I read 68 non-fiction books in 2021. Most were social history and the rest were theology. This year was marked by (1) a broadening of my own horizons about the church’s mission and its responsibility to society, (2) a realization that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is not a trustworthy organization, (3) a deeper exploration of the more unpleasant side of American evangelicalism, and (4) a study of American social history and its nexus to American evangelicalism over the past 100 years.
My top six
I don’t chose these because they’re “the best.” I chose them because they influenced me the most, or made me think deeply. Too many people (pastors and theologians) only read the same people, saying the same things, in the same way. The conclusions are foregone. Why bother? Don’t read your 800th book on justification by faith written by a guy from the same Reformed sub-culture that produced the other 799 books you read. Break out of the bubble, man!
So, here are my top six for 2021:
One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse. A very, very good book about the origins of the Religious Right. This was a watershed book for me. Perhaps the best book I read in 2021.
At heart this book seeks to challenge Americans’ assumptions about the basic relationship between religion and politics in their nation’s history. For decades now, liberals and conservatives have been locked in an intractable struggle over an ostensibly simple question: Is the United States a Christian nation? This debate, largely focused on endless parsing of the intent of the founding fathers, has ultimately generated more heat than light. Like most scholars, I believe the historical record is fairly clear about the founding generation’s preference for what Thomas Jefferson memorably described as a wall of separation between church and state, a belief the founders spelled out repeatedly in public statements and private correspondence.
This scholarly consensus, though, has done little to shift popular opinion. If anything, the country has more tightly embraced religion in the public sphere and in political culture in recent decades. And so this book begins with a different premise. It sets aside the question of whether the founders intended America to be a Christian nation and instead asks why so many contemporary Americans came to believe that this country has been and always should be a Christian nation.One Nation Under God, KL 240
Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein. This is a truly essential book. The preface and the first chapter will always stay with me. Here’s an excerpt:
It is hard, now, to grasp just how profoundly the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted between 1964 and today. Think of a senator winning the Democratic nomination in the year 2000 whose positions included halving the military budget, socializing the medical system, re-regulating the communications and electrical industries, establishing a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, and equalizing funding for all schools regardless of property valuations—and who promised to fire Alan Greenspan, counseled withdrawal from the World Trade Organization, and, for good measure, spoke warmly of adolescent sexual experimentation. He would lose in a landslide. He would be relegated to the ash heap of history. But if the precedent of 1964 were repeated, two years later the country would begin electing dozens of men and women just like him. And not many decades later, Republicans would have to proclaim softer versions of these positions just to get taken seriously for their party’s nomination. The analogy wouldn’t be exaggerating what has happened since 1964 too much. It might even be underplaying it …Before the Storm, KL 83.
And one more:
Scratch a conservative today—a think-tank bookworm at Washington’s Heritage Foundation or Milwaukee’s Bradley Foundation (the people whose studies and position papers blazed the trails for ending welfare as we know it, for the school voucher movement, for the discussion over privatizing Social Security) ; a door-knocking church lady pressing pamphlets into her neighbors’ palms about partial-birth abortion; the owner of a small or large business sitting across the table from a lobbyist plotting strategy on how to decimate corporate tax rates; an organizer of a training center for aspiring conservative activists or journalists; Republican precinct workers, fund-raisers, county chairs, state chairs, presidential candidates, congressmen, senators, even a Supreme Court justice—and the story comes out. How it all began for them: in the Goldwater campaign.
It was something more than just finding ideological soul mates. It was learning how to act: how letters got written, how doors got knocked on, how co-workers could be won over on the coffee break, how to print a bumper sticker and how to pry one off with a razor blade; how to put together a network whose force exceeded the sum of its parts by orders of magnitude; how to talk to a reporter, how to picket, and how, if need be, to infiltrate—how to make the anger boiling inside you ennobling, productive, powerful, instead of embittering. How to feel bigger than yourself. It was something beyond the week, the year, the campaign, even the decade; it was a cause. You lost in 1964. But something remained after 1964: a movement. An army. An army that could lose a battle, suck it up, regroup, then live to fight a thousand battles more. Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?—that was how William F. Buckley entitled an anthology of conservative writings in 1970. Later that year, his brother won a Senate seat from New York with the backing of the state’s Conservative Party. The dream was walking. Maybe it wasn’t even just an army. Maybe it was a moral majority.Before the Storm, KL 127-136. Emphases added.
The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr. See my review. See also my article critiquing the often vicious pushback she and Kristen Du Mez continue to receive from white, male theologians associated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
For me, Barr’s book is more than the sum of its parts. I believe her attempts to tie the inerrancy movement to “patriarchy,” and her failure to define “patriarchy” anywhere in the book were mistakes. Yet, it’s value to me is that it was an introduction to critiques of complementarianism. For that, I’ll always be grateful.
For all my adult life, I had served in ministry with my husband, remaining in complementarian churches even as I grew more and more skeptical that “biblical womanhood” as we had been taught matched what the Bible taught. I kept telling myself that maybe things would change—that I, as a woman who taught and had a career, was setting a positive example. I kept telling myself that complementarianism (the theological view that women are divinely created as helpers and men are divinely created as leaders) wasn’t at its root misogynistic. I kept telling myself that no church was perfect and that the best way to change a system was by working from within it. So I stayed in the system, and I stayed silent.
I stayed silent when a woman who worked at a Southern Baptist church and attended seminary alongside my husband was paid less by that church because she wasn’t ordained. Ironically, the reason she wasn’t ordained was because the church was Southern Baptist.
I stayed silent when a newly married woman whose job carried the family insurance quit that job after attending a retreat with women from our church—a retreat that featured a hardline complementarian speaker who convinced this woman that her proper place was in the home. Her decision, from what I heard, caused tension within the family, including financial. She stopped coming to church. I have no idea what happened to her.
I stayed silent when, after our pastor preached a sermon on gender roles, a married couple gave their testimony. The wife encouraged women to verbally agree to what their husbands suggested, even if they really disagreed. God would honor their submission.
I stayed silent when I wasn’t allowed to teach youth Sunday school because the class included teenage boys. I led discussions with special permission when no one else was available.
I stayed silent.
It wasn’t until that Sunday, three months after the worst had happened, that I realized the hard truth. By staying silent, I had become part of the problem. Instead of making a difference, I had become complicit in a system that used the name of Jesus to oppress and harm women.
And the hardest truth of all was that I bore greater responsibility than most in our church because I had known that complementarian theology was wrong.Making of Biblical Womanhood, pp. 3-5
A Manual for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. He is the best preaching teacher working in the United States, today. You need his books.
Christianity and the Social Crisis Walter by Walter Rauschenbusch. This might be one of the most paradigm-shifting books I’ve ever read. Very convicting and very good criticism of the “just preach the Gospel” flavor of Christianity. There are clear affinities here with the liberation theologies from Latin American that came to the fore about 50 years later. Though Rauschenbusch is hetero-orthodox in some places, he is a must-read. Your teachers and theological gate-keepers may tell you to stay away from him and his “social gospel.” Ignore that advice. Chew the meat and spit out the bones. There are some big bones, here. But, there’s also a lot of meat. Read it.
As long as a man sees in our present society only a few inevitable abuses and recognizes no sin and evil deep-seated in the very constitution of the present order, he is still in a state of moral blindness and without conviction of sin. Those who believe in a better social order are often told that they do not know the sinfulness of the human heart. They could justly retort the charge on the men of the evangelical school. When the latter deal with public wrongs, they often exhibit a curious unfamiliarity with the forms which sin assumes there, and sometimes reverently bow before one of the devil’s spider-webs, praising it as one of the mighty works of God.
Regeneration includes that a man must pass under the domination of the spirit of Christ, so that he will judge of life as Christ would judge of it. That means a revaluation of social values. Things that are now “exalted among men” must become “an abomination” to him because they are built on wrong and misery. Unless a man finds his judgment at least on some fundamental questions in opposition to the current ideas of the age, he is still a child of this world and has not “tasted the powers of the coming age.” He will have to repent and believe if he wants to be a Christian in the full sense of the world.Christianity and the Social Crisis, p. 88
The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in a Small American Town by Brian Alexander. One of the best books I read in 2021. Sobering. Eye-opening. Engaging. It provides a snapshot of America’s “health care system” through the prism of a small, private, rural hospital in Bryan, Ohio.
A lot had changed in Bryan, though you couldn’t tell at first glance. From his office high up on the hospital’s fourth floor, Ennen could see across High Street to the white water tower with the big blue BRYAN on it, the letters leaning forward as if to announce that the “Fountain City” had momentum. He could see the Spangler Candy Company plant—the Dum Dums lollipop people—sprawled below the water tower. The company had been there for over a hundred years. He could see the railroad tracks beyond and the freight cars headed east and west, day and night, and the trees in their winter nakedness and the flat farm fields to the north, raked by the wind that never seemed to stop. If, as a boy, he had walked up to the top of the county courthouse and looked out of the tower, the picture would have been the same.
Bryan didn’t look different, but it was. Up High Street toward Main, and on the other side of Main, there was the trouble. There were about 36,800 preternaturally homogenous people spread over Williams County’s 421 square miles of tiny villages, fields, and lakes, but there could be as much as eight years’ difference in average life expectancy from one part of the county to the next, and even from one part of tiny Bryan to the next.
Such disparities played out in Ennen’s hospital every day. It was playing out three floors below him right then. He’d attended Bryan High with Marc Tingle. Their paths were already diverging as teenagers, and would diverge even more over the coming decades, until the village contractor with the dentures and the bad heart found himself dying in the CEO’s hospital.
As it happened, what was true in Williams County was true all over America, including places with huge healthcare systems and giant universities with medical schools. America had spent a century arguing about medical care but had not settled a thing. After all that time, all that arguing, and all that money, America was sick, and getting sicker and dying earlier with every passing year. Ennen and his shop were supposed to do something about that, but what—especially when the hospital was struggling to stay afloat? And what had created those differences in the first place? Could a hospital, even a financially secure one, intervene in any meaningful way? In many cases, CHWC was a Band-Aid station, though not the kind its local detractors implied. It was a battlefield clinic in an amorphous and mutating social and economic war that was killing people.
The weapons used against the people CHWC cared for were as deadly as any disease: Both the Ohio and the federal minimum wages were less than they were forty years before, after adjusting for inflation. Pensions had disappeared. Unions had been driven out of workplaces. As they were, wages fell and more of the nation’s wealth flowed to its richest people. Consolidated industries and financial engineers ruled the lives of employees. And as inequality spiked, health insurance evolved into an unaffordable, often useless racket. The hospital took in the casualties, patched them up, and released them back into what had become a one-sided conflict.The Hospital, pp. 8-10
The rest of ’em
This doesn’t mean these books aren’t good. I enjoyed most of them, liked many, and loved some. Here they are:
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Du Mez. A giant sledgehammer to the knees of the conservative evangelical sub-culture. A great book. Don’t listen to the gatekeepers who tell you it’s dangerous or wrong, or who say “yeah, but …” There are not “buts.” Buy it. Read it. Don’t be like these Christians.
The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll. An informative monograph on the interpretive morass that resulted when competing cultural narratives used the scriptures to justify their positions. I need to read it again.
The Christian and Social Responsibility by Charles Ryrie. I remember think this book was interesting, but I remember next to nothing about it. Make of that what you will! Ryrie advocates that the church eschew social issues and focus on the Gospel. It’s short. If you come from a white, conservative evangelical background, Ryrie is likely where you’re coming from.
Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson. Entertaining. It was cotton-candy history. Light survey on key themes with “lessons” for today. Nothing deep. Just enough to make you feel a little morally superior for having read it!
The History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500 by Kenneth Latourette. Masterful. Fascinating. A real tour de force, if you’re into history. Latourette was a true Renaissance man in the Christian history field. I read this book slowly, in the evenings, over perhaps four months. It gave me great appreciation for Christian traditions not my own, and broadened my horizons along that line in many intangible ways.
A fundamentalist I am familiar with dismissed Latourette as “a liberal,” which means Latourette wasn’t precisely the same flavor of Christian as he. Well, I say that’s a good thing! Latourette’s text used to be the standard Christian history survey at many seminaries, but has largely been displaced by Justo Gonzalez (and others). Well worth reading.
Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement by Gustaf Aulen. Ground breaking. Paradigm shattering. I had never seriously considered the Christus Victor theory of atonement before, though I believed it. I think it complements penal, substitutionary atonement quite well. I preached the 2021 Easter sermon on Christus Victor.
A Holy Baptism of Fire and Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War by James P. Byrd. An eye-opening study of the ways both sides used (and twisted) Scripture to make it say what suited their purposes, during the Civil War. This is a grave cautionary tale for leaders today who wish to use God’s word to magically justify their own position, seemingly oblivious to the need for any introspection. Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible is a case in point.
Divorce and Remarriage in the Church by David Instone-Brewer. Very helpful study that conludes Christians may indeed divorce, under certain circumstances. I used it extensively when I wrote my long position statement on Christian divorce, earlier this year.
Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea. Indispensible. Evangelicals must read this book. They’ll recognize a lot.
The Minister as Diagnostician by Paul Pruyser. An interesting little book. I purchased it to give me some insight for counseling. I thought it was helpful.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mills. Very, very interesting. Mills essentially says everyone ought to be allowed to do anything he wishes, unless it infringes on someone else’s liberty. An enlightening discussion on political theory … and a cautionary tale about how folks consider morality and the public square without a revelation from God.
As One Without Authority by Fred Craddock. A good book on preaching.
Solving Marriage Problems by Jay Adams. Helpful. Adams is always to the point and full of good counseling advice for pastors.
Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation by Allan Ross. A good overview of worship throughout the Scriptures.
Protestant Biblical Interpretation (3rd) by Bernard Ramm. Very good discussion on hermeneutics.
The Problem of the Old Testament by Duane Garrett. An outstanding book. Garrett’s discussion of a via media between covenant theology and dispensationalism as regards the relationship of Israel and the Church was groundbreaking, for me.
Without Precedent by Joel Paul. A biography of John Marshall.
Stalin: Breaker of Nations by Robert Conquest. A great biography of a truly evil man.
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Ron Perlstein. Perhaps the most stunning work of history I’ve ever read. This was my entree to Perlstein’s quartet history of the modern conservative movement.
Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976 – 1980 by Rick Perlstein. The same.
With Reverence and Awe by D.G. Hart and John Meuther. A truly awful book written by neo-Puritan, worship fundamentalists who disdain anyone who isn’t like them. The most wretched book on worship I’ve ever read. I considered burning it after reading, because I got the impression the authors would gladly do the same to me. I wrote an article on a related topic.
Worship in Song by Scott Aniol. A helpful perspective on worship.
The Conservative Church by David DeBruyn. Meh.
Anatomy of Hymnody by Austin Lovelace. I understood nothing the author said. Literally nothing.
With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America by William Martin. A great history of the Religious Right. Outstanding work.
The Gospel-Driven Church by Jared Wilson. A good book. Wilson’s target appears to be younger pastors who are disillusioned with the shallow, hipster version of attractional Christianity. That isn’t me, but I still appreciated his book.
Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell. Probably the most helpful book on worship a pastor can own.
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic (1789 – 1815) by Gordon Wood. Part of the Oxford History of the United States series. A good book.
Engaging with God by David Peterson. A very, very good book on worship that goes beyond arguments about the regulative or normative principles.
Your God is Too Small by J.B. Phillips. Very powerful little book.
From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race by J. Daniel Hays. An eye-opening and revolutionary look at what the bible says about race. Moses’ second wife was black!
The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. This is a very provocative little book that will challenge any Christian. McKnight’s burden is to make us realize that we all read the Scriptures through our own interpretive lenses, and we ought to know that, admit it, and account for it so we can read the Bible the right way. He has a long discussion on women in ministry, as an example of how we often do this. McKnight is an egalitarian, and that may offend some readers.
What I learned was an uncomfortable but incredibly intriguing truth: Every one of us adopts the Bible and (at the same time) adapts the Bible to our culture. In less appreciated terms, I’ll put it this way: Everyone picks and chooses. I know this sounds out of the box and off the wall for many, but no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, it’s true. We pick and choose. (It’s easier for us to hear “we adopt and adapt,” but the two expressions amount to the same thing.) I believe many of us want to know why we pick and choose. Even more importantly, many of us want to know how to do this in a way that honors God and embraces the Bible as God’s Word for all times.The Blue Parakeet, p. 13
A Vision for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. Buy it. Read it. Do it.
“Theology of the Pentateuch” by Eugene Merrill, in Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, edited by Roy Zuck. An extremely good, insightful discussion.
Introducing Liberation Theology by Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff. Short, accessible, thought-provoking introduction to a very important topic. There is much to learn, here.
How to Preach the Psalms by Kenneth Langley. A good little book.
The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David M. Potter. If you want to know the context that lead to the Civil War, then you need this book.
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of a Nation by Rick Perlstein. Slower moving than Perlstein’s other books in the quartet. He paints a very dark, very bleak picture of America in the early 1970s.
White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin Kruse. A horrifying, eye-opening look at a very evil issue. One of the best books I read in 2021. Christians should be shocked.
The Second Founding: How Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution by Eric Foner. To paraphrase Gandalf the Grey, “I have no memory of this book.” I remember nothing about it, but I do know I read it.
The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson by Bernard Bailyn. I’ve felt sorry for poor Hutchinson ever since I tread about how a mob destroyed his home, way back in my community college days. This is a good biography of a staid, intelligent civil servant who found himself outdone by events he couldn’t understand.
Second Treatise on Civil Government by John Locke. Very interesting reading.
Christian Democracy: Principles and Policy-making. A position paper on the Christian Democrat philosophy, from Germany. This is the brand of political philosophy I most align with. The American version of this perspective is the American Solidarity Party.
Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal by George Packer. A thoughtful book. It’s four-fold taxonomy of the spectrum of “different America’s” is very good. I will use it as a framework for some time to come. If you want to read a short book about “how we got to where we are” in America, you can’t do better than this. This is not a partisan screed.
10 Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health by Donald Whitney. It’s a classic for a reason. I will use it for a book study at church, in 2022.
The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller. The most helpful, balanced boo on marriage I’ve seen. I use this for marriage studies in a variety of contexts.
Leadership in Christian Ministry by James Means. A good, older book on pastoral leadership. Good reminders, in here.
Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship by Swee Hong Lim & Lester Ruth. A great, short history of a topic that’s controversial in some circles.
Jerry Falwell and the Rise of the Religious Right: A Brief History with Documents by Matthew A. Sutton. It’s what it sounds like. A good, short overview of the Religious Right by Sutton, followed by well-chosen and enlightening primary source documents on various aspects of the movement. A great resource.
The Making of a Battle Royal: The Rise of Liberalism in Northern Baptist Life 1870-1920 by Jeffrey P. Straub. If you want a good primer on the context for the fundamentalist-modernist controversies, this book will do it. A good book.
O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church by Robert G. Rayburn. A wonderful book; right up there with Bryan Chapell’s book.
Thoughtful Christianity: Alvah Hovey and the Problem of Authority within the Context of Nineteenth-Century Northern Baptists by Matthew C. Shrader. A thoughtful and engaging history of a towering, very influential but rarely studied Baptist leader in the mid-to-late 19th century.
Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook by Mark Futato. Read this today, for an upcoming DMin class. Very basic. Read something very similar at seminary, years ago. Probably why I found it so unhelpful. Not bad, just really “ho, hum.” Like a flat, warm Diet Coke. Not author’s fault. It’s just basic.
Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce. A sobering look at the hard-core edge of the American complementarian spectrum. I believe the CMBW-flavor of compartmentarianism is hetero-orthodox at points, and that Christian patriarchy is even more troubling.
Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of an All-American Town by Brian Alexander. If you want to understand the hopelessness that pervades too many small towns in America, this is the book to read. The description:
In 1947, Forbes magazine declared Lancaster, Ohio the epitome of the all-American town. Today it is damaged, discouraged, and fighting for its future. In Glass House, journalist Brian Alexander uses the story of one town to show how seeds sown 35 years ago have sprouted to give us Trumpism, inequality, and an eroding national cohesion.
The Anchor Hocking Glass Company, once the world’s largest maker of glass tableware, was the base on which Lancaster’s society was built. As Glass House unfolds, bankruptcy looms. With access to the company and its leaders, and Lancaster’s citizens, Alexander shows how financial engineering took hold in the 1980s, accelerated in the 21st Century, and wrecked the company. We follow CEO Sam Solomon, an African-American leading the nearly all-white town’s biggest private employer, as he tries to rescue the company from the New York private equity firm that hired him. Meanwhile, Alexander goes behind the scenes, entwined with the lives of residents as they wrestle with heroin, politics, high-interest lenders, low wage jobs, technology, and the new demands of American life: people like Brian Gossett, the fourth generation to work at Anchor Hocking; Joe Piccolo, first-time director of the annual music festival who discovers the town relies on him, and it, for salvation; Jason Roach, who police believed may have been Lancaster’s biggest drug dealer; and Eric Brown, a local football hero-turned-cop who comes to realize that he can never arrest Lancaster’s real problems.
Preaching with Variety by Jeffrey Arthurs. It was ok.
Interpreting the Parables (2nd ed.) by Craig Blomberg. Outstanding guide. I am persuaded the parables are allegory.
The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes by Derek Kidner. Disappointing.
The Parables of Jesus by Dwight Pentecost. If you’re a dispensationalist who wants eisigetical comfort food, this book is for you.
Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus by Klyne Snodgrass. An exhaustive, dictionary-like resource on the parables.
Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla. Buy it. Read it. Do it.