Friday, December 28, 2018

My Top Books of 2018

I had a wonderful year of reading in 2018, full of strong books with great big ideas and sharp writing. I'm excited to share some of the best titles with you today.

I read just a few more books than last year (72), and at least for the first third of the year, I also found the time write more book reviews about them.

What I Mean By "Top Books"

As in past years [2013201420152016, 2017], my "Top Books" list is not necessarily the best books that were published that particular year or the most enjoyable either. I intend it to be a list of the fairly new Christian nonfiction books I read:

- that had the most personal impact on me, my thinking, my heart.

- that I was the most consistently enthusiastic about.

- that I kept coming back to again and again.

- that I couldn't help recommending to others (and recommend without reservations and significant caveats).

Like last year, I've narrowed it down to seven of those for 2018, and tomorrow I'll give you a list of others that were really really good for me, too.

My Top Books Read in 2018

1. The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing by Jonathan Pennington.

I never got to write a proper review of Pennington's theological commentary on the sermon on the mount, but it rocked my world, transforming my understanding of Jesus' most famous message and shaping every sermon on the Gospel of Matthew I delivered from February through July on 2018!

Pennington showed me how the logic of the SOTM works. Intellectually, I knew that there was an internal logical flow to Jesus' message, but I've never been able to unlock it until now. Jesus, presented by Matthew, is so unlike Paul in style, and I've tended to treat his kingdom manifesto like a string of pearls. But Pennington showed me (with careful, fresh, and well-chosen words) the grain that runs through the wood connecting the message together and providing the whole with its life-giving and life-changing sap.

If I could write a commentary, this is exactly how I would want it to be. Pennington (who I was at TEDS with back in the day and who has recently launched a YouTube channel of him talking with interesting guests about cars, coffee, and theology) taught me so much, I don't know how to summarize it. I highly recommend reading the book, listening to him teach on its themes, and most of all, reading Jesus' sermon over and over again, especially the beatitudes, with an ear cocked to what Pennington is teaching.

Studying the Sermon on the Mount was the most richly rewarding experience of 2018 for me. I'm so thankful I get to be a pastor. If I didn't have to preach Matthew, I would never have the opportunity to study it on this level! By the way, if you are preaching Matthew, I also recommend buying and carefully reading Charles Quarles' commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, as well. Quarles brought out many exegetical items that I needed to see and provided an almost exhaustive list of interpretive options for difficult sections. I found it invaluable.

2. Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings

Rejoicing in Lament is a profound theological reflection on biblical lament by a man who, sadly and gladly, has had to practice what he preaches.

Billings is top-shelf theologian who has had to go through deep suffering as a cancer patient, and he seamlessly weaves his personal experience and well-read theology together into a beautiful and helpful read. In my review, I resonate with both his experience and his insights:
Billings never pretends that there are any easy answers, but he also never gives in to despair or unbelief. In fact, pulsing through (not over or around) all of the lamentation in this book is a true joy. Billings doesn’t offer any syrupy or saccharine sweetness, but he does offer a trustworthy God who is redeeming sinners remaking the whole world new. He presents Jesus who went before us in suffering–a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He reminds us that God is unchanging and perfect yet perfectly approachable with all of our fickleness, feebleness, and anguish. He holds out a God whose grace is sufficient even when we don’t have healing or answers. He prods us by both good theology and living example to say, “I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” What could be better than that?
I believe the American church, especially needs to rediscover what Michael Card calls "lost language of lament." Billings is a faithful guide. Card's book on this was, by the way, a rich read for me this year, as well, and I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop on this same topic when it comes out this Spring. We need all of the help on this that we can get.

3. A Theology of Matthew by Charles Quarles

Another book on Matthew! And the second mention of Charles Quarles in this list!

Quarles' book is a carefully compiled biblical theology of the Gospel of Matthew looking at particular ways that Matthew brings out particular themes, especially about the identity of Jesus as deliverer (new Moses), king (new David), founder (new Abraham), and creator (God incarnate).

In my review earlier this year, I said, "Quarles has a knack for bringing out the subtleties that lie on top of the text--things that are demonstrable (not made up or merely speculative) yet not obvious to the casual reader. He turns Matthew from SD to HD for a careful reader."

Here's how helpful this book is: I've looked at it every single week this year as I preach through the Gospel of Matthew. I open the Scripture index in the back and turn to every reference he makes to the passage I am preaching this week so I don't miss any of his insights!

4. The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield

In The Gospel Comes With a House Key, Rosaria Butterfield beckons the Church to practice what she calls, “radically ordinary hospitality,” and she and her husband Kent lead the way.

In my review I said, "The potency of Butterfield’s book comes from her storytelling. She obviously subscribes to the maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” and does a masterful job at it. Her true life stories of biblical hospitality brim with the raw grace and beautiful mess that is the gospel at work in up-close-and-personal ministry. This is hospitality as generosity, not entertainment. Giving yourself, your resources, your time, your home. "

Heather and I both read this one and were both encouraged and challenged at the same time. We were encouraged in the hospitality we already practice and challenged to do more.

This book is salty in more ways than one. Don't read it if you don't want to change.

5. Reset by David Murray

I didn't want to read this book, because I had a sneaking suspicion David Murray was talking about me. In describing an over-extended person who was resistant to changing personal habits to learn the art of rest, I felt like he was reading my mail (and maybe my mind!).

But I needed to read Reset, and I'm glad I did. I've changed a number of my habits, and feel like I'm a better path to a balanced life. I still have a good ways to go (change is hard!), but think I'm making progress.

The greatest evidence? In 2018, I took a nap nearly every single Sunday afternoon! (That may not seem like much of an accomplishment to some, but it was a breakthrough for me in terms of receiving the Lord's gift of rest.)

By the way, I was also influenced in this vein by a secular book, Deep Work by Cal Newport. While he wasn't advising more naps, Newport was advising a re-set of my time and attention to develop and deepen my concentration. Whenever I put these two guys' principles at work, it moves the needle on both my happiness and productivity.

6. Under Our Skin by Benjamin Watson

Watson's gracious yet pointed approach to race relations was just what I needed to read at the beginning of 2018. He gets right to the heart of the problem which is the problem of the human heart. But in tackling the underlying spiritual problems, he doesn't get simplistic or let anyone off of the hook of working toward practical solutions.

In my review I said, "Watson also has a knack for seeing solutions that are “both/and.” He knows that the answers to our ongoing racial strife will not be singletary or simplistic. He is not only able to see how the problems come from multiple competing directions but also to envision how the solutions might require holding two or more seemingly exclusive things in faithful tension. For me, this was a perfect read for this 2018 Martin Luther King Day because in many ways Benjamin Watson is articulating “the dream” for a new generation. May we be both convicted by our failures and encouraged and empowered to press on to see the dream come fully true."

For me, reading Under Our Skin kicked off a year-long study of race, racism, and racial reconciliation which was very profitable.

7. Superheroes Can’t Save You by Todd Miles

This is the book I've been raving about the most in the last few months of 2018.

Todd Miles has taken our current cultural obsession with superheroes and channeled it into a fruitful multi-pronged illustration of historical heresies about the person of Christ.

You read that right. Even though it's chock-full of superhero lore, it's really about and magnifies Jesus, but not in a "Jesus-juke" kind of way. In fact, Miles is a super-fan of super-heroes, which as a sometime comic-book fan myself (Make Mine Marvel!), I really appreciated. Yet at the same time he puts them in their place and cleverly appropriates features of the characters to illustrate bad ideas about who Jesus is that have popped up throughout church history. For example, Superman can illustrate docetism (the heresy that Jesus only seemed to be human) or Ant-Man can illustrate modalism (the heresy Jesus is just one"costume" of God that the one person of God puts on when He isn't being the Father or the Spirit).

If you don't like superheroes, this book probably isn't for you, though you still could learn a lot. Miles knows his stuff (and even adroitly navigates some current theological controversies with panache). I've been using it weekly with our youth boys' class on Wednesday nights. Miles holds your attention. He's really fun and funny and concise, and yet is teaching you deep theology and church history and making application to your spiritual life all at the same time. I'm really glad this book exists. Excelsior!