignity,” and, yes, even the phrase “unalienable rights,” are all empty concepts. They mean absolutely nothing until we define what they mean, explain why they are valuable, and unpack how we justify holding our views. In other words, when we say, “All human beings should be treated with dignity and respect,” Smith will ask you to answer the questions, “Why? Where do you get this idea that human beings should be treated with ‘dignity’? What does ‘dignity’ mean?” In asking such questions, Smith forces readers to see that such questions cannot be answered from a secular standpoint. This is because “A comprehensively naturalistic worldview cancels itself out” (199). Smith doesn’t stop there, however. The point he wants to emphasize is that “most of us really believe in a realm of value that cannot be adequately accounted for in purely naturalist terms” (204). As the late philosopher Hans Jonas noted, “You can’t have ethics without metaphysics.” Jonas’s (and Smith’s) observations reveal the inadequacy of our discussions over “culture war” issues and related topics. Smith argues that we need to stop “smuggling” our metaphysics into ethical discussions and be honest about what we’re doing (even if we can’t justify our essentially “religious” beliefs). In fact, Smith urges us to bring religion into our conversations. While he admits that this might lead to some heated discussions, he thinks it’s worth it because it will force us to deal with our actual differences.

J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles.

 It’s hard to believe this book was published in 1958. Perhaps what’s even harder to believe is how relevant Packer’s book is up to the present day. In the course of the work Packer defines “fundamentalism” and “liberalism,” and then looks at the issues of authority, Scripture, faith, and reason. While reading this book may not cause a person to embrace the authority and integrity of the Scriptures, it at least makes clear where each side stands. The book does not advance any new thesis, but it’s a must-read for those interested in the doctrine of Scripture.

David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community.

Much wisdom, much insight, much practical application is found in Speaking Truth in Love. While not a “how-to” book, describing the ins and outs of observation, diagnosing, and prescribing a course of action intended to lead to personal healing and renewal in the classical sense, Powlison provides readers with a thoroughly biblical analysis of human personality and offers key ingredients that will lead counselors in the right direction in offering wise counsel. This begins with properly understanding human beings—creatures made in the image of God who by design are dependent beings. God has invaded our world with his revelation, the Bible. God speaks to us through his Word and also show us how to speak to him through his Word. This provides comfort as well as serves as a resource for how to live our daily lives. God has not left us hopeless; instead, Christ comes to us clothed in the gospel and repentant sinners find forgiveness in his life, death, and resurrection. Understanding this reality serves counselors well, as they realize that they are very much like the people they counsel—broken and in need of forgiveness. These “wounded healers” must prayerfully seek to provide counselees with counsel that is faithful to the Bible as well as connected to real life. Much of counseling is learning how to do just this.

Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.

Keller calls this book a “prequel” to his former work The Reason for God. Since the release of Reason Keller has been engaged in many discussions with various kinds of people, leading him to see the necessity of laying some groundwork before getting to the ideas propounded in his earlier volume. For example, in chapter two of Making Sense of God he has a chapter entitled, “Isn’t religion based on faith and secularism on evidence?” Following this chapter Keller deals with topics like suffering, joy not based on circumstances, the harm principle, and the problem of identity. In sum, Keller makes good on what he sets out to do: thoroughly deconstruct all other worldviews and demonstrate that Christianity is not only coherent, but the most desirable worldview of all.

Ryan T. Anderson, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom.

This book was released soon after the Obergefell decision. Anderson’s goal is to provide a definition of marriage and then demonstrate what the consequences will be of redefining marriage. Without referencing any religion or appealing to any sacred text, Anderson defines marriage as a comprehensive, exclusive, and permanent union of one man and one woman ordered toward procreation. Since the law teaches, shapes ideas, and influences what people do, Anderson argues that the law could not remain neutral forever. Given that marriage is not defined in the Constitution, however, unelected justices should not have been the ones making this decision. As he states at one point in the book, “Under the Constitution, judges have power to say what the law is, not what it should be” (67). That said, now that the law has changed, Anderson goes on to make plain how the Obergefell decision will make it more difficult for people to live out the dictates of their consciences. Furthermore, he shows why sexual orientation is not like race, and hence why the comparison should stop being made. (I have a sneaking suspicion that the comparison will continue.) Another consequence of redefining marriage will be its affect on children. Regardless of what people will say, most social scientists agree (all agreed prior to the sexual revolution) that children do better with a mother and a father. Nevertheless, I wonder how much longer we will hear about the importance of fathers being involved in the lives of their children, given that proponents of the sexual revolution now argue that there is no real difference between male and female.

Harry Schaumburg, False Intimacy: Understanding the Struggle of Sexual Addiction. This book was required reading for a class I took on pastoral counseling. Although it deals specifically with sexual addiction, the truths communicated apply to all of life. In my experience, most people never pause to consider how they relate to food, alcohol, work, shopping, or Internet use. More often than not, when people feel a strong compulsion, they simply give in and view their behavior as normal. Instant gratification is part of American culture. We’re not good at waiting. Even if you don’t struggle with any addiction, this book will help you understand yourself. As a pastor, I’m often shocked by the lack of time people devote to understanding themselves—why they do what they do, say what they say, think how they think, respond how they respond, etc. The lack of self-awareness can be shocking at times. This book may not answer all your questions, but I think Schaumburg delivers on his goal: “The best I can offer is to help you move closer to God.”

Armando Valladares, Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro’s Gulag. I purchased this book prior to Fidel Castro’s death. Nevertheless, his death prompted me to begin reading Valladares’s memoir sooner than anticipated. I knew the sordid details of his arrest, imprisonment, and torture would challenge my ability to finish the book, but I was determined to press on. Without giving away all the details, Valladares was arrested for opposing Castro’s communist regime. He and his fellow prisoners were beaten mercilessly, tortured repeatedly, and forced to live in inhumane conditions—all with a view to getting them to accept communism. On one occasion Vallardares and two of his compatriots escaped, but were captured two days later. For this attempt they were thrown into solitary confinement for close to six months. Rather than giving them water to drink, the guards would pour their own urine and feces into their cells and force them to live in this condition. Through it all, Valladares kept his faith in Christ and credits God with giving him the strength to endure this most difficult trial. Many of his fellow prisoners opposed communism due to their Christian convictions. Tragically, many of them were killed. In perhaps the most moving section of the book, Valladaras recalls the words his fellow brothers in Christ would shout as they were headed to their execution: Viva Cristo Rey!

 Paul J. Silvia, How to Write A Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. As a first year PhD student, I know tons of writing assignments await me—book reviews, research papers, and class lectures. When a professor recommended this book to me, I resolved to purchase it ASAP. And I’m glad I did. My main takeaway is that I must make a writing schedule and stick to it. I must guard my study time with a blowtorch. Silvia provides readers with an important life lesson: You don’t find time, you allot time in order to accomplish tasks. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Favorite Articles of the Year:

Arthur Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” (Duke Law Journal 1979).

Similar to The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse and Hans Jonas’s thesis highlighted above, Leff argues that ethical evaluations cannot be binding unless they have “supernatural grounding.” We may wax eloquent on why we think certain laws are just or unjust, but these can be nothing more than opinions unless we appeal to a higher authority. If we can’t appeal to a transcendent realm, Leff says every person is free to respond with what he calls “the grand sez who?” Leff concludes by bemoaning these circumstances:

 “As things now stand, everything is up for grabs. Nevertheless:
Napalming babies is bad.
Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved.
Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.
Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.
There is in the world such a thing as evil.
[All together now:] Sez who?
God help us.”

Gina Dalfonzo, “‘An Odd Sort of Mercy’: Jen Hatmaker, Glennon Doyle Melton, and The End of the Affair.”

Dalfonzo tackles the skewed and self-interpreting definition of love running rampant in our culture. Two popular evangelical authors came out in support of gay marriage this year: Jen Hatmaker and Glennon Doyle Melton. (After Melton’s divorce to her husband she posted a picture of herself with her new girlfriend–well-known soccer player Abby Wambach.) Dalfonzo succinctly summarized the words of many affirming Christians: “If God is love, then the more love, the better.” Dalfonzo responded: “The idea sounds good, yes—but it also asks us to overlook some significant truths about the nature and limits of love, as well as God’s desire and calling for His people.” Here’s my favorite section of the article:

“Evangelical Christians have fallen too much into the habit of believing God exists to affirm our deepest desires, whether material or sexual. We have forgotten that sometimes God, for reasons of His own, calls us to nail our desires to that ugly, painful, bitter cross. But the mystery of Christianity is that what dies is also raised again to life. Resting in his mystery of the paradox of faith: that God has our greatest good in mind when He calls us to the cross.

Tim Keller, “Why Does Anyone Become a Christian?”

Again, this is classic Keller: “If a religion is not different from the surrounding culture, if it does not critique and offer an alternative to it, it dies because it is seen as unnecessary. If Christians today were also famous for and marked by social chastity, generosity and justice, multi-ethnicity, and peace making — would it not be compelling to many? Ironically, Christians were ‘out of step’ with the culture on sex to begin with, and it was not the church but the culture that eventually changed.”

 

 

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