Top 5 Books I Read in 2014

 

And indeed there will be time….
Time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.[1]

J. Alfred Prufrock describes a sentiment that I do not feel. He languishes in the unresolved ‘now’ of the mundane because he feels that there is time for everything. There is time to put off asking that “overwhelming question” that would “disturb the universe.” There is “time yet for a hundred indecisions.”

I, on the other hand, have been keenly aware of the time lately, especially when it comes to reading. There is just so much to read and so little time! And there is so much that I should have read already. If only I could have something like stoppage time for whenever I picked up a book—the clock would keep ticking, but any time spent reading would be added up and tacked on to the total duration of the game. In other words, I wouldn’t be penalized for that time. Until I can work this arrangement out though, I’m stuck playing with the same 90 minutes everyone else is and thrust back upon the hard, Minkowskian reality of the space-time continuum or, to put it more practically, time management. Sadly, this means that, scramble as I may, I can’t read everything that I want to (even though I may buy everything that I want to). Even still, I managed to work my way through 16 books this year, thanks, in part, to a 6 pages per diem arrangement. Here is where reading book reviews, recommendations, and year-end blog posts like this one really helps. The only thing that’s worse than not having time to read is reading books that aren’t worth the time or missing all the books that are. And since you can’t judge a book by its cover (the reasons for that being just the opposite of 100 years ago, because covers are all so good now), you need some other standard to go by. So with all that in mind, I offer up a short review of the top 5 books I read this year in hopes that it will help someone find a good book for next year.

1. The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification, by David Vincent Meconi

Augustine and deification MeconiThis was the first book I read in 2014, and what a way to kick off the year! Someone I highly respect recommended it to me and I was really anticipating diving into it. Despite my never getting around to doing a 20 Quotes post or proper review of it, this book was incredible. Simply put, Meconi is out to set the record straight on Augustine’s teaching on deification, arguing that “deification of the human person is central to how St. Augustine presents a Christian’s new life in Christ. Augustine accordingly presents the Christian life in terms of the Son of God’s becoming human so humans can become God.”[2] In fact, those are the opening lines of the book. And while this whole topic may sound scary, scandalous, or sacrilegious to many in the Western Protestant tradition, there’s nothing to be alarmed of. Christian teachers in all major branches of Christianity have affirmed this staggering truth, including Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Charles Wesley, and even C. S. Lewis. In fact, Roger Olson recently said,

When asked to identify who is talking about deification in Western theological circles, my initial response is “Who isn’t? ” It seems that almost every Protestant and Catholic theologian writing creatively and constructively in the last two to three decades has found it necessary to address the subject, and many are trying to incorporate it into their emerging theological visions.[3]

To disregard or discredit this teaching is to rob Christianity of part of its richest heritage and to obscure the depths of what God’s salvation accomplishes in man. Meconi however focuses exclusively on Augustine’s contribution here, and he proves to be an excellent guide and interpreter for navigating Augustine’s massive corpus. Meconi’s presentation of Augustine’s view of “creation as the unifying prologue to divine union” and his view of the serpent’s temptation of the first couple with ‘being like God’ as a false path to deification and the only thing that could sufficiently tempt sinless humans in God’s image were particularly illuminating. This book not only proved a point, it deepened my appreciation for the central truths of the Christian faith—the purpose of God, the person and work of Christ, the operation of the Holy Spirit, the salvation of the believers, and the function of the church. If you want a patristic study on deification through the eyes of one of the preeminent doctors, grab this and buckle up.

2. The Story of Christian Theology, by Roger Olson

Story of Christian TheologyThe Story of Christian Theology is an excellent and very readable church history in one volume. Two things to note: 1) Olson aims to write a story not a history. He spells out what this means in the opening pages:

While a history is perceived to be as dry as dust by many modern readers, a story is always eagerly welcomed and greeted with interest. Story in this sense does not mean fiction or fable but “narrative”… The history of Christian theology can and should be told as a story. It is full of complex plots, exciting events, interesting people and fascinating ideas.[4]

2) This is the story of theology, not of church history per se. The focus is squarely on the teaching development of the church. Of course to make sense of this, Olson recounts much of what actually happened in the church.
That being said, I highly recommend this volume for anyone looking for a basic understanding of why theology has developed the way it has. Olson does a great job of making connections from one period to another and establishing cause-and-effect relationships to show that much of the main theological “movements” have been historically reactionary. Olson breaks down each period of the story of theology into manageable bits by focusing on a few major theologians who really shaped their age. In one sense, this is just a really big study on major Christian teachers and their surrounding cultural and intellectual climates, how those shaped them, how they responded, and how they impacted church history subsequently. Olson again and again makes the point that theology was not conceived of by old men in ivory towers with nothing better to do, but by people very connected to the life of the church and concerned for preserving the integrity of the gospel. Very readable and quotable!

3. Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina, by Mariano Magrassi

praying the bible mariano magrassiThis book is incredible—short, accessible, inspiring, thoroughly cited, and eminently quotable. I read a library copy in three days and, since I couldn’t mark it up, ended up using sticky tabs everywhere. About halfway through I decided I needed to own this book. There are SO many quotes and references to a whole world of literature on lectio divina, especially from the early church fathers and medieval period. You will also be introduced to a number of medieval characters you’ve probably never heard of before. Magrassi is a beautiful writer in his own right. However, the book as a whole is like a skillfully arranged mosaic—the patristic and medieval quotes are seamlessly integrated into Magrassi’s own writing, style, and thought.

The book functions on two levels. First, it is a quick-moving yet impressive introduction to lectio divina. Second, it is a sustained argument for the rediscovery and practice of lectio divina today. In Magrassi’s mind, piety and exegesis have been wrongly cleft. Our pride swells because of the advent of scientific methods applied with analytical rigor while our spiritual bellies swell because of malnutrition and starvation. Magrassi shows us how differently the church approached Scripture before the advent of scholasticism—as a source of living water, a kiss of eternity, a living Book, the saving power of God, an inexhaustible mystery, a mystical container of Christ. The connection between reading and prayer is stressed throughout, as is the indispensability of a deep, experiential encounter with the living person of Christ as we appropriate the sacred text.

This book is not intended to function as a step-by-step “field guide” to prayed reading. Instead, it sets forth the richness of the historical tradition, the key ideas and the concrete dispositions employed, and ends with a terse summary of the four acts of lectio divina. The tone Magrassi writes with may be called “impassioned academic.” I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to deepen their experience of reading Scripture.

4. Life-Study of Ephesians, by Witness Lee

Life study witness leeI am slowly working my way through Witness Lee’s monumental commentary on the entire Bible, a work similar in scope but different in emphasis to Calvin’s Commentaries. It weighs in at over 25,000 pages and is certainly Lee’s life work, as far as publications go. The volume on Ephesians is spectacular—97 chapters unpacking this short but prodigious epistle. The focus in this volume is the Triune God’s operation in the economy of salvation to dispense Himself into His chosen elect to produce the church. It is the church itself as the masterpiece of the divine operation that is front and center here, presented in eight aspects. As such, Lee shows how the activity of the divine Trinity and the existence of the church are organically related in Paul’s thought. I’ve been amazed to see how every chapter of Ephesians is structured with the Trinity and the church. Especially enlightening have been the sections on Christ’s abolishing the ordinances for the new man, learning Christ as the reality is in Jesus, the relationship between Ephesians chapters four and five, Christ’s work of sanctifying, cleansing, nourishing, and cherishing, and putting on the whole armor of God. The Life-Study of Ephesians brings together some of Lee’s most central teachings and distinctive theological contributions and therefore has value beyond that of an exposition of an individual book. To me, his study of Ephesians is to the New Testament what his study of Genesis is to the Old Testament. If you’ve never read any of Lee’s writings, this would be a great place to begin (provided you’re ready for a lengthy endeavor).

5. City of God, by E. L. Doctorow

City of God novelThis is the first Doctorow book I’ve read and I really enjoyed it, even though I strongly disagree with the overall message of the book. Somewhat biblical in structure and with subtle nods to Augustine, this is essentially a book about God, faith, and meaning. It is analogous to something like Atlas Shrugged, in that the narrative strands seem to be formulated with the intention of pushing across Doctorow’s own convictions. Just as Ayn Rand uses John Galt’s long radio monologue at the end of Atlas Shrugged (“This is John Galt Speaking”) to preach her message, so also it seems Doctorow’s voice comes through often and, then, directly in Pemberton’s wedding speech at the end. The idea of a modern reality of God, in the tradition of Schleiermacher, pervades the whole. James Pike and Paul Tillich are the exemplar theologians here.

The story revolves around a tradition-questioning, liberal-minded Episcopal priest named Thomas Pemberton (Pemb for short), who is on a leftward bound spiritual conversion to a demythologized, deconstructed Judaism. Pemb’s spiritual struggle with the faith and his love for Sarah Blumenthal, lead rabbi at the center for Evolutionary Judaism, are the framework for all the other narrative strands that weave throughout the book. City of God requires interpretation to make sense of all the minor stories it contains. When viewed as a whole, the overall theme is: what becomes of the traditional Christian view of God in the face of modern science, the horrors of WW2, and secular-philosophical probing?

Doctorow’s writing is beautiful, poignant, dense, and lyrical. His writing itself was the best part of the book to me. I read an interview where he said that he wrote on average one page per day, and if he wrote two that would be incredible. His deliberate, precise use of language is felt. It did, however, take me a while to figure out what was actually going on with all the different narrative strands. It turns out what that you are reading is the writing journal of an author named Everette who is writing the spiritual biography of Pemb’s life. Apparently he has recorded different scraps for his story and we get to read a pre-published rough draft. This alternates with the actual story by Doctorow of Everett and the other characters’ interactions in “real life.” Very cool approach. Take away: If you like well-written books that make you think, this is for you. If on top of that you like books on theology, philosophy, and WW2, go buy it today.

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Dogmatics in Outline, by Karl Barth
  2. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by Watchman Nee
  3. On Christian Teaching, by Augustine

The Full List:

  1. The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification
  2. Dogmatics in Outline
  3. Great Christian Thinkers
  4. The Story of Christian Theology
  5. City of God: A Novel
  6. Mind and Cosmos
  7. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
  8. Study on Matthew
  9. Life-Study of Ephesians
  10. Karl Barth
  11. Narrative Reading, Narrative Preaching
  12. The Explicit Gospel
  13. The Adavance of the Lord’s Recovery Today
  14. On Christian Teaching
  15. Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina
  16. The Experience of Life

 


 

1. T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
2. David Vincent Meconi, The One Christ: St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification, p. xi
3. Roger E. Olson, “Deification in Contemporary Theology.” Theology Today, 2007, 64:188
4. Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, p. 13

Related Articles

2 thoughts on “Top 5 Books I Read in 2014

  1. A Sister here gave a strong testimony about Hudson Taylor’s biography she had just finished reading, having read it previously a number of years ago. My husband and I also have just finished reading it for the second time. For me it was like we are in the same thing just further down the road. One person pointed out oh it is from an individual aspect. Another pointed out a doctrinal difference. Regardless it seemed current to me. Encouraging, renewing, inspiring. Fern and I read mostly WN and WL as that is where we are these days. Enjoyed your sharing of the books you have read. Fern and I are currently reading WL’s Isaiah Life Study. We began about a year and a half ago reading together. Currently the winter training is on Exodus. We read the Exodus LS a year ago so enjoyed it. The crystallization is also very rewarding to be in.

    Like

Post a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s