Monday, August 12, 2013

Books Like Whoa: Winter Term Hodge Podge Edition (Jesus Corner)

During the winter term, I read a lot of books. Like, really. A lot. Some of it was assigned reading for class, some of it was for researching papers. And that doesn't include the all the course readers I consumed that included dozens of articles, book chapters, etc.

I covered several of my research books elsewhere, but I thought I would also talk about the books that were assigned to me for class. I feel rather self-indulgent in talking about this, but I do get asked frequently about what I'm learning and this is a good way to share that. So, without further ado...

Jesus Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan

This was my favorite non-fiction book that I read for class in Winter term (carried on from the Fall) and well it should be. Rather than trying to provide a blow by blow historical rendering of Christian philosophical development, Pelikan picks a different theme from each historical period and builds out the major ideas and figures of the era from that theme. Like, for Jesus as Liberator he talked about MLK and liberation theology, etc. etc. I really just loved this book. It felt both spiritually and intellectually enriching and provided a great balance of history, philosophy, and invitation for devotional contemplation.

After You Believe by N.T. Wright

I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. It's one of those books that feels like it would have been a really great long article or 100 page mini-book, but as a full length work, it fell a little flat for me. Wright's seed idea is a good one, and one that merits consideration for those concerned with Christian formation: rather than focusing on indoctrinating specific moral strictures, Christian discipleship should instead foster broader virtue instincts that provide actual character transformation, not just blind rule following. Again, good idea, just felt a bit thin for a whole book.

The History of Christian Thought by Jonathan Hill

This wasn't really my favorite. From what I've gathered, this book is assigned more or less because there's not a better version of it around. It gets the job done, I guess, the job being to account for the major thinkers of Christian philosophy. But between the complete homogeneity in his selection of figures to profile (seriously, the main thing you can say about the one woman you feature is that she writes the first account of a female orgasm?) and the constant interjection of humor, it doesn't really succeed for me. It is very readable, though, so one could do worse as a starting point in getting oriented in the subject.

The Story of Christianity (Vol. 1 & 2) by Justo Gonzalez

It's hard to say much about this one other than it is a great introduction to church history. I know that before I came to Regent, I was not sufficiently educated in this aspect of Christian tradition - sure, I knew my Western civ, but really thinking through the history of the church is vital to appreciating why today's Christianity looks the way that it does, evaluating doctrine, understanding tradition, etc. etc. It's not for nothing that I decided to basically do this course over again by being a history TA this year, and Gonzalez provides a clear, highly readable overview of church history.

The Writings of the New Testament by Luke Timothy Johnson

This provides a solid overview/introduction to each book of the New Testament - history, criticism, themes, etc. Pretty dry, truth be told, but he does have interesting insights, especially for the epistles.

The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright

I'll say this was runner up for my favorite book of the semester. It also was by far the most difficult to get through, mostly because it inspired so many tangential thoughts that I moved through it at the glacial pace. It's one of those books where you read a page, pause for a few minutes to bask in multitude of thoughts that those few paragraphs inspire, and then keep going. In other words, this is a sipper, not a slurpper. It's mission is to provide foundational historical, cultural, social background for the New Testament to make its contents more intelligible - mission accomplished, Dr. Wright, at least for me. Here's one of the many quotes I wrote "yes!" next to in the margins:

"Part of the difficulty has been, I think, that the heirs of the Enlightenment have been too shrill in their denunciation of traditional Christianity, and that Christianity has often been too unshakably arrogant in resisting any new questions, let alone new answers, in its stubborn defense of... what? Christians have often imagined that they were defending Christianity when resisting the Enlightenment's attacks; but it is equally plausible to suggest that what would be orthodox Christianity was defending was often the pre-Enlightenment worldview, which was itself no more specifically 'Christian' than any other."

If I were to recommend two books from this last semester for your reading pleasure, it was definitely be Jesus Through the Centuries and The New Testament and the People of God. Pelikan's devotional approach to the history of Christianity's perception of the person of Jesus is approachable and important, not only for Christians' individual spirituality, but for enhancing ecumenical discussion and understanding. Wright's seminal work is crucial for a better understanding of the earliest Christians and the formation of the New Testament canon. He is not heavily pushing his atonement ideas here (which I know concern some folks), so this ought to be standard reading for all Christians who want to take Scriptural interpretation seriously. Which I hope is all of them.

What was the best book you've read in the last 6 months?

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