Another year and there are many, many more books to read. If that statement feels more like a celebration than an arduous demand, this post is for you. I buy an inordinate amount of books each year, so I’m firmly in the former category. Below are the best theology books of 2016, categorized by their movie genre equivalent. You can click here for the accompanying podcast. Happy Reading!
The Best Pixar Films (Abreactive Theology Books)
John Newton’s Falling into Grace
A book for those of us who have ever failed and found themselves in dire straits–that is, all of us. Newton writes for broken sinners in need of the boundless grace of God without sounded heavy-handed, with great sympathy and care, attentive references to scripture, and fun examples throughout. For a taste, watch his talks from OKC.
Mark Galli’s Beautiful Orthodoxy
In the space of roughly 75 pages, Galli offers a compelling vision of orthodox belief as a fulfillment of human longing for goodness, truth, and beauty. Creative and witty, Galli expansively articulates for a modern audience Augustine’s maxim that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee, O Lord”.
Honorable Mention: David Dark’s Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious – one of the more astute cultural commentaries this year. If you enjoyed Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic, this is for you.
The Best Comicbook Films (Books on Reformation Heroes):
Robert Kolb’s Martin Luther and the Enduring Word of God
You may not have heard, but 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the dawn of the Reformation. Ahead of this celebration, opportunistic publishers have been putting out new books on Luther left and right (PLT!). Of the books published so far, Kolb’s is the most interesting. It is a magnificent book that examines the use and interpretation of scripture by Luther and the subsequent Reformation he initiated.
If you like Luther even a little, get ready for enough reading material to carry you through the year–to say nothing about all the newly translated volumes of Luther’s Works. For 2017, look for upcoming books by former Mockingbird Conference speakers Mark Mattes and Steven Paulson. If you want to trek this year through the reformation, I suggest you begin with Paulson’s introductory book before moving on to Kolb.
Leslie Winfield Williams’ Emblem of Faith Untouched
Not to be outdone by the Lutherans, Leslie Winfield Williams has written a splendid and – equally important – short biography of Thomas Cranmer (author of the English Book of Common Prayer and the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury). For those of us who don’t have the time to read the 700+ page MacCulloch biography this is a welcome addition. It’s even blurbed by PZ himself.
Honorable Mention: Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. Lyndal provides a much-needed update to Erik Erikson’s (in)famous and far more iconoclastic Young Man Luther, which argued that Luther’s thought can be explained by way of his estranged relationship with his father. Perhaps even Luther was simul iustus et peccator?
The Best Gangster Films (Books on the Apostle Paul):
Kavin Rowe’s One True Life
While not exclusively a book on Paul, this book deserves top billing because of its ingeniousness. Placing St. Paul, the Evangelist Luke, Justyn Martyr and Stoic Philosophy in conversation with one another, what emerges a unique and readable work of inter-religious dialogue over the most basic questions of human existence: life and death. But what makes this book unique is its conclusion that Christianity and Stoicism are fundamentally incommensurate, as the dialogue between the two illuminates the uniqueness of each.
Cynthia Long Westfall’s Paul and Gender
I’ve been consistently delighted by this gem. Westfall offers a refreshing look at a controversial issue, to say the least, with copious and helpful references to first century Roman culture. If you want to know what Paul meant when he wrote that a woman is “saved through childbirth”, Westfall is an excellent guide.
Honorable Mentions: Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination. A who’s who of Pauline Scholarship debating Paul’s relationship to Apocalyptic theology. This includes a very good essay from former Mockingbird Conference speaker, Jonathan Linebaugh.
John Barclay’s Pauline Churches and Diaspora Jews. Now in paperback, this volume has several essays that merit reading, particularly, “Why the Roman Empire Was Insignificant for Paul”, a paper from his debate with N.T. Wright a few years back. If you enjoyed last year’s “Paul and the Gift”, this is an apt prequel.
The Best Biopic Films (Theological Memoirs)
Sarah Condon’s Churchy
A casual reader of this blog will already be familiar with Condon’s honest, hilarious, incisive, and downright commonsensical truth-telling from her many blog posts. This book is all that and so more much. Y’all, this is a theology book is so much fun to read.
Sammy Rhodes’ This is Awkward
Easily the second funniest theology book this year (see above). Rhodes channels his enneagram type 4 personality into this wonderful memoir on awkwardness and faith. Rhodes writes earnestly (and hilariously) about what its like to live in perpetual self-doubt and worry about doing or saying or being the wrong thing, finding in our awkwardness an invitation to honesty before the God who loves awkward people. Click here to read our review.
The Best Zombie Films (Systematic Theologies of the Apocalyptic Persuasion):
Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion
Full disclosure: this is not a book from 2016. In fact, Rutledge’s book was featured in last year’s top books post. So why list it here again? The book has absolutely taken off and has recently received the award for Christanity Today’s 2017 Book of the Year. Seriously, click now to buy this magum opus on the atonement and the justification of the ungodly. Fleming will be one of the featured speakers at this year’s NYC Conference (4/27-29). You can find our podcast interview with Fleming here.
David Congdon’s The God Who Saves
For those who venerate Rudolf Bultmann and dialectical theology, Congdon offers a sketch of systematic theology by probing the question/problem of universalism. Intentionally provocative and often brilliant, there is much to glean from this creative theology of grace.
Honorable Mentions: John D. Koch’s The Distinction Between Law and Gospel as the Basis and Boundary of Theological Reflection. That’s right–our own JDK has a new book in a very fancy academic publisher (!). An edited version of his PhD thesis, Dr. Koch offer a tour de force analysis of contemporary theology and their success/failure to properly distinguish between Law and Gospel.
Robert Jenson’s Can these bones live?. Written by arguably America’s greatest living theologian, this new book originated from lectures given to undergrads at Princeton University. It is wonderful and mercifully short. Paul Zahl reminded theologians of the importance of brevity in his short gem of a systematic theology. Jenson’s newest work follows suit and is a great book for those who haven’t read much theology as well as those steeped in it. You can find our podcast interview with him here.
The Best Documentary Films (Histories of Early Christianity):
Hurtado’s been busy this past year, writing two books on the place of Christianity within the Roman Empire. Both books seek to answer the important question: Why did Christianity thrive despite strong social opposition and persecution? [Spoiler: it has something to do with Christianity’s distinctive faith and practice!] Journey back in time to discover the foreign world within which Christianity exploded in popularity.