It’s time once again for my annual list of best things I read last year. As per my usual custom, I am not including biblical commentaries (though I did spend a lot of time reading excellent commentaries, and even have a few new favourites now).
1. Cynthia Long Westfall. Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). My review is available here. This book by one of my professors while I was attending seminary is a ground breaking work, on a subject where one would have thought there was no more ground to break. But this book, working through discourse analysis, and with close attention to first century historical context, brings fresh eyes to hotly debated subject, and presents a compelling case for reading Paul as one who advocates for the movement towards equality of genders in opportunities for all roles.
2. Andrew B. McGowan. Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). My review is available here. McGowan presents a thoroughly researched and sourced account of the development of practices of prayer, music, fasting, baptism, the eucharist, and more in the early centuries of Christianity (he covers the New Testament to the early 5th Century). His primary source detail is outstanding, and his conclusions compelling. I would argue that this is essential reading for any discussion on liturgical practice and spiritual theology.
3. Steven R. Harmon. Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision (Studies in Baptist History and Thought Volume 27). (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2006). My review is available here. This collection of essays by a Baptist with a specialty in Patristic theology is a solid achievement in broadening a conversation around ecumenism, and protestant (and specifically Baptist) resourcing from church tradition. Harmon argues that early Baptists did formulate confessions of faith which echoed historical creeds in order to maintain connections with the historical church, but began dropping these in favour of a “no creed but the bible” approach, which left the Baptist movement without strong ties to the historical church. He presses for a recovery of historical creeds and liturgical practices which would allow Baptists to be dissenters within the historical tradition, rather than a disconnected group outside the tradition itself.
4. Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev. Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent Into Hades From an Orthodox Perspective. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009). My review is available here. The harrowing of Hades, or Christ’s descent into Hades, is not a prominent part of protestant theology. But in the Eastern tradition is does play an important part in the overall understanding of Christ’s death and resurrection. Archbishop Alfeyev explores the development of the traditions from the small amount of biblical evidence regarding Christ’s time in death, through the early church and liturgical developments of the Eastern Orthodox tradition which explored and included much in liturgical texts regarding Christ’s descent into Hades to free people from death. He covers the various perspectives regarding the scope of Christ’s work (universal or particular) and the various metaphors which developped to describe it.
5. Michael P. Knowles. Of Seeds and the People of God: Preaching as Parable, Crucifixion, and Testimony. (Eugene: Wipf&Stock, 2015). My review is available here. Another fine offering from another of my professors. Dr. Knowles has featured on my top reads list in the past- as number 1 in 2013 and 2015. Of Seeds and the People of God is linked to his previous book We Preach Not Ourselves, and examines how the act of preaching becomes a parable of being crucified with Christ; that the form and not just the content of preaching must reflect cruciformity. In other words, the preacher must empty him/herself and take up his/her cross and preach a message which moves attention from self towards God- that God and not the preacher is the not only the subject of preaching, but the means of accomplishing the task of preaching.
6. Eldon Jay Epp. Junia: The First Woman Apostle. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005). My review is available here. A definitive work, untangling a historically murky question of biblical interpretation; does Roman 16:7 present a female Apostle named Junia, a male Apostle named Junias, or someone who is not really an apostle, but known to the apostolic community? Epp concludes, and decisively demonstrates, that the best conclusion is that this verse does point to a woman who is an Apostle, which indicates that women were, even in Paul’s day, holders of official leadership roles, even the role he viewed as the one carrying the highest authority. I would say Epp has put the issue to bed as far as the identity and role of the person in question, and offered an important hermeneutical implication for discussions surrounding gender in the church. While many still insist women cannot occupy authoritative, teaching roles, Epp has shown that at least one woman did in Paul’s time.
7. Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Saint Macrina (Translated with introduction and notes by Kevin Corrigan). (Eugene: Wipf&Stock, 2001). My review is available here. A wonderful little biography of Macrina, written by her younger brother Gregory of Nyssa. This edition features a helpful introduction and notes. This is a great example of early hagiography which elevates and honours this saintly leader of the 4th century; a scholar, a pastoral caregiver, Abbess, and founder of several monasteries (some for women and some co-ed). Gregory pours out praise on his sister, whom he call the Teacher. Macrina was a key figure in the development of monasticism in Asia Minor, and played a key role in guiding her brothers, three of whom became important bishops.
8. Andrew Louth. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2013). This helpful primer is geared towards a Western audience, to help them understand the theological approach, and basic doctrine and practice of Eastern Orthodoxy. While perhaps not as inspiring and spiritually deep as Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way (which I read again this year, for the umpteenth time, but don’t include in my annual best reads list), Louth’s introduction is probably more easily digested for Western readers. It is a helpful introduction, which covers sufficient ground, but also invites further reading.
9. Eugene Rathbone Fairweather. The Meaning and Message of Lent. (New York: Harper and Bros., 1962). My brief review is available here. This little book was a delightful surprise. It was among a collection of books I was fortunate enough to come across on Kijiji, part of the library of a retiring Anglican minister. The author argues that Lent, as with the entire calendar and liturgical practices of the church are meant to embed the Gospel story into our lives, so that we call to mind, and live out the movement from incarnation, through the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus.
10. Walter Brueggemann. Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. (Second Edition). (Eugene: Cascade, 2007). My review is available here. Before beginning my preaching series on the Psalms, I read this helpful little book, which guides readers in understanding the dynamics of Israelite worship, and the ways in which the Psalms offering back to God words to express the experience of God or longing for God across the spectrum of human emotions and conditions. Brueggemann then invites Christian readers to engage for themselves with the unique way Israel expressed themselves and expand outside Western modes of expression.