Finishing our series in which we ask some of our regular contributors what they've been reading, listening to and watching in 2016, Steve McAlpine gives us his top ten in books.
Two confessions first. I 80 per cent finish a lot of books. I read a lot of books, but while I would never 80 per cent mow the lawn, or 80 per cent do the dishes (I have 80 per cent finished a race to my eternal running shame), books get my worst side (80 per cent of it at least).
My other confession: I haven’t cracked a fiction book all year.
1. Resurrecting the Idea of A Christian Society: RR Reno
I've got a bromance going with Reno, whose book picked the eyes out of the malaise of Western culture (American specifically): specifically, how the loss of Christianity as a leavening agent is destroying the fabric of society. He has an optimism that given bravery, clarity and strong Christian institutions, the loaf can rise again. Stirring stuff. He’s no cultural milquetoast, that’s for sure.
One of our own. For me Sayers is the best Christian cultural exegete in the country. His call for the church to reverse out of the cul-de-sac of cultural relevance for the sake of keeping a strong gospel calling and forming an alternate society under King Jesus seems obvious. A small but weighty tome, he champions an attractive Benedict Option for the modern secular age.
3. The Pastor As Public Theologian: Kevin Vanhoozer
As a pastor this gave me hope that the task I love to do, proclaiming the Word and speaking into the public square is what I should be doing. "The Hooz” reconnects the public intellectual task with the church, and it reconfigures the sermon as a primary means of godly indoctrination in a culture of opposing doctrines.
4. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants: Malcolm Gladwell
In his usual way Gladwell unsettles the prevailing thinking, including the taken for granted idea that Goliath was well equipped to defeat David (Gladwell shows that he wasn’t). It’s an exploration of how disadvantage can actually work in our favour. A book that makes this Northern Irish Protestant see the plight of Belfast Catholics in favourable light. It reads like a gathering Christian conversion experience for Gladwell, which I have heard it was.
5. Openness Unhindered: Rosaria Butterfield
The first half of a book in which a lesbian liberal arts professor finds Christ through a Christian pastor and his wife who don’t judge her but walk biblically alongside her, is stirring stuff for cultural warriors such as I. Lots of “huzzahs” there. My huzzahs went quiet though as I read on, realising that her call for the church to be the thick community it boasts that it is, is a long way from reality, especially in light of the reality of the queer community she left. We’ve got ground to make up. And she writes beautifully, as only a professor of English can.
6. The Heaven Promise: Scot McKnight
I love McKnight. Iconoclastic, funny, biblical and humble enough to drop me a few emails and ask questions. Here he continues on his “skinny jeans/pleated pants” paradigm, by showing that heaven in the age to come is our hope, and that we are limited in what we can achieve on earth. Neither over-realised nor under-realised, McKnight plonks King Jesus fairly and squarely at the centre of our eschatological hope, a great corrective for all of us whose heavenly hopes can often be reduced to a well-paid heavenly job free of frustration. And his writing zings.
7. Calling On the Name of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Prayer: Gary Millar
Volume 38 in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series is a great overview of the topic in Scripture, using Genesis 4:26 as its launch pad. Its beauty is two-fold. First, it traces the contours of the biblical salvation story through the prayers in each book, all which hinge on the covenant promises, culminating in the fulfilment in the Messiah. Secondly, it’s an eminently pastoral book. Gary isn’t merely interested in how the Bible speaks about prayer, but he calls us to pray in the light of it, and along the lines of it. Having Gary live and minister in Australia is a bonus.
8. The Way of the Runner: Adharanand Finn
More people watch a relay running race on Japanese TV than watch the Superbowl. The national obsession with ekiden running scoops up all that we associate with Japanese culture: obsession with detail, intense training, pride in victory, shame in defeat, and giant tech corporations owning teams. Following up on his successful book on Kenyan running, Finn spends six months living in Japan trying his hand at ekiden. Bumping up against a suspicion of foreigners, a rigidity of training that makes Japanese runners amazing but not able to crack the biggest races, and a high level of burnout. His long-suffering family who travel with him are almost incidental in his story, which holds all the obsession that runners hold, plus some deep cultural insights.
There’s the 80 per cent. Now for two books I have started but not finished…
9. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit: James KA Smith
If Reno ever dumps our bromance, Smith is on speed dial. His works on desire are prescient for the age. I’m loving this book, especially as a pastor calling on people to form deep ingrained habits of meeting together with God’s people. Smith picks up the crucial point that we are shaped far more by culture than we know, even as we think we are being culture-shapers. That’s humbling. Stay tuned for a finished review.
Another great Aussie and one who sent me a signed copy of his book! I have seen Speech-Act Theory as a great antidote to the deconstructionist approach to texts, something van Hoozer helped me with years back. Now, with a book designed for preachers, Chan has given us a confidence in what preaching is and what it can do, and how it does it. Not finished it yet, so don’t tell Sam.