I enjoy “Best of…” lists that take us down a 365-day memory lane. I’ll inevitably mouth the words, “Oh yeah!” on cue when I see entries from early 2014. But rather than a “Best of 2014” list, I thought I would post some thoughts on the books I’ve read this past year. Some came out in 2014, but not all. Please pardon its eclectic nature.
I didn’t read any 2014 non-fiction titles. Instead, I dipped into my wish/to-do list and knocked out just a few books that were mentally scratching at me over the past few years. I’m currently in the middle of The Bully Pulpit which, among a tower of academic works, I’m hoping to finish by 2016 (I’m half-joking).
I found Chuck Klosterman’s description of this book to be most accurate:
No rock critic—living or dead, American or otherwise–has ever written about pop music with the evocative, hyperpoetic perfectitude of Rob Sheffield. ‘Love Is A Mix Tape’ is the happiest, saddest, greatest book about rock ‘n’ roll that I’ve ever experienced.
The music era that is featured in the book focuses on late-80’s to late-90’s, so Gen X readers might resonate with some of the mix tape selections. (Less so for millennials, unless I’m way off on what a millennial is.) The book flows well, and feelings of nostalgia for past songs, experiences, and relationships are inevitable. A good popcorn read.
I was finally able to get to this book after it had been recommended to me by just about everyone I know, and just before I found out it was being adapted into a movie. The initial hook of the book is the extreme torment of World War II at the hands of the Japanese, but there are about five sub-stories that could each easily detach as a stand-alone book. From an Olympic Games experience, to a Hitler run-in, to a desert island-like situation, to unspeakable POW conditions, to the social and psychological injuries as a result of all of that, the book is one long jaw-drop. And look for a Billy Graham cameo.
Thanks to twitter, I had noticed a few people recommend this book as a starting point for learning about writing. To my shame, I had never read anything by Stephen King, and I learned after the first few pages why his writing is so popular. The book is cut in two, the first part featuring King’s autobiography. I thought his story was engaging, and he teaches writing by example and then, hopefully, through osmosis. The second part is just as engaging, which is difficult to achieve since the focus centers on the art of and technical aspects to writing. King pulls it off, and he makes you feel like you’re having a pleasant conversation with a master about writing. He offered one bit of advice that I immediately applied, which is to have a good amount of reading projects going at the same time, across various genres. My reading life has been more enjoyable since taking this wisdom to heart.
Also about Theodore Roosevelt, the book tells the story of the post-President Roosevelt’s trip through the South American Amazon jungle. I learned a ton from this book, about the botany and biology within the Amazon, the sociology of South American Indians, the unique dangers and the immense risk involved with Amazon discovery, and much more. The book starts out at a slower pace, but once you’re past the initial context and groundwork, the adventure picks up and hangs on until the end.
This was masterfully written by someone who had special access to Jobs, giving unique insight into Jobs’s psychology and his reasons for many decisions that changed entire industries and the world. Jobs’s infantile demeanor has been well-publicized by now, so the book implicitly forces the reader to ask whether social and ethical norms were exchanged by Jobs (knowingly or unknowingly; necessarily or unnecessarily) for genius traits and outcomes. By proxy, the book also gives fascinating crash courses in tech, design, marketing, and retail. I will probably revisit this one at some point.
A lot has been said about this book already, so just to re-emphasize, this is one of the best introductions to the doctrine of Scripture out there. If jumping into the deep end of Bavinck, Turretin, and others seems too daunting, this book acts as a good flotation device (if I can overly stretch a metaphor) to help you wade out there. The timeliness of the book contributes to its relevance, as we see more and more literature posing as knowing what the Bible really 1) is, and 2) means, and 3) does, which is 1) mistaken, 2) whatever the majority of American culture is ok with, and 3) emotionally and existentially salves. In a sea of anchorless literature (to now stretch the marine metaphor into absurdity), Kevin’s book gives the Christian reader a firm foundation, which is God’s Word. This book on the Word is in full agreement with the Word he defends. For a TON of helpful material on this topic, check out the media from the WTS Taking God At His Word Conference here.
This one came out within the first month of 2014, but it’s one of the best. Not only is it unique in its accessibility given the philosophical nature of the book, but also in its format as a kind of “choose your own adventure” book. Anderson applies philosophy, in the best sense. If you’re just starting to get up to speed on philosophical concepts and terminology, this book also functions as a beginner’s handbook for some of the basics of philosophy. (Our interview here.)
This title also came out in early 2014, and is another unique one from Crossway. It is written in a way that is easy to follow, but communicates awareness of some of the scholarly information (dates, locations, etc.) surrounding what happened during the week leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion. Helpful graphs, charts, commentary, and other aids carry the reader along in a narrative way. I’ll be including this book in my annual Easter reading. (Our interview here.)
How could I not include the final book from Nancy Guthrie in her “Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament” series? This is the cap to the 5-part series that started back in 2011 with The Promised One. Nancy has a passion for communicating biblical theology and redemptive history to those who may have had little exposure to a redemptive-historical approach. And she’s well-equipped to do so. Each book includes different facets and angles like personal study, discussion, “Looking Forward,” and teaching material. The series deserves a spot on every shelf. (Our interview here.)
Philosophical Theology/Theological Philosophy
I took a course on Molinism this past semester, so I’ll pass along three books that I found helpful and essential for anyone diving into the topic.
I couldn’t believe that Molina’s work, which has caused such a stir in theological circles for the past 500 years, has only been translated in the past 30. But it has, so anyone interested in theology proper, middle knowledge, and 16th/17th c. scholastic debates (both Protestant and Catholic) now have this available as a resource. Molina’s writing and arguments do get repetitive sometimes (as was acknowledged by his peers as well), but his work will bring anyone up to speed on current issues and dialogues with Molinism and Arminianism.
Flint is arguably the Molinist spokesman today, at least in Philosophy of Religion circles, and rightly so. He capably defends his position, though the Molinist position itself, I believe, has suffered some fatal attacks over the years. Coupled with Freddoso’s translation, this title provides a readable overview and defense of Molinism. Like Molina, Flint’s defense becomes somewhat formulaic and repetitive towards the end of the book in his noble attempts at applying middle knowledge to topics outside theology proper. But the book certainly gives the reader a firm grasp of the basics of Molinism and is almost a necessary supplement to Freddoso/Molina.
This volume brings the reader up to speed on current topics within the ongoing discussions on Molinism. Subjects include the ever-expanding grounding objection, event segmenting, and the nature of counterfactuals. The book can get quite technical, but someone who has a general knowledge of theological and philosophical categories can follow along reasonably well. Highlights for me were the pieces by Zimmerman and the article by Wierenga. (My RMR here.)
This is one of those titles where non-philosophy types will (understandably) roll their eyes, exasperated that ink was spilled not just on the topic of propositions, of all things, but that the literature is such that it requires new thinking on such a topic. But if it’s not so easy to see initially why this topic matters, maybe I can take a stab at helping the reader see why there is any interest here in the first place. In philosophy, sentences that convey meaning are often stated in propositional form so they can be plugged into a logical apparatus. It’s assumed that such a proposition is not language-dependent, so that the same meaning could be expressed in Spanish, or Hebrew, or Celtic, etc., and that multiple people could point to the same trans-linguistic proposition and do things like believe it, and say whether it is true or false. But what is it? What are we referring to? Bringing it home theologically, if we refer to these things called propositions, does God know them? (This question is outside the purview of the book.) Many philosophers of religion think God knows propositions, and perhaps knows propositionally.
I loved this book because it is philosophy written at the highest level, and written by multiple authors all arguing a sophisticated point. Simply reading it is aspirational. All three philosophers write in agreement for the first Part, then interact and differ from Parts II-IV. This title will admittedly find only a small audience, but if there are any philosophy geeks looking for a cutting edge, current (2014) read in the philosophy of language, here you go.
Beyond the Control of God? edited by Paul Gould (Reformed Media Review forthcoming)
I’m thankful to Gould for assembling a competent team of philosophers of religion to weigh in on the heavy topic of God and his relation to abstract objects. This problem can be traced back at least to the scholastic distinction of God’s necessary knowledge, and in contemporary philosophy of religion it bleeds into many areas within theology proper like God’s creation, his sovereignty, his knowledge, his power, the relationship between concrete and abstract objects (if they exist), etc. You will see familiar names like William Lane Craig, Greg Welty (of SEBTS), and Paul Gould himself, among others. The book came out this year and acts as a helpful starting place and access point into the debates. As I note in my upcoming review, I would have liked to have seen more interaction with the theological tradition on this topic (Craig actually includes a helpful nod in this direction) and exegesis that is a bit more penetrating, but I get that this book wants to stay primarily in the philosophical field. Still, the topic straddles both the theological and the philosophical field, so further work that is equally competent in both areas is yet to be written.
God and Necessity by Brian Leftow (Reformed Media Review forthcoming)
I’m cheating by including this book, because I’ve only worked my way through parts of this dense, 500+-page tome. This book displays Leftow’s technical mastery of metaphysics, though many readers will find bits and pieces to differ with because of the massive scope of the project. He offers an approach to the relationship between God and abstract objects that differs somewhat from the approaches taken in Gould’s Beyond God’s Control? Specifically, as the title hints, he wants to place the modal concepts of possibility and necessity under God’s control, so that it is not the case that God simply finds himself in a situation where 2+2=4, but given his truly free choice to create, he has a say over whether that mathematical truth exists. Reformed theologians and philosophers will likely give a hearty “Amen!” to his sharp divide between Creator and creature, as well as a number of other theological priorities. For further reading, Jeff Speaks interacts with Leftow and “perfect being” theology in the late issue of Faith and Philosophy that is well worth a read. For anyone who wants to do some serious heavy lifting both philosophically and theologically, there is a ton to learn here.
On the to-do list: