After spending a little more than a year doing research for a set of essays I’ve been writing (I’ll be publishing them in 2020), I’ve noticed that there are some important works that aren’t as widely known in the Christian world as they might be. These works have unique viewpoints that do more than convey knowledge…they change perspective. While I would ultimately recommend a lot more books than just the five listed below, these seemed to be a good start.
As you look at the recommendations, I would remind you that I’m not recommending these books because I agree with everything in them. I’m recommending them because they have challenged my thinking and forced me to ask new questions (in my mind, one of the most important characteristic of a good book). With that in mind….here is the list.
- Stephen Pickard, Seeking the Church: An Introduction to Ecclesiology
When I think about the problems facing the body of Christ today, it is difficult for me not to list a lack of a robust understanding of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) as one of the major issues. In Seeking the Church, Pickard offers a more fluid ecclesiology oriented toward a process of conveying God’s multifaceted, manifold wisdom. He does a good job of highlighting the Christian journey as part of what it means to be the church. At one point, Pickard notes, “Seeking God, seeking one another, embodying this search through the life of the Church; these things are mutually involving…” As Christians, we should be concerned about developing a deep, rich ecclesiology. Pickard’s work seems to me to be a great place to start.
- Paul Johnson, Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky
Johnson’s work evaluates the “moral and judgmental credentials of intellectuals to tell mankind how to conduct itself.” The book evaluates a number of thought leaders who have sought to reforge the imaginations of society. As Johnson notes, “For the first time in human history, and with growing confidence and audacity, men arose to assert that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects: more, that they could devise formulae whereby not merely the structure of society but the fundamental habits of human beings could be transformed for the better. Unlike their sacerdotal predecessors, they were not servants and interpreters of the gods but substitutes. Their hero was Prometheus, who stole the celestial fire and brought it to earth.” Intellectuals takes a critical look at a variety of thought leaders. It raises questions about the relationship between expertise and morality. such questions seem particularly relevant in a culture given to celebrity, “influencers,” and fandom.
- Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race
The Christian Imagination has quickly become one of my favorite theological books. Jennings offers a complex, fresh approach to issues of race. He raises concerns about our loss of a theology of place noting, “The deepest theological distortion taking place is that the earth, the ground, spaces, and places are being removed as living organizers of identity and as facilitators of identity.” Far from the sort of polarized discourse on race that too often dominates public (and Christian) dialogues, Jennings constructs an important theological argument that conveys both deep passion and deep intellect.
- Mitchell Stephens, Beyond News: The Future of Journalism
In a world of “fake news,” Stephens does more than call out those who promote false stories in the media. His most important contribution (in my opinion) is his critique of what has come to count as journalism. He calls for a new sort of journalism…a wisdom journalism. This sort of journalism does not simply present facts, but communicates the stories of the day with an appropriate combination of “logic” and “language.” It “does not withhold opinion, but it should be opinion that is not only fair to other points of view but has been tested and strengthened by exposure to contrary opinion.” Beyond News is a reminder that those to whom we listen wield a great deal of influence and that such influence has begun to be taken lightly. As Stephens notes, “Journalism that leaps out ahead of the evidence, that is surer than it has reason to be sure, that pontificates, spouts, hazards guesses, or ‘tells’ when it is indeed ‘too soon to tell’ is not the kind of journalism I see leading the way out of the current crisis.”
- Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind
Last, but not least, The Coddling of the American Mind provides a sobering analysis of the state of the current culture of safety and victimization. Along the way, they critique the intellectual climate in America, particularly the intellectual dynamics on the rise within academia. The book offers thought-provoking treatments of the three “untruths” of fragility, emotional reasoning, and “us versus them.” They advocate for a strategy that involves “seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that ‘feels unsafe’), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).”
Each of the books noted above has something to say to our contemporary lives as Christians. Pickard and Jennings speak to issues in an explicitly theological manner, yet we should not ignore the insights offered by Johnson on the critical evaluation of those considered thought leaders and intellectuals, Stephens on journalism and the media, or Lukianoff and Haidt on the challenges of our current culture and the deceptive untruths that seem to be driving so much conversation today. The books are both compelling and challenging with the capacity to reorient the way in which we see the word around us and how we might respond differently as we seek to offer faithful Christian testimony to a world that needs to know God.