One last look at 2020….
First, let me talk about some really good books….
If there was one ironic benefit of the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns of 2020, it was that it gave me a chance to read some more books. Most of them I “read” via Audible, or the Kindle “Speech-to-Text” feature with the Amazon Alexa app for Android (which was new to me and is pretty cool!!), listening to them as I took my exercise riding my bike all around the pathways of our rural county, as the pandemic curtailed much of my commuting into work. Increasing the reading to 1.25 speed helped, too, and then I could go back and review, if I missed parts. Here are some of the best books I enjoyed, that I commend to others:
- Tactics, by Greg Koukl. Hands down, this 10th anniversary edition of Tactics is the best book I read in 2020, and immensely practical. Koukl does a fantastic job giving the Christian a set of tactics to use, to enable anyone to have a good conversation about spiritual matters with just about anyone else. Tactics is like the Christian version of How to Have Impossible Conversations, written by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, that I read in 2019 (and re-read alongside Tactics in 2020). These books made me realize how much improvement I need in my communication and conversation skills with others. I will be going back to reference these books for A LONG TIME. Reviewed here at Veracity.
- Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, by Tom Holland. While Koukl’s book is immensely practical, Tom Holland’s book was the most intellectually stimulating read of the year. Tom Holland is a British popular historian, specializing in ancient and medieval history, but his latest book takes a 2,000 year journey through the history of the West, showing how Christianity made the Western world, contrary to a more secular narrative, that sees Christianity as an impediment to the flourishing of today’s global society. Holland made me stop and think a lot, reminding me that the case for atheism really can not be made without acknowledging a debt to Christianity. Most secular atheists unconsciously accept certain Christian presuppositions, without giving them a second thought. If you have conversations with atheists, and you are not quite sure how to respond to them, Dominion is essential reading. Reviewed here on Veracity. Pastor Tim Keller wrote a sober and appreciative review for the book here, that might be entitled as “Nietzsche was right”.
- The Crucible of Faith, by Philip Jenkins. While Tactics was the most practical, and Dominion the most intellectually stimulating, Philip Jenkins book on the period of Second-Temple Judaism was the most faith-challenging book I read in 2020. A thought-provoking introduction to the “time between the Testaments,” looking at the crucial historical period after the (near) completion of the Old Testament and before the writing of the New, where most of the central interpretive theological frameworks, that connect the Old and the New Testaments come together. It showed me just how ignorant I was, as a Protestant, of how important the study of Second Temple Judaism is in properly understanding the Bible as a whole. Crucible of Faith forced me to rethink my view of biblical inspiration, and how progressive revelation through the Scriptures actually works. Surprisingly, Jenkins has a liberal historical-critical bias here, when it comes to the Bible, that I could have skipped, but the historical narrative Jenkins portrays is so captivating, that I ended up reading the book twice!
- All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment, by Hannah Anderson. We live in an age where we need discernment. Anderson is a great writer, and she is quite enjoyable to read or listen to! This was the best devotional type of book I read all year.
- J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, by Leland Ryken. Ryken wrote an excellent biography several years ago about J. I. Packer, one of evangelicalism’s greatest statesmen, of the modern era. Really inspiring. Packer died in July, 2020. We lost a great soul here. I am so thankful that he served his Lord so faithfully. Reviewed here on Veracity.
- Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way, by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett. One of Packer’s final books, Packer and Parrett make a cogent and urgent case for restoring the practice of catechesis, or Christian instruction in basic doctrine, to the life of evangelical churches, for the sake of the future of the church. It has become my conviction, that every church needs to seriously consider implementing catechismal instruction, across all age groups, particularly in view of our post-modern society. Reviewed here at Veracity.
- Angels, by Michael Heiser. A somewhat academic, yet eye-opening treatment on the topic of angels, correcting a lot of falsehoods that Christians (and others) sometimes believe about angels. Reviewed here on Veracity. This is a side topic that rabbit trails off of Dr. Heiser’s major work, The Unseen Realm. I also started reading Heiser’s Brief Insights of Master Bible Study, short devotional-type readings, that have encouraged me to be a better student of the Scriptures. Fantastic stuff. Brief Insights of Master Bible Study was reviewed here at Veracity.
- Did America Have a Christian Founding?, by Mark David Hall. A scholarly, responsible reading of the theological orientation of the Founding Fathers. Hall makes a provocative case that the Founding Fathers were generally more “Christian” than proposed by other evangelical historians. Hall’s thesis might be a stretch in some areas, but he thankfully avoids the irresponsible pitfalls that you find among some popular Christian authors, such as David Barton. Reviewed here on Veracity.
- God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, by Thomas Kidd. A very balanced presentation of the history of the American Revolution, with special attention paid to evangelical Christian concerns. I used Kidd as the main source for teaching an Adult Bible Class on American Church History, at my church in the winter/spring of 2020.
- Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, by John M. Barry. A fantastic look at the life and times of Roger Williams, the founder of the colony of Rhode Island. Barry convincingly shows how evangelical Christian faith is at the very roots of contemporary ideas behind religious freedom. Interestingly, Barry is also the author of The Great Influenza, about the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, which has helped many readers survive the great coronavirus pandemic of 2020!
- Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, by Timothy Gloege. Gloege tells the stories of evangelist D.L. Moody, Quaker Oats founder Henry Crowell, scholar/evangelist Rueben A. Torrey, and other evangelical leaders of the Gilded Age to show us how the fundamentalism/evangelicalism tradition of the Moody Bible Institute shaped late 19th to early 20th century Christianity in America. I gave a brief summary of Torrey’s life, from Gloege’s book on a Veracity blog post.
- Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, by Kate Bowler. Bowler gives us a definitive history of the prosperity gospel movement, that threatens to corrupt the historic Gospel of Christianity. Interestingly, Bowler’s work is not a theological critique, and she comes across as sympathetic to her subject. But she manages to trace the historical development of prosperity theology in a way that is very surprising. I had no idea how pervasive and subtle the prosperity gospel is until I read Bowler. Reviewed here at Veracity.
- No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful, by Andrew Naselli. A popular level examination of the Keswick Holiness theology, that tended to dominate much of evangelical thought, during the late 19th and much of the 20th century. Naselli convincingly demonstrates the weaknesses of this theology, and articulates a more helpful Reformed alternative to this brand of Holiness theology. Reviewed here at Veracity.
- Studies in Words, by C.S. Lewis. Lewis is an expert in the English language, and he gives a number of examples of how the meanings of words change over time. In an era when the pace of social change comes quickly, and words easily change their meaning, I have found Lewis to be very helpful in the age of social media. Reviewed here at Veracity.
- The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry, by Joshua Swamidass. A much appreciated attempt to try to reconcile Young Earth, Old Earth, and Evolutionary Creationism, all in one book. Swamidass makes a case for an historical Adam and Eve, 6,000 years ago, who are the genealogical parents of today’s human beings, without necessarily being the genetic parents of all humans who have ever existed. I hope that Swamidass’ peacemaking project is successful. The church needs peace in this disputed area of doctrine!! Reviewed here at Veracity.
- Eden Was Here: New Evidence for the Historicity of Genesis, by Glenn Morton, a Christian geologist and apologist, who died in 2020. This was Glenn’s last book, written by one of the most provocative thinkers in looking at the creation vs. evolution controversy. Glenn fully accepted the contemporary science of an ancient earth, with an evolutionary origin of humanity, but he nevertheless sought to reconcile science with a fully historical account of the early chapters of Genesis. This was Glenn’s last stand, in making a valiant, if not at times, greatly contrarian, defense of the Bible. I dare any Young Earth Creationist to read it! Reviewed here at Veracity.
- The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, by Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson examines a somewhat obscure event in Scottish church history to illuminate what it means to have the assurance of one’s salvation, and the tendencies of both legalism and antinomianism, that seek to distort our perspective of that assurance. Reviewed here at Veracity.
- Confronting Old Testament Controversies, by Tremper Longman. Veteran Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman writes a much needed book for Christians, addressing various attempts by other Christian scholars to rethink the Old Testament, in an age influenced by the “New Atheism.” Longman finds several of these revisionist attempts to be lacking, but he interacts with critics in a very irenic fashion. Offers much needed help to Christians, who are hesitant to embrace the Old Testament. Longman has helped me to wrestle with some of my doubts concerning the Old Testament. Reviewed here at Veracity.
- Hebrews for Everyone, by N.T. Wright. I like reading good commentaries as I prepare lessons for my small group Bible study, so this was a good fit for our group’s study of Hebrews this year. Wright’s For Everyone series is really designed for folks who want a general overview of different blocks of passages, as opposed to digging into a verse-by-verse study, which is more my preference. Nevertheless, Wright’s Hebrews study is very solid, and easy reading. N.T. Wright is like a writing machine!
- Weathering Climate Change, by Hugh Ross. From a fully evangelical Christian perspective, a much needed look at a vexing problem facing the whole world, that takes the science seriously, but that does not demand draconian political measures to try to address it. A mix of detailed scientific analysis made accessible to non-experts, along with very creative solutions, that should be taken seriously. Reviewed here at Veracity.
- Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths. Though I read a good bit of theology and history, I really enjoy science books, and I finally finished this one that I started to read a few years ago. Christian & Griffiths have written about how the discipline of computer science gives us insights into how humans make decisions…. and sometimes how irrational we can all be. This book is void of anything spiritual, so would be helpful if a Christian theologian could write a book about this topic.
- In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis, by Kenneth Stewart. Finally finished this book I started a few years ago, exploring why some evangelical Protestants become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. While the vast number of shifts are from Roman Catholic to Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox to Protestant, there is still a minority, yet growing number of evangelical Protestants who move in the opposite direction. John Henry Newman, the great 19th century Roman Catholic theologian, said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.‘ As an enthusiastic student of church history, I can attest to there being a lot of truth in this statement. Then there is this quote by Eastern Orthodox theologian, Jaroslav Pelikan, that rings very true for me: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” I have not completely felt the pull to move away from evangelical Protestantism for good, but there are a number of times when evangelicalism just drives me nuts. This book effectively explains why.
- What Does God Want, by Michael Heiser. A short primer on the Gospel, meant as an evangelistic tool, to be given to folks raised in a church, but who find much of traditional evangelical Christianity to be lacking in telling a cohesive grand narrative, that takes into account some of the most difficult passages of the Bible. This might become my “go-to” evangelistic book to hand out to seekers wanting to know Jesus. Ironically, there is a hunger for a deeper knowledge of the Bible among many Christians, that many church-goers are simply not getting from popular megachurch evangelicalism, and Dr. Heiser is seeking to help people grasp that grand Scriptural narrative, for believers and non-believers alike. May his tribe increase!
Here are my books of the decade and books of 2019 posts, previously noted on Veracity. Looking back, I have come to conclude that Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind was the best book of the decade. It has really helped me keep a lot of things in perspective, in such a wild and crazy year as 2020.
Next, let me talk about some blog posts….
Normally each year, I write a blog summarizing the best blog posts of the year, but I pretty much have already done that a few months ago. I will highlight a few of the most interesting and important blog posts that folks might benefit from, that have been published since early September. But let me preface with a caveat….
Last year, I wrote a post, “Reflections on Seven Years of Internet Blogging.” I am more convinced now that blogging, particularly of the long-form kind, that I’ve been putting out here on Veracity, is still valuable, but I do think that exhaustion over social media has caused a lot of blogging to suffer. YouTube video offerings still seem to be big, however… so I have included a few video links below as well.
So, yes, I want to talk about some videos, too…
People tend to respond more to video than to written text. After all, if someone had simply written about the death of George Floyd, it probably would not have brought so much attention…. it took a video to explode the nation. But that is deeply concerning, particularly with the development of more and more convincing DeepFake technology, that can so easily fool us, and breed a horrifyingly lack of discernment, that so plagues the post-modern world, including Christians. A case in point… here is the U.K.’s Channel4, doing their own DeepFake video, mimicking the original Christmas message that Queen Elizabeth delivered last week, that I was encouraged by and posted on Veracity the other day…. If we can be fooled by technology, why put so much of our trust in it?
Back to reality now….
Kind of a hodge-podge of posts here, but to me, these are all thought provoking…. go ahead and skim through it, as your interest will indeed vary, but you should stick around for the video at the bottom. It sums up the year exceedingly well:
- Christmas is not pagan (1): As I am posting this just a few days after Christmas, a few weeks after my “Christmas is not pagan” post for the year, it is helpful to read from Wheaton College scholar, Timothy Larsen, that most objections to Christmas commit the genetic fallacy: “The supposed origins of things are weaponized in order to insist that they somehow contradict a person’s stated beliefs. People have a strange tendency to insist that Christmas cannot mean to you what, in fact, it does mean to you. Religious people are told that Christmas is really secular, and secular people that it is really religious. Christians are told it is pagan, and pagans are told it is Christian.” That pretty much sums up the situation we are in.
- Christmas is not pagan (2): In keeping with that “Christmas is not pagan” spirit, a couple of other good articles, by some of my favorite atheist writers debunking other atheists who hate Christmas, make for a good feast. Tom Holland, author of Dominion noted above, writes most eloquently about it. History for Atheists blogger, Tim O’Neill, has a lengthy, in-depth article, with lots of helpful links to other scholars, though he does manage to allow a few punches at the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (I still think Luke and Matthew got the story right). From O’Neill, I learned of a few new blogs to follow, such as the young and brilliant up-and-coming classicist Spence Alexander McDaniel, a group of classicists at BadAncient.com, and a New Zealand classicist, Peter Gainsford, here where Gainsford blasts away at flat earth conspiratorial theorists.
- Christian integrity: With respect to Christian integrity, which seems to be in short supply these days in celebrity Christian circles, Christianity Today has a good post showing how relatively easy it is to make a forgery of a fragment of ancient Scripture. Too many Christians have been duped by forgers who know how to trick unsuspecting believers and discredit their reputations.
- The Christmas Star?: A lot of attention has been brought to the Saturn/Jupiter conjunction, on the date of the Winter Solstice 2020, that was last visible to earth about 800 years ago. Was this the “Christmas Star?” Christianity Today has a good post summarizing the supposed connection between the Bible and the Saturn/Jupiter conjunction. The Ten Minute Bible Hour guy on YouTube posted a video about the whole thing.
- The Surprising C.S. Lewis: Ten little known facts about C.S. Lewis. I am a Lewis fan, and some of these were new to me!
- What is an Evangelical?: Not a blog post, but Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales, has a thoughtful video now on “What is an ‘Evangelical’?“
- The Beauty of Complementarity Between Male and Female: British pastor Andrew Wilson has written an excellent summary showing how complementarity between male and female is so important and beautiful, and why churches need to develop a theology that can be lived out in sacramentally distinctive ways. It perfectly summarizes what I have been trying to articulate on the Veracity blog over the past two years, that seeks to navigate a middle-way between a rigid complementarianism, that sadly excludes women from fully utilizing their gifts for ministry in the church, and a “woke” egalitarianism, that preaches that male and female are simply interchangeable cogs in the machinery of “big-box” evangelicalism today, a product of a corporate mindset that permeates significant segments of the evangelical world. Most of my critics never bother to read my arguments, but perhaps they might read Andrew Wilson’s excellent summary instead, and let me know what they think? Here is a gem from Wilson’s conclusion:
- “This is what makes it so crucial that we practise what we preach on the church as family. To deny that women can be elders will sound like the equivalent of denying that women can be CEOs, but it is more like the equivalent of denying that women can be fathers, and that men can be mothers. But for that to be grounded in reality, it is vital that the church is not just said to be a family, but seen to be a family; that we recognise fathers and mothers and honour and revere them as such, rather than (as can easily happen) operating with a fundamentally corporate model in which women are simply excluded from all the key positions or discussions.” Well put! READ IT AT THINKTHEOLOGY IN THE U.K.!
- Do infants automatically get saved?: Another gem from Andrew Wilson covers the question, “DO BABIES GO TO HEAVEN?” What really encourages me is that Wilson finds that there are good reasons why Scripture can be so clear on some matters and less clear on other matters (like this one).
- Today’s Most Controversial New Testament Verse for Evangelicals: A helpful dialogue between D.A. Carson and Tim Keller on approaches to 1 Timothy 2:12, perhaps one of the most controversial verses of the New Testament splitting churches today.
- Theologian David Wells: A story written by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, about theologian David Wells, author of a landmark book No Place for Truth, one of the most provocative books written by an evangelical in the 1990s.
- Henrietta Mears: Justin Taylor on the most influential evangelical woman of the 20th century, Henrietta Mears.
- What is Critical Race Theory?: John Piper wrote two articles on critical race theory, navigating a fair and balanced approach to the controversy.
- The Best Way to Teach the Bible on YouTube Verse-by-Verse?: Speaking of John Piper, this retired pastor has taken on the task of using YouTube as a means of helping people study the Scriptures verse by verse, with the YouTube hashtag #LookAtTheBook. Here is a ten minute segment on 2 Timothy 3:14-17. An excellent resource.
- Another “Statement”?: There is the Philadelphia Statement, which I whole heartedly endorse. On the other hand, I think enthusiasm for these kind of statements (think the Nashville Statement, the Statement of Social Justice, etc.) is starting to wane. I call it “statement fatigue.”
- Does John Walton Really Teach Gnosticism?: In the latest on the never ending battle between Young Earth Creationism, and other Creationist readings of Genesis, a young blogger Evan Minton responds to an argument by the film producer of Is Genesis History?, that seeks to critique Wheaton College’s John Walton, and his “Cosmic Temple Inauguration” approach to Genesis. In-depth reading, particular for those who believe the myth that Creationists, who do not subscribe to a Young Earth interpretation of Genesis, do not believe the Bible. This debate will probably continue until Jesus’ returns.
- Walter Hooper: The man who worked nearly full-time since 1963 to keep C. S. Lewis’ literary legacy alive and in print, died in December, 2020, from complications when suffering from COVID-19. Joseph Loconte wrote an obituary for Walter Hooper in The National Review. Lewis was convinced that no one would continue to read his books, after his death. What fascinated me the most about Hooper, in this article, is that Hooper followed in Lewis’ footsteps to become an Anglican, but then converted to Roman Catholicism. Hooper believed that Lewis would have also converted to Catholicism, had Lewis lived longer, into the 1980s, as the Church of England became increasingly more liberal. Here is a link to a YouTube interview video of Hooper.
- The Jefferson Bible:Christianity Today review of a book showing how Thomas Jefferson slowly jettisoned the evangelical faith of his youth.
- Church discipline: Peter Orr at the Gospel Coalition on how 1 Corinthians 5 relates to church discipline.
- A critique of The Bible Project’s approach to the atonement?: I am a big fan of The Bible Project , so I would want to take any valid criticism seriously. Pastor Sweatman offers some thoughtful criticism, but I am not persuaded that the creators of The Bible Project reject the concept of propitiation, as Sweatman suggests.
- What is male headship?: Claire Smith on male headship in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. Not sure yet what I think about all of this, as she differs from Wendy Alsup, with whom I find more convincing, in general. But my biggest complaint with Smith is that she seems unaware of the 1st century context, in which Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is written in. Most complementarians and egalitarians miss this. See my review of Michael Heiser’s Angels, noted above.
- MLK’s most important letter: Justin Taylor, at the Gospel Coalition, offers a guide to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
- How propaganda works: A disturbing study in how propaganda works, and how Christians in Germany were so easily duped by the Nazis, in the run-up to World War 2.
- Why study history?: Historian Tracy McKenzie on the importance of studying history.
- Rod Dreher’s follow up to The Benedict Option: I hope I get a chance to read this, but Eastern Orthodox intellectual and cultural critic, Rod Dreher, has written a provocative book, Live Not By Lies. You know that a book is really making an impact when even prominent secular critics are engaging it. Here is a review of the book at the MereOrthodoxy blog. Read this if you are looking for a taste of Rod Dreher, (or here for something more troubling).
- Did Carl Trueman write the most important book for Christians to read in 2021?: I am just starting to read Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, and it is a MUST-READ for Christians trying to figure out what is going on in the wider culture, regarding the whole “gender is merely a social construct” movement. I have referenced Trueman’s work a few times here at Veracity. A quick summary of the book and Trueman’s advice for how Christians should navigate the culture in the next decade can be found here. The Gospel Coalition has some resources that highlight the themes in the book, and finally a review by Andrew Walker.
AND FINALLY…. a way to end off the year 2020, by looking back, in a humorous way….. that does not really have anything overtly theological in it at all.
Some independent film company in California put together this 18-minute film, back in October, that perfectly summarizes pretty much all that has happened in the year 2020…. Australia fires, locust attacks in Africa, wildfires in California, Black Lives Matter protests, and obviously, the coronavirus…. (of course, being released in October, it has nothing about the Presidential election, the announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine, or the Nashville Christmas bombing). I have not seen the movie 1917, which supposedly has a really long, single scene shot, at the beginning of the movie. But this 2020 film is meant to parody 1917, with the same, single long film shot, look and feel. So, with that, I wish all of you Veracity readers an end to crazy 2020, and a Happy New Year, for 2021 !!