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.


Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

The heresy of radical individualism (part 3)

How does individualism become a roadblock to racial justice?

With the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, many white evangelicals have begun to pay more attention to racial injustice in America.

But there’s a catch.

In their book, Divided by Faith, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue that most white evangelicals do not have a category for structural racism, thus, they tend to view America’s “Race Problem” primarily at an individualistic level.

Divided by faith

For this reason,

well-intentioned people, their values, and their institutions actually recreate racial divisions and inequalities they ostensibly oppose.

RACE AND RADICAL INDIVIDUALISM

Worse yet, in our highly polarized environment, it has become fashionable (in some circles) to dismiss any talk of structural racism as a “Marxist” product of “Critical Race Theory.”

When I interviewed the Christian writer Jemar Tisby recently, he told me how confused he was to be labeled a “Critical Race Theorist” several years ago, because at the time, he didn’t even know what that meant. He was simply trying to be true to Scripture, history, and the black experience.

Unfortunately, when your only two options for viewing reality are “hyper individualism” or “Communist Collectivism,” every perspective must be crammed into one of those two buckets.

As I argued in parts 1 and 2, there is a better way.

BOB THE TOMATO TO THE RESCUE

Thankfully, recent days have brought accessible resources to help Christians grapple with the continuing reality of both structural and individual racism. From Phil Vischer, creator of everyone’s favorite Bible-teaching tomato, there was this helpful video on systemic racism.

And from Esau McCaulley, there was this informal talk on Scripture and structural sin.

TOWARD A BIBLICAL VIEW OF SIN

In this post, however, I want to address two things:

  1. How the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and systemic forms.
  2. How that connects to racism in America.

First, sin.

In my friend Tom McCall’s new book (Against God and Nature) he addresses how the Bible speaks of sin in both individual and corporate ways.

Unfortunately, to speak of structural or systemic sin can sound confusing. Sin is always personal. People sin. Structures don’t. But (and this is the important point) systems and structures can be inherently sinful, oppressive, and unjust.

What we need is a definition of structural or systemic sin.

As McCall rightly notes:

Sin becomes “institutionalized” as it perverts and warps social structures and institutions—which then in turn become breeding grounds for further sinful activities … this point is all-too-easily missed, overlooked, or denied by people who benefit from such institutions while being all-too-painfully-obvious to those who suffer from [them].

Structural sin is uniquely tied to power.

A great example exists in the 1986 and 1994 crime bills. (Though we could talk also of housing, hiring, or policing practices.)

For years, crack cocaine (which was seen as a “black drug”) was punished exponentially more harshly than powder cocaine (which was seen as a drug of wealthier white citizens), despite the fact that the chemical makeup of the two drugs is essentially identical.

By 2003, a whopping 80% of defendants sentenced under the harsher mandatory minimum sentences for crack were black, despite the fact that 66% of crack users are white or Hispanic. That’s a form of systemic racial injustice, and it didn’t happen in the 1800s or the 1960s.

More importantly, the lasting implications of such structural sin don’t just go away “poof!” when the law changes. The effects echo across generations with the voice of Rachel weeping for her children.

Screen Shot 2020-07-14 at 10.43.45 AM
Links to individual studies here.

In response, the individualist might say, “Well, don’t do crack and you won’t have to worry about it.”

That reaction is ungodly because it misses the biblical treatment of how sin perverts entire systems of justice, especially when money and power converge. For this reason, Deuteronomy 16 states:

18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

Another way Scripture speaks to systemic sin is through the language of the “principalities and powers.”

In the New Testament, these powers often refer to fallen spiritual forces that stand behind entire nations, governments, and ideologies.

To give allegiance to Christ requires one to recognize and reject these fallen principalities and powers—even within your own country or political party. The reason is simple:

“[God] raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come (Eph 1:20-21).

The relation between the “powers” and systemic sin is made most clear in the Book of Revelation, where whole churches are rebuked for specific sins (e.g., Rev 2-3), and whole empires (Rome especially) are seen to have become “beastly” in their oppressive, prideful, and persecutorial ways (Rev 13, 17, 18).

In short, the Bible sees sin as both an individual action and an enslaving demonic power that inhabits nations, churches, and in-groups.

But if all that’s true, why do many Christians reject the idea of systemic sin on the subject of race and racism?

THE INVISIBILITY OF STRUCTURAL SIN

Let’s return to the crime bills referenced previously.

As a young white person, I wasn’t even aware of this disparity.

Nor was I aware of redlining (which intentionally kept black people from owning homes, especially in white neighborhoods), poll taxes, convict leasing programs, for-profit prisons, the Tulsa race massacre, or (most importantly!) the specific experiences of black friends with unjust policing. (No, I didn’t say “all cops.”)

This speaks to a key aspect of structural sin: It tends to be invisible to those who are not directly affected by it. Hence, even well-meaning white Christians can scroll past the 99% of black voices telling their stories in order to “share” a viral video of the one black pundit who tells them exactly what they want to hear.

In this way, it is entirely possible to hate racism while failing to recognize how systemic prejudice has infected one’s own heart, in-groups, and Facebook timeline.

“BLACK ON BLACK CRIME”

Take for instance the frequent response that we need to stop focusing on police brutality and start focusing on “black on black crime.”

While it is certainly true that every crime cries out for justice, consider this: Why don’t we refer to America’s mass school shooting epidemic as “white on white crime”?

After all, most mass shootings in schools are perpetrated by white students, and the majority of victims have been white. We don’t speak that way because white citizens do not associate the violence or the victimhood directly with the shooter’s skin color, or with an entire race of people.

Instead, school shootings are seen to be work of deranged individuals with guns.

CONCLUSION

None of this means, of course, that every allegation of structural racism is justified. We need to deal in specifics, we need to listen charitably, and we need to be wary of how a thirst for justice morphs easily into a desire for revenge. (Read a book on the French Revolution to see how that ends.)

To address these challenges, we also need to move away from exclusively individualistic or collectivist understandings of sin (including racism), and toward a more biblical approach.

Sin is not just a naughty action done by individuals, it is an enslaving power that corrupts and co-ops systems, ideologies, and political parties.

As I’ve written elsewhere for a forthcoming book:

To focus only on systemic injustice allows individuals to justify their own sin while decrying “society” and institutions. Conversely, to focus only on individual sin allows the church to justify complicity in systems, companies, and political parties that become oppressive, even while I congratulate myself for being a faithful husband or a hard-working, God-fearing citizen.

Sin is both individual and systemic; hence Scripture cares about both personal morality and systemic justice.

When sin “masters” those in power, it creates structures of inequality and injustice—and to ignore this reality is no better than being high on crack.

 


For parts 1 and 2 in this series, see here and here.

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Want to support this blog? Here are some other things I’ve written:

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”