10 Christian Books That Have Shaped My Thinking So Far

Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc

Seeing as I’m not getting any younger (try as I might), I’ve been reflecting on the last 10 years of my Christian walk, and wondering what books I will recommend to a younger Christian from my library. So I thought to write down the top 10 books of the last decade of my life. Note that they are in order of when I read them, not necessarily which one is the best, a judgment that I cannot make.

1Pagan Christianity – Frank Viola

This was the book that first answered some of the doubts my church family and I already had about today’s church practices. It details how modern Christianity’s idolatrous fixation with church buildings, the history and legitimacy or otherwise of tithing for Christians, the clergy/laity divide, sermons and their origin etc. have more to do with Greco-Roman paganism than 1st century Christianity. Not safe for those who like church as it is today.

2From Eternity To Here – Frank Viola

This one unfolds God’s plan for his church which he laid out before the foundations of the earth. It discusses several images that the New Testament writers use to describe the church, including the bride, the house, the family, the temple etc. It challenges your comfort zone on why churches exist in the first place.

3The Reformers and Their Stepchildren – Leonard Verduin

A classic on the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and how those who wanted to take things further than the leaders of the Reformation would allow were hunted down, tortured and killed in all sorts of macabre ways. The beliefs that these Anabaptists aka the Radical Reformation, suffered for seem self evident now, and a lot of Christians now hold to most of them, and yet very few acknowledge those who actually died to state that these practices needed to change. Popular Christianity has a lot to learn from those who chose such narrow paths to their own detriment.

Interestingly Leonard Verduin who was a Reformed theologian made enemies in his own church tradition for drawing attention to what his spiritual forefathers had done to the Anabaptists. Sigh …

4The Politics of Jesus – John Howard Yoder

Having read about Anabaptism, it seemed only logical that the next book be one by an Anabaptist himself. This book caused a revolution in Christian by questioning how Christianity had come to view Jesus as not caring much about the socio-political environment in which he lived, by virtue of which Christians have left social and economic justice to be the purview of the “world leaders”, when in fact Jesus tasks the church to be very busy following him in this direction of being “good news” to the poor, oppressed, sick, marginalized and downtrodden. Whether Christians who were ruffled by what he said decided to take Jesus seriously or go back to the apolitical Jesus really becomes a conscious choice.

5New Testament History – Frederic Fyvie (F. F.) Bruce

My first introduction to the world of New Testament history. FF Bruce really peaked my interest in understanding the world of the 1st Century and using that as an additional tool in understanding Jesus and early Christianity. Bruce, thanks for setting me on the right path.

6Making A Meal of It – Ben Witherington III

Ben Witherington takes a good look at the meal with many names i.e. the Lord’s Supper, Communion, Eucharist etc. He sketches out how it has been observed historically from the times of early Christianity where it was a full meal sometimes taken even before the meeting began, to the Roman Catholic and Protestant interpretations of it and how it’s observed today. He encourages us to look again at how pivotal this meal is, and yet to remove the cruft that has put so much superstition around it. A good read.

7The Bible Made Impossible – Christian Smith

Why do we have many interpretations of the same bible by different people who claim to follow the same Jesus? Could it be that the attitudes with which we come to the bible are the problem, and not the bible itself? In the light of the million and 1 divisions in Protestant Christianity, should we reconsider the notion that “a simple plain reading of the bible with the Holy Spirit’s guidance” is all we need to correctly interpret the bible? Christian Smith provides a more satisfying, balanced and humble approach to how we should approach the bible, making Jesus the centerpiece for biblical interpretation.

8Jesus and the Victory of God – Nicholas Thomas Wright

This close to 700 page masterpiece on Jesus really expanded my reading of the gospels beyond the nice, safe, simplistic stories that I had been taught in Sunday school. Laying down the background of 1st century Judaism from “New Testament and the People of God“, NT Wright lays out Jesus’s ministry by mainly seeing him as a prophet like Jeremiah, Isaiah etc. No, the parable of the prodigal son meant more than you think, the cursing of the fig tree was a proper condemnation of Israel, the cleansing of the temple was a very prophetic activity. And by the way Mk 13 and Matt 24 are not talking about some “End Times” with some great tribulation as depicted to us by the Dispensationalists – they referred to concrete actions which happened in AD 67-70. For those who don’t have the time, reading “How God Became King” by the same author will suffice, since it’s a smaller, less academic one.

9The Resurrection of the Son of God – Nicholas Thomas Wright

The 3rd in the “Christian Origins and the Question of God” series, this does a detailed survey of what resurrection meant to the cultures that surrounded 1st century Jews i.e. Greek platonism, and clearly differentiates it from resurrection as understood by Jesus and his disciples before it even happened to Jesus. I was expecting to get the arguments for why Jesus’s resurrection was historically plausible which this book has in spades (including debunking all the claims of similarity with other “resurrection myths”) but the additional content laying out the implications of Jesus’s resurrection for Christianity itself was the part I enjoyed the most. For those who don’t have the time, reading “Surprised by Hope” by the same author will suffice, since it’s a smaller, less academic one.

10The King Jesus Gospel – Scott McKnight

Over the centuries, the good news of Jesus has been reduced to many statements, but today almost universally the refrain is that the gospel is that “Jesus came to die for our sins”. Scott McKnight draws the difference between this the “soterian gospel” or “plan of salvation” and the gospel according to the New Testament. He expands our view of what the word means from a historical analysis of the word “evangelion” and its usage in the 1st century to an analysis of 1 Cor 15:1-11, and places the emphasis where it should be – on the declaration of Jesus as God’s anointed king who is calling people into his kingdom now and kingdom future.

 

Others interesting books that didn’t make the list include Howard Snyder’s “Salvation Means Creation Healed” , Dallas Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy”, Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Religion” (which I still haven’t finished fully but loved anyway and will reread all over someday).

 

And sorry, I don’t read “motivational” books. I simply don’t have the stomach for their fluffy feel-goodness.

Of Double Doubles, and Confused Gospels

As I grow in life and grow in Christ, it seems that I keep rediscovering the Jesus I believe in. And I’m more excited each day discovering his wondrous worth as the risen Messiah, the one spoken of by Israel’s prophets of old. However, when I turn round to what I see and hear of we who follow him, my heart sometimes fills with such sorrow. And one of those instances is when I heard the words of the “gospel” song “Double Double”, because nothing can be farther from the truth when it comes to the reality of what the New Testament determines to be God’s blessings.

The Background to the NT & Jesus’ Times

I strongly believe that one of the problems of Christian teaching and teachers down the centuries is a very severe ignorance of the background and times that Jesus and his apostles lived in, and this ignorance allows us to continuously misappropriate scripture to our own purposes, ignoring totally the theme that drives the use of certain words in the NT. We don’t realize that Jesus’ work is part of a narrative of historical events in which Jesus participated as a very important figure, and in which we are participating after he has left. We therefore just pick out as we please, and the resulting Christianity we get tends not be pretty, to say the least. Let us examine some of these backgrounds, and then we’ll look at what we mean when we talk about God’s blessing vis-à-vis the Christian in the NT. For those interested in details, delving into “New Testament History” by FF Bruce, “New Testament History” by Ben Witherington III and other NT historians will be helpful.

About 400 years before Jesus birth, Israel had just returned from exile. Whiles in exile, they’d been encouraged by the words of prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel to continue to be faithful to God and that they will see God’s faithfulness to his covenant to Abraham when they are delivered. This deliverance finally came through the Persian king Cyrus who allowed the likes of Ezra and Nehemiah to return and rebuild the Jewish nation. It is believed that it is within this period of exile that institutions like the synagogues sprang up because they did not have a temple like in Jerusalem to concentrate their worship around anymore. When they returned, they were led by their leader Zerubabbel to build a new temple in Jerusalem (recorded in Ezra 3-6), and this second temple named after Zerubabbel is the temple that existed at the time of Jesus Christ. The Judaism that was practiced after this second temple was built is what scholars refer to as Second Temple Judaism. One of the important things to note at that time was that because of the problems created by having to live in exile for so long, a whole new batch of religious laws had crept into the Jewish society aside of the Old Testament (Torah) that we Christians know, and these laws were called the Talmud, sometimes referred to as “the tradition of the elders”. In fact, in some places, they overrode the Torah given by Moses which was directly from God. These Talmudic laws are what Jesus condemns when he says to the Pharisees that they break the command of God for the sake of their traditions (Matt 15:1-3).

In addition to these, the institution of Pharisees and Pharisaism arose during and after the exile. These were men learned in the Torah and Talmud, and who guided the religious lives of the ordinary people. Though the Jews looked to the council of priests (The Sanhedrin) for ultimate leadership of the whole country during this period, the Pharisees were more respected because they seemed to follow the laws more devoutly and spent more time directly amongst the ordinary people than the priests, who were busy politicking and doing their rituals in the temple. Of the two popular Pharisaic factions, Paul the apostle was originally of the Hillel faction, having studied under Hillel’s grandson Gamaliel (Ac 22:3).

The Hope of the Jews

Despite their return, all was not well with the Jews. They knew that they had a special covenant with God as the children of Abraham, and that their prophets had prophesied to them that God will bring his promised kingdom to pass through the “Son of David” – the “Son of Man”, the Messiah – after their exile. Despite all the prophecies about God restoring them from exile and bringing everlasting peace to them, here they were under occupation – first by Ptolemy (one of the generals of Alexander the Great) and his descendants, and then by Caesar and his Roman empire thereafter. To the 2nd temple Jew therefore, salvation was not centered on a personal redemption from sin and its effects, but God entering into the present and changing the world order by virtue of His anointed one (Christ means “anointed one”), that they the Jews may be vindicated as the true nation of God.

One of the expectations of the coming of that kingdom is the gift of the Spirit of God to his people, enabling them to be able to obey God’s commands without a written law. This was because they believed their own efforts at being obedient to the law were insufficient in pleasing God, but then he would give them the means to please him himself if his spirit dwelt in them. As Ezekiel 36:25-27 records God’s intent:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

Jesus & the New Testament

400 years after the exile and whiles the 2nd temple Jew is seriously contemplating why God hasn’t brought his kingdom into fulfillment, Jesus enters the scene and begins to talk about this same kingdom whose coming he says is very near. In some places he actually says that the kingdom has arrived in the present. The “kingdom of God”/”kingdom of Heaven” is mentioned in the gospels about 84 times, many times more than the word “salvation” in the entire NT. And yet it is very odd that the current Christian discourse has very little mention of the kingdom. Jesus’ mission of creating a people in every location who are expressing his nature and his kingdom in the now has been totally subsumed by our own self-defined missions of “winning souls” to sit in pews and wait for heaven to come, doing nothing but clinging onto “faith alone”. In fact waiting in pews has become tiring, and therefore we’ve moved on to claiming material property in the name of “God’s blessings”. Two millennia of Christianity has managed to emasculate the Gospel from its Judaic background, and has lead and is still leading us down a path where every theology can be easily supported by stringing together any number of proof-texts from the bible in the name of “God’s word”. The least said about the “motivational speakers” the better, for that genre of preaching does not even need a Christian to do.

Blessing

One of such proof-texting comes from the typical use of the word “blessing” with regards to Gal 3.

A lot of Christians have thought of the “blessings of Abraham” to connote being blessed with material wealth like Abraham was blessed by God. And yet it is very obvious from the context of Gal 3 that Paul is talking about how the Galatians received the Holy Spirit – which is exactly what God promised in Ezek 36 above. Oh, by the way, a promise is not a wish – it is expected that a promise will be fulfilled, given that all conditions for its fulfillment is met. This is important as we’ll see later.

“Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? … The scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you’. So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:2;8-9).

Which blessing is Paul talking about here, except in direct reference to the blessing of receiving the Spirit of God? The argument is sufficiently ended when we look at v14.

“He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:14)

 

Riches

Another of such usage is with regards to “riches”. The typical proof-text is 2 Cor 8 and 9

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

As usual, in the haste to claim things for ourselves whether legitimate or not, we have totally ignored the context of this passage. We notice first that Corinthians is an epistle not to a person, but to a congregation. Even v 1 says “And now brothers”, meaning he’s not referring to one person becoming rich, but the congregation’s collective increase, whether through one person or through many. In addition, the English language does not help us here because the language uses “you” to refer to both singular and plural numbers. However the “you” and “your” used here are different forms of “humei” in Greek which denotes a plural, not singular. This fact is even supported by “for your sakes” as properly translated by the NIV.

Given the foregoing, how can we come to the conclusion that 2 Cor 8:9 says that every Christian must be rich, or there’s something wrong with their Christianity? And yet we’ve lost sight of the really important thing that Paul was saying – that even in extreme poverty, the Macedonian churches gave to help their Jerusalem brethren. I know many Christians who claim they are willing to help their less fortunate brethren, but they are waiting to be rich before they can do so. I wonder if they’ve read 2 Cor 8 properly.

Prosper

Oh, and the favourite proof-text:

“I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 Jn 2).

There is no doubt that John the apostle is wishing his brother Gaius well, and as any Christian will wish his brother a happy birthday – there is no guarantee that his brother will indeed have a happy birthday. This is not a promise of God, recorded in the Law, Prophets or Gospels that we must at all times prosper and have good health. So I ask a simple question: if I pray that my friend’s marriage is successful as we always do when we go to our friend’s weddings, does that automatically mean that their marriage will be successful? Is logic not allowed to prevail anymore when reading the scriptures?

Again, the real problem that John the apostle sought to address (which is what is happening everyday in our churches today – authoritarian self-imposed leadership in the name of “serving” the church) is nicely glossed over? Do we not have an abundance of Diotrepheses in our churches? In fact, haven’t we institutionalized “Diotrephesism”? In fact, New Covenant theologian Dr Jon Zens is challenging us to rethink the institution of the clergy today in his book “The Pastor Has No Clothes” in an attempt to deal with such problems, and we probably need to pay more attention to men like him.

When Jesus was praying for his disciples in Jn 17, I believe his focus was that God give them the strength to fulfill the commandment he’d given them and to be united as a people in doing so, not in making sure they “prospered and had good health”.

Conclusion

I know that songs like “Double Double” are very nice to dance to and get all worked up on. But if there’s any theological strength to such songs, I’m obviously not getting the message. In fact, it actually is getting depressing listening to “gospel” music of today, whether it comes from the polished American singers of the day or the not-so-polished Ghanaian ones. The value is the same, and we need to get back to talking about Jesus, his kingdom and how we can make him and his kingdom real in the community of the brethren.