Favorite Reads in 2016

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I read 61 books in 2016. About half were for my academic work. About 20 were fiction. About 20 were audiobooks. I keep track of my reading on Goodreads. Here are the favorite books I read this year:

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Favorite Serious Novel: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I wrote a dissertation chapter on Robinson’s work, which required me taking in almost her entire body of work (I did not read her dissertation on Shakespeare or her book on nuclear pollution in Britain.) Her recent trilogy (Gilead-Home-Lila) gets most of the attention, but IMHO her first book (1980) is quite simply one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. It is an exploration of absence and presence, of exile and excess, and about trying to keep house in a world where you don’t feel quite at home. There’s even a movie (1987)!

Honorable Mention: Paul Faber, Surgeon by George MacDonald.

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Favorite Fun ReadReady Player One by Ernest Cline.

This was not a perfect book, but it was the most fun I had reading a book since Harry Potter. The story is set in the future, during a time when everyone spends almost their entire lives jacked into a Neuromancer/Matrix-like virtual world, playing an immersive game built on popular culture from the 1980s. It grabbed me pretty early and by the last 100 pages I couldn’t read quickly enough. Steven Spielberg is directing the movie adaptation (tbr in 2018), so we will probably hear a lot more about the story as the release date approaches.

Honorable Mention: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

9780802872715Favorite Theology and Culture Book: How to Survive the Apocalypse by Rob Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson.

I wasn’t sure I would like this book, especially since I haven’t seen most of the television shows that it takes as its cultural texts (e.g. Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, Walking Dead). So I thought it would be like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7ooNif_qHo

And yet, the authors masterfully navigate through the ostensibly apocalyptic stories of our day, with grace and hope, and not much is lost by being unfamiliar with the particulars. Their precis of Charles Taylor’s Malaise of Modernity is an important complement to Jamie Smith’s book How (Not) to be Secular.

makingsenseofgodFavorite Book for MinistryMaking Sense of God by Tim Keller.

Since I was teaching a course on apologetics this fall, I read about a dozen apologetics-type books this year. The best by was Keller’s new book. I realize that putting Keller on a Christian “best of” list is a cliche, satirized by the Babylon Bee putting “Whatever Tim Keller wrote, probably” as their top book of 2016. But this book is truly impressive. Though it is a bit long-winded at points, Keller’s philosophical scholarship (mostly hidden in the footnotes) and pastoral sensitivity, is a gift to the church. It is an apologetic prolegomena to his bestselling Reason for God, but it exceeds the former book in almost every way.

Looking for recommendations: what should I read in 2017?

 

A New Sermon on Jonah (TWO)!

 

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If you’ve ever heard me preach, chances are you’ve heard me preach on Jonah chapter one. It’s one of my go-to-passages whenever I am asked to preach at a retreat or conference, and I think I’ve preached on the passage around a dozen times. I have often taken the advice of my dear friend Peter: “Just do Jonah, man.”

Our church, however, just wrapped up a sermon series on the book of Jonah, which obliged me to preach a sermon on Jonah TWO (and FOUR)! A handful of people have asked about it, so here it is, a minority report* on Jonah 2: When Prayer Prevents Piety

*credit to the professor in whose Hebrew Exegesis class I fell in love with this book, and the mentor whose story I tell at the end.

Thinking about Disenchantment: An Assist from C.S. Lewis for Understanding Charles Taylor

In pre-modern times, people lived in an “enchanted” world. There was a world of spirits, demons, and moral forces. God acted as the bulwark against evil, the means by which to hold these forces at bay.

Taylor_Secular_compThis means that the world is intrinsically less manageable, wilder, and more mysterious; I am in a certain sense, at the mercy of the elements. But it also means that the world is intrinsically more meaningful, because my life is found in relation to an enchanted cosmos of which I am a part. I am vitally connected to a world full of powers that can possess me, inspire me, and move through me. This is what Charles Taylor means by the porous self: I am open and vulnerable to the outside world of which I am an intrisic part.

There are ghosts of this way of experiencing the world in our language (I’m drawing from Owen Barfield here). We still use the word pan-ic but no longer have the sense of Pan acting upon us; we enjoy music but are no longer sensitive to the presence of muses; we feel the wind but no longer feel the breath of a god. In words we catch glimpses of older worlds of meaning. In many parts of the world, this enchanted consciousness continues: the world is alive and filled with spirits, powers, unseen forces. But in the Western world, the enchanted cosmos has been lost, and the porous self has been exchanged with the “buffered self” (detached and disconnected from the world, all the meaning comes from within). How did this happen?

When we talk about this disenchantment, there are really only two options. Either the world was never enchanted in the first place, and that now all of the superstition has been scraped away by science, and so we have begun to live in the world as it truly is. We have, in a sense, emerged from Plato’s cave of ignorance into the sun of scientific certainty.

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But the other possibility, the one that Taylor wants us to consider, is not subtraction, but addition. In other words, we have constructed an “immanent frame” that shuts out the transcendent and prevents the possibility of enchantment (though this frame has cracks). This would not be like emerging from a cave but rather descending into one, or building a stone castle and then believing that the cave or the castle, with its stone walls and ceiling, is the only real world.

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If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’ book, the Silver Chair, it puts this in an imaginative form. The heroes Jill and Scrubb descend deep into the earth, into the Underland, where a witch enchants them and begins to convince them that the Overland and everything in it is simply an imaginative projection. They look at a lamp and imagine a much bigger lamp, and call that the sun. They look at a cat and imagine a much bigger and more powerful cat, and call that Aslan. These imaginative projections, the witch tells them, do not truly exist. (If you’ve studied theology, this is the basic idea of Ludwig Feuerbach, who deeply influenced Marx – God is an imaginative projection of our best human qualities).

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In any case, in the Silver Chair, here’s how the conversation goes:

Jill: “I suppose that other world must be all a dream.”

“Yes. It is all a dream,” said the Witch.

“Yes, all a dream,” said Jill.

“There never was such a world,” said the Witch.

“No,” said Jill and Scrubb, “never was such a world.”

“There never was any world but mine,” said the Witch.

“There never was any world but yours,” said they.

You see, in the story, “disenchantment” – the stripping away of superstition – is actually an active enchantment that causes the heroes to forget the real world.

Lewis will explicitly use this language in his sermon The Weight of Glory:

“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

The parallels aren’t perfect, but I think that this is also what Taylor wants us to consider: that the secular is an accomplishment, a feat of human construction, and ironically a construction from theological materials. Taylor’s work is not an argument for Christianity. It is more of a provocation, an attempt to question the frame that is taken for granted in secular society, an attempt to turn a secular “spin” of reality into a more open secular “take” on reality.

Is it possible that we are in the secular frame, not because superstition has been subtracted, but because an immanent frame has been added, blocking out what is actually there? Why do so many people in the non-Western world still experience reality as enchanted, charged with force and meaning? Is it possible that for all our sophistication we have cut ourselves off from a further form of fullness that goes beyond exclusive humanism?

I certainly don’t want to return to pre-modern times. But the disenchanted world is arbitrary, alienating, and above all, lonely.

Three Recent Sermons about the Spirit, the Church, and (of course) Jesus

 

1146167_601200084245_163955460_oI knew I’ve been remiss in posting here; but it blows me away that I haven’t posted anything since April! I’ve taken a several breaks from social media over the past three months, and so perhaps the best way to share what I’ve been thinking is to share my three most recent sermons:

The Spirit Poured Out (Acts 2): I’m not sure if it will come through on the recording, but I remember feeling a peculiar sense of empowerment during this sermon. This sermon wrestles with what it means to live between a past that we cannot change and a future we cannot control. The main idea is that the gift of the Spirit reframes our past, releases new possibilities for the future, and redirects us in the present.

No Other Name (Acts 4): This was a heavy sermon, preached the Sunday immediately following the shooting of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police, and the Dallas attacks. It asks, in a broken world, what does the church have to say that no one else can say?  The sermon reflects on the sixth commandment (Thou shalt not kill) and draws from Rene Girard at the end.

The Clean and the Common (Acts 10): This sermon, preached last Sunday, was a mediation on the tensions of Christian community. It starts with my reflections on attending the CrossFit games, and is an exposition of the way the Holy Spirit challenges our categories, confronts our self-congratulation, and clears a path for encounter with Jesus. (Can you tell I like alliteration)?

Now that I’m preaching regularly again, I feel a deepened sense of both the weight of the word as well and the joy of the gospel. I deeply love to preach, and am thankful for the opportunity to do so at Grace Pasadena. I pray that those who take time to listen to any of the above will be blessed!

Latest Sermon: “The Weight of Glory”: 1 Samuel 4

Here is my latest sermon from Grace Pasadena, drawn from 1 Samuel 4. The central idea of the sermon is not new, but it is pretty important to me right now. It takes awhile to get going as I re-tell the strange story of the Philistines taking the ark. But if I can say so, the sermon really starts around the 14:00 minute mark. But do listen to the whole thing if at all. 🙂

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