Most of the books that I read in 2017 were recommended to me by friends or family, and were opportunities to discuss the content together. Hopefully I will have more opportunities for that in 2018. I have done yearly book reviews in the past, but I thought I would add some other products (at the end).
Sacred Mundane – Kari Patterson
My sister’s book! And this is a great book! I have written about this a number of times already, but the key message of this book is so valuable: The seemingly mundane life of daily chores, work, relationships, and so on, is deeply sacred and valuable. Following Christ is demonstrated in the simple, humble life of serving others, being willing to spend our lives with the small, the weak, with children, and of persisting without fanfare is a beautiful life, a reflection of Christ and completely the opposite of the bombastic, spotlight-seeking, power-hungry attitudes we so often see, seeking to dominate our attention.
The 3D Gospel
This is a very short book, but succinctly delivers a compelling idea, that the gospel can be viewed from three distinct perspectives, facets, or dimensions. The three dimensions are:
- The good news of justification, being made innocent of guilt.
- The good news of power, being delivered from fear (of the spiritual realm)
- The good news of honor, being delivered from shame.
The book then asserts that western culture tends primarily have an individual-centric guilt/innocence mindset, we mainly tend to think in these terms and assess situations by the contrast of whether an individual was guilty or innocent. And (consequently), typically we primarily and almost exclusively express the gospel in guilt/innocent terms. However, not all cultures of the world built around these terms. Asian cultures tend to be very honor/shame driven (seeking to do that which the community has deemed honorable), and many African and tribal culture are power/fear driven (fear of evil spirits). And the gospel has very Biblical expressions in these terms.
In fact, one of the most compelling aspects of this book was hearing their articulations of the gospel in each of these three dimensions and being admittedly surprised (I’m pretty western) at how each seemed to be just as well scripturally sourced and Biblically faithful.
My one critique is that the book seems to just leave these three dimensions as kind of distinct and equal peers. However, it seems like there are lot interconnections between these dimensions and I think these connections are often asymmetrical; some of these build on each other. For example (and maybe this is western bias), guilt/innocence seems to build on top of power/fear; justification from someone seems pretty meaningless unless you have already established them as having power behind the justification. And a full understanding of the guilt/innocence needs to take into account the needs of the community (typically more honor/shame focus). And honor needs to be defined in ways that transcend just the local preferences of a community.
That being said, this is a very short book. And it delivers a compelling idea with brevity. and it is quite natural (and good!) that it leaves with you plenty to think about and wrestle with. It is definitely well worth an hour of your time if you are interested in seeing the gospel from different angle.
I Love Mormons – David Rowe
This book is focused on the culture of Mormonism and how to build relationships with those in the LDS community. This focus is contrasted with just seeing Mormonism as a religion that needs to be argued down. In many ways, this book is more broadly an introduction to Utah culture as well. I have read this book before, but we read this as part of our small group. I noticed there were a number of observations on culture here that really resonated now that I have lived here for over a decade.
Total Truth – Nancy Pearcey
The basic premise and aim of this book is great: seeking to integrate a holistic theology of the physical and spiritual, breaking down false dichotomies that often undermine the important Biblical call to be working in and contributing to our world around us. She emphasizes the “cultural mandate”, with neo-calvinistic Kuyperian influences that I would identify with as well.
One of her critiques is against moral relativism in our society. She takes aim at fields like philosophy and mathematics. However, I’ve been through math-intensive graduate studies and worked in a field largely driven by math-driven analysis, and her assessment of how mathematics is taught in academia and used in industry seemed completely disconnected from reality. And the alternative moral theory that she offered was basically divine command theory, which is essentially another form of moral relativism (just established by God, but still not truly objective in an absolute sense). I believe this is an unfortunate belief, as I believe that the whole of creation exists to objectively demonstrate God’s goodness, to glorify, not just for His goodness to be self-attributed.
This books also seems to drift disappointingly close to dominion theology, which is the belief or perspective that expects or pursues the Kingdom of God to come by Christian domination or power over others in the world. Fortunately, this book doesn’t overtly support such a belief, but the epistemology that is described in the book subtly creates a foundation with the enticing idea that we have the superior intellect, knowledge, and insights that should endow us with power and domination. I’d suggest this is quite opposite of a Biblical epistemology that begins with humility, that we are broken people seeking repentance and recognizing our need to be changed, and from this foundation, seek to learn, listen, serve, and identify with the weak and powerless, not domineer.
These critiques aside, overall, the majority of this book is actually good, is well-written, with some great exhortations. But, if you are looking for a good read on the cultural mandate, I’d probably suggest going to more of a historical source like Kuyper himself, or a modern author that articulates it better like Andy Crouch.
If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty – Eric Metaxas
In this book, Metaxas provides stories of how the concept of liberty was developed and defined in America, and a defense of the principles behind this liberty (with some effort to give a Biblical defense). One of his initial assertions is that God has given us liberty, that we might use it to benefit and serve others. I wholeheartedly agree with this.
However, I think the most core tenet of this book is a set of three interconnected principles (that form a circle) that he offers:
- Freedom requires virtue
- Virtue requires faith
- Faith requires freedom.
This cyclical principle is the key idea of the book, and the foundation that he builds on.
Unfortunately these principles suffer from one problem: they aren’t really true. It isn’t difficult to find countless counterexamples of all three of these principles. Plenty of people without virtue have freedom. Virtue is often demonstrated by those without faith. And faith, at least described in scriptures, is often described and celebrated in the absence of any human-granted freedom, in defiance to a government or society’s granting of any type of freedom (this principle may be the most opposite of true).
And I think this basic idea is alluring because it is a subtle form of flattery towards ourselves that suggests we since we have freedom, we must therefore be virtuous. It pats ourselves on the back with assurance that our freedom is rightly deserved and earned by our own merit; we are entitled to it. But even subtle forms entitlement undermine the concept of grace and our willingness to look at our own wrongs.
The Righteousness Mind – Johnathan Haidt
This is a great read. I love books that can synthesis and summarize years of research and hard-work on interesting subjects, and yield interesting and even surprisingly insights. And this book definitely delivers. I might try to do a little more thorough review/exploration of this book, but I’ll briefly offer a quick synopsis:
Haidt has a few key realizations from his research. First, is that moral framework, our values, is overwhelming driven by our intuitions, not reasoning. Reasoning does come into play, but we primarily use it to *defend* our moral framework, not to construct or determine it. Second, he describes 5 (or 6) key moral values: Care/(preventing) harm, fairness, loyalty, (submission to) authority, and sanctity (purity). He asserts that the key distinction between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives moral framework is based on all of these, whereas liberals give primacy to the first two (and conservatives are more concerned with risk/danger, and fairness is determined more by merit with conservatives). Third, he describes how humans are not so much driven by self/individual interests as driven by their own groups interests. He describes/defends the evolutionary processes that have worked to select humans work towards the interests of their “tribe”. This means humans tend to naturally have animosity towards outsiders, but also tend to naturally have a surprisingly high concern and loyalty for insiders. Finally, he attempted to bring some civility and reconciliation between the left and right by showing where each have strengths that we should listen to in the political conversation.
Anyway, the main idea I have been thinking about is how Haidt, coming from a non-religious perspective, seems much more willing to accept additional cultural-defined moral priorities besides harm/care and justice than I would coming from faith that God has defined and revealed an concrete moral framework that does indeed dictate priority and primacy to caring for others and justice above our natural intuitive cultural/tribal tendencies of adding and prioritizing our own morals.
Zinus Mattress – We decided it was time to get a new mattress this year. We went to RC Wiley’s and tried out the new modern mattresses. They were super comfortable, but I cringed a bit at the prices. After further research of online mattresses, we eventually bought a Zinus mattress on Amazon. It is modern foam mattress with a memory-foam layer with great reviews, very similar to the other popular mattresses available, and under $300! And Nikki and I both love it as well. I believe it is actually on sale on Amazon right now, so if you are looking for a new mattress, this is a great deal.
This year my laptop monitor died (well, a quarter of it anyway), so I bought a new laptop, a HP Spectre x360, which I have also really liked. I also moved my desk to a bigger room and switched to using a 4K TV as my monitor. The TV is 55” TCL 4K ($400 as Costco), and it has worked really nicely as a monitor (I can sit about 5-6 ft from it). I haven’t watched much video content other than a couple movies, but they looked great on it.