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Best Books I Read for the First Time in 2023


A wall of books on a bookshelf

With the completion of another year means the completion of another list of books - books that I've read for the first time and that continue to shape me into the man and Christian I am today. Books, whether fictional or non-fictional, form the soul. They leave their imprint, and great books leave a lasting, enduring imprint. This year of reading was different in many ways. Most of the reading I did was related to the classes I took; classes in church history, Baptist history, and spiritual formation. Thus, the list of best books for 2023 will similarly be unique. This year, I have seven in mind, in no particular order.


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Homer

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This year presented many changes. Some were expected, such as the cultivation of a new marriage in its first year. Others, such as my full-time teaching job, were unexpected. Amidst all of this change, I decided to embark on what ended up being a challenging read. The Iliad is a work of central cultural and religious importance in the ancient Greek world. It was, at the same time, a massive cultural achievement, a work of great literary artistry, a lengthy contemplative narrative on human nature and free will, and even a kind of divine scripture, which taught about the gods. Every great Greek philosopher knew The Iliad and would have to interact with it in some way, whether critically or not.


The Iliad demonstrates with profundity, just as the Old Testament Scriptures do, how theological and philosophical truths are often best contemplated through narratives. The Iliad presents much to the Christian that is challenging and even repulsive. The Greek gods of Homer are little more than superhuman agents, just as sinful as those Greeks who had invented them. In many ways, they demonstrate the truth that "you are what you worship." For this reason, Plato, through the voice of Socrates, would later bemoan Homer's representation of the gods in his Republic. The fact remains, however, that Homer was powerfully influential in the collective imagination of the Greeks.


On the human level, The Iliad is a detailed examination of the influence of the passions on human beings. Humans are a fickle bunch, to be sure. Achilles' anger at the insult of Agamemnon is the guiding force behind the narrative, and the Greeks lose to the Trojans based on his (and the gods') whims. That anger gets his dear friend Patroclus killed and then acts in vengeance against Patroclus's killer, Hector, effectively sealing the fate of the Trojans and the victory of the Greeks. Plato will later argue that the divine part of human nature, reason, should have ultimate control over the human constitution. The point of The Iliad is that, whether or not this is true, passion - the animalistic part of mankind - often takes control nonetheless.


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D.A. Carson

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This year, I ended up reading two books by D.A. Carson (see the other one below). In this book, Carson, using a mix of practical pastoral advice, easygoing wit, and academic expertise, tackles a question we rarely ask: How ought we to pray as Christians? This book is not a systematic theological treatment on the topic of prayer. Rather, Carson uses the many prayers of Paul in the Bible as a springboard for answering this question, with a focus on whether our priorities and the manner in which we approach the Lord align with the Apostle Paul's.


What you'll find from studying Paul's prayers is that our prayers are very often self-centered and superficial. Please do not misunderstand what I mean. It is not a sin to ask the Lord for immediate needs - such as your health or those of family members, or even something like the success of a job interview. I understand one of Carson's main themes in this work to be (in my own words) that Christians often lack the Christian imagination and perspective in their prayers. The trick is not to stop praying for immediate needs. Content matters, for sure. Pray for immediate needs, and pray for the salvation of others, the expansion of God's Kingdom, the spiritual growth of brothers and sisters in Christ, etc. But, even deeper than content, we must learn to pray out of a gospel-centered perspective on the world. The gospel, in all of its facets, must inform and enlighten our prayer. That is the enduring legacy and lesson of Paul's prayers.


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D.A. Carson

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At the beginning of 2023, love was on my mind for a couple of reasons. One reason was that I had then just recently written a post on the concept of love and its connection with empathy. Another, more personal reason, was that I had just gotten married and had been meditating on the biblical definition of love in preparation for my marriage. I decided to read Carson's book on the love of God to better understand the ways in which His love was connected to His other divine attributes from Scripture.


At first glance, it may seem strange to characterize the doctrine of God's love as difficult. In fact, if any belief about God is ubiquitous, it is that He is loving! Once, a longtime friend of mine, who was an ardent atheist, said, "If there is anything I believe about God, it is that He is love." In the first chapter of his book, Carson makes the case that the ubiquity of belief in the love of God is exactly why this doctrine is difficult! In contemporary Western culture, there is a tendency to retain a simplistic belief in the love of God - since said love, defined poorly, is comforting - while ignoring the Scriptures, which describe that love, and the other divine attributes of God presented in Scripture, which provide the context in which God's love ought to be understood. For instance, the Scriptures affirm both that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that God hates sin and will punish the sinner because of His justice. Does God, then, lack love for the sinner? No, because He sent His Son to die for the sinner on the cross to remove his sins from him.


Poor characterizations of God's love dominate not only secular culture but also evangelical culture. One example can be found in the contemporary worship song, "Reckless Love," by Cory Asbury. Though this song attempts to glorify God by demonstrating the lengths to which He is willing to go to save us from our sins, by characterizing His love as reckless, it gives the impression that God is careless or guided by human-like passion in His love. The danger of misunderstanding God's love poorly is that we make Him in our image, rather than defining love with reference to His nature and character. God does not love with reckless abandon like a joy-riding teenager. His love is abundant, steadfast, covenantal, self-sacrificial, humble, exalted and exalting of the saved sinner who trusts in His Son. It is sovereign, eternal, and particular to the depths of the soul of the single person. To begin to understand the love of God through the lens of Scripture is to dive deep into the mystery of who God is through His Son. Carson's little book on this subject helps the Christian to begin to do this, while avoiding pitfalls.


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Augustine

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Augustine is arguably the most important Christian theologian in the history of the church. If not, he is indisputably in the top five. Because of this, he is a figure who tends to polarize, and the details of his theology, life, and philosophy are fiercely debated even today. Augustinian theology has exerted an incredible influence on both the Protestant and Catholic ends of Western Christianity. His ecclesiology (contra the Donatists) and views on infant baptism greatly influenced the development of Medieval Roman Catholicism. His soteriology - in particular, how he understands God's grace and predestination in relation to human salvation (contra Pelagius) - became the traditional wellspring for Calvinistic theology. Some scholars have argued that the late Augustine's soteriological perspective was influenced less by Scripture than the Manicheanism that influenced him in his earlier years. Other scholars have argued that Augustine's Christian faith is little more than "Christianized Neo-Platonism," a quasi-Pagan philosophical religion masquerading as Christianity. Thus, they say, Augustine is a prime example of the parasitic Hellenization of Western Christianity.


Wherever the truth lies on these issues, Confessions has little to do with any of them. In Confessions, Augustine writes what has come to be known as the first introspective autobiography, a self-reflective narrative of his conversion to Christianity. The majority of the book is written as a prayer to the God who saved Augustine, forgiving him of his sins and granting him eternal life in Christ. Augustine's Confessions beautifully, and with brilliant psychological insight, illustrates how multifaceted a conversion can be. He honestly and unflinchingly portrays himself as a young, up-and-coming, intelligent and prideful student of rhetoric who sought to gain glory for himself through his speechcraft. When a book of Cicero's gives him an ardent desire to study philosophy, Augustine at first seeks truth on his own terms, shunning the teaching of the Christian church, all the while undermining his own aspirations to wisdom through what seems to have been a crippling habitual struggle with sexual immorality. Augustine's journey is complex, but two verses of Scripture that finally, under God's influence, leads him to give up himself to Christ (CSB):

"Let us walk with decency, as in the daytime: not in carousing and drunkenness; not in sexual impurity and promiscuity; not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires."

Thus, in the end, the Lord used the simple command to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" to bring Augustine into the faith. Augustine's theme throughout Confessions is simple: though God used many means to influence Augustine and save him, it was always the Lord who guided and led him, even when he did not acknowledge the Lord. Every Christian should read Confessions and look with awe at the same Lord who saved him or her.


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Victor Hugo

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I first encountered the narrative of Les Miserables through the famous Broadway musical that introduced me to the world of musicals while I was in college. The adaptation of Hugo 19th-century masterpiece abridges the latter's lengthy plot to fit a musical that lasts two and a half hours. Its story of a conflict between two rival interpretations of Christianity - one embodied in the rigid legalism of Javear and the other embodied in the humble mercifulness of Jean Valjean - captured my imagination and left me wanting to read the novel. Finally, this year, I read Hugo's book, though in an abridged version. One will encounter less descriptions of the Parisian sewer system that way.


Les Miserables is a snapshot of history and 19th-century French politics and culture just as much as its themes transcend these elements of the narrative. In fact, the novel illustrates profoundly the incarnational nature of history, how, because of God's superinrending human history according to His divine will, the seeming arbitrariness of historical events, especially the suffering involved, are markers of the transcendent. Valjean's years of suffering "upon the rack," exceeded only by his spiritual anguish as a result of his self-destructive resentment to the world, is all at once redeemed by Christ, who brings him to salvation through the kindness of a bishop. Les Miserables unflinchingly stares at the realities of human sin, injustice, and suffering and dares to offer the hope that in the end, God is working all things out for His glory.


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Tim Keller

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Early in 2023, a good friend of mine recommended The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness by saying that it had been very helpful for him in his personal walk with Christ. It is a very short book - only about 48 pages - and can be read in less than an hour, but its message is profound.


I consider Tim Keller's Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness to be a short treatise on a topic in practical theology. In it, he distinguishes between self-love, self-hatred, and self-forgetfulness. Self-love involves empty affirmation of self, bloating one's ego in vain attempts to convince oneself of how special, valuable, or good one is. Self-hatred results from tearing oneself down. One's view of oneself is so low, because one feels worthless, that one ends up living in a continual state of despair. Neither of these options are demonstrations of true Christian humility. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin: pride. Both represent pride in that they involve too high an esteem of self over God, the transcendent basis for objective truth, goodness, and beauty.


Self-forgetfulness is the state of worshipful wholeness before a transcendent Lord. It lays itself flow before the God who consumes and satisfies the soul. The brilliance of this short treatise is how simply Keller draws these distinctions in order to clearly diagnose so many of our daily anxieties and heartaches. Simply put, we do not flourish in Christ because, under the surface, we rely on ourselves and desire esteem from others more than Him. In the midst of the challenges of first-year teaching, especially, these lessons have come to mind many times this school year. Maybe it's time for a second reading.


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Plato

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As part of the orientation and training for the beginning of my teaching position last summer, I was required to read Plato's Meno, and this happened to be the first time that I had read this Socratic dialogue in full. I was happy to fill this gap in my reading, since my primary interests in philosophy are epistemological. Plato's two epistemological dialogues are Meno and Theaetetus (another dialogue I've yet to read), so I wanted to study it.


Meno is strange for a couple of reasons. First, it is one of the earliest presentations of Plato's theory of recollection, which claims that souls, the eternal substance that makes up the human person's essence, have all knowledge prior to being embodied and merely recollect knowledge as an embodied soul. Thus, humans do not truly "learn" anything new, but merely recollect what was already known. Second, much of the dialogue is taken up by a mathematics lesson led by Socrates for one of Meno's slave boys. By walking the boy through a succession of logical inferences, he attempts to demonstrate that the boy already knew the concepts taught in mathematics but is led to recollect these ideas through a dialogical process.


Meno, then, is read both for pedagogy and epistemology and is perhaps more important for the former than the latter. When I teach my students (especially in math lessons), I am constantly reminded that they learn best when they are led via logical inferences to derive knowledge for themselves. The dialogical procedure is foundational to the practice of philosophy, and I now try to practice it every day.


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James K.A. Smith

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Traditionally, philosophers have been inquirers after the truths at the heart of reality itself. Philosophers don't just ask questions; they ask the deepest questions on the basis of which other questions are posed and discussed. They ask questions such as: What is truth? What does it mean to exist? What is the basis on which our actions are right or wrong? And others.


This is still generally the case with philosophers, but there are other philosophers who seek to understand the times in which they live. All philosophical discourse is socially and culturally situated. It is tied to certain assumptions not only about discourse, but about the ways in which we approach questions and what we intuitively and non-reflexively see as plausible. James K.A. Smith's How (Not) To Be Secular is a short book explaining Charles Taylor's much longer work, A Secular Age. In that book, Taylor attempts to reconstruct the phenomenology of life in a post-Enlightenment age of secularism.


Taylor distinguishes between three kinds of secularism. "Secular1" refers to the secular as a domain separate from the sacred. This is a medieval distinction in Roman Catholicism that sees life as separated into two domains: the temporal and eternal. "Secular2" refers to secularism in the post-Enlightenment world as a world of neutral values. In this understanding of secularism, certain institutions available to the public should be "secular," or neutral with respect to religious claims and values. "Secular3," which is Charles Taylor's primary subject in A Secular Age, refers to a socio-cultural context in which foundational religious beliefs - and indeed all belief - is contested. In other ages, certain foundational beliefs were accepted as a given to all discourse and were thus not subject to widespread skepticism. In a secular3 age, however, all beliefs are debatable, and nothing is secure.


Taylor then proceeds to describe the phenomenology, or philosophy of experience, of a secular3 age. Smith provides an excellent introduction and summary of Taylor's arguments and conclusions, and it has been fascinating to consider how our, including my, conclusions and approach to philosophical questions are formed by my secular context.


Conclusion


This is one of my favorite posts to write every year because it helps me reflect on the prior year and what I've read, not only to think about those books, but to consider as well what I'd like to read this year. For instance, I'd love to read more books like The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness because they help me in my walk with Christ, and I don't read these kinds of books often enough. I encourage you to track books you read and reflect on them every year as well.


That's it for this post! If you enjoyed reading it, please like it and share it on social media for others to see it. Also, consider subscribing so that you can be notified of upcoming posts as they appear. Finally, if you'd like to join the conversation, you can comment below or reach I it to me via Facebook or email. Thank you for reading!

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