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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Pale Rider

Pale Rider

“Wars and plagues are remembered differently.”

That’s one of the closing insights from Laura Spinney’s book, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.

I read it recently to gain some perspective on COVID-19, and the upheaval that has accompanied it in 2020. (Quick note: Since Spinney’s book was published in 2017, it cannot be accused of rewriting history to provide commentary on our present crisis.)

Without a doubt, the two outbreaks—separated by a hundred years—are different. The Spanish Flu killed between 50 and 100 million people. And its occurrence on the heels of World War I made it a perfect storm of death and dissolution. In some cases, the flu finished off victims who were malnourished, riddled with tuberculosis, and without what we think of now as modern medicine.

The Spanish Flu also had a terrible “W-shaped” mortality curve, whereby it killed not only the very old and very young, but also a startling number of healthy young adults (28 years old was the peak of this curve, which may have something to do with the first flu virus these individuals were exposed to as children).

Undoubtedly, the two pandemics are not the same.

But there is something to be learned from the way history sometimes rhymes.

  1. Pandemics are social phenomena as much as medical ones

What Spinney means by this point is that the tumult caused by a plague goes far beyond the disease itself. Our ideologies show symptoms too.

And conspiracy theories spread as fast as the virus (see here).

In 1918, the Plandemic brain-worm took the form of a rumor that the Spanish Flu was manufactured by the German drug company Bayer—and distributed to Allied nations by way of aspirin packets.

In Washington D.C., newspapers printed the claim of Lieutenant Philip S. Dane, head of health and sanitation, when he asserted that the Germans had deliberately sown the flu in America to defeat us.

This was false, in part, because the leading theory now is that the Spanish Flu started near Fort Riley, Kansas. Patient zero was a corn-fed farm kid named Albert Gitchell who may have contracted the pestilence when it jumped from a duck, to a pig, to a human.

a God-fearing boy who had grown up on a farm and known no other life, unwittingly carried the virus into the American war machine, whence it was exported to the rest of the world (164).

  1. Masks and kids and empty stadiums

Like today, there was some controversy over use of masks in 1918.

In select cities, mask use probably cut the death toll in half. But the mayor of San Francisco faced a PR nightmare in 1918 when he was caught on camera with his mask dangling from one ear while watching an Armistice parade.

Some Christian ministers, like Father Bandeaux of New Orleans, protested the closing of churches in 1918. And in one case, packed worship services were held wherein dozens of parishioners were invited to come forward and kiss a single holy relic—the kiss of death, in some cases.

Footballers played to empty stadiums. And there was a bitter debate over whether children should return to school. New York’s health commissioner, Royal S. Copeland, was lambasted for allowing public education to continue, only to be vindicated when the flu was practically absent from the city’s school-age children that fall.

  1. Presidents, the poor, and pieces of a lung

In an echo of 2020, President Woodrow Wilson came down with a severe case of the flu while negotiating what became the treaty of Versailles. He raved with delirium and was, by some accounts, never the same after surviving it.

The president’s illness may have contributed to the disastrously harsh nature of the treaty. Apparently, Wilson’s sickness rendered him unable to fight for a more merciful arrangement (which he wanted), and which might have prevented the bitter rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like in 2020, the poor were hit hardest. The death rate was lowest in developed countries like the United States and Australia. It was worst amongst populations that lacked proper sanitation, housing, water, and healthy food supplies.

In India alone, around 15 million people died.

Ninety percent of folks who got the Spanish flu experienced nothing worse than a bout of seasonal influenza—but in poor regions, and especially amongst indigenous populations like the Inuit of Alaska, the result was much worse. Entire villages were wiped out.

In one of these Alaskan mass graves, a San Francisco doctor embarked, in the 1990s, upon a controversial mission. He exhumed a body of a flu victim from the permafrost, packaged up her mostly frozen lung tissue, and shipped it off to researchers. Scientists then combined its genetic information with a lung sample from British soldier to resurrect the Spanish Flu.

After almost a century of lying frozen and dormant, the Spanish Flu is now alive and well in the CDC’s Level Four lab in Atlanta, Georgia.

CONCLUSION

What is the point of reading histories like Spinney’s Pale Rider?

One benefit is perspective. In the age of social media and Cable News myopia, we are beset by “presentism”—that’s Alan Jacobs’ word for what it means to drown in a deluge of constantly breaking information. Because there is SO MUCH information, many people commit an act of intellectual triage whereby we accept only those stories that confirm our pre-existing biases.

We are thus left in our silos of tribalism, anxiety, and the prison of the present tense.

History can’t solve all those problems, but it can grant perspective.

Wars and plagues are remembered differently.

So while six times as many Britons died of the Spanish Flu than in the trenches—we are only now beginning to read books like Pale Rider.


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