Reading Reviews - March & April 2019

This continues my 2019 commitment to write up reviews of everything I read. Since I failed to post my books from March, get ready for a long list.

Grace to the City, ed. S.E. Wang and Hannah Nation. I'm giving this little book prime billing not so much because it's the best thing I've read this month (that will be the next item), but because it is very good and also incredibly unusual. One of my passions for a long time has been trying to find and read thoughtful, biblical theology from non-Western Christian contexts. While the church is overwhelmingly focused in and growing in the majority world, finding books in translation is notoriously difficult, especially books not written about missiology or other explicitly international issues. China Partnership has been working to solve that issue in terms of China with several upcoming translated works, of which this is the first. 
Within this book are five sermons by major figures within one large Chinese church planting movement. It is wonderful to watch each pastor unpack universal Christian truths within a Chinese context, both culturally and especially in terms of the long-term suffering the church has faced under Communist rule. Knowing that at least one of these pastors is currently in prison for their faith is especially affecting. Perhaps the most powerful talk to me was the second, "Being Devoured for the Glory of God," which contained this striking image:

"Without feeding on Jesus, you will not realize how much he loves you. Without feeding on him, you will not understand his sacrificial love. Once you do understand, you will find that you must first feed on the Lord so that others can feed on you. The more I feed on the Lord, the happier I am when others feed on me... When you drink the blood of Christ, you have in yourself Christ's DNA. Your DNA bears the DNA of the cross, and you become salt and light to the world... He first makes us feed on him and taste the sweetness of the Lord's grace, and then he prepares us to be a blessing for the world through being devoured. Because he gave unto us, we are able to give in return."

 Humble Roots, Hannah Anderson. The honor of being my favorite book of the last two months goes to Hannah Anderson's little volume about humility. Everything about this book is wonderful. In the first place, Anderson rightly identifies that our root issues with pride and humility are essentially theological - they stem from an unwillingness to acknowledge God as God and to take our place as His creatures, with all the limitedness and specificity and beauty that entails. What's more, she delightfully interweaves this reflection on living as created beings with beautiful lessons from the world of botany; I often found myself just as intrigued and moved by her riffs on milkweeds and tomatoes as on her discussions of biblical texts. Perhaps the highest praise I can offer is to say that this book is both about the idea of humility and is, within its prose, an illustration of the glory of that calling.

The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I should note up front that I rated Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind as my best book read in 2017. This is an excellent follow-up. Ostensibly, it is about the rise of anti-free-speech movements on college campuses and the underlying illiberalism that has become more widespread in the last few years. While doing a good job of chronicling that process, what makes this book really phenomenal is the depth with which its authors analyze the reasons for this shift. Cataloging a range of different societal changes which, while done with the best of intentions, had disastrous results, they give a persuasive accounting of what has been happening in our country of rising partisanship and fear and also offer a number of good ways to push back, especially in terms of how we think about our children. While certainly not a "parenting book," it should be especially helpful to those raising or working with young people while wanting to help them think well about our diverse world.

 Gay Girl, Good God, Jackie Hill Perry. A spiritual autobiography of sorts, Jackie Hill Perry shares the story of her own coming to Christ after both growing up in the black church and then being a part of the LGBT community. Perry is a phenomenal writer and poet, and the book is beautifully written, often expressing feelings and experiences in the sort of sideways language that helps illuminate unexpected truths. She is also deeply biblical and theological in all the right ways - one of the great dangers of spiritual memoirs is that the author does not delineate between God's Word (which is authoritative on all of us) and their experiences (which can illustrate God's truth but ought not be binding on others). This is a challenging book, both for those who wish to be affirming of LGBT Christianity (Perry is absolutely an advocate for traditional sexual understandings) and for those who simplistically attack that community (her discussion of "the gospel of marriage" is particularly incisive here). Well worth reading if you appreciate honest self-reflection or are thinking through these issues.

 Embracing Defeat, John W. Dower. In many ways a definitive history of the years immediately following World War 2 in Japan, Embracing Defeat is a fascinating look inside a clash of two cultures and the surprising ways they interwove to create a unique modern state. This is an intense history book, long (almost 700 pages), full of primary source quotations and surveying nearly every aspect of postwar society. Remarkably balanced, it manages to reflect on the interplay between conqueror and conquered in a way that hides none of the hypocrisy and stupidity on both sides while still also showing respect and appreciation for some of what was accomplished. While obviously a book for those interested in understanding modern Japan (I picked it up just after Elizabeth and I returned from spending some time there), it is also useful reading for those interested in history more broadly and for discussions of the spread of liberal democracy around the world.

Kierkegaard: A Single Life, Stephen Backhouse. I've been preparing to go back and read some Kierkegaard (I read several of his works in college, but haven't picked them up since then). Because of this, I wanted to go back and read a good biography; I had heard that this is perhaps the best non-academic one available, and it certainly doesn't disappoint. Much could be said in praise of Backhouse's work. He paints a striking picture of this ambiguous figure without trying to resolve every contradiction. He adequately accounts for his place within religion, recognizing his attacks on "Christianity" were not born out of secular sensibilities but rather a deep dissatisfaction with a corrupt church. Perhaps most importantly, while he seeks to give an accounting of his thought and major works, he wisely avoids too much confidence, as Kierkegaard's style and obsession with pseudonymity is often a trap for scholars to endless theorize without clear means of deciding who is correct.

The Great Delusion, John J. Mearshmeimer. As I continue to explore discussions of liberalism (in the Enlightenment, we're-all-liberal sense) and post-liberalism in current political discourse, I found this to be an intriguing work. Mearsheimer is not dissatisfied with modern liberalism in the way some of its other detractors are, but he does recognize many of its weaknesses. In particular, he focuses on what he would consider to be the fundamentally misguided pursuit of "liberal hegemony" (i.e. spreading democracy and enlightenment values abroad, especially through military force). However, his argument isn't just pragmatic: he recognizes that part of this impulse arises from within the logic of liberalism itself and that acting out this impulse often weakens liberalism within the societies seeking to spread it. While the book is ultimately an argument for being domestically liberal but internationally pragmatic, it raises many questions about how exactly a society can maintain that posture while still truly believing the values it professes.

What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? Kevin DeYoung. In some ways this is a hard book to know how to review/recommend because of its greatest strength: it has a very specific set of questions to answer, and it does an excellent job of answering them well. You can recognize that question from the title: does the traditional way of understanding the Bible's stance on homosexual sex (i.e. that it is within the realm of illicit sexual acts) accurately reflect what Scripture actually says, or should we adopt one of several revisionist positions about the content of the Bible on this issue? If you are curious about that specific debate, DeYoung does an admirable and concise job of explaining and defending the traditional view.

That said, I suspect many people will want this book to answer other questions, such as: How do we think about homosexual desire and attraction? How do we think about the idea of "gayness"? How do we respond pastorally to the current cultural debates? How should we think politically about the issues surrounding this topic? DeYoung explicitly refuses to address these questions. In many ways, this helps the book by giving it focus and not going off on rabbit trails. However, it also means this is not the book I would recommend for those interested in those broader questions. (If that is you, my first two recommendations would be to pick up and read Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill and Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry.)

The Spirit in Public Theology, Vincent E. Bacote. I'll be brief on this one, since this book is of the least interest to most of you who read the blog. An academic exploration of the public theology of Abraham Kuyper, Bacote's work is really an attempt to do two things: 1) two work through a Kuyperian/neo-Calvinist theology of public engagement and common grace in a way that helps us engage with contemporary culture and 2) to make one particular new argument - namely, that a deeper appreciation of the creational (rather than only the saving) role of the Holy Spirit both solves some of the problems with Kuyper's thought and provides a framework through which we can discuss callings of cultural engagement and renewal. In those respects the books does admirably, although it has several of the classic failings of such academic works when those not used to reading such books consider diving in. One is the general lack of explanation of terms/figures, which is probably unavoidable. The other is the way certain ideas or authors will be discussed as part of a survey of views and then never really engaged with or defended. That said, for those interested in and familiar with these topics, it is worth a read.