What We’ve Been Reading: Winter 2018
Here at Conciliar Post, many of us are avid readers. These are a few of the things we’ve been reading lately.
Jarrett Dickey, House Church
The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick)
Philip K. Dick’s novel imagines a world where the Axis powers won World War II. In this alternate reality, the United States is divided into three districts. The Nazis control the eastern seaboard while the Japanese administrate the Pacific States. In the middle, the Rocky Mountain States are a neutral zone. The plot of the novel follows two storylines—one in the Pacific States and one in the neutral zone. The characters are all interconnected and many of their choices impact one another. Much of the novel focuses on Japanese social etiquette, the nostalgic commercialization of American art, and the use of the I Ching as an oracle. Largely devoid of action or a central conflict, the brilliance of Dick’s novel is his believable construction of an alternate reality. In this alternate reality, Dick toys with the reader’s mind by creating another alternate reality inside of his fictional world. In his Nazi-controlled universe, an author writes a book about how the Allied forces actually won the war. The ending, which will be unsatisfying for most people, leaves the reader pondering questions about the nature of reality.
John Ehrett, Lutheran
Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Jeffrey Kripal)
Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University, explores in detail how strange phenomena that would have been traditionally described as “mystical” or “miraculous” are, in a scientistic age, received as “paranormal.” Kripal’s “paranormal” is thus a liminal category straddling the “religious” and the “scientific”; this “paranormal” is the only frame in which people steeped in the mental categories of modernity can conceive of the supernatural.
Sex Difference in Christian Theology (Megan DeFranza)
Theologian DeFranza draws on a vast reservoir of traditional and hermeneutical resources to argue for the distinctiveness of intersex identity within Christianity. Whether one agrees with her conclusions or not, her deeply argued (and, most interestingly, methodologically conservative) exegesis of Matthew 19:12 raises questions that demand thoughtful engagement.
Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (James K. A. Smith)
Smith, a prominent philosophy professor at Calvin College, concludes his long-running trilogy on “cultural liturgies” with a study of political theology that resists easy classification as activist or quietist. It’s a much denser analysis than the previous entries in the series, but that counts in its favor: Smith, to his great credit, isn’t interested in simplistic conclusions.
Wesley Walker, Anglican
Christ, the Christian, and the Church: A Study of the Incarnation and Its Consequences (E.L. Mascall)
Brilliant historical theology professor E.L. Mascall (1905-1993) engages in a detailed discussion of the issues surrounding the Incarnation of Christ with special emphasis on Chalcedonian christology. While this book was originally published in 1946, it was re-published in 2017 thanks to Anglican scholar Gerald McDermott and is surprisingly relevant to the Church today. Mascall not only models what effective engagement with other theological frameworks should look like, but he persuasively defends the orthodox faith.
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Ross Douthat)
Douthat, a conservative New York Times columnist, provides an accurate, albeit depressing, genealogy of religion in American culture. His book demonstrates how our culture has moved away from some of the great religious movements of the 20th century (spearheaded by the likes of the Venerable Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, and Reinhold Niebuhr) and into what looks more like the movie Eat, Pray, Love. This volume goes well with Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option in that it provides a more nuanced analysis of the same social problem that preoccupies Dreher and is an important read for anyone who cares about the trajectory of American Christianity and culture.
Timon Cline, Reformed/Baptist
Into the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Byung-Chul Han)
In this short book, Han, a Korean-born German philosopher, who has previously examined the link between neuronal disorders, overstimulation, and hyper-positivity in his book Fatigue Society, critiques digital culture. As someone intensely interested in this topic, especially in the realm of social media, I found Han’s book unique and insightful in its classical approach to human psychology and the digital world. As an example of his insight, early on Han notes the elimination of respect in anonymous digital communication, suggesting that “respect is tied to names,” and therefore, “anonymity and respect rule each other out.” Thus, our online discourse is largely devoid of respectful interactions. Though short, Hans work is a supreme example of “lucid brevity”, to borrow Calvin’s phrase.
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 (Andrew Pettegree)
This is, so far, my favorite book to come out of last year’s Reformation festivities. In most books on Luther, only a couple of pages are devoted to his unrivaled literary output and publishing efforts (see e.g. Alec Ryrie’s Protestants or Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation). But Pettegree has written an entire book on the matter. Luther’s success in popularizing his ideas, and ultimately winning the day, are largely a result of his intuitive grasp of the print industry. In most cases, Luther beat his Catholic opponents to the punch by developing his own particular Wittenberg brand of pamphlets (flugschriften) in the vernacular German, complete with customized cover art by Lucas Cranach. When people in 16th century got hold of a Wittenberg book, they knew it, and Luther knew how to sell them to the increasingly literate population. Luther’s marketing genius and indefatigable writing are under appreciated elements of his life. Pettegree has, in my view, effectively remedied that oversight.
Peter Schellhase, Episcopal
Pastoral Theology (Thomas Oden)
What is a pastor? What does a pastor do? Methodist theologian Oden paints a compelling picture of the pastoral vocation by looking back to what might be called the classical model of pastoral ministry. This model is not focused on the administration of ‘ministries,’ but instead emphasizes the gifts and calling of the Holy Spirit, and the exercise of the pastoral office in the activities of caring for souls and leading the church in worship and prayer.
Oden’s vision clashes with the way pastoral ministry is often characterized today by metaphors drawn from the marketplace: the pastor-as-CEO; the pastor-as-entrepreneur. For example, he stresses the importance of pastoral visitation, not just when people are sick or in trouble, but on a regular basis—ideally, at least once a year. The pastor is a person in relationship, not just a functional role. Ministry on this model is not infinitely scalable—but it is much closer to the pattern taught in Scripture.
Mary Through the Centuries (Jaroslav Pelikan)
A follow-on to Pelikan’s earlier Jesus Through the Centuries, this very pretty art book gives a historical overview of theological development and popular piety surrounding the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pelikan is an honest historian and covers all groups and ideas fairly: the point of this book is not to exposit a “correct” understanding of Mary but to explore the ways that Christians’ regard for Mary has appeared and developed in different contexts, from the church’s beginnings right on up through the last century.
The Elements of the Spiritual Life (F.P. Harton)
Ascetical theology is the study of Christian growth toward union with God. This book is at once an exposition of ascetical theology and a how-to manual. Writing for an Anglican audience, Harton covers topics such as grace, virtue, temptation and sin, spiritual discipline, prayer, and the use of the sacraments. I have found it helpful in my own spiritual life. It would be useful both for individual Christians and for those responsible for the spiritual direction of others.
Scripture as Real Presence (Hans Boersma)
The early Church Fathers regarded Scripture—the writings of the Old and New Testaments—as written of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, for the Church. Boersma shows how early Christian expositors—Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Origen, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Athanasius, Irenaeus, and others—possessed extreme confidence that all of Scripture could and should be understood as speaking of Christ, and used exegetical techniques and assumptions which are avoided by most modern-day expositors of the Bible. Not that they all agreed on every interpretation. Certain passages—Genesis, Proverbs 8, the Song of Songs—were hotly debated. But none doubted that they were to be interpreted Christologically. A fast-paced, fascinating, paradigm-shifting read.
Jacob Prahlow, Lutheran/Seeking
Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child (Anthony Esolen)
In Esolen’s captivating work, compulsions are those things from within and from without that enslave us to false choices and a degraded concept of freedom. Instead of the compulsions that give us a “choice” between that which is evil and that which is foolish, Esolen beckons parents to the sage wisdom of the Western Tradition that enables true freedom. With chapters on work, education, parenting, literature, music, art, philosophy, leisure, family life, and history, Esolen writes with pensive depth and penetrating insight. A thoughtful counter-cultural guide, Life Under Compulsion has given this parent a great deal to reflect upon and reevaluate.
Cancer—Now What? Taking Action, Finding Hope, and Navigating the Journey Ahead (Kenneth Haugk)
I try to read at least one work of practical theology at all times, and my most recent foray into this area has been Cancer—Now What? An eminently practical book, this volume looks at the emotional, medical, relational, and spiritual challenges that face those who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. This book offers practical and applicable insight on how to address the many challenges that accompany the dreaded “c” word. Undergirding the contents of this book is the idea that Christians are called to offer a ministry of presence and care to those who are experiencing difficulties. Cancer—Now What? is a powerful, practical reminder of the real needs that real people face when fighting the cancer battle.
Whisper: How to Hear the Voice of God (Mark Batterson)
Christians, especially those faced with major life decisions, often ask things like, “How do I know what God is saying to me?” or “What should I do with my life?” For those with such queries, Pastor Mark Batterson’s latest book offers salient, practical insight. The thesis of Whisper is that God speaks to different people through a diversity of methods, all of which accord with the clear and plain teachings of Scripture. Batterson digs deep into how God speaks through scripture, desires, dreams, people, promptings, and pain. Filled with engaging illustrations and sound principles, Whisper is a thought-provoking read that people asking questions about their future will enjoy.
We invite your participation in charitable discussion of these books in the comments section.