In 2021, I decided to begin tracking how many books I was reading in a year. I wanted to do this for two reasons. First, I wanted to see how productively I was reading and whether, if I knew how many I had read the year before, I'd improve over time. Thankfully, I can say that I've improved, since I read more books in 2022 than I had in 2021. Second, I wanted to be able to review all of the books I had read the prior year in order to reflect on them and how they've shaped me. With 2022 behind us, I've been reviewing the books I've read and have come up with a list of seven of the best books that I've read for the first time in 2022.
These books are in no particular order. They've been selected based on a few factors that I've applied somewhat loosely. The first is the impact that it's had on my thinking in some way. Since I read mostly non-fiction books, I read primarily in order to learn, though there are a few great fiction books that I read last year. The second is the general quality of the book. Well-written books are memorable books. If I thought that the writing or argumentation in the book was lackluster, then it isn't likely to end up on this list.
With that out of the way, I hope you enjoy being introduced to these books and that you'll decide to read them for yourselves!
Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the more well-known American philosophers of the last century. He is especially famous for his work in virtue ethics as well as his work in Thomistic philosophy, or the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. He converted to Catholicism in the 1980's after having become convinced of the Thomistic approach to philosophy.
In After Virtue, MacIntyre argues for the thesis the field of ethics, which is the philosophical study of moral principles, foundations, and norms, has lost its proper grounding and coherence in the last 200 years or so. Supporting this thesis required him, in the course of the book, to discuss the major movements in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy and its effects on ethics. In the 20th century, various forms of Kantian deontology and utilitarianism have proven inadequate as the proper foundation for moral judgments, and the only way, he contends, to right this ship is to embrace with renewed focus an Aristotelian framework of virtue, which provides a rich conception of the good life and a guide, in the form of practical wisdom, for living the good life. In other words, the book is a lengthy defense of a particular ancient form of ethics that was rejected, along with the rest of Aristotle's philosophy, during the Enlightenment.
After Virtue has come to be known as the one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century, and rightfully so. It is a challenging and brilliant piece of philosophical literature. My interest in the book initially came from an interest in Christian virtue ethics, which I find very interesting and compelling. As I read the book, however, I found MacIntyre's insistence on the need to embrace, in our current postmodern context, a more ancient foundation fascinating. Of course, as a Christian, I'm going to insist on a more specific foundation, that is, the foundation of Christ. But the complex interaction between orthodox Christianity and ancient philosophy is a rich resource that, I believe, Christian philosophers need to be engaged in. MacIntyre has influenced my thinking on this.
In Spring 2022 semester, I took a class called "Analytic Theology." Knowing virtually nothing about the field, Oliver Crisp's book provided a great introduction to this niche field that has emerged within roughly the last 10 years. Analyzing Doctrine is one of the first attempts within this new field to work on a systematic Christian theology.
Analytic theology, as a distinct subfield within the larger academic field of theology, is distinguished by its particular methodology. Whereas biblical theology is focused primarily on what theology can be directly derived from a proper interpretation of Scripture and systematic theology is focused on "systematizing" the biblical data, with other sources, to form a coherent Christian theological system, analytic theology conducts its task using the concepts and methods of analytic philosophy. The method of analytic philosophy includes such methods as the analysis of terms in order to determine their precise definitions and the use of deductive reasoning. Though you might find these things in biblical or systematic theology, analytic theology is defined by this distinct characteristic. The question remains whether this distinction is enough to separate analytic theology as a distinct subfield within theology (in particular, as distinct from the already-established field of philosophical theology, which has been around for decades). I won't explore that question here.
Crisp's book is, in one sense, a great introduction to the character and "flavor" of analytic theology. In another sense, it is a great piece of theology in its own right. In Analyzing Doctrine, Crisp does just that, analyzing various Christian doctrines in an exploratory way, with Scripture as his basis, in a way that is consistent with historical Christian orthodoxy. Though some of his conclusions are strange in my opinion, it is a fascinating book that will stretch you intellectually. Whether or not analytic theology ultimately distinguishes itself enough to become a subfield in its own right within theology, Crisp's book demonstrates that analytic theologians have plenty of value to say.
The previous two books in my list are academic, and there's a good reason for that. It is the majority of what I enjoy reading. Even this book was written by a Christian philosopher! But this book by Moreland is much more practical in its nature. Moreland wrote it because of his own experiences with anxiety and depression, and it reads as a deeply compassionate, personal, and proactive guide to addressing these issues from a Christian perspective.
Christians get awfully confused when it comes to mental health. Often, we fight over explaining why it is that Christians experience these issues. Is it sin in general, the fallenness of creation? Is it my sin? Maybe anxiety and depression is a malady of the brain and can be treated with medication. Some Christians swear by medication for these issues. Other Christians strongly condemn their use. I think that much of this confusion comes down to two closely related false dichotomies. The first is sin or affliction. The second is spiritual or physical.
Should mental illness be understood as a result of sin or as a mere affliction? Is mental illness a spiritual issue or a physical issue? In short, my answer to both questions is "both," but I can't discuss these issues in detail here. (Perhaps I'll write a post on this sometime in the future.) Suffice it to say that, during a time last year in which I was badly struggling with anxiety and depression, I found Moreland's short book very helpful and encouraging and still use some of his insights and practices in my life now. If you're a Christian and are struggling with these things, don't be ashamed. You're not alone. And Moreland's little guide will be a brilliant and helpful resource for you.
In November of 2022, I married the love of my life. For the last six months or so, marriage has been wonderful and challenging all at once. It is an amazing and beautiful thing to bind one's entire life, body and soul, to another in a covenant under the Lord. The challenge comes when you realize that both of you are sinners and that that sin poses a constant threat to the unity to which you've devoted yourselves. In light of this, it made sense to seek the wisdom of those who came before us in the faith.
There is an almost immediate irony to reading this book for advice on marriage from a Christian perspective. Augustine, in his autobiographical work, Confessions, reveals that his most persistent temptation was sexual in nature. Because of this, once he had become a Christian, he decided never to get married. Augustine cannot speak from experience on the value of marriage, but this does not diminish the quality of much of what he writes in this small treatise. Namely, Augustine argues that the chief good of marriage is friendship or companionship. With this, I wholeheartedly agree and have found this true in my marriage. At our best, my wife and I mutually serve one another's needs and call one another to a closer relationship with our Lord, to deny ourselves daily out of our shared love for Him.
I don't, however, want to be misunderstood. I did not agree with everything Augustine had to write. In particular, he downplays the importance of marital sexuality to a degree that I think is less Christian than it is Platonic. (I hope to write on this soon.) Nonetheless, whether I agreed with Augustine's claims or not, I found in this treatise a rich resource for contemplation about the good of marriage from a Christian perspective.
Sometimes, we read a book because we want to learn more about a set of claims or arguments with which we already agree. This book is not an example of that. I stumbled across Sarup's book quite unexpectedly and was immediately intrigued. Here was an introduction to postmodernism from a proponent, rather than an opponent.
Sarup's book is not an easy read. In many ways, she exemplifies the obscurity for which postmodernists are known. Yet she gives in-depth introductions not only to the major thinkers in postmodernism - such as Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault - but also the post-structuralists - such as Lacan - that influenced them. She insightfully identifies one of the major influences in postmodern thought as a particular detethering of language from a mind-independent reality, a move made in post-structuralism. Every day, I'm reminded of the timeliness of this connection as I read the news.
Susan Wise Bauer
Susan Wise Bauer, a historian and highly-regarded author among homeschooling parents, has written a three-volume work on world history that many regard as excellent. I had heard of Bauer from others at seminary and, during the summer of 2022, wanted to focus especially on history (as my series on history shows). I found the second volume in her work both comprehensive and very stimulating.
Anyone with knowledge in the study of history knows that the classification of historical "periods" or "epochs" is somewhat arbitrary. Rarely do the people who lived during the periods described characterize them in the way that we do today. But historical ages are classified both for the sake of simplicity and in order to capture the distinct "feel" of that era. What distinguishes the Medieval period (roughly, 500-1500) from the ancient period (roughly, 3000 BC to 500 AD)?
For Bauer, the event that first marks the transition between eras is the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312. Though this event unquestionably took place during the ancient period, its significance for the Western world is multifaceted. First, it marked the beginning date for the rise of "Christendom," the marriage of church and state. Second, arguably, by abandoning the old Roman religion that had, in the past, unified the Roman Empire, Constantine's conversion contributed to the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire in the West (though, in the East, the Christian Byzantine Empire would rise and continue to exist for centuries). Bauer's presentation of this period delves into much of the complexity of this period, and her book is therefore an invaluable resource in its study.
One of the reasons I was initially so drawn to the idea of a "holistic" approach to Christian apologetics was my interest in narratives. Prior to developing a fascination with philosophy while in high school, I had been writing my own fictional stories for years. I greatly enjoy exploring and discussing narratives. Last year, during the summer, I wanted to explore the structure and impact of biblical narrative, and this led me to Robert Alter's book on the subject.
As far as I'm aware, Alter is not a Christian. His interest in biblical narrative does not rise above the interest one may have in any form of ancient narrative. But what Alter brings to his work is an expertise and earnest fascination with biblical narrative that is insightful and informative. I found particularly helpful his discussions about how to read biblical narrative. Narratives have different forms or genres with different conventions. It can be difficult for a contemporary reader of an ancient text to pick up on the conventions and methods of the biblical authors. Alter stresses that we need to, as much as we can, think like the ancient Hebrew reader in order to understand the structure and purpose of these narratives. When we do, we find them to be rich resources for biblical truth.
Perhaps most problematic to the evangelical reader of this book will be Alter's claim that biblical narrative can be best understood as a form of ancient prose fiction. That is, Alter believes that these works are works of fiction. While I disagree with this claim, I think that there is an important theological insight that can be found upon reflecting on Alter's inability to conceive of these narratives as representing actual historical events. The reality of God's presence and sovereignty incarnates human events with meaning and purpose. Transcendence, in the modern schema, is inaccessible from the perspective of the material. Thus, a narrative representation of transcendence must be fiction, disconnected from the world of the material. The reality of God, chiefly in the man Christ Jesus, weds what the modern world cannot imagine can be wed. Thus, the biblical narrative is both objectively true and transcendently meaningful.
As you can see, I read a variety of books this year, and more could be mentioned. But this sampling surveys several books I've read this year that I've found stimulating, interesting, or edifying. Last year was an all-important year for me, as I began my marriage and thought and prayed over what God has called my wife and I to do to serve Him. This year has been an important and productive one, and I've already got a lot of interesting reading under my belt that I can't wait to share with you.
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