My Favorite Books of 2020

My Favorite Books of 2020

If there was a bright side of 2020, it was some extra time for reading amidst the homebound months of the pandemic.

Here are my favorites from the past year.

BIBLICAL STUDIES

Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism (Baker Academic, 2020).

Who wouldn’t want a whole book on ancient Jewish views on genital discharges, corpses, and eczema-related skin conditions?

While the topic of ritual impurity may sound odd to some lay readers, Thiessen’s careful work sheds fresh light on Jesus’ ministry by showing how he upholds the Jewish Law and aligns himself against the forces of Death. In so doing, Jesus functions as a kind of “holy contagion” that removes impurity by healing its source.

See my prior blog post on the book (here), and look for my Outpost Theology interview with Matt to be released in January, 2021 (here).

THEOLOGY

Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Fortress, 2020).

My favorite theological works are rarely the ones I agree with most fully. And in this case, it’s not even a book I find intelligible at every turn.

In some places, understanding Sonderegger’s poetic prose and elusive argumentation is like trying to construct an elaborate piece of IKEA furniture by using a copy of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland as directions.

“Just so.”

Nonetheless, this book remains the most interesting piece of theology I’ve read this year. Sonderegger crafts beautiful, opaque, surprising, and biblically-attuned reflections that cut against long-held assumptions about where we should to look to find the Mystery of the Trinity. Surprisingly, she finds pointers toward the triune processions in the Old Testament, through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and the sacrificial rituals of Israel.

FICTION

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (Random House, 1985).

Quite obviously, this book wasn’t written in 2020. But McCarthy’s dark, apocalyptic brooding fits well amidst the tone and tenor of this year. (Even if I technically started it in 2019 [see here].) Despite all the attention he rightfully receives for The Road, I think Blood Meridian is the work of greater genius.

McCarthy explores the rough edges of human depravity by mining (and expanding) violent events that actually transpired near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. Alongside shimmering descriptions of the desert landscape, the high point of the novel is the way McCarthy’s villain (the Judge) becomes a rumination on what Scripture calls “the Satan.”

Someday, when I am allowed to teach a combination literature and theology course on “atheist prophets,” this book will make the syllabus.

SCIENCE AND MEDICINE

Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it Changed the World (Hachette, 2017).

If you want some perspective on our present pandemic, try going back a hundred years via Spinney’s treatment of the Spanish Flu. As I’ve noted previously (here), Spinney’s work in scientific history reminds us that pandemics are social phenomena as well as medical ones, and while history doesn’t technically repeat itself (Thank God), it does rhyme in all sorts of interesting ways.

BIOGRAPHY

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (Penguin, 2005).

I’m tempted to feel embarrassed by this one: First, because I’m late to the party; and second, because I read it after watching the musical more times than I can count with my four young children. (Don’t criticize my parenting.)

Still, Hamilton’s story is so improbable, and so well told by Chernow, that it stands on its own merits, even amid all the hype of the musical.

Especially in 2020, when America’s political fortunes lurched daily toward the abyss, Hamilton reminds us why the Experiment is worth protecting. This book made me care about our beautiful and broken country, though the daily news cycle often made me feel ashamed.

HISTORY

S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner, 2010).

Despite residing in Oklahoma, I’ve been mostly ignorant of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches, and one of the more remarkable figures in the American West. Until this book.

Born to a famous White captive (Cynthia Ann Parker), Quanah bridges the gap both genetically and temporally between the old world of Comanche warriors, and the new world that was coming. (In some ways, this history book was the real-world doppelgänger of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, but with the Native American narrative taking precedence.)

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the way it refused to fall into either of the two simplistic tropes regarding Native American warriors. The Comanches are detailed both in their nobility and bravery, and in terms of their horrific brutality, displayed especially in their attacks upon other Native American tribes across centuries.

If you haven’t read this one, pick it up.

CHURCH AND CULTURE

Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (IVP Academic, 2020).

This year saw a number of books on racial justice shoot up the bestseller lists. And rightfully so. But McCaulley’s text is different in several ways.

Reading While Black is not a “Dear White people” book that attempts to explain the African American experience to outsiders. It is more a love letter to the Bible that has sustained the Black community through years of injustice, even while that same Holy Book was often used against Black Christians.

McCaulley reveals a tradition of African American exegesis that refuses to be weaponized or tokenized by EITHER White Conservatism or White Liberalism—and in that way, it has a prophetic word for all of us.

Listen to my interview with Esau (here) and pick up the book.

PREMODERN, PRIMARY SOURCES

Origen, On First Principles, A Reader’s Edition, trans. John Behr (Oxford, 2019).

Premodern texts often get left out of these lists. My favorite for the year is John Behr’s fantastic new translation of Origen’s On First Principles (Even if I couldn’t afford the two-volume critical edition).

The translation reads far easier than many other treatises from the period, and while Origen has often been derided and dismissed by orthodox theologians, a careful reading of On First Principles reveals a mind that is enraptured with Scripture, with God’s loving justice, and with questions that still plague us today–even if not all his conclusions are to be followed.

(Look for a section on Origen in my forthcoming book on the place of imaginative speculation in theology.)

Here’s hoping 2021 has even more time to read, but for different reasons.


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God’s voice, like horses grazing

God’s voice, like horses grazing

“Godless” seems like an apt description of Cormac McCarthy’s violent and disturbing novel, Blood Meridian.

The story is based loosely on events from the 1850s near the Texas-Mexico border. It follows a fourteen-year-old “Kid” who ends up riding with a band of murders who seek Apache scalps for profit. The butchery and racism make it difficult to read.

But like much of McCarthy’s work, Blood Meridian yields theological marrow if one digs beneath the clotted surface. The foremost of these insights comes from an ex-priest named “Toby” who tries to explain the mystery of God’s silence in their nightmarish world.

McCarthy
Why it takes me forever to finish a book…

LIKE HORSES GRAZING

God’s voice, says Toby, is like the sound of horses grazing in the night. We only notice it when he stops talking: “when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep … Don’t nobody hear them.” But if they cease for a moment, every soul awakes.

“God speaks in the least of creatures.” And “No man is give[n] leave of that voice.”

This claim gives reason to respect both the ubiquity and the mystery of revelation. And this resonates with my experience.

God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing.

HIDDENNESS AND OMNIPRESENCE

Kate Sonderegger explores a related theme in the much-heralded first volume of her Systematic Theology. Her interest is in the relationship between God’s hiddenness and his omnipresence.

Israel’s God is unique in his invisibility. He is not to be depicted by graven images like the gods of other nations. Yahweh is heard, but he is never truly seen. For this reason, Sonderegger claims that God’s hiddenness is one of the most important parts of his revelation to Israel.

He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One. (p. 52)

the Hiddenness of God, His Secrecy and Mystery, emerge not form absence but rather from divine presence. … “Truly,” the prophet confesses, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45:15). (p. 68-69)

I don’t like Sonderegger’s writing (*tongue in cheek).

It makes me jealous, since she has a way with words that is rivaled by few living theologians. But I am serious when I say now that I did not like this particular argument initially.

At some points it sounded too much like what C. S. Lewis lampooned as the “argument for invisible cats.” Here’s my version of that logic:

“Do you see that invisible cat by the sofa?”
“No.”
“Precisely.”

“I hate you.”

But this is not exactly Sonderegger’s claim.

She is not appealing to invisibility to prove God’s presence. She is only reminding us that the apparent absence of a visible “divine specimen” (graven image) is one of the things that marks out Israel’s God as different.

God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing. We see no “creature” in the darkness, and it is the very constancy of this revelation that can make it like a kind of “white noise.”

But when it ceases, the whole camp awakes.

I’ve written previously about this theme in a post about the “dazzling darkness” (one of my favorites, though I think few others thought so). I noted there that, for Paul, God reveals himself precisely through “invisible qualities” (Rom 1:20). Creation testifies incessantly with speechless words (Ps 19:2-3). Our problem is, it won’t shut up.

CAVEATS

Despite my praise for this line of thinking, there are some important caveats that must be placed alongside the gospel according Sonderegger/Blood Meridian.

  1. God’s voice isn’t always soft and “horse-like” (Ask Saul of Tarsus).
  2. God isn’t left entirely without an “Image” (Re: Jesus and his image-bearers).
  3. God’s “silence” is sometimes the product selective hearing, since acknowledging the voice requires us to change.

(On that last point, note that the ex-priest Toby has set aside his collar for a rifle and a life of violence. He doesn’t want to “wake up” to the reality of his own murderous racism [Let the reader understand].)

CONCLUSION

Caveats aside, the scene from Blood Meridian helps me understand how two brilliant individuals (McCarthy and Sonderegger) can reach opposite conclusions based on similar data:

McCarthy: “There is no God and we are his prophets” (The Road)

Sonderegger: God’s invisibility is the mark of omnipresence.

In fact, “Toby’s” claim is closer to the truth than than the apparent view of McCarthy himself.

The world isn’t “Godless.”

But we need “ears to hear” a voice like horses grazing.


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