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.