Favorite Books I Read in 2019

Practicing the King's Economy by Rhodes and Holt

1. Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give by Michael Rhodes, Brian Fikkert, and Robby Holt (2018). A sort of natural sequel to When Helping Hurts, this book explores multiple dimensions of how to use our resources on this earth for God’s kingdom, focusing equally on theology and practical application. From replacing a “soup kitchen” mindset with a community-building “potluck” mindset, to exploring the principle of gleaning in creating opportunities for work, to the importance of both partaking in Sabbath rest and making sure others have opportunities to partake in it, it’s an easy and enthusiastic read that both uncovers interesting Scriptural insights and shares inspiring examples of Christians applying these ideas all over the world.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

2. A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans (2012). It wasn’t my first choice for reading something by Evans after her untimely death earlier last year, but it was the first one I found, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. The gimmicky premise is really just an excuse to explore the tensions, contradictions, pains, hopes, and glories of the relationship between the Bible and modern evangelical culture’s paradigms about women. With wit, humility, and a dash of good storytelling, Evans is insightful and thought-provoking (the Jewish understanding of Proverbs 31 alone was worth the time I spent here).

Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roger

3. Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roger (2019). With understandable anguish and yet also remarkable love, Megan shares her story of growing up in the most-hated church in America and finally leaving it. The page-turner humanizes her family members while also not flinching from the harm they’ve caused, and it’s full of surprising twists and turns, from the complicated ways no one is as simple as their stereotype, to the friendship – and not the reciprocrated hatred – that ultimately helped pull her away, to the unexpected similarities she found with those who used to be her enemies. Extremely interesting and thought-provoking on multiple theological and cultural levels, it’s an important and relevant read in our days of increasing polarization and political extremism.

The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter

4. The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter (2011). Pushing back on hubristic modern criticisms of the Bible as primitive in form and substance, Robert Alter describes the beautiful and innovative artistry found in the Biblical narratives, detailing the ironies and plot twists and reversals found in the deliberate carrying of certain phrases between apparently unrelated stories, or the thematic developments brought forth via subtle but crucial variations in repeated motifs. While Alter’s highly respectful yet still human-focused view of the Bible would be considered academically liberal by most evangelicals, his textual insights are just as valuable to the fully orthodox. Warning: it’s a pretty dry read.

Santa Biblia by Justo L. Gonzalez

5. Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes by Justo L. Gonzalez (1996). A wonderful example of how listening to different perspectives can provide a fuller and more beautiful understanding than we can achieve by ourselves, Justo Gonzalez describes how various aspects of Hispanic experience – and in particular Hispanic experience in and with the United States – illuminates aspects of the Bible I had never really noticed before, like the power struggle between the center and the margins of the early church, or the “code-switching” dual-culture existence of Saul/Paul and how his background specifically influenced and enhanced his ministry. A short and recommended read for the multicultural body of Christ striving to be united as one.

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

6. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker (2018). With clear prose and stunning charts, Pinker describes the most incredible and under-appreciated paradigm-shifting reality of the modern world – the absolute poverty rate of humanity plummeted from 90% to 10% in little over a century, and despite the doom and gloom and bad news, human existence today is the safest, healthiest, and most prosperous it’s ever been. While I heartily disagree with Pinker’s atheistic prognoses (and would give more credit to religious influences of Judeo-Christian civilization), we can find a lot of common ground in the “love your neighbor” aspects of humanism as well as the importance and usefulness of reason and critical thinking to keep us all from sliding back into the Dark Ages.

G-Dog and the Homeboys by Celeste Fremon

7. G-Dog and the Homeboys: Father Greg Boyle and the Gangs of East Los Angeles by Celeste Fremon (2008). “If you can’t imagine a future, then you’re not going to care a lot about the present.” A fascinating journalistic story of an endearing priest who becomes an unlikely father figure and mentor to a group of mostly Hispanic gang members in Los Angeles. The love and shame, the tragedies and triumphs… an intense mixture of heartbreak and hope.

Improbable Planet by Hugh Ross

8. Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity’s Home by Hugh Ross (2016). Leading old-earth creationist Hugh Ross uses the latest advances in scientific knowledge to detail the “fine-tuning” of parameters that make the Earth a habitable place, with his argument that the added dimension of deep time makes the case for divine purpose more likely, not less, due to the remarkable interlocking events that had to continually occur in just the right order at just the right points over billions of years to make our world capable of supporting conscious beings. While he may oversell some of the most extraneous and more speculative aspects of tuning, the overall journey through cosmology and geology is probably a much more wondrous and intentional telling of the story then you’re used to hearing.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

9. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017). My only fiction for the year – an engaging story of a Korean family’s struggles living in twentieth-century Japan set against a true historical backdrop of war and discrimination. A few strong characters help anchor a story that could have easily lost me in its generational breadth. Despite the massive cultural and situational differences, I was struck by the incredible similarities of the “second-class” Korean experience in Japan to the African-American experience in the United States, revealing universal realities of human nature. Warning: to each their own, but I almost put it down once or twice due to the amount of sexual content.

Coddling of the American Mind by Lukianoff and Haidt

10. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (2018). Describing recent conflicts on college campuses and trends in parenting and the emergence of Gen-Z, Haidt and Lukianoff argue that good intentions and overreactions have influenced an indulgence of logical fallacies that are leaving people ill-equipped to handle the challenges of real life and increasingly susceptible to the dangers of polarization. While some of the connections they draw may not be entirely supported, and while some of their arguments are sure to enrage adherents of various political persuasions (in ironic proof of the various trends they describe), I found their charitable and sympathetic treatment of such highly-charged topics an important contribution to some of the most vexing cultural issues we face today.

My 2018 list

My 2017 list


Review: Santa Biblia by Justo Gonzalez

Santa Biblia by Justo GonzalezIn a small but illuminating book, Justo Gonzalez describes how aspects of the Latin American experience shape a perspective on the Bible (while carefully acknowledging nuance within and without) that has much to offer to the rest of the Church.

Chapter one discusses the Marginality that many Hispanics feel as Americans and how this reveals elements of marginality in Biblical stories that Christians at cultural “centers” more easily miss. Gonzalez focuses especially on the progressively inclusive expansion of the Church in the book of Acts, including hidden ironies in the elections of Matthias and Stephen, the surprising insider/outsider dynamics in the story of Peter and Cornelius, and how the support of “the people” turns to opposition “once the church begins to give positions of leadership to those who are even more marginal” than they. Gonzalez chides “enlightened, liberal people at the center” who welcome the marginalized “so long as there are not too many of them and they do not threaten the privileges of the center,” and gives examples “throughout the history of the church” of “some of the most exciting things” that have happened “at the edges.” He challenges a view of mission that “flows only in direction” where “the center can affect the periphery, but not vice versa,” stressing that Hispanic and other minority communities have much to offer to the rest of the Church and that “bringing the marginalized to the very center of God’s love and community is an essential part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Chapter Two discusses the role of Poverty. “It is no longer simply, what does the Bible say about the poor” but “what do the poor find in the Bible that is an important message to the entire church?” Gonzalez shows how the fourth commandment and the parable of the hired workers in the vineyard have expectations around work that are overlooked by more affluent communities (who focus more on the command to rest) but appreciated differently by poorer people who want to find work but are not able or allowed to. Gonzalez also provides additional perspective on the miracle of manna, the parable of the man asking a friend for food at night, and the sharing of the early church (noting there that it was not a “modern commune” as “ideological principle” “more typical of the middle and high classes where need is generally an abstraction,” but a practice more familiar to “many poor communities among Latinos” where goods are shared “because without it the community could not survive.”

Chapter Three discusses the status of Mestizaje (“mixing,” in terms of culture and/or ethnicity) that affects Hispanics in general and especially Hispanic Americans, and how this reveals elements of mixed heritage and culture in the Bible. Gonzalez discusses how Saul/Paul’s very name reflected a mixed identity familiar to many minorities, how the Greek-speaking Jew was such a powerful figure precisely “because he is a cultural mestizo,” and how the entire progression of the church in Acts and beyond directly involves such progressive, multi-directional “mixing.” Contrasting the Gospel with Manifest Destiny, Gonzalez discusses the difference between a “frontier” that implies mere “expansion” and a “border” that implies “interaction,” “in which advance also implies learning from the new context.”

Chapter Four discusses the identities of “Exiles and Aliens” in the Americas and in the Bible. We learn how the “ger” (stranger) in Israelite society was “protected by Yahweh” in a way “clearly different from the xenophobic attitudes that were prevalent in antiquity – how “the ger even serves a specific religious function in Israel, reminding the people that Israel too was alien in the land of Egypt.” Quoting Jeremiah’s “seek the welfare of the city,” Gonzalez encourages North Americans to view immigrants in terms of the blessings they can bring, while simultaneously encouraging immigrants to “think differently about themselves,” to see themselves as “givers” who are “active participants in future building.” We get another novel Biblical perspective via the story of Joseph, noting how Pharaoh had to be “willing to accept and to use the gifts of an alien slave.” In this view the story is not so much “about how good Christians” should “influence the powerful” but rather “how the powerful – particularly if they seek to do the will of God – must seek the alien, discover their gifts, and seek whatever wisdom and guidance those gifts might offer” in ways that might save both the native and the immigrant together!

Chapter Five discusses the role of Solidarity. Gonzalez notes how Latin Americans often feel the loss of extended family in Westernized culture (where the idealized and quickly dissolving “nuclear family” was possibly already part of a larger cultural decline), but how in the gospel there is a “spiritual house” for the homeless and a “holy nation” for those with no country (1 Peter 2), and a community where one body suffers and rejoice together.

Santa Biblia is an easy read that is full of fresh insight, both inspirational and challenging, and it’s a beautiful example of what American evangelical culture has to learn from other Christians whose different backgrounds can provide different perspectives on the same Bible that “has been so good” to all of us.


Favorite Books I Read in 2018

1. The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship, and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (2017). Thorpe reveals the experiences of refugee teenagers from all over the world as they endeavor to learn English and build new lives in America. From a Denver classroom to a Congo village, she doesn’t oversimplify the challenges or complexities, but invites us to ponder the juxtapositions of heart-breaking evil and beautiful, resilient goodness. To flee tragedy, overcome trauma, embrace opportunity,  doggedly succeed, and then look back and consider the obligation that success gives to the rest of the world – these refugees have much to teach and remind us what it truly means to be “American.” (My full review)

2. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014). Every chapter in this book wrecked me – and inspired me. With cinematic twists and turns, the true story follows a successful black man wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a white woman in the late 1980’s, offering a fascinating window into the depths of the American criminal justice system that have as much to do with class as race. Stevenson gives us a painfully close look at prejudice and injustice, but through the lens of the long-suffering commitment and neighborly, Christ-like love that leads to progress, redemption, and hope. (My full review)

3. Our 50-State Border Crisis by Howard G. Buffet (2018). The son of Warren Buffet draws on experience in philanthropy and law enforcement to present personal stories and explain everything from the political collapses of Central American countries to why desperate people flee for the United States to the ways coyotes and cartels take advantage of them along the way. With a palpably deep concern for all involved, Buffet significantly challenged my political views with a nuanced defense of both compassion and the rule of law, arguing that they must go together in a way that affirms some conservative ideas while also rejecting some of their current policies. (My full review)

4. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2017). From the trailer park to the inner city, walk a mile in the shoes of poor American renters and see how spiraling crises lead to getting evicted and struggling to find new places to live at the bottom of the moldy, cracked-window, broken-appliance rental market. This engaging narrative will help you understand the mindsets behind harmful short-term decisions and  long-term policy consequences, but also simply feel a little bit of what it’s like to be poor, whether you’re a conservative or liberal, Christian or secular humanist, who wants to love their neighbors and find positive, empowering ways to truly help those in need. (My full review)

5. Red Rising series by Pierce Brown (2014-2016). Fast-paced sci-fi thrillers with epic adventuring across the solar system. I almost quit early in the second book due to the gratuitous violence and the main character’s uncanny ability to always perfectly recover from said violence, but the astonishingly clever plot twists kept me going, and the subtle character developments and nuanced sociological world-building made me glad I finished the trilogy (although I just realized that apparently the author has kept going).

6. 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson (2018). If you push past the politicized reputations and read Peterson for yourself, you’ll find a cautious thinker ultimately concerned with how to respond to the tragedies of life and alleviate unnecessary suffering instead of buckling under the weight of it. Weaving metaphors and archetypes from history and religion, Peterson offers useful and thought-provoking wisdom about truth, listening, endurance, and more.


7. Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe by Simon Conway Morris (2004). A rare prominent evolutionary scientist who is also a committed Christian, Morris argues that the wonders of life and the universe are less random and more purposeful than most secular folks are willing to allow. Amidst a deep dive into convergent evolution, Morris also marvels at the “eerie perfection” of the genetic code, pokes fun at the irrational exuberance of abiogenesis researchers, elaborates on our finely-tuned placement in the galaxy, and more. (My full review)

8. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser (2013). With a nail-biting true story of a missile accident in Arkansas interspersed with a general history of nuclear weapons (full of under-appreciated close calls), Schlosser unsettlingly suggests that nuclear weapons have historically posed greater threats to the fallible humans trying to handle them than their enemies. I couldn’t put it down and learned a lot. (My full review)

9. The Hole in our Gospel by Richard Stearns (2009). Through a series of remarkable “coincidences,” Stearns left his role as CEO of a multi-million dollar fine china company to become the next president of World Vision. Stearns’ personal story adds a fresh touch to the well-worn but important genre of books challenging comfortable American Christians not to limit our faith to personal salvation and avoid a scary world in cocoons of luxury, but to sacrificially transform it by participating in Jesus’ building of the kingdom of God and establishing justice and righteousness on the earth. (My full review)

10. Big Dog, Little Dog by P. D. Eastman – An insightful metaphor on positive inter-class relationships and conflict resolution. So I good I read it over thirty times.




Honorable Mentions:

And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings by Madeleine L’Engle – I’d never heard of this non-fiction L’Engle work before I found it in a thrift store, but I enjoyed her thought-provoking unorthodox theological musings – from the communal dimension of what it means to be made in God’s image to her argument for using non-gendered pronouns for God.

Why I Left / Why I Stayed by Tony & Bart Campolo – A prominent evangelical and his son discuss why the one has stayed a Christian and why the other has left. (My full review)

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter – A looooong amusing and intellectually stimulating tome that uses computer concepts to explore patterns in music, art, and science.

The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright – A necessary addition to the conversation of how a lot of well-intentioned missionary work has gone terribly wrong and how it can become a little bit better.

Previous Installments:

2017 (#1: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes)
2016 (#1: Homage To A Broken Man)
2015 (#1: Ghettoside)


Review: Why I Left / Why I Stayed

Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son

Well-known evangelical author Tony Campolo, and his ex-evangelical humanist son Bart, trade chapters in a book that’s meant to be representative of the conversations they had after Bart left the faith. It’s not so much an apologetic debate (though there is certainly some of that), but more about relating their personal narratives and exploring what they each see as the philosophical implications of their beliefs. They discuss believing (or doubting) the basic tenets of Christianity, the pursuit of moral goodness in communities with or without God, the significance of death, and more.

Most of the people I know in this situation are evangelical Baby Boomer parents with ex-evangelical children. From the little I knew of both men prior to reading this book, I had assumed the Campolos more or less fit that scenario. But the Campolos are a generation removed from the audience they hope to encourage; Tony is north of eighty, and Bart north of fifty, the latter de-converting after decades of youth-rousing ministry following his father’s footsteps. Another interesting difference is that while most of the ex-evangelical Millennials I know have embraced a social-justice ethic in stark contrasts with their conservative forebears, the Campolos had both embraced that concern for the poor and marginalized from within Christianity, as part of their holistic understanding of the gospel. Of course, every individual and family narrative is unique, and readers will no doubt find fascinating and thought-provoking comparisons and contrasts. Despite the short book’s abundant weaknesses, it may serve a useful starting point for some families in similar situations.

Bart’s chapters are more articulate, as Tony himself admits (unfortunately, and perhaps a reflection of generational distance, I thought many of Tony’s arguments would seem trite and stale to my secular friends). I found myself in agreement with a lot of Bart’s remarks. I enjoyed his thoughts about death as a motivator to make the most of our limited time, the perspective of appreciating the very fact that we are alive at all, and the value of vicariously enjoying the joys and successes of others over resentment and bitterness – though I see all of that as perfectly fitting with a Christian worldview. Even beyond that, though, my overall outlook on the world is more “humanistic” than it used to be, but I find none of that at odds with my Christianity – in fact, I see it as the fundamental driver of that outlook (more on that below), and I would agree with Tony in affirming those things as evidence of the work of God within humanists like Bart, despite their firm denials.

I identified with the youthful radical passion of Christian Bart and his closest friends, and that attraction to Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace,” whatever the rest of the church seemed to be doing. But Bart saw a lot of suffering through his inner-city ministry, and he cited some of these up-close-and-personal encounters with the problem of evil as a major factor in his de-conversion. (While I haven’t been affected in the same way, I can relate in a parallel way; the greater my awareness of the poverty and persecution of deeply faithful Christians outside the United States, the greater my inoculation against the many flavors of prosperity gospel within this country.)

Many Christians can’t fathom alternative bases of morality without the Bible. Bart argues that even Bible-based moral systems are more subjective than Christians think, and he does a fair job defending his basic interest in human flourishing. But I’ve already trod that ground (a la Sam Harris), and I want to move beyond the binary question of whether secular people can be “evil” or “good” (from a humanistic standpoint, that is – from a Calvinistic standpoint we’re all totally depraved), and ask the more interesting question of how good people can be.

Considering the widening circles of concern that Bart alludes to – i.e. self, family, nation, species – I acknowledge that secular morality can rationally extend concern to all of those circles, yet I also assert that the level of concern naturally drops off with each level. The question of how good people can be could also be thought of as a question of how steeply a person’s concern for others drops off once they get past their immediate family. A “weak goodness” doesn’t want to hurt people, and hopes all people will prosper, but isn’t going to sacrifice too many personal conveniences to make that happen. In other words, it’s a goodness with steep slopes. By contrast, a “strong goodness” is what I see in the Christian ideal, which radically flattens those slopes. Jesus redefines the “neighbor” that you love to include foreigners and enemies. Every service for the “least” of humans is equivalent to serving Jesus himself. It all hearkens back to the original declaration that all human beings – male and female – are created in the “image of God.” Unfortunately, the lives of many Christians only reflect a “weak goodness,” but it is only the growing conviction of the true message of Christianity that has led me to pursue a stronger, flatter goodness.

Bart clearly still desires a radical love-your-neighbor-as-yourself “strong goodness,” but (in my view) he no longer has a compelling foundation to logically defend much more than a “weak goodness.” Bart agrees with Tony that humans “are hard-wired for heroism and can feel truly happy and fulfilled only when called upon to sacrificially use their gifts and energies in the service of a noble cause much bigger than themselves,” and Bart seems to think this truth justifies a global concern for the preservation of the human species. Clearly it does for some – look no further than the budding Effective Altruist movement. But while it’s all well and good to describe happy conversations with college students who already want to be “good without god,” I wondered what he would say to those whose concern for others drops off a steep slope once they get past their own selves and families.

The universal image of God is implicit in creationist theology, and it can be harmonized (with some challenges) into evolutionary theology, but the atheist’s evolution, with none of that divine intervention, seems to me to have plenty of justifications for steeper slopes. Is it necessarily best for the human species as a whole for all of its individuals to flourish, when that’s not true for any other evolved species under the sun? Without the image of God uniting us, without Jesus teaching that to serve the least is to serve Himself… shouldn’t different groups eventually diverge into separate species with separate outcomes?

Surely I’m not the only one who would at least entertain such thoughts apart from Christian doctrine. I view the post-Christian culture wars between social-justice humanists and alt-right nationalists through this paradigm, and I’m not convinced the humanists have much that’s compelling to persuade the nationalists to flatten their slopes; after all, they think they’re heroically saving civilization, too! The best at that flattening game right now, by far, is Jordan Peterson – and it’s no surprise to me that he’s doing it by digging into the astonishingly deep wells of the Bible, and cautiously leaving the door open to the truths of its fundamental metaphysical propositions!

Unlike many who have suffered more traumatic and tragic exits, Bart still has a largely positive view of the church, describing it as “one of the greatest community-building forces in history.” He now wants to recreate that community with his secular students, and he thinks it’s easier to build his secular community because he doesn’t have to drag along the supernatural propositions he always struggled to believe. But I’m not sure how interested I would be without the supernatural.

It’s not merely that I’m a selfish being who needs the threat of divine retribution to be good; I suspect I would maintain some form of self-interested “weak goodness,” and probably even pursue some level of life-fulfilling heroism. But at some point the principles of diminishing returns and the unavoidable uncertainty of outcomes would join forces with my selfish justifications. At least for me personally, to radically flatten the slope of my concern for all human beings, I don’t just need divine motivation. I need divine grace for my struggles and failures to live up to those ideals. I need divine power to guide me in specific directions toward fruitful opportunities. And most of all, I need the divine hope of ultimate victory to sustain me in spite of all the evil and suffering that remains.

I was surprised to read Bart claim that he’s still “very much attracted to the idea of a good and loving God who understands all that we don’t” and “utterly triumphs over both sin and death in the end,” and that he would “gladly swallow” a magic pill that would enable him to “truly believe all that again.” I found this statement hard to reconcile with his later arguments for some of the superiorities of his new worldview, and wondered how much of that was motivated reasoning. Perhaps he’s missing that divine hope more than he knows.

But I suppose Bart might say God didn’t give him enough of that divine hope and power, and without it his faith was unsustainable. What’s fascinating to me is that he hasn’t lost his desire for “strong goodness” which was always a part of his Christianity. I think I would be the opposite – without divine hope and power, I think my more recent desire for “strong goodness” would be unsustainable, and I would at least retreat at some level towards the weaker goodness of more nominal Christianity. But it’s also hard for me to guess because I think of my faith itself as having other independent supports. (Speaking of that, while both Campolos touched on the role of personal emotional experiences, with Tony seeing them as evidence of supernatural connection and Bart seeing them has nothing more than brain chemistry, I was surprised to see neither take a position on claims of personal miracles or other signs of external interventions, which have always played a strong role in my own apologetic.)

Of course, for all my armchair psychoanalytic attempts to rationally compare and contrast my worldview with Bart’s, I thought Tony made a good point about the “plausibility structures” of the people and influences with which we surround ourselves and which inform all of our beliefs more than we like to admit. Yet the way Tony described himself as “choosing” to believe felt a little wishy-washy and unsatisfying to me. By the end of the book, I wasn’t sure how much I agreed or disagreed with either man, but they did give me things to think about, and I applaud their efforts at modeling healthy relationships and conversations around disagreements about the most important things in the universe.


Favorite Books I Read in 2017

1. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and‎ Brandon J. O’Brien (2012). Don’t judge this book by its weird cover; it’s so good I read it twice. Shows how the way we read the Bible – and the way we criticize it – is more influenced by our cultural backgrounds than we realize, with plenty of mind-blowing examples covering language differences, honor/shame culture, paradigms about time, and many, many more, along with encouragement for overcoming such biases.


2. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Lu (2014 – English translation). Lu’s widely acclaimed Chinese science fiction trilogy (first book pictured) is a wild fast-paced thriller, cleverly weaving everything from the history of mathematics to the physics of interstellar travel to the sociology of alien interactions in a massive yet engaging story. The atheistic worldview tends more fatalistic than utopian, with the fates of entire civilizations whip-lashing darkly between unexpected rescue and utter annihilation, the ultimate outcomes ever unpredictable. I enjoyed this series on scientific, spiritual, and leisurely levels all at the same time.

3. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi (2014). A young man’s fascinating personal story of conversion from Islam to Christianity, through the dovetailing of intellectual apologetics and supernatural dreams, all in the context of a relationship with a great friend. In addition to being inspired and challenged, Christians who don’t currently know any Muslims can greatly benefit from the informed window into a compassionate American Muslim family’s life.


4. Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design by Perry Marshall (2015). Sort of an intelligent design guy – sort of an evolution guy – definitely a Christian – Marshall doesn’t fit into normal people’s boxes. He believes random mutations can’t lead to new life forms, and that cells are so complex that they point to a creator…. who gave those cells amazing tools to intelligently re-program their own DNA in response to new challenges and make evolution possible! Marshall popularizes the “natural genetic engineering” work of biologists like James Shapiro, making complicated concepts easy to understand. While critics on both sides question the implications, any science enthusiast – whatever your views – should enjoy reading about some of the really cool things we’ve been learning about cells in recent years.

5. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N. T. Wright (2006). A sort of Mere Christianity for a new generation, British scholar N. T. Wright lays out the fundamentals of the faith in a fresh and friendly fashion, describing how things have gone wrong in the world and how Jesus Christ is the solution, decorated with Lewis-like insights, analogies, and other delightful and encouraging remarks along the way. If you’ve become discouraged or disillusioned in recent years, you may find this book rejuvenating.


6. Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops by Charles Campisi (2017). As chief of the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” Campisi describes more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than many on either side of the policing debates may expect. Recommended for those who want to be more informed on these important matters (accompanied by Corey Pegues’ Once A Cop for an even more complete picture on the value of leadership, and the challenges of racial issues, related to making positive changes in New York City.)

7. Inside the Revolution by Joel Rosenberg (2009). A fair and informative book on the complex nature of modern Islam from a conservative perspective. I learned a lot about the recent history of Iran’s radical leaders, the impressive (and underappreciated) actions of moderate leaders to stamp out radicalism and reform Islam, and the accelerating growth of Christianity in the Arab world. This book is not short, but it’s written at a very accessible level that will keep you coming back until you finish.


8. Where is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox by Stephen Webb (2002). This is a really fun book that describes the history of the Fermi Paradox (the naturalist’s expectation that the universe should be full of life if there’s nothing special about its origin on Earth), and runs through a bunch of proposed explanations for its apparent absence, explaining why so many of the “obvious” ones aren’t that satisfying to many of the world’s top scientific minds. A mix of fun speculation and serious physics perhaps in the vein of Randall Munroe…


9. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee (2003). Packed with scientific information from cosmology, biology, geology, and more, this book highlights the the numerous properties that make life on Earth seem so special, even from a purely naturalistic perspective. The numerous long-term external dangers, and the internal connections between life and the oceans and atmosphere, combined with the numerous major extinction events in the conventional history, showed me that both attaining and maintaining life on a planet for billions of years is a much more amazing and wonderful “act of creation” than I had ever imagined.

10. Dear White Christian by Aaron Layton (2017). This short book by a Christian African-American leader in St. Louis is an honest, humble effort at reconciling our region’s racial divides. It does not present itself as the end-all be-all of these conversations, but perhaps the beginning for any white Christians interested in trying to see things from another person’s perspective.



Honorable Mentions:

Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace (2013)

Is God A Mathematician? by Mario Livio (2009)

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr. (2017)


Review: Inside the Revolution by Joel Rosenberg

This is a very fair and informative book on the complex nature of modern Islam and its implications for the world’s future. The book is divided into three sections covering “Radical” terrorists, moderate “Reformers,” and “Revivalists” converting to Christianity. Joel Rosenberg has a conservative right-wing perspective that strengthens the book in some places while weakening it in others, but the book’s greatest value is the vast content derived from direct, personal correspondence with people all over the world – Muslims, Christians, US government figures, Middle Eastern leaders, and more.

The “Radicals” section focuses on the history of Iran since the 1979 revolution and the ensuing effects on terrorist activity. There is a lot of really useful information here for anyone who wants to have a better understanding and context for current events involving Iran. That said, while I agree with Rosenberg that many dangerously underestimate the risks of Islamic terrorism, I think his bias may have overestimated the risk, which I think is borne out by the hindsight of the near decade since the book’s publication (Iran was apparently not 1-2 years away from a nuclear bomb, and the radical Ahmadinejad is no longer in power. In general I think Rosenberg’s missed expectations or interpretations may have been affected by placing too much emphasis on people’s spoken words, including some admittedly concerning poll results, rather than people’s revealed preferences through their actions, perhaps combined with potential nuances lost between languages and cultures.) Nevertheless, it’s a solid section and I learned a lot.

The “Reformers” section addresses not merely “moderate” Muslims as a general group – which Rosenberg says don’t get nearly enough attention or respect – but specifically focuses on Muslim government leaders across the Middle East and Africa, and their inspiring pro-active efforts to stamp out radical ideology and promote democratic freedoms in their countries. The king of Morocco is one such hero, but the star figure is Iraq’s first president Talabani, an experienced Kurdish Muslim seeking to unite his country’s divided groups against terrorism while building a relationship with Israel. This was the best information I’ve ever read on moderate Islam from any perspective, and it not only taught me a lot but made me very excited about the future political prospects for numerous Islamic countries. The author’s political bias shows through here with his unequivocal defense of the Iraq war, and US military interventions more generally, but he made a very compelling case for the positive outcomes of such American partnerships with Middle Eastern moderates. I don’t know if this information is so unfamiliar because the right doesn’t like to praise moderate Muslims and the left doesn’t like to praise Bush’s military adventures, but this section significantly impacted my views on the subject.

The final “Revivalists” section covers the accelerating growth of Christianity in Muslim countries. It talks about the supernatural dreams and visions that are well-known to anyone remotely familiar with this subject, and the different strategies and emphases of converted Muslim evangelists across the Middle East. The book’s earlier background about the effects of the Iranian Revolution helped me understand how the widespread disillusion among the largely nominal Muslim Iranian citizenry has created a wide-open door for the power of the Gospel, and, in contrast to some of the more fiery figures on the right, Rosenberg uses this section to highlight the crucial Christian themes of “loving your neighbor” and “loving your enemies.” The section’s primary weakness comes from trying to find too specific of connections to Biblical eschatology in current events, as the hindsight of a decade bears out. Overall, however, the section confirmed my existing optimism for the spiritual future of the Middle East.

With hundreds of pages packed full of information, this book is not a short read – but it’s written at a very accessible level that will keep you coming back until you finish. If you’re interested in a solid book from a Christian conservative perspective that will greatly improve your understanding of Islam in today’s world, I highly recommend it.


Review: Jesus Interrupted by Bart Ehrman

I tried to give Bart Ehrman’s criticisms of the Gospel texts as unbiased a hearing as possible by listening to the audiobook of Jesus, Interrupted. Not that I am fully unbiased, but I at least feel like I’m at a place where I might be less biased about Biblical criticisms, and generally more open to progressive interpretations, than I have ever been. I made it more than halfway through but was unable to finish, after too many frustrating arguments that seemed no more enlightened than the very fundamentalism the author was critiquing.

A few notes:

  • Ehrman is emphatic that there are real discrepancies between the Gospels which ignorant Christians overlook by never taking the time to read passages side-by-side and notice their obvious inconsistencies. He promotes some interesting examples, but the fundamental flaw in his argument that there are irreconcilable discrepancies is that they require not just modern Christians but the original readers and compilers of the Bible to have been unaware of them. He even argues for discrepancies within the book of Luke that would have required Luke himself to be unaware of them. It has always seemed more reasonable to me that potential discrepancies are a clue, not that the texts are errant, but that we are not approaching the texts the same way the original readers did. (The book Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes has certainly reinforced this idea for me.)
  • One type of alleged discrepancy regards the order of events in different tellings of the same story. Ehrman’s simplistic dismissals actually reminded me of young earth creationist (YEC) arguments alleging that there are geological layers in the wrong order, which prove the whole column is totally false. At a simple glance, the order does seem wrong in some cases, but there are more informed, nuanced explanations that account for more complexities that make sense, suggesting that certain parts can be out of order without falsifying the integrity of the total system. (In fact, there are even YEC interpretations that accept the order of the geological layers. In general, many of Ehrman’s complaints about the Bible reminded me of some forms of YEC complaints about modern science.)
  • Sometimes, Ehrman would set up straw men arguments. He would claim a discrepancy in the text, describe a bad explanation and dismiss it, while ignoring better explanations (example: Peter and the “six” crows to explain two different denial stories)
  • Some of Ehrman’s discrepancies were not event-based but claims of general thematic or theological differences. Leaving aside the question of whether thematic differences can simply be expressing different aspects of a complex truth, some of the claims simply felt like cherry-picking. Ehrman claims a discrepancy between Jesus’ anguish in Mark and his confidence in Luke – but Luke records his Gethsemane prayer, which certainly seems plenty anguished to me.
  • Ehrman’s criticisms of Paul’s letter felt no stronger. If 2 Thesslanonians is truly discrepant from 1 Thessalonians, why didn’t the early church notice it? There is an interesting point that Ephesians and Colossians seem to use different sentence structures; 10% of their sentences are “long” while Galatians and Philippians only have one each. Misreading Scripture suggests the common cultural practice of collaboration could easily account for these kinds of differences while still maintaining the truth of Paul’s direct, personal involvement.

Overall, while I believe there are many Biblical passages that may not be intended in as quite the literal, sequential, precise narrative sense that is the expectation of modern readers, I remain unconvinced that there is evidence to suggest that the texts could not have been divinely inspired or may have been subject to forgery, etc.


Review: Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.

Provides nuance to the story of mass incarceration in a way that challenges simplistic liberal and conservative narratives around racism, from the experienced perspective of a black public defense lawyer. It describes how and why punitive laws were built piece by piece throughout the country in response to drug and crime crises, specifically the role played by black leaders in majority-black cities.

The book details the growing alarm in black communities over rising crime and drug crises in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s that led to an increasing willingness to endorse harsher criminal justice measures in the face of limited options. The August 1979 cover of Ebony said “Black on Black Crime: The Causes, The Consequences, The Cures.” In another instance, “Rev. Jesse Jackson… pointed out that more blacks had been killed by other blacks in one year than had been lynched throughout history.” Eric Holder was an instrumental pioneer of pretext-stop policing, which ended up disproportionately punishing blacks for minor infractions, on the hopes that it would contain gun crime.

A chapter on the history of black policing taught me that black people were not even allowed to be police officers in many cities until halfway through the 20th century, and even then faced explicit discrimination and restrictions, such as not being allowed to arrest white people, and even after explicit racist practices were removed, unofficial discrimination continued for decades.

The book ends with the somewhat bittersweet hope that the excesses of mass incarceration can be undone, over time, just as it was built, piece by painstaking piece.


Review: Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi

Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops is Charles Campisi’s account of his service over multiple decades in the New York City Police Department (NYPD). As chief of the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), “the police who police the police,” it’s less a riveting narrative and more an organized collection of stories about catching crooked cops, peppered with Campisi’s opinions about all kinds of things related to police work and its public perception. The book will challenge both the dogmatic cop hater and the dogmatic cop apologist, describing more corruption in the police – but also police working harder to stamp out that corruption – than some on either side may expect.

Some of the stings to catch crooked cops are impressively elaborate. Some of the stories of criminal mistakes are downright (and occasionally darkly) hilarious. Overall, this is a very “pro-cop” book, contrasting the overwhelming majority of under-appreciated honest cops with the inevitable “bad apples” that Campisi spent his career expelling. Campisi takes ample opportunity to correct misconceptions, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of police work by those who don’t understand it from the outside (important things for informed cop critics to recognize). For example, sometimes a corruption story would hit the press, and they would be accused of hiding it if wasn’t for the media exposure, even though IAB had already spent hundreds of hours behind the scenes gathering evidence against the perpetrators. Campisi also presents compelling evidence that the modern NYPD is cleaner, more professional, more fair, and more effective than earlier periods in its admittedly troubled history.

On the flip side, Campisi clearly demonstrates the temptations of power and the constant vigilance required to minimize corruption (important things for informed cop supporters to recognize). The NYPD should be commended for specifically addressing these challenges – for example, forcing regular officers into two-year IAB stints to overcome the cultural perception of internal affairs as less-worthy “rats”. Yet the challenges remain formidable, and some of Campisi’s details suggest his opinions may be a little optimistic. The chance involved in some of the stings, and the difficulty of proving previous crimes, makes one wonder how many other incidents slip through. Campisi doesn’t think there’s a solid “blue wall of silence,” giving copious examples of good cops exposing bad cops, but he also shows the heavy cultural incentives cops have to overlook abuses. Even with the infamous travesty of Louima and the broken broom handle, while cops eventually exposed Volpe, they initially were silent, with union reps backing them up, making one wonder how often other things stay hidden.

The Louima story reveals another major shortcoming with the book: its treatment, or rather lack of treatment, on racial issues. “In a perfect world,” it wouldn’t matter that Louima was black and Volpe was white; Campisi understands that “in this world,” it does, but he doesn’t seem to understand why – as if the incident itself is independent from the world in which it occurred. He is astonished that Volpe did what he did and unable to explain it, seemingly oblivious even to the possibility that a dehumanizing attitude toward black people could have played any role in allowing it. Campisi also only sees positives to the city’s “stop, question, and frisk” policy, as if its large effects on innocent minorities are acceptable collateral damage in the war on crime, and not counterproductive to it, and he predicts ominously that its severe reduction will lead to increased crime. But crime has only decreased to new record lows in the two years since. Campisi’s remarks still include some useful facts and perspective, but for better coverage of NYPD’s relationship with minorities, see Corey Pegue’s highly riveting Once A Cop. (Campisi also cautions against having too much “community” in “community policing,” saying “muggers and armed robbers are never going to show up at a Community Council meeting to discuss their problems.” While there’s an overall point to be made, the violence-reducing gang-member call-ins described in David Kennedy’s Don’t Shoot come pretty close to that!)

This brings me to two striking threads common in books on the NYPD. The first is the remarkable contrast between New York City’s current and past crime levels. Major categories like homicides have now dropped almost 90% from their peaks (so have “officer-involved shootings”). Visceral descriptions of NYC’s lawlessness of, say, the late 70’s, always give me hope that if they could turn things around from there, it’s never too late for my city of St. Louis, either. The second, however, is that NYC has an apparent advantage in its sheer size. NYPD has a force of over thirty-six thousand officers! Their IAB has more officers than some city’s entire forces, and they can afford to set up elaborate stings and throw resources in various directions. And positive changes can have positive effects on millions of people. Both threads are demonstrated in dramatic fashion throughout this book.

Many people have polarizing attitudes toward police officers, though most of us want the same things: safe streets, low crime, and a fair application of justice for all. Maybe Campisi’s book can be a resource towards that end. While there may be major disagreements about how systemic “bad cops” are, perhaps we can all agree on the importance of stopping their bad activities, from the injustices they inflict on their victims to the ways they ruin the good names of other officers. Perhaps people from opposite sides can join in hearty cheers when Campisi expresses indignation that “too often” the PBA union “seem to forget that every cop’s most basic sworn duty is not only to enforce the law, but also to obey it.” If nothing else, perhaps this book can at least help people who like to express their opinions on these important matters to be just a little more informed.


Review: Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today
Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book provides a solid mainline perspective on understanding the Bible. Hamilton summarizes the content and themes of the Bible and also addresses many good questions people have about it, offering reasonable answers to skeptics while simultaneously gently challenging the inflexible views of many evangelicals. As someone raised generally evangelically without a clear representation of the mainline perspective, I found it helpful in dispelling many false dichotomies that come with interpreting the Bible, and the way it made alternate viewpoints feel less threatening.

Hamilton challenges the popular evangelical idea that “if you can’t trust part of the Bible you can’t trust any of it” by noting that we don’t apply the same principle to trusted teachers and preachers we find fallible yet helpful. He also makes a strong argument that the evangelical definition of “inerrancy” has enough caveats to be almost meaningless (if modern variances or inconsistencies exist because only the original manuscripts were “God-breathed,” but none of the original manuscripts were preserved, than what was the point?). Supporting his “helpful but not necessarily infallible” view is a claim that the “God-breathed” phrase in Timothy, often invoked in defense of inerrancy, was also used to describe early church writings that have never been viewed in the same light. (I am interested in researching this further.)

Even as I appreciated the chance to become – if not totally convinced – at least more open-minded – about a less rigorous yet still solidly Christian understanding of Scripture, I occasionally found his evangelical challenges unconvincingly unimaginative. For example, he claims that the location of Jesus’ ascension is irreconcilably contradictory across the Gospels, which I did not find when I sympathetically reviewed the texts. I also found his attempts to reconcile an affirming stance on homosexuality with an inerrant interpretation surprisingly weak and clearly refutable; I remain convinced you cannot do that without also abandoning inerrancy. And while I am not necessarily opposed to the principle of using Jesus’ words to essentially override other parts of Scripture (while many evangelicals would never echo Hamilton’s language, in practice they are often similar), I’m not sure his approach to interpreting the Old Testament’s violent passages through Jesus is actually based on a comprehensive view of Jesus himself.

Overall, I found Hamilton’s book an excellent presentation of a viewpoint that I found to be much less hollow and inconsistent than I once suspected before I had actually read some of its stronger defenses. I think it would be helpful, both for the reputation of Christianity and for the saving of souls, if evangelicals were more familiar with the existence of this viewpoint, and in less agreement with their equally dogmatic secular opponents that one must either accept every evangelical interpretation or reject Christianity altogether.

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