Top 7 Ways the Old Testament Advocates Nonviolence

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In no particular order, here are the top seven ways the notoriously violent Old Testament advocates nonviolence.

#1: The OT is a subpart of the Bible’s larger antiviolence narrative.

We must not forget the Bible is not an encyclopedia or a constitution. It is not a list of facts or rules. It’s a narrative, one with a trajectory. It starts in one place and goes to another. It has a beginning, an end, and progression in between.

Consequently, we must interpret the OT within the larger, developing biblical story. When we do, we see that it is part of a clear antiviolence storyline, one that goes like this:

I. God created an entirely nonviolent world (there was no violence between God and man, man and man, man and animal, or animal and animal) and did so in a uniquely nonviolent manner (he spoke it into being);

II. Humankind introduced violence into God’s creation;

III. God was immediately saddened by such violence, condemned it, took steps to keep it in check, and has been trying to persuade humankind to be nonviolent ever since; and

IV. Eventually God will fully restore his originally nonviolent world by banishing all of those who persist in using violence.

Such a plotline, in which the OT plays a crucial role, clearly reveals God’s hatred of violence, a hatred he has always possessed.

#2: Each act of God-sanctioned violence in the OT was antiviolence.

It isn’t merely the Bible’s big-picture narrative that reveals God’s antiviolence. The more specific contexts surrounding each of his individual violent acts do too.

For example, the OT explains that God flooded the earth in response to humankind’s violence, indicating that it had become so corrupt and widespread the only way to end its cycle was to start over with Noah’s family. A drastic measure no doubt, but also a clearly antiviolence one.

God killed all the Egyptian firstborn for a similar reason. He was attempting to stop Egypt’s violent, three-hundred-year enslavement of the Israelites, and he only killed them after numerous other tactics failed to end the exploitation.

Likewise for God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He was responding to their perpetual and irredeemable injustices, which included widespread mistreatment of the vulnerable and a town-wide attempted gang rape of two angels whom God had sent there in hopes of sparing the city.

Even the much-condemned conquest of Canaan was undoubtedly antiviolence. God used the small, weak, militaristically-impotent, and recently liberated nation of Israel to evict the domineering Canaanites in a dual attempt to infuse the land with peace and justice while providing the Israelites a place to live free of oppression.

In short, even the most severe God-sanctioned violence in the OT was antiviolence. It was designed to dis-incentivize and end human violence. Their contexts proclaim it. Therefore, although we may reasonably question why God’s OT campaign against human violence was so harsh at times, we can’t reasonably question his hatred of human violence.

#3: In the OT, God used warfare to teach humankind to trust in him instead of violence.

From the very beginning, God designed Israel’s military strategy around building trust in him, not human violence. First, he chose the nation of Israel not because it was big and strong but because it wasn’t. As Moses told the Israelites, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7).

Second, God intentionally preserved Israel’s weakness. He prohibited militarism, commanding it not to train for war, not to maintain a standing army, not to stockpile weapons, not to enter into foreign alliances, and not to amass a war chest. And then he forbid the Israelites from taking matters into their own hands, ordering them to fight only after obtaining his permission.

Third, God repeatedly and explicitly instructed the Israelites to trust in him and him alone, telling them not to fear their more powerful enemies because he would protect them. Over and over, his prophets proclaimed God’s superior trustworthiness: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm” (Ps. 20:7-8).

Fourth, on the relatively rare occasions God sent the Israelites into battle, he always put them in situations where they were required to rely on him for victory. Instead of equipping them with the most or best weapons, soldiers, and strategies, he ensured they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. For example, when God ordered Israel to conquer Canaan, it was a small, weak, nomadic, militaristically-impotent tribe of ex-slaves who had been wandering the wilderness for 40 years, while the Canaanites were a well-equipped, highly trained, militarily advanced, aggressive, mighty, populous, and established collection of big, well-fed people who had been dominating the region for centuries. Israel’s only chance of success was God’s miraculous help.

Fifth, despite all these handicaps, God always delivered a victory when he said he would. Every. Single. Time. And maybe most important, the victory was always due to his miraculous intervention. It was always a testament to his providence. In fact, he usually did most of the fighting himself, sometimes all of it. Whenever Israel tried to rely on its own strength for victory, it failed or God rebuked it—or both.

All of this leads to a crucial conclusion: The OT’s holy wars were about trust, not violence. Through them, God was teaching Israel, and by extension humankind, that he was in control and would take care of them, even when the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against them. He was not establishing the moral boundaries of acceptable violence or the criteria for fighting a just war. He was teaching more fundamental ethical lessons than the proper use of violence. He was demonstrating his power, providence, and dependability. War was simply the classroom in which he taught, one he used to lay the moral groundwork for his future anti-violence, anti-killing, and anti-war lessons, as point #6 further explains.

To the extent Israel’s wars have something to say about the ethics of violence, killing, and war, they send a clear antiviolence message: Do not trust in violence. Do not rely on it for your safety or prosperity. Do not put your hope in it. It cannot save you. It only leads to pain, suffering, death, and destruction. At least this is how the Israelites themselves perceived the OT wars. The prophets didn’t conclude, “God killed all the Canaanites so killing God’s enemies is justified, maybe even preferable on occasion.” Instead, they concluded, “God has always taken care of us, so we should trust in him and not the sword.” That’s the moral of the story—for them and for us.

#4: Much of the OT’s violence is a negative object lesson.

As Israel’s wars attest, much of the violence in the OT serves as a negative object lesson, as a warning against how not to act.

For starters, the Bible doesn’t condone everything it describes. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean God approves of it. There’s a difference between reporting something and endorsing it. The OT writers often documented Israel’s actions without ever explicitly or implicitly indicating that God ordered them, partook in them, or approved of them. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t condone every bad act it doesn’t explicitly condemn. We can’t assume God approved of everything he could have denounced but didn’t. To do so is to make a fallacious argument from silence.

The OT largely portrays life on earth as it is, not as it should be. It gives us a raw, unembellished, gritty, and realistic picture of the human experience. It makes no attempt to present its human characters as perfect role models but instead portrays them as quintessentially human: morally complicated, conflicted, and flawed.

There’s a reason for this. There’s a reason why the OT spends so much time describing what “is” instead of what “ought to be.” Through it, God identified and described the human problem. He demonstrated that we are sinful and broken, the extent to which we are, and the pain and suffering it produces. He demonstrated the reality of our fallen condition.

The OT also demonstrates that we can’t solve our own problem. We can’t fix our own brokenness or cure our own fallen condition. We can’t save ourselves. Even when given specific instructions on exactly how to do so by God himself, we are incapable of carrying them out. As such, the OT demonstrates humanity’s need for a savior.

Had God not demonstrated all these things in the OT, humans likely would not have been receptive to the NT message. Had he not clearly identified and diagnosed the problem, ignorant humans would not have woken up to the fact they had one. Had he not allowed them to fully indulge their fallen desires and reap the consequences, shortsighted humans would not have seen the severity of the problem. Had he not given them instructions on how to fix the problem themselves and stood by while they repeatedly failed to follow them, arrogant humans would not have believed they needed rescuing. Had God not shown them what the solution was not, stubborn humans would not have been receptive to the actual solution.

To explain it in terms of violence, God used the OT to demonstrate that (1) humans have a problem, (2) violence is a large part of it, (3) more or better violence isn’t the solution, and (4) only God can fix it. Had God not demonstrated all of these realities in the OT, humanity would not have been receptive to the NT’s message of nonviolent, self-sacrificial love. Had he not stood by while humanity unsuccessfully tried to solve its problem through violence, had he not allowed humanity to fruitlessly put its trust in violence, it would never have been open to trusting in nonviolence.

This is why there is so much violence in the OT, why it spends so much time describing human violence as it is, and why it’s not until the NT that human violence is described as it ought to be—completely avoided. In fact, this is one oversimplified way to distinguish between the two Testaments: The OT describes the problem and the NT describes the solution. We must not mistake the descriptions of the problem for the solution.

Therefore, like much of the behavior in the OT, its violence serves as a negative object lesson, a warning against the human use of violence. It demonstrates its futility and destructiveness and reveals our human inability to use violence morally, justly, or productively, even when under God’s personal direction.

#5: God’s OT laws were groundbreakingly antiviolence.

As soon as God began directing the OT nation of Israel, he dialed back its violence by instituting unprecedented antiviolence measures. Although such regulations left much to be desired by current standards, they constituted a significant ethical improvement at the time. They were more just and egalitarian than anything the world had yet seen.

For example, compared to its ancient Near Eastern contemporaries, the Mosaic Law’s punishments were notably humane. It never inflicted mutilation as a punishment, limited the number of lashes allowed as the punishment for any crime, and imposed the death penalty much less liberally than its pagan neighbors. Even Israel’s notorious “eye for an eye” legal principle was a moral advancement. In an era in which punishments were often more harmful than their crimes, it functioned as a limitation on legal vengeance. It introduced proportionality, the notion that the punishment should fit the crime but be no worse.

Similarly, God instituted pioneering legal protections for the disadvantaged and defenseless—particularly the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners. Not only did he prohibit their violent mistreatment and oppression, he also required that they be proactively defended, given justice, and provided with food and clothing. God even restricted the use of violence against the lowest of the low: slaves. Slave owners did not have absolute ownership. They couldn’t do whatever they wanted with their slaves. There were limitations. So yes, God temporarily allowed the practice of slavery to continue, but he also deescalated the violence involved by imposing revolutionary constraints, ones that were unheard-of anywhere else in the known world at the time.

In every regard, God made Israel progressively nonviolent. We must not let our modern sensibilities, which have had centuries to build upon the ethical groundwork God laid in the OT and Jesus perfected in the NT, distract us from judging his OT laws according to the moral climate of the day and the direction in which they moved Israel: toward nonviolence.

#6: The OT lays the foundation for, and points to, God’s wholly nonviolent ethical ideal: Jesus.

Recall that the Bible is a narrative, not an encyclopedia or constitution, and as such, it reveals God’s will within an ongoing, developing story, not in standalone rules meted out one verse, paragraph, or incident at a time.

This is particularly true for God’s ethical revelation. He didn’t just fly by earth one day and drop off a finalized list of universally and eternally applicable moral rules. Instead, through Israel, he first met humans where they were at, established a relationship with them, instituted initial improvements, and generally laid the groundwork for his ethical ideal, which he eventually revealed in Jesus.

This is why Jesus famously proclaimed that he had come to “fulfill” the law and then repeatedly declared, “You have heard it said … but I tell you …” (Matt. 5:17-45). It is also why everyone and everything in the Bible (including God, Jesus, the apostles, the historical context, and the theological context) asserts that Jesus is our moral standard today, not Moses, ancient Israel, or Yahweh.

Consequently, although God’s OT moral improvements were good and necessary in their own right, they weren’t the end goal. They were the beginning of God’s ethical revelation, not its fulfillment. They advanced humanity down the right ethical road, but they didn’t drop it off at the final destination. Instead, they prepared humanity for its final ethical destination: the life and teachings of Jesus.

Of course, there’s some debate about whether Jesus was entirely nonviolent, but no reasonable biblical interpreter claims he wasn’t at least very close to it. He didn’t train his followers how to morally or properly use violence. He didn’t educate them on the difference between just and unjust violence or instruct them on how to satisfy the just war criteria. In fact, he never commanded anyone to use any type of violence for any reason. Instead, he explicitly taught his followers to refrain from using violence, even against their enemies. Then he went even further! He went beyond requiring mere nonviolence and commanded acts of antiviolence. He instructed his followers to oppose and overcome violence with love, i.e. with proactive, self-sacrificial acts of service. And to top it all off, his life perfectly exemplified his teachings. He lived a life of loving service to others and, with one debatable minor exception, he never used violence himself, even refraining from defending himself against being tortured to death.

In short, the OT prepared humanity to receive God’s ethical ideal and that ideal turned out to be clearly, consistently, and radically (if not entirely) nonviolent and antiviolence.

#7: Intriguing evidence suggests God didn’t commit or condone much of the violence the OT says he did.

Scriptural and historical evidence suggests that God didn’t engage in much, or even most, of the violence the OT writers attributed to him. Instead, it suggests they projected it onto him.

Let’s start with the scriptural evidence. According to the Bible itself, God’s character is most accurately revealed in the person of Jesus. He is the clearest picture we have of what God is like. He is God’s own self-revelation. Jesus claimed to know him is to know God. In fact, Jesus claimed he was the only way to truly know God. In fact, Jesus wasn’t merely a full and perfect portrayal of God. He was God. He was the “incarnation” of God on earth. Furthermore, the Bible tells us that everything in Scripture ultimately testifies about and points to Jesus. It says he is the fulfillment of all Scripture.

Consequently, we must interpret the entire Bible through the lens of Jesus, particularly the OT. And when we do, it’s difficult to conclude that the OT’s violent portrayals of God are accurate. As we glimpsed above, Jesus revealed a nonviolent God. He revealed a God who self-sacrificially suffers violence instead of inflicts it, who dies for his enemies instead of destroys them, who saves instead of kills. To put it mildly, it’s hard to imagine the turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemies, crucified Jesus committing the violence the OT writers attributed to God.

So if God is as nonviolent as Jesus demonstrates, what was going on in the OT? Likely the same thing that was going on with God’s ethics: incremental revelation. Just as God gradually revealed his ethical ideal, he also gradually revealed his true character, laying the foundation for it in the OT and then fully revealing it in Jesus. Let’s take a quick look at a few pieces of evidence that support this theory.

For starters, God has chosen to redeem the world through humans, through the very people who need redeeming. That means his communications pass through sinful beings who have their own flawed preconceptions, motives, desires, and agendas. The Bible itself is no exception. He used such human beings to write, transmit, preserve, and translate it.

Yes, God inspired the biblical authors, but he didn’t totally control them. He didn’t possess their bodies and direct their every thought or dictate their every written word. He took the initiative and influenced their hearts and minds, but he didn’t completely override their free will or entirely neutralize their humanity. There’s a reason it’s called divine inspiration and not divine control.

Therefore, as fallen humans, the OT writers likely projected many of their own selfish desires and agendas onto God, just like we all do today. They likely rationalized their own detestable behavior by telling themselves it was God’s will and invoked his name on behalf of endeavors he wants nothing to do with, like their own cravings for domination and revenge. In short, they likely remade him, at least to some degree, in their own violent image.

Similarly, the OT writers’ portrayals of God were likely influenced by the ancient Near Eastern culture in which they lived, one that provided them with numerous incentives to depict him as violent. For example, at the time, it was common practice to equate your king’s commands and actions with your god’s commands and actions. So when the king, who was seen as a divine extension of the national deity, used or commanded violence, your god had used or commanded violence. Relatedly, the God of the OT looks suspiciously like all other ancient Near Eastern gods, particularly in regard to violence. He bears a striking resemblance to the warrior deities of the time, who humans believed were inherently violent and deeply involved in nationalistic violence. Furthermore, attributing violence to your god was a common means of glorifying him. In fact, the more extreme the violence attributed to him, the more he was glorified, which obviously led to exaggerated claims and the use of hyperbole. We see evidence of this in the OT’s account of the conquest of Canaan, wherein one passage declares a city was completely destroyed or a people group was totally annihilated but a later passage (not to mention modern archaeology) reveals that the city and people group survived.

All of this suggests God may not have committed or condoned the un-Christlike violence the OT writers attributed to him. It’s possible, even likely, that they brought their own subjective perspectives to the writing table (including some deeply ingrained beliefs about what it meant to be a god, act like a god, and please a god) and that their worldviews, cultural assumptions, and sinful natures affected how they perceived God and interpreted his actions. To state it more bluntly, it’s likely that their humanity at least partially obscured their view of God, causing them to occasionally misperceive, misunderstand, and misconstrue him.

And maybe God purposefully allowed it. Maybe he temporarily allowed humankind to believe things about him that weren’t true and portray him in ways that weren’t accurate for the same reasons he allowed OT Israel to engage in many less-than-ideal ethical practices. Maybe God used incremental character revelation just like he used incremental ethical revelation. Maybe the violence in the OT says as much about the evolution of humanity’s conception of God as it does about how God actually interacts with the world.

Of course, the evidence that suggests God may not have committed some, or even all, of the violence the OT attributes to him is simply icing on the nonviolence cake. The OT’s case for nonviolence is not based on such evidence. It is simply strengthened by it.

Conclusion

As everything above makes clear, context is the key to seeing how the OT advocates nonviolence. When we place all of God’s commands and actions within their proper biblical, literary, cultural, historical, and theological contexts, a consistent antiviolence message emerges. In fact, regardless of how literally you interpret the OT, there are many sensible reasons to read it as an antiviolence text. To further explore these reasons and others, check out my book The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence.

The Best Books I Read in 2Q 2018

In no particular order, here are the best books I read in the second quarter of 2018:

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Okay, so I didn’t read this book this quarter, but the death of Anthony Bourdain hit me harder than expected, so I’m going to use it as an excuse to briefly pay my respects.

I don’t like travel shows or food shows, but I liked Bourdain’s travel food show. He simultaneously entertained and informed. A rare feat. His authenticity was alluring. He called it like he saw it. He kept it real, as the kids say. In an age of shiny, showy, seemingly perfect celebrities, he was refreshingly imperfect, refreshingly human, refreshingly himself. In his own way, he also brought us all a little closer together. Each episode left you with a more neighborly perspective on the world. Merely by visiting an oppressed, forgotten, or misunderstood place, eating a few of its classic dishes with a few of its locals, and highlighting an aspect or two of its history (sometimes its triumphs, other times its defeats or struggles), he was able to humanize its inhabitants, to show us they are just like us. And in doing so, he subtly made us all a little less ignorant, a little less fearful, a little less bigoted. What a stud. He will be missed.

As for the book, it’s classic Bourdain—routinely perceptive, frequently witty, occasionally crude, often insightful, and always entertaining. 

A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today by Bonnie Kristian

Kristian provides a fantastic overview of the theological issues that have birthed the myriad of Christian denominations in existence today (and also provides a helpful summary of those denominations toward the end of the book). On each issue, she reveals the (reasonable) diversity of thought and belief within orthodox Christianity.  It’s a beautiful reminder that no one has ever, or will ever, completely and perfectly understand the complex and sometimes ambiguous Bible. As Greg Boyd writes in the forward, this book calls all Christians to a “theology of dialogue over dogmatism,” one “that is solidly anchored in essentials but is graciously flexible in everything else.” In an age when the church needs to do a much better job of disagreeing Christianly, this book is exactly what the doctor ordered.  Of all the books on my list this quarter, this one is the easiest to read and the most needed.

Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby

This was a nostalgic read for me.  I grew up idolizing Jordan—and I don’t use that term lightly.  I’m fairly certain my adoration for him was sinful. To a kid in love with basketball, he was a god. (Larry Bird once said he was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”)

Lazenby provides great insight into what made Jordan Jordan: rare athletic gifts combined with a pathological competitiveness, a superhuman amount of natural energy, and a corresponding world-class work ethic. He was so competitive, in fact, that even his off days and nightlife revolved around competition, mostly in the form of golf and cards (and gambling on both). And, in a league where most players usually conserved energy during games so they could weather the 82-game season (plus playoffs), Jordan didn’t even conserve energy in practice, approaching each one like game seven of the finals. 

Lazenby also does a commendable job of showing how Jordan not only changed the game of basketball but also transcended it. He rocketed the NBA’s popularity to new heights, made the entire league adjust its style of play to him, forever changed player salaries, almost single-handedly birthed shoe deals and product endorsements, and, in the process, became the most famous person in the world.

Grab yourself a book about a subject central to your childhood and take a little trip down memory lane. You’ll thank me later.
 

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards & Brandon J. O'Brien

Although you might not know it, your biblical interpretation (and consequently your theology) is culturally biased. Everyone’s is. If you want to better understand how, this is the book for you. Not only will it make you more self-aware, but it’s another good reminder to be humble in our beliefs. I wish I had read it before writing my book. I could’ve used it to bolster my assertion that the Old Testament writers were heavily influenced by their Ancient Near Eastern culture, particularly in how they attributed violence to God.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

I finished reading this, my first Tom Wolfe book, shortly before he unexpectedly passed away this past May. It’s a witty, fast-paced, highly entertaining nonfiction narrative about the military pilots (most of them test pilots, some fighter) who became America’s first astronauts. It’s one of the more fun reads I’ve had in a long time, partially because of the highly competitive and frat-like pilot culture, partially because the national stakes were so high (we had to beat the Russians!), partially because the media operated so differently in the late 50s and early 60s (almost as the government’s public relations department), and partially because I listened to the audible version narrated by Dennis Quaid, who absolutely nailed the pilot accents and vernacular.

Honorable Mentions

 

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DISCLAIMER: By endorsing these books, I’m not endorsing everything in them.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a book I completely agreed with.  To do so would arguably be a waste of time, not to mention an indication that I'm not thinking for myself.

The Best Books I Read in 1Q 2018

In no particular order, here are the best books I read in the first quarter of 2018:

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

This book is a masterclass in vulnerability.  Agassi really opens up and reveals his humanity.  Did you know he was so self-conscious as a professional tennis player he wore a hairpiece when he started balding or that he had reservations about dating Princeton graduate Brooke Shields because he never even finished high school?  Did you know he hates tennis and always has?  On a deeper level, this is the story of a man trying to define himself amid all the things in life that try to define our identities for us—others’ opinions, worldly success, intimate and familial relationships, etc.  In essence, it’s the story of an examined life, not in a deep philosophical way but in an everyman kind of way.  It’s also an interesting inside look at the world of professional tennis.

The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down by David Bercot

This is on my short list of most underrated Christian books of all time.  It’s a Christocentric analysis of how God’s kingdom differs from the kingdoms of the world and how the western church has gradually lost sight of (and on occasion, intentionally discarded) those differences.  The content is similar to, and in some ways better than, Donald Kraybill’s fantastic and well-respected book The Upside-Down Kingdom.  It’s also the type of book I love to discover—one written by an unknown layman, yet articulate, well researched, and deeply insightful. It tells the story of Christianity from the early church through the Reformation as well as any book I’ve read, and its explanation of the Constantinian shift is alone worth its price.  Don’t judge it by its cover.  The material inside is of much higher quality.

The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan

This is a well-written account of one man’s—one thinking man’s—search for truth.  It’s peppered with deep insights and memorable quotes, but what struck me most was the author’s sincerity.  It leapt off every page. Klavan is a genuine seeker, and his conversion confirms Jesus’ promise that “the one who seeks finds” (Matt. 7:7).  Amen.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson

This is such an interesting book it’s hard to know where to start.  I’ve read more than my share of self-help books (Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, Tim Ferris, Stephen Covey, Deepak Chopra, John C. Maxwell, Jack Canfield, etc.) and this one is most unique.  In each chapter, Peterson weaves together psychology, anthropology, history, and morality to make a simple yet profound point (e.g. compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today).  Most of the values he promotes are sorely needed today, particularly among Millennials and Centennials: individual responsibility, the perils of the victim mentality, the importance of seeking meaning over happiness, how to confront inevitable suffering, etc. Peterson also ties many of his main points to some of the more well-known stories in the Bible, giving his readers a taste of its deep, practical wisdom.  Regardless of whether you agree with everything in it, this book is a buffet for the intellect.

Honorable Mentions

 

DISCLAIMER: By endorsing these books, I’m not endorsing everything in them.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a book I completely agreed with.  To do so would arguably be a waste of time, not to mention an indication that I'm not thinking for myself.

The Best Books I Read in 2017

In no particular order, here are the best books I read in 2017:

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

As someone who delights in solitude, is prone to deep introversion, and values self-reliance, this true story fascinated me.  In 1986, twenty-year-old Christopher Knight disappeared into the Maine woods without telling a soul and lived alone for twenty-seven years, surviving off a combination of ingenuity and thievery.  Although his camp was a mere three minute walk from the nearest cabin, he didn’t have a single conversation with another human in all those years.  How did he do it?  You’ll have to read the book.  It kept me on the edge of my seat the entire way.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari

If you forced me to pick my favorite book of the year, this would be it.  When I finished reading it in January, I instantly suspected it would be.  It’s that good.  Employing a journalistic approach, Hari examines the history and impact of the war on drugs through the stories of numerous drug war participants—warriors, users, dealers, addicts, counselors, etc.  He weaves their lives together masterfully while also seamlessly incorporating just the right amount of scientific data, statistics, and public policy analysis.  Ultimately, the book confirms much of what my own (limited) personal research has discovered: The war on drugs isn’t what most of us think it is.  Nor is drug use or drug addiction.  Heck, drug users aren’t even who most of us think they are.  Consequently, the drug war doesn’t accomplish what we all want it to.  In fact, it actually makes things worse.  If you support the war on drugs, please, please, please read this book.

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart

This was my first DBH book and it didn’t disappoint.  He can really write—and reason.  It’s a refutation of the “distorted religious ‘histories’ offered up” by atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.  Not only does Hart provide a substantive rebuttal, he also gives them a taste of their own vitriol. A few tasty examples:

"As I have already complained, the tribe of the New Atheists is something of a disappointment. It probably says more than it is comfortable to know about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief. The best we can now hope for are arguments pursued at only the most vulgar of intellectual levels, couched in an infantile and carpingly pompous tone, and lacking all but the meagerest traces of historical erudition or syllogistic rigor: Richard Dawkins triumphantly adducing 'philosophical' arguments that a college freshman midway through his first logic course could dismantle in a trice, Daniel Dennett insulting the intelligence of his readers with proposals for the invention of a silly pseudo-science of 'religion,' Sam Harris shrieking and holding his breath and flinging his toys about in the expectation that the adults in the room will be cowed, Christopher Hitchens bellowing at the drapes and potted plants while hoping no one notices the failure of any of his assertions to coalesce with any other into anything like a coherent argument. One cannot begrudge these men the popularity of their screeds, obviously; sensationalism sells better than sense."

"I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general. But atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism."

"The rather petulant subtitle that Christopher Hitchens has given his (rather petulantly titled) God Is Not Great is How Religion Poisons Everything. Naturally one would not expect him to have squandered any greater labor of thought on the dust jacket of his book than on the disturbingly bewildered text that careens so drunkenly across its pages—reeling up against a missed logical connection here, steadying itself against a historical error there, stumbling everywhere over all those damned conceptual confusions littering the carpet—but one does still have to wonder how he expects any reflective reader to interpret such a phrase. Does he really mean precisely everything? Would that apply, then—confining ourselves just to things Christian—to ancient and medieval hospitals, leper asylums, orphanages, almshouses, and hostels? To the golden rule, 'Love thine enemies,' 'Judge not lest ye be judged,' prophetic admonitions against oppressing the poor, and commands to feed and clothe and comfort those in need? "

If you think Christianity has had an overall negative impact on human wellbeing, you should read this book. The truth is the precise opposite.
 

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 and 2 by Gregory A. Boyd

When your favorite living author publishes his magnum opus, you read it and you love it, even when it’s 1500 pages.  Boyd’s book argues that we should interpret the Old Testament’s portrayals of God through the lens of Jesus, who is the supreme revelation of God.  When we do so, we are forced to conclude that the Old Testament writers, working with relatively little knowledge of God and deeply influenced by their cultural assumptions, erred in attributing violence to him.  But that doesn’t mean such passages weren’t divinely inspired.  It simply means their divinely inspired meaning is something other than their surface-level, literal meaning.  In fact, Boyd claims it is only by concluding that such depictions are inaccurate that we can truly see how they bear witness to Jesus’ death on the cross.  This book really clarified my thinking and helped me bolster many of the arguments I made in my own.  If Boyd's book intrigues you but its length is too daunting, he published a lighter version (292 pages) called Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, which I have not read.

What is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell

Staying with the biblical interpretation theme, I really enjoyed Rob Bell’s latest book.  He’s a fantastic storyteller and his passion for God beams from every page.  For me, this book shed new light on the depth, multi-dimensionality, and awe-inspiring beauty of Scripture.  If your view of Scripture leans towards strict literalism/inerrancy, read this book.  The Bible is so much more—and so much more magnificent.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

This book proves that a business adventure can be as thrilling as any type of adventure.  Nike’s mysterious founder shares the inside story of his journey from shoestring startup (pun intended) to multinational powerhouse.  It’s a real rollercoaster ride, one that entertains and inspires.  Plus, it has a rare five star rating on Amazon with over 2,200 customer reviews.  Check it out.  The entrepreneur inside you will thank you.

Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

In my opinion, most biographies make at least one of two near-fatal errors: (1) They get the pacing wrong by either dwelling too much or too little on certain events or periods in their subject’s life or (2) they get the general level of detail wrong by including way too many uninteresting and irrelevant details or way too few interesting and relevant ones.  This biography does neither.  Its pacing and detail are nearly perfect.  Plus, Eig does a masterful job of balancing his exploration of Ali the man and Ali the fighter.  I learned much about both, and the period in which he fought.  Love him or hate him (there are reasons to do both), Ali lived life full throttle, and in the hands of a writer like Eig, that makes for a fascinating biography.

Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church by John C. Nugent

This book addresses a crucial question about the church’s role in society and history: Should it focus (not exclusively but primarily) on fixing the world (i.e. on making it a more safe and comfortable place) or instead on being a community that embodies God’s future kingdom as a foretaste of (and a sign pointing to) it?  In other words how are we to advance God’s kingdom—by politically imposing it on others or by exemplifying it to them?  Those are two very different ways of being in the world.  Professor Nugent makes the case for the latter. As the Amazon description puts it, “It’s not our job to make this world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in this world.”  Nugent’s approach reminds me of this gem from a sermon preached by Bill Tibert: 

"Changes in the law, blocking abortion clinics, demeaning name-calling will not stop abortions. The history of the church through the ages has been the history of changes brought about in society through the church demonstrating and living an alternative vision of life. We need to stop telling our nonbelieving neighbors how wrong their way of life is, and we need to start showing the power of the gospel in the way we live.... Let me ask you: Which has greater power? Ten thousand people who fill the streets in front of abortion clinics and shame those seeking abortions, or ten thousand people in California who take to the state capital a petition they have signed stating they will take any unwanted child of any age, any color, any physical condition so that they can love that child in the name of Jesus Christ?"

Christians on both sides of the political aisle should read this book.  Stat.

Honorable Mentions

 

DISCLAIMER: By endorsing these books, I’m not endorsing everything in them.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a book I completely agreed with.  To do so would arguably be a waste of time, not to mention an indication that I'm not thinking for myself.