Our 2023 Books of the Year - Word&Way

Our 2023 Books of the Year

You can always tell there’s a presidential election cycle in full swing when suddenly a bunch of politicians release their autobiographies or other books. Over the past year or so, there’s been Mike Pence’s So Help Me God, Ron DeSantis’s The Courage to Free, Nikki Haley’s If You Want Something Done, Vivek Ramaswamy’s Capitalist Punishment, and more. But there are also a lot of books much better than any of those. The campaign books had about as much chance of making it on our annual top books list as their “authors” do of being president.

If you haven’t noticed yet, we like books. We think it’s important for Christians to be well-read. That’s one reason we’ve reviewed and given away a book we like every month. In many ways, we’ve slowly created, one month at a time, a list of some of our top books of the year.

Obviously, we still recommend those books. But for this issue of A Public Witness, we’re going to briefly highlight 15 books beyond those from our longer giveaway reviews. As in previous years, the table of contents is as follows: 1. Five books featured on our podcast Dangerous Dogma, 2. Five books recommended by Brian (that haven’t yet led to Dangerous Dogma episodes), 3. Five books recommended by Beau, and 4. A succinct conclusion.

5 Books Featured on Dangerous Dogma

1. Orphaned Believers: How a Generation of Christian Exiles Can Find the Way Home by Sara Billups (Baker Books). A lot of people have written about the issue of Millennials and younger generations not attending church as much as older Americans. Billups pushes back with a defense of our generation. The more helpful question than “what’s wrong with Millennials” is “what’s wrong with the vision of the church that drove younger people away.” This book offers some insights based on larger societal observations and richly-told personal experiences. As she explained in episode 86, she tackled issues like end-times theology, culture wars, and consumerism. And she addressed why she still believes despite it all.

2. Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism — and What Comes Next by Bradley Onishi (Broadleaf Books). Onishi, a religion scholar and acclaimed podcast host, joined our show on episode 97 to talk about his book helping make sense of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. With his scholarly expertise and personal stories from growing up in the type of church that more recently helped fuel the MAGA movement, this is an important book for understanding White Christian Nationalism and its embrace of authoritarianism and violence. Although not a happy tale, it’s an important book as we find ourselves heading into another presidential election with many of the same political and religious leaders who were behind the insurrection now seeking a second coming to power.

3. Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church by Nijay Gupta (IVP Academic). This book landed at a critical moment. The nation’s largest Protestant denomination (the Southern Baptist Convention) kicked out churches for having female ministers. Pope Francis opened up voting for women at the Vatican’s Synod of Bishops. Amid these current moves, this book by a New Testament professor helps readers understand the historical context and translation issues involving women in ministry leadership 2,000 years ago. Gupta talked about the book and more in episode 101.

4. The Ballot and the Bible: How Scripture has been Used and Abused in American Politics and Where We Go from Here by Kaitlyn Schiess (Brazos Press). This is the perfect book to have next to you while watching a presidential debate, presidential speech, or other political moment. Biblical citations and allusions are common (and even expected) in U.S. campaigns. But just because someone quotes the Bible, that doesn’t mean they’re actually taking the text seriously. Schiess looks at historical and contemporary (mis)uses of the Bible in politics to help us better understand our faith and our obligations in public life. Learn more from her in episode 116. But be warned that the book may challenge your partisan preferences.

5. The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle over the End Times Shaped a Nation by Daniel Hummel (Eerdmans). A fascinating and informative look at an influential belief system, this book unpacks ways theology and politics impact each other and shift in new places and times. This book — and his conversation in episode 120 — will give you a greater understanding of the origins, evolution, and impact of a popular end-times theology that still shapes public imagination today. Well-researched, offering new insights, and with accessible writing, this book is exactly what we need from faithful historians.

5 Books Recommended by Brian

1. Parables, Politics, and Prophetic Faith by Allan Aubrey Boesak and Wendell L. Griffen (Nurturing Faith). A book written by either Boesak or Griffen is worth reading, but one written by both is a must-have. I’ve interviewed both of them on Dangerous Dogma (Boesak on episode 1 in 2021 and Griffen on episode 40 in 2022), and they’ve both written for us at Word&Way. So I was excited to read this book. It lived up to my expectations. These two modern prophets take biblical texts to read the signs of our times today. Tackling issues like war, economic exploitation, racism and xenophobia, reparations, authoritarian politicians, religious nationalism, colonization, COVID-19, and much more, this book will challenge you to think anew about the texts and our world.

2. The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved and Sold to Build the American Catholic Church by Rachel L. Swarns (Random House). I knew I wanted to read this book after Swarns had spent years helping bring attention to the fact that Georgetown University had sold 272 enslaved persons to save itself. Such a revelation has already sparked soul-searching and reparations discussions by the school and the Jesuits who run it. But what I didn’t expect was the narrative arc of the book. Swarns is not only an incredible researcher but also a talented storyteller. She tells the big picture but also zeros in on several generations of one family to bring the story to life. This is the kind of story we need about a number of churches and religious institutions beyond the Jesuits of Maryland and Washington, D.C.

3. Halcyon: A Novel by Elliot Ackerman (Knopf). This book is a bit of a mash-up. Its main plot is pushed forward by alternative history and sci-fi, but then with a mix of debates about history, philosophical considerations of life and death, and clashes over money, government power, and treatment of women. Without away giving anything beyond the book’s description, the key story is this: a historian writing about the Civil War finds himself in a current cultural debate over a government program during the Al Gore presidency of the early 2000s that is bringing people back from the dead. Wonderfully written, the book raises important issues worth thinking about in our current reality.

4. Ancient Echoes: Refusing the Fear-Filled, Greed-Driven Toxicity of the Far Right by Walter Brueggemann (Fortress Press). There’s not an Old Testament scholar who’s written more books on my shelves than Brueggemann (and there are likely few who have ever written as many as he has). This book once again has him at his best as he weaves together deep analysis of biblical texts and prophetic insights about what they look like today. In a time when our politics is poisoned by destructive, hateful rhetoric, Brueggemann offers not only a needed critique but also a vision of another way.

5. The Vice President’s Black Wife: The Untold Life of Julia Chinn by Amrita Chakrabarti Myers (University of North Carolina Press). When Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate in August of 2020, I wrote an article noting that if elected she would be the fifth Baptist to serve as vice president but would provide quite a contrast from the first one who had an enslaved wife. In it, I quoted Myers, a historian who had been researching Chinn’s life. Now, Myers has a book out, so I quickly picked it up. It’s a fascinating look at a little-known vice president and his lesser-known wife, and it also deals with broader issues of race, gender, politics, and religion in the first half of the 19th century. It’s a remarkable biography that helps fill in a significant gap in our collective memory.

5 Books Recommended by Beau

1. When Church Stops Working: A Future for Your Congregation beyond More Money, Programs, and Innovation by Andrew Root and Blair Bertrand (Brazos Press). At the beginning of this year, I transitioned back into full-time church ministry. As a result, my reading list has been heavy on congregational and pastoral leadership. Root is on the cutting edge of analyzing the context, challenges, and opportunities facing Christian communities and their leaders today. This latest co-authored book attempts to synthesize his larger project into a digestible volume that can be read by pastors and lay leaders alike. It’s a great introduction to Root’s work, though I’d also recommend reading his other works that are part of the “Ministry in a Secular Age” series.

2. Disabling Leadership: A Practical Theology for the Broken Body of Christ by Andrew Draper, Jody Michele, and Andrea Mae (IVP Academic). Lots of churches and leaders talk about inclusion but fail to consider what it actually requires. Too often people with disabilities are the ones overlooked by and excluded from faith communities that claim to welcome all. Thankfully there’s been a spate of recent books examining this problem and articulating the imperative for addressing it. Disabling Leadership is far from the only volume worth considering in this space, but it has the advantage of being co-authored by a group that combines theological reflection with guidance for practical action. These aren’t the only voices in the conversation, but they are ones worth considering as part of this critical discussion.

3. Christianity as a Way of Life: A Systematic Theology by Kevin Hector (Yale University Press). I’m cheating a little with this selection as this book is my designated post-Christmas read. Hector joined the faculty at the University of Chicago Divinity School while I was a graduate student there. Lamentably, I never had the chance to take a course with him, but even then he had a reputation as a rigorous scholar dedicated to unpacking the meanings of Christianity in illuminating ways. I am eager to learn from him through this book. And, of course, I’m impressed by the audacity of his undertaking that’s reflected in the title and subtitle of his latest project.

4. President Garfield: From Radical to Unifier by C.W. Goodyear (Simon & Schuster). Of all the Presidents, I am particularly drawn to Garfield. That’s an odd assertion since his tenure was so short. Still, he’s a fascinating figure in American life as an educator, religious leader, political figure, and Civil War general. He’s the only sitting member of the House of Representatives to become president and the only ordained minister to sit in the Oval Office. Goodyear’s biography adds rich context to Garfield’s life. It’s a valuable introduction to a president many know little about today.

5. Death, the End of History, and Beyond: Eschatology in the Bible by Greg Carey (Westminster John Knox Press). There’s no singular biblical understanding of death. The different books of the Bible express diverse understandings of ultimate things. All this material has allowed for a lot of problematic interpretations ranging from impossible claims that place faith at odds with science to outrageous portrayals of the end times. In this insightful book, Carey makes the best of biblical scholarship accessible to pastors and educated lay leaders. To confess God raised Jesus from the dead and that there’s a telos to creation are profound claims. This is the resource preachers (and many others) need to communicate those ideas in meaningful ways that are faithful to the witness of Scripture.

What Are You Reading?

While not all of these books might be of interest to you, we hope you will find a couple worth checking out. Maybe if you’ve been good this year, you’ll find one of them under your Christmas tree soon. Or if you’ve been naughty, perhaps you’ll find the complete collection of presidential candidate autobiographies.

There are obviously many other good books we read this year that we could highlight. And there are even more piled on our desks or cluttering our Christmas wish lists. Of course, a book we’re particularly excited about next year is our own book coming out that looks at how mainline Protestants helped build Christian Nationalism.

We hope you’ll share what you’ve enjoyed reading this year. Perhaps you’ll tell us about one that’ll become one of our next top books to recommend.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood

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