Best of 2016 – The books

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After a couple of years of floundering in my reading, I finally was able to right the ship in 2016 and get back to reading really great books.

I have even bigger reading plans for 2017. My Goodreads challenge is to read 50 books, but I’m hopeful it might be more.

Here are my ten favorite books that I read for the first time in 2016, listed in no particular order.

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus – L. Michael Morales
I read this book in anticipation of the 2016 Trinity Course at Theopolis Institute. What an amazing book it is. Morales’ laying out of the structure of Leviticus is worth the price of the book by itself. I am confident I will never look at Leviticus the same way again and will come back to read the book again and again. Derek Rishmawy’s review of the book was stellar and I can’t say things much better than he did.

The Nursery of the Holy Spirit: Welcoming Children in Worship – Daniel R. Hyde
A much-needed book. As is my custom, I looked through the author’s bibliography list in the back of this book and saw a few things that made me think, “Uh oh. Probably going to be another ‘family-integrated’ propaganda book.” Not so. Hyde’s arguments were much more winsome than that and I found myself amen-ing things on nearly every page. Chapter 3 (“Parenting in the Pew”) was particularly outstanding.

I knocked the book down a full star because of the retail price and the somewhat loose editing (I noticed two or three typos). Fifteen bucks for a book that is under 70 pages is just too much. I was fortunate enough to get the book for five smackers ($5 Amazon credit + a $5 off promo code) but still. C’mon, Wipf & Stock. Your pricing is ridiculous. You guys truly have earned your dubious nickname: “Arm & Leg.”

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance
This book came with so much advance hype and acclaim that I was almost sure I would couldn’t live up (I heard about it from Rod Dreher’s interview with the book’s author). It actually did live up to the hype.

Living in small communities, close to the land, and with iron-clad traditions can be a blessing, provided those communities also contain a relatively high level of godly sanctification and giving of one’s life for others. However, if you have Christianity that has been gutted by traditions of men and tribalism, it results in brutality, chaos, hopelessness, and profane living at a staggering level. The latter is exactly what Vance experienced growing up in Kentucky and Middletown, OH and this is his story. His escape out of such madness into Ohio State University and Yale Law School was no small miracle.

Those wishing to understand some of the nuances of why the message of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign resonated so deeply with people of the deep South would do well to read this book. It would be read this book and watch Donald Sutherland’s 2006 documentary Country Boys alongside.

Job: The Victim of His People – René Girard
A deeply amazing, often frustrating, mind-bending book. No one blows away one’s paradigms quite like Girard. Chapter 9 (tying the book of Job to Psalm 73) was probably my favorite.

Not Dead Yet: The Memoir – Phil Collins
I’ve been a Phil fan forever. Well, since Genesis’ Abacab album, but still a long time. I came of age at a time when Phil’s music videos were ubiquitous on MTV. His music (both solo and with Genesis) was everywhere during the 80s, but that was okay. I was (and always will be) a huge PC fan.

Nevertheless, I’m a little torn on this book. Torn in the same way that I am about a lot of these “celebrity tell-all” autobiographies. The thing that sells the books is “the dirt;” the sex, drugs, and rock and roll stuff. This book certainly has that stuff, but I always wish for more musician stuff. The insights into his Genesis bandmates were nice (especially his relationship with Peter Gabriel) and he does mention several times his relationships with drummer Chester Thompson and guitarist Darryl Stuermer. However, there is no mention of Lee Sklar, who has been PC’s regular bassist since the mid-1980s. That seems like an odd omission.

Phil has stuck around long enough to most of the media outlets that despised him in the 1990s come around and give him his due in the 2010s. I hope this book continues that trend.

The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope – Gregory P. Schulz
A quite stunning little book. Pastor Schulz’s writing on the subject of suffering is magnificent. I especially appreciated how he interspersed brief sections from his personal journaling. If you read and enjoyed C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy, or A Small Cup of Light by Ben Palpant, you will be greatly edified by Schulz’s book.

Job Through New Eyes: A Son for Glory – Toby J. Sumpter
A fantastic, pastoral commentary on the book of Job. Chapters 10 and 11 (dealing with Yahweh speaking to Job from the whirlwind and the book’s epilogue) are outstanding. I read A Son for Glory alongside Pastor Sumpter’s chapter The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan and gained many insights into this complicated biblical text.

Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms – Michael Lefebvre
An unhesitating five-stars for this book from me. Chapter 2 (“The Power of Psalmody: Two Specialties of the Biblical Psalms”) needs to be read and then re-read by pastors and worship leaders everywhere. Lefebvre’s main thesis in this chapter is this: “There is a profound difference between what the Psalms accomplish in worship and what all those other kinds of devotional songs can accomplish.” The way he goes about supporting his thesis is ingenious and involves a lot of heavy reading in the Old Testament. The reader of that chapter can’t help but come away with a greater appreciation for the Hebrew Scriptures and just how ordered worshiping Yahweh was in the Old Covenant.

Of course, Lefebvre also spends several chapters with the New Testament material on worship and the psalter’s connection to Jesus. But for me, chapter 2 was where the real innovative thinking took place and the book was worth the money for that chapter alone.

Being Lutheran – A. Trevor Sutton
I am a pastor-in-training in a Reformed/Presbyterian tradition. I meet once a month with a local LCMS pastor friend in a quasi-mentoring relationship. Having never been a Lutheran myself, I wanted to get to know a bit more about the Lutheran side of things and how it might want to differentiate itself (if possible) over against Protestantism. In doing so, I also hoped to learn a bit about my mentor/friend.

The author has structured the book into two large overarching sections. The first section (“What We Challenge”) tackles sins like laziness, lukewarmness, ignorance. I didn’t think his approach differed much from the way most Reformed authors would address such things. The second section (“What We Cherish”) was much more focused on “here are the distinctives that make us Lutheran” and this was actually the most helpful chapter for me.

All in all, a good (but uneven) book. Not as helpful for me as an outsider as I would have liked. Would be interesting to know if thoughtful confessional Lutherans find this book useful.

Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: Recovering the Sacraments for Evangelical Worship – Leonard J. Vander Zee
I’ve owned this book for over 10 years but never got around to it until 2016. It was sitting in that pile of books marked, “I know I really need to read this book–and I will some day–but not right now.” The chance finally came in the spring of 2016 as Pastor Vander Zee was a guest lecturer for the Pentecost Course at Theopolis Institute.

I found much to love about this book. I especially appreciated chapter 10 of the book where the author connects a robust view of Christ’s Ascension back into how we should think about the body and blood of Christ given to us in the Eucharist. And I come back to this sentence again and again, “The sacraments are not simply opportunities for faith; they are handles for faith to grasp. The sacraments are effective not only because of the faith of the recipient, they also build up the faith of the recipient.”

All in all, an outstanding book. Why did I ever wait this long to take it up and read?

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