Well it’s that time of year…the time when people list their “Top” lists of 2016.
Top movies. Top songs. Top memes. Top terrible moments (that’d be a long list for 2016). Top controversies in the evangelical blogosphere. You get the idea.
For those of who live in the academic world of seminaries, biblical studies, and theology the bread and butter of “Top” lists is, of course, books! What else?!
Of all the books I have read this past year the ones listed below were those that shined the brightest. These are not necessarily books that were published in 2016. Some were. But several are quite old. These are just the books that truly stood out to me this past year as fantastic reads. I have tried to organize them into specific categories to help readers understand what basic genre or field each book falls under. So, without further ado, here are my top books of 2016!
The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible by Michael S. Heiser (Lexham Press, 2015)
Michael Heiser’s book, The Unseen Realm, is a systematic and thorough study of all the supernatural language present in the Bible. Heiser explains early on in the book how much our theology as modern, Western Christians has eschewed the supernatural elements and themes present throughout Scripture. Whether it is the divine council featured prominently in the poetic literature of the Old Testament, the presence of enigmatic spiritual entities such as the Watchers in texts like Daniel 4:17, or the spiritual warfare that is one of the main themes of Jesus’s earthly ministry, we often mitigate or even ignore these texts because they make us uncomfortable as post-Enlightenment Westerners. Heiser’s aim is to bring us back to these texts and what they tell us about the “unseen realm” of spiritual entities and beings present throughout the Bible. While Heiser addresses both the Old Testament and the New Testament in the book, the bulk of his time is spent in the Old Testament. As such, The Unseen Realm takes the top Old Testament spot on my list.
New Testament/Early Christianity
Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado (Baylor University Press, 2016)
This was a tough decision. Given that my academic focus is in New Testament and Pauline theology, I read a lot of books relating to the New Testament and Early Christianity. This means that there are a lot of phenomenal books that I have read that didn’t make it on here. While it was a close race, Larry Hurtado’s newest book, Destroyer of the gods, came out as the winner of the top spot. Hurtado’s book is nothing short of an exegetical and historical tour de force. The impetus for the book, as Hurtado explains it, is to address a historical amnesia that has come over much of Western culture, both in the academy and on the popular level. Many people have no idea just how much they owe to the emergence of Christianity into the ancient world. The distinct beliefs and ethics of early Christianity (a belief in one, utterly transcendent God who loves the world, the ontological equality of men and women, the ending of the exposure and murder of unwanted infants, etc.) were quite an anomaly in the ancient Roman world. Yet now, they are all beliefs that we take for granted. But if it was not for the emergence of the utterly distinctive Christian faith in the Roman world we would have none of what characterizes the ideals of Western society. Hurtado’s aim then is to show—based on a thorough study of the earliest Christian texts from the New Testament up through early post-NT writers like Justin Martyr and Tertullian—just how strange early Christianity was to the culture around it. Destroyer of the gods is not only a superb exegetical and historical study, it is a much needed corrective in an age that has forgotten its roots. (I also wrote a review of the book for Seedbed, if you are interested in learning more.)
Like I said, this was a tough category for me to choose just one book for. So, I thought I’d list one other book that came extremely close to winning.
Paul and the Gift by John M. G. Barclay (Eerdmans, 2015)
This is one of the most important books on Paul published in the last 30 years. Barclay has sought to go right to the root of Paul’s theology by asking the simple, but radical question: “What does Paul mean when he speaks of grace?” The answer is a near-600 page study that seeks to understand grace within the context of ancient Greco-Roman and Second-Temple Jewish concepts of gift. Highly, highly recommended.
For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Alexander Schmemann (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)
This book has been around for a good 40+ years. But a classic is a classic. Schmemann was one of the leading authorities on sacramental theology during his lifetime and wrote many books on the subject, as well as on other aspects of Eastern Christian thought. For the Life of the World is about the sacraments, but it is far, far more than just an intro to the Eucharist and baptism. Schmemann’s vision is far more sweeping, seeing all of life as participating in a type of sacramental vision in the light of Christ. He speaks beautifully and compellingly about the sacraments and sacramental theology as integral aspects of the larger Christian vision of reality. Some of his concepts, being rooted in Eastern Orthodox theology, took some time for me to grasp as a Protestant, but once I did I was struck by how much my own Western (and admittedly sacramentally-deficient) theology was enriched. Schmemann was one of my first major introductions to both Eastern Christian theology and sacramental theology. This is a fantastic book and Christians of all traditions will benefit immensely from it.
Medieval Christianity: A New History by Kevin Madigan (Yale University Press, 2015)
Medieval Christian thought and history is grossly misunderstood. While professional historians no longer use pejorative terms like “The Dark Ages” to describe this period, popular mentality still has a very negative view of the period between the fall of Rome and the coming of the Renaissance. Thankfully, Harvard historian Kevin Madigan has put out a carefully and thoroughly researched new history of medieval Christian history and thought that seeks to accurately describe the achievements, as well as the failings, of our Christian forebears. Madigan (himself a Roman Catholic) does not shy away from describing some of the warts of medieval Christianity, but he also documents the intellectual and cultural achievements of great thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and others. As far as one-volume histories on medieval Christian history go, this one is excellent.
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G. J. Meyer (Delacorte, 2006)
Outside of biblical studies and theology, the two World Wars fascinate me. I grew up watching the History Channel (you know, back when it actually aired shows about history, instead of reality shows about truckers and pawn shops) and the various documentaries about World War I and II. I even read Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers when I was in middle school! Recently though I have had a resurgent interest in World War I, particularly in regard to the sweeping arc of the conflict. G. J. Meyer’s one-volume history of the Great War proved to be an excellent overview of this world-shaping conflict. Meyer’s work was not only informative, but also lucid and enjoyable to read. He tackled not only the actual fighting, but also the dramatic and detrimental effects that war had on Europe.
Culture and Politics
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics by Jonathan Haidt (Pantheon, 2012)
If you can only read one book about cultural and political discourse (or the total lack thereof) this is it. Haidt is a social psychologist at NYU who has sought to answer the basic question of why people of good intentions and conscience disagree so drastically on moral and political issues. Haidt roots such radical disagreements in what he terms “moral foundations theory” and notes that our basic moral intuition operates on five “moral tastebud receptors” that form the key foundations of our moral and political frameworks. These are (1) the care/harm foundation, (2) the fairness/cheating foundation, (3) the loyalty/betrayal foundation, (4) the authority/subversion foundation, and (5) the sanctity/degradation foundation. Haidt demonstrates that, broadly speaking, conservatives tend to operate with all five “moral tastebuds” working more or less equally. Liberals, on the other hand, are usually operating with the first two “tastebuds” (care and fairness) on full power, while the other three (loyalty, authority, and sanctity) are receiving minimal mental and intuitive juice. What all this illustrates is that conservatives and liberals often have a difficult time communicating because they are operating on entirely different moral foundations; they are speaking different moral languages. If you want to begin to understand why culture wars and identity politics seem to be more pronounced than ever, this is the book to start with.
The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, Reprint 1988)
It’s Tolkien. It’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s a classic. It’s a literary masterpiece. Enough said.