The following serves as the “Year in Review” for consequential, culture-shaping works. The Center for Public Theology is of all things interested in critical, thoughtful, and charitable engagement with the God-made world; what follows are numerous items of note.
The album I most enjoyed this year was Beautiful Eulogy’s stunning Worthy. I reviewed it for The Gospel Coalition and said this:
Worthy is one of the most elegant, powerful, faith-building albums I’ve heard. It is a concise hip-hop masterpiece. Christians who delight in excellence from a heart gripped by the God of beauty, who want to steal moments from the distractions of the day to think thoughts after Christ, and who love lyricism-driven hip hop that wreaks havoc on headphones and car sound-systems, should with haste purchase this album.
My opinion here has only strengthened after months of listening to Worthy. This is the best album in any genre I’ve heard in years. I cannot recall the last time an album of any kind left me so uplifted, so pastorally shepherded, so confronted with the enormous, over-spilling goodness of God. Worthy is part musical production, part pulsing catechism. The fact that it uses the organ in several places shows just how musically creative Beautiful Eulogy is.
I am the father of several young children, and so you know the drill: I don’t see many movies. But I did have the privilege of screening the new film of Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour, and reviewing it for TGC (Am I crazy, or is there a pattern here?). The movie, in short, is terrific, and deeply inspiring. Gary Oldman turns in an exceptional performance, giving us the best Churchill I’ve yet seen on the silver screen.
Here’s a quick bite from my review:
In the 1930s, long before the ascendance of postmodernity, Churchill dealt with a stream of leaders who looked everywhere for a third way on the Nazi question, following the quest all the way into the lion’s jaws. They, and the country they led, were very nearly swallowed. The lesson here is a living one, for in politics, theology, and even the life of the local church, we will all be tempted at some point to seek a third way when one does not exist.
Whenever this film releases, go see it. It has panache, an Oscar-level leading performance, and moral courage.
The following list includes a few titles that were not published in 2017, but that I read in 2017. (Objections to this policy can be shouted into the air at will.) I’ll give you capsule impressions of a number of the books that left a mark on me this year.
Valiant Ambition | Nathaniel Philbrick, a New Englander, is our premier popular historian of the Revolutionary War. What struck me most about this account was the bravery of Benedict Arnold in his pre-traitorous days. Arnold was second to none in boldness on the battlefield. The portrait Philbrick paints of Arnold is both a summons to manly bravery and a caution against unchecked will. We see in the fearless—and unrestingly-ambitious—general what men can be, both in the heroic sense and the villainous.
Not a Game | I loved watching tiny Allen Iverson play basketball some years ago. It was like witnessing an inversion of all accepted basketball wisdom. He did not work the ball around the perimeter; he relentlessly attacked the defense. He did not rest himself throughout the game; he played at full-throttle the entire time. He did not “try to get the best shot,” as coaches teach; he willed himself to score, over and over again. Yet as with Arnold, his strength was his undoing. Kent Babb’s text casts an unsparing eye on Iverson’s poor record as a family man. Here is hoping that grace will strike in Iverson’s life, and lead him to attack his duties as a man like he once did the rim.
J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone | J. C. Ryle was an Anglican church leader—Bishop of Liverpool—in the late nineteenth-century. He loved Scripture, he cherished Christ, and he worked tirelessly for the promotion of biblical ministry in the Church of England. He took no opinion polls in his life, but sought to be as faithful to God as he could be. Iain Murray’s concise treatment of Ryle is instructive for future pastors, and those currently with their shoulder to the plow. We need not be impressive in the service of Christ; we need only be faithful, as Ryle was.
News from Somewhere | This text by the philosopher Roger Scruton came out some years back, but as with Scruton’s corpus more generally, it will repay slow and careful reading. Scruton will remind some of Wendell Berry in his ability to teach philosophy through engagement with the made world, the material order. He dares to call his native England back to certain virtues of its past, showing us as he does that the conservative, contra all the stereotypes, is the true progressive. In other words, if we are to be about the future, we must preserve what is good and noble in order to bequeath it to future generations.
Golden: The Miraculous Rise of Steph Curry | My true colors are flying. In my spare time, yes, I cop to a strong and abiding interest in basketball books. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. Marcus Thompson’s close-in tour of Curry’s life shows us just how improbable his NBA superstardom is.
Devil’s Bargain | This biography of Steve Bannon by Joshua Green seeks to make sense of the shocking political and cultural power of a man whose name few people beyond the Beltway knew before the 2016 presidential election. It is hard to know precisely what Bannon thinks, and what he is after, but he is nothing less than a fascinating figure, one seemingly pulled from a Shakespearean drama, a Machiavellian operator whom one dismisses at their own peril.
Beast | In a feminized culture, we’ve seen men gravitate more and more to high-combat sports. Nothing exemplifies this trend more than Mixed-Martial Arts, popularized by the UFC. Doug Merlino’s text walks us through the lower levels of the fighting world, showing us the complex fears, motivations, and dreams of modern men, many of whom find themselves ill-fitting in modern society.
An Unhurried Life | Books about rest and recharging are now a commonplace. I enjoyed Alan Fadling’s thoughtful meditation on slowing down and doing less. It has surely become harder to do this in a consummately digital, hyper-connected world. If our bodies are less taxed by daily work than in days past, our minds (and our souls) seem much more exhausted by engaging a constant stream of techno-commentary, much of it anxious, much of it angry, much of it frankly silly. Alongside helpful books by Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch, this text will help over-heated readers cool down and perhaps even chart new and needed rhythms in their lives.
Churchill Style and The Last Lion Volume Two | I am a sucker for all things Winston Churchill; I think I picked this up by osmosis when I worked in the President’s Office at Southern Seminary. While Churchill is not a model Christian by any measure, he did live an adventurous, dashing, and heroic life. He was a man who enjoyed the finer things, even if doing so put his familial finances on the edge and required herculean writing efforts in the low hours of the night. That said, Churchill lived life in the grand style, and these books capture his spirit better than most any I know. William Manchester’s portrait of courage is second to none in the English language, a master writer taking full measure of an epic subject.
Theology of My Life | John Frame’s memoir is written in a humble, almost confessional voice. I have benefited greatly from his walking tour of his career; it’s a bit easier to figure out one’s vocation as a pastor than as a theologian, because there are far fewer theologians and no established pattern, really. Frame has had an outsized effect on evangelical and Reformed circles, and I for one am grateful for his model, and thankful to learn from him.
John Gerstner and the Renewal of Presbyterian and Reformed Evangelicalism in Modern America | Jeffrey Macdonald’s monograph examines the work of a profoundly unappreciated theologian, John Gerstner, longtime professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary (and also TEDS). We witness Gerstner fighting for truth in the PCUSA, a battle waged valiantly but in many cases unsuccessfully. Gerstner’s example reminds us of a lesson we already know but tend to forget: when a denomination or a movement accommodates its doctrine in big or small ways to cultural standards, it is almost impossibly difficult—and tragically painful—to pull it back. This Gerstner could not do, but he did a great deal to promote sound doctrine and show his students (and us) a better way.
Martin Luther | Eric Metaxas is a very gifted speaker, and an uproarious conversationalist (a lost art). But he comes most alive when writing, and in particular, when wrapping his arms around a complex character. He did this well with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he has done it again with Martin Luther. Metaxas shows independence of judgment and an interest in tweaking the encrusted tradition of Luther studies; though his words in some places will spark debate, he never fails to inspire, enlighten, and amuse.
Harpoon | We are in the golden age of television, as many outlets will tell you. I am hoping that this study of Israel’s behind-the-scenes efforts to fight global terror will be made into a series. This is a book that seems unreal, more like a Jason Bourne film than reality, but is all too real. Theologically-astute readers will see just how cunning and slippery and forceful evil is in this world, and just how much strength of will and shrewdness of mind is needed to fight it, whether civilizationally or spiritually.
Bobby Kennedy | Larry Tye’s friendly study of the middle Kennedy son struck me as evocative for a few reasons. It shows how Bobby had strong convictions, and a heart for the underdog. It reveals the multi-faceted nature of the man, who could be alternately insulting, ferocious, tender in kindness, lascivious, and spiteful. We’re in an age when we stereotype one another without even knowing it, but when you actually investigate the character of a person, you find in many cases that they are complex in ways that defy easy characterization. This does not mean you’re left in postmodern confusion; it does mean that humanity is a blend of the light and the darkness, as Kennedy’s example reveals.
Miles Gone By | I enjoy those who venture into the contest of ideas, and the quest for the good, with a sense of humor, charm, and a thrill for the hunt. Few have done so more strikingly than William F. Buckley, Jr. This past year, I read his autobiography-of-sorts; the famously peripatetic Buckley could not really bring himself to sit down and write the “big book” of one kind or another. He was an essayist and a controversialist, if a historically consequential one. Like Churchill, Buckley lived life to the hilt, and encourages the reader to do the same.
How to Understand and Apply the New Testament and How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament | These parallel texts by Andy Naselli and Jason DeRouchie serve as an excellent resource for pastors, seminarians, and laypeople who wish to understand, in terms as simple as I can put them, how to read the Bible. If this sounds like a lesser task, let me assure you that it is not; reading the Bible wisely, cross-textually, and Christocentrically is the very core of Christian faith and discipleship.
Theology, Church, and Ministry | David Dockery’s edited volume serves as a “handbook for theological education.” Over the years, through numerous publications, Dockery has championed an educated, richly-theological ministry. His work on Baptist theologians is a classic of the field; his most recent book builds a gracefully-convincing case for the dire importance of theological education. I got to contribute the chapter on “Theology, Worldview Formation, and Cultural Engagement”—a small task, that!
Along similar lines, see the Moody volume edited by Midwestern Seminary president Jason Allen, Portraits of a Pastor. This is an easy-to-read but nicely-textured vision of a thriving pastorate anchored in divine truth and powered by love for Christ and his church. I had the privilege of writing on “The Pastor as Theologian,” a subject I cherish.
Grant | This book by Ron Chernow is very nearly 1,000 pages long. Yet as with Chernow’s past books like the culture-seizing Alexander Hamilton, it is well worth the time necessary to digest it. This book should restore Grant to his rightful place in the annals of presidential achievement; in his own day, Grant was recognized as second only to Lincoln. As a general, Grant was not the administrator of numberless butchery that he is said to be, but was a master coordinator of daring and devastating assaults that brought our terrible conflict to an end. Though he was naïve and erred in several ways in his national leadership, Grant serves as—like Hamilton—a stunning success story. He was the man made good who nearly bottomed out before the war.
More than most any other American president, Grant singlehandedly advanced the cause of liberty, in particular the liberty of African-Americans enslaved by a racist society. In both the Civil War and Reconstruction, Grant put his capital and even his life on the line, over and over again, to protect and advance the rights of slaves. Slavery is the jagged scar on the American soul; as we are seeing in our own time, the effects of our racist past have never truly healed, though we have made progress in many ways. Chernow’s text is a call to grapple afresh with our wounds, to recover the plainspoken goodness of Grant’s presidential work, and to strive with all we have to rebuild what is fraying and recover what is lost.