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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Jesus, holy contagion

Jesus, holy contagion

What is Jesus’ R0 factor?

In this time of COVID-19, we’ve all learned some new words; words like spike proteins, viral load, and hydroxychloroquine.

One of these new concepts—the R0 factor—measures contagiousness. How close must one be to an infected person to “catch” what they have? Is the contagion passed primarily by blood, saliva, or has it been aerosolized? Can it live on surfaces?

In the early days of the pandemic, while my asthmatic son was dealing with some breathing trouble—I took the extreme step of constructing a cleaning station in our garage where I would wipe down our groceries (and mail) before they entered the house.

But what does any of this have to do with Jesus?

JESUS AND THE FORCES OF DEATH

One of the best books I’ve read this year was Jesus and the Forces of Death, by Matthew Thiessen. The text focusses on the Gospels’ portrayal of ritual impurity–and it argues, in line with scholars like Jacob Milgrom, that the Jews associated these impurities with forces of death.

Baker Academic, 2020

The Law of Moses taught that certain substances rendered one ritually unclean. These contagions included genital discharges, skin diseases (lepra), and corpses. To be ritually impure was not sinful. But it meant that one was barred from approaching God’s presence (for instance, in the temple) until one had undergone purification.

Ritual impurity comes up repeatedly in the Gospels:
• Jesus touches lepers and they are cleansed.
• Jesus encounters corpses and they rise.
• Jesus faces impure spirits and expels them.

But there is one story for which Thiessen’s work is particularly illuminating: Jesus and the bleeding woman (Matt 9:20–22; Mark 5:25–34; Luke 8:42–48).

JESUS AND THE ZAVAH

In Hebrew, the zavah was a female “discharger”—a woman with chronic flow of menstrual blood.

As with other bodily discharges, Jewish Law maintained that no one could touch the zavah (or even her bedding) without being rendered impure (Lev 15:25–27). Even one’s clothing must be purified if it had potentially been contacted by such a woman.

Then in Mark’s Gospel, we read of a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years:

27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

30 At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:27-3)

THE HOLY CONTAGION

In Thiessen’s words,

“The story implies that Jesus’s body can function like an unthinking force of contagion that inevitably destroys impurity” (7).

Instead of Jesus being made unclean by the woman’s touch, the opposite happens: The source of her impurity is healed, because Jesus embodies a contagious form of holiness and purity.

Incredibly, Jesus never decides to heal the woman. He merely notices that power has gone out of him, and then inquires, “Who touched my clothes?” (v 30)

So I ask again, what is Jesus’ R0 factor?

HOLINESS BEYOND SEGREGATION

We often think of holiness as something that is maintained by separation: “social distancing” if you will. For indeed, to be holy meant to be “set apart” by God for special use.

But Jesus’ holiness challenges the exclusivity of this notion. Christ’s holiness is contagious; it is not merely a fenced off and fragile status. Jesus’ holiness goes on the offensive. It heals the sources of impurity, and yet (apparently) without itself being defiled.

Never is this truer than in Christ’s crucifixion—in which the forces of death come calling for his own body. Yet even in death, Christ’s corpse emits a purifying power.

This point is seen most notably in the strange passage from Matthew that describes how Christ’s final breath brought the corpses of many holy ones to life within their tombs (Matt 27:50-53). (See here for my post on that unusual passage.)

There is some prophetic precedent for this kind of holiness. But not much. Elijah raises a widow’s son after laying his own body atop the boy’s (ritually impure) corpse. And Elisha unwittingly raises another dead man after the man’s corpse is thrown into a grave containing Elisha’s bones. (Happy Halloween!)

Still, Thiessen’s claim is that Jesus’ contagious holiness is unequaled in the Scriptures.

CONTAGIOUS HOLINESS TODAY

As a work of biblical scholarship, Thiessen’s book does not intend to make the turn to contemporary or pastoral application. But I’d like to gesture in that direction: What does Jesus’ contagious holiness mean for us today?

Incidentally, I come from what is often called a “holiness tradition”—and specifically, from a denomination that has roots in the revivalism of John Wesley, in abolitionism, and in women’s suffrage. I’m proud of that.

But in my own holiness tradition there has sometimes been a failure to learn the lesson of Jesus’ R0 factor. We saw holiness as something “set apart” and fragile—but not as something that is powerfully contagious.

In fact, holiness is both.

Elements of the holiness tradition propounded legalistic and extra-biblical rules on everything from wedding rings, to hairstyles, to alcohol—but we did not always grasp that Christ’s holiness is something that was spread by CONTACT with an unclean world, rather than by mere segregation from it.

This point requires discernment.

SET APART FOR SERVICE

There are times in which separation is required.

Moral impurity is not healed by uncritically immersing ourselves in environments where it is glorified. When we cozy up to wicked leaders and excuse their abusive and arrogant behavior in the attempt to gain “influence”—we deceive ourselves. Holiness doesn’t spread like that.

And yet, to be Christ’s body—filled with his Spirit—seems to imply that we might also view holiness in contagious rather than defensive terms.

Christians are, as it were, “set apart” for service.

In the holiness tradition, the group that most clearly embodies this holiness-on-the-offensive posture has been the Salvation Army. But it is a shift in perspective that is important for all Christians.

Impurity isn’t cleansed by pretending it does not exist (Liberal relativism). Nor is it healed by mere separation (fundamentalist escapism). Whether it is ritual or moral impurity, the solution comes by transformative CONTACT with the Holy One of God–or at least the fringes of his garment.


Get Matthew Thiessen’s excellent book here–and stay tuned for an upcoming interview with him on my podcast, Outpost Theology.


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