Favorite Albums of 2016

December 21, 2016 — Leave a comment

Although I was not given a musical bone in my body, I listen to music almost all day at work.

One of my favorite things to do each year is sit down and list the best albums of the year. On Spotify I also have my favorite songs of the year, but it is a different accomplishment to make an entire album that fits together.

As Jeremy Begbie has said, the most important question for engaging culture is not “Do I like this?” (and I would add, “Do I agree with this?”), but rather, “What is going on here?” Part of the purpose of listening to a wide range of music is to learn about people and their narratives, even if you don’t agree with them.

What are they like? What do they value? What are they searching for? How do they communicate? These are all more important questions than the simple question of, “Do I like this?”

Below are the albums that I learned the most from this past year. There is a sense in which I liked each of them, but I liked them because I learned from them and engaged in the world in a different way because of their art. Each artist on this list made something unique, they made something worth talking about.

9) James Vincent McMorrow: We Move

This Irish folk singer-songwriter has a falsetto voice. In this album he mixes it with pop R&B music which I think worked perfectly. He picked up the tempo and seemed to find his vibe.

8) Macklemore & Ryan Lewis: This Unruly Mess I’ve Made

Maybe I will regret putting this on my list because for the most part this album received very low reviews. So why did I like it? Many criticized it for its sophomoric lyrics and juvenile rap jokes. What others were annoyed with, I found refreshing. It felt like they were having fun on this album joking about how their cats are more famous than we will ever be. But they also stop and go deep speaking about the problem with overprescription in America and Black Lives Matters. I agree it was not as good as The Heist, but even in The Heist this duo was playful. To expect something less is trying to make them into something they are not.

7) Bon Iver: 22, A Million

There were mixed reactions to Bon Iver’s newest album which departed from his usual style. It is still clearly Justin Vernon, but he has shoved the electronic forward and I can understand how a few were put off. I myself was confused when I first heard the album and thought it was a dud. Then I realized I had listened to the album on shuffle. This work must be engaged in the order Vernon has placed it.

6) Kanye West: The Life of Pablo

Kanye is like a train wreck I can’t look away from. At first his new album was a confusing piece to me. Sometimes it felt like he wanted to go toward gospel music like the previous Kanye, and then at other times he went deep into the pits of the unengaged and filthy, attempting to fill a track. Yet, there are enough bright spots in this album to make the list and quite a few of the songs grow on you as you listen for a third or fourth time.

Listen to Saint Pablo if you are going to check out one song.

5) James Blake: The Colour in Anything

Jame Blake’s album isn’t on many “best of 2016” lists. I wonder if people forgot about this album because of its early 2016 release. His sound is spacious and the shades of gray and blue cover his voice. The mixing for this album alone deserves an award.

4) Radiohead: A Moon-Shaped Pool

When it comes to a band like Radiohead I always question whether they made the list just because of their history. But this album proves they are still capable artists who continually tap into a melancholy fear that pervades their writing from the start of their career.

3) A Tribe Called Quest: We Got it from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service

This is the first project of this collective in 18 years and it has lived up to the hype. They speak about current issues with both A-list current artists and throwback rappers from the past. This is one of the most creative in terms of sound that I listened to all year.

2) Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book

Chance mixes gospel and rap in this feel good album that burst onto the scene and hasn’t slowed down. He refuses to fall in line with the typical hip hop genre and therefore stands out as a leader among the pack.

1) Sturgill Simpson: A Sailor’s Guide to the Earth

What can I say about this album? I usually don’t listen to country music because the genre has been hijacked. Sturgill is returning country music to its roots. This album was written to Sturgill’s first son and it is the most masterful thing I listened to all year. The album echoes life, with the sunlight, darkness, hope, happiness, and frustration throughout.

Listen to Breakers Roar if you are going to check out one song.

Favorite Books of 2016

December 14, 2016 — Leave a comment

I generally am about a year behind on “the best books of the year” except for the ones in my field of interest. This is mainly because I cheat. I wait to hear from others what books are most worth my time. I love all the December “best of” lists because they help me to create a reading list for next year.

Although in the past I have tried to keep a “books read” list, I never actually keep up with it. So really, this list is my favorite books that are fresh in my memory.

I have tried to start in order, but by the time I get to five the list becomes random.

Christ is King: Joshua Jipp

This book has been very influential in my thinking. It is not that Jipp says anything radical, it is more the way he frames things and also his incorporation of Hellenistic and Greco-Roman background material. His chapter on the “law of Christ” made me think scholars have been going about explaining this phrase all wrong, and his solution is natural and easy to explain. The best books make you think their material can be applied to different areas in a fruitful way. I am planning on employing some of the concepts in my work on the Gospels.

Silence:  Shūsaku Endō

Endo’s book is painful to read but it is powerful nonetheless. It tells the story of Porteugesse Priests who travel to Japan in the late 17th century. They know they will most likely be captured and tortured for their faith, but they go in attempt to follow the path of their suffering savior. If Hillenbrand’s book a few years ago was about being Unbroken by the Japanese, this is about being broken by them.

 

 

Hillbilly Elegy: J.D. Vance

I read this book because of Rod Dreher’s interview with Vance. Of all of the hundreds, no thousands, of articles I read on the election, it was Vance’s answers that made the most sense to me of the Trump phenomenon. The book isn’t even about Trump but it gives a glimpse into a people group in the US that are neglected and misunderstood.

 

Biblical Authority After Babel: Kevin Vanhoozer

Vanhoozer is a unique theologian who is both an excellent writer and someone who engages in a number of fields. This is one of the most important books of the year because Vanhoozer answers the charges against Protestantism and gives a nice defense of the five solas.

Read my review here: 

Read Bobby Jamieson’s as well:

 

Day of Atonement: David DeSilva

You have to read this book. DeSilva turns the Maccabean revolt into a narrative that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Although sometimes the narrative feels a little forced, the book will put you into the world of the intertestamental period. After I read this book I told my wife that I need to somehow incorporate this book into my classes.

Read Mark Strauss’s recent review of it. 

 

The Triune God: Fred Sanders

The positive effect of the grenade launching Trinity debates this past summer is that it made me revisit some of my Trinitarian categories. It also showed me that what I thought were sometimes pedantic and philosophical debates about the Trinity are quite important. Fred Sanders’ book is welcome contribution to the ever-expanding field of Trinitarian work. You might as well also read his review of Rohr while you are at it.

 

Paul and the Trinity: Wesley Hill

The first chapter of this book is worth the price of the book. Hill helpfully overviews the history of scholarship on “low” and “high” Christologies and then proposes a relational model. After I read this book I thought this was one of the best examples of Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Although Carson critiques the movement for not doing excellent exegetical work and tying it to Systematic Theology, that is exactly what Hill does so well in this work.

 

The Fractured Republic: Yuval Levin

I read this book over my vacation and thought it was a decent proposal for a way forward for our nation. I am not sure it will happen, but I am glad to see someone proposing a positive alternative rather than launching A-bombs at the opposing political camps. Levin argues that both conservatives and progressives are often given over to competing nostalgias, both seeking to “get back” to some mythical golden era—just different golden eras.

 

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord: L. Michael Morales

Carson’s series continues to pump out excellent material and this study of Leviticus is now my go to resource on Leviticus. I don’t think a work like this has been done on a book that confuses many. Morales puts the book into a narrative structure and centers it in the Pentateuch.

 

 

 

The Crucifixion: Fleming Rutledge

Confession. I am not completely done with this. It has been at my bedside and I have been slowly working my way through it before bed if I am not too tempted by another Netflix show. Although I don’t agree with everything in Rutledge’s book, I put this on my list because I have been served well by a book focusing on the cross. It is incredible to think that there are not a lot of books solely dedicated to the cross. The more the better in my mind, and a work has not been produced of this magnitude on the cross since Stott’s book The Cross of Christ. 

Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: Craig Bartholomew

I like anything Bartholomew does and this is a good “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” introduction. I did a review of it. Read what I think about it there. 🙂

 

 

 

 

I have a few books that I have been meaning to pick up that may have made this list but I have not got around to them yet. Here are the books on my “to read soon list.”

  • Richard Hays: Echoes of the Scriptures in the Gospels
  • Larry Hurtado: Destroyer of the Gods
  • Daniel Starling: Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship
  • Andy Crouch: Strong and Weak
  • Larry Tauton: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens
  • Mendy Belz: They Say We are Infidels

 

A Few Book Projects

December 7, 2016 — 2 Comments

 

Now that I am finished with publishing my dissertation and stepping into my third year of teaching at Western Seminary I can begin to work on some other writing projects.

I have three books projects I am currently working on and have a laundry list of other ideas for future projects. It is really fun to have a job where there is some time to write and I am finding out it is a great passion of mine. I could spend all day reworking sentences and turning sluggish verbs into resurrected ones. The process also improves my teaching and thinking.

Below are a few of the projects I am currently working on.

Treasures New and Old (Baker Academic)

I just signed a contract with Baker Academic. The book will be a biblical theology of Matthew exploring how the new and the old interact. One of my central ideas is that Matthew is the discipled scribe (see Matt 13:52) and that he is teaching us to read our OT and NT through the lens of Jesus the Messiah.

The Kingdom of God (Crossway)

I am almost finished with my first draft of a book on The Kingdom of God for Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series. I really like the look of this series. I explain the series as a shortened version of New Studies in Biblical Theology. For those who are intimidated by 300+ pages on the temple by Greg Beale this series will be more accessible.

While there are a lot of good books on the kingdom I think I can still provide something unique. For starters I am attempting to give the same amount of space to the Wisdom and Pauline Literature as the other sections of the Scriptures. Most short books on the kingdom spend a lot of time on the Pentateuch, a little less on the Prophets, and then almost nothing on the poetry section. They then hit the Gospels with fervor and jump to Revelation so they can get home for a nice dinner.

The second thing I will trace is a specific definition of the kingdom and attempt to focus on aspects of that definition that have been neglected. I am having a lot of fun with this project and can’t wait to share it.

A Sacramental Life (No publisher yet)

My final project is something I have actually been working on the longest, but it recently has been bumped to back seat because of other projects. I don’t think it is quite ready to send out to publishers so I don’t have a publisher yet. This is a trade book and meant for a wider readership. The basic idea is that God communicates with us through physical and material things. At this point I am entitling it A Sacramental Life.

It will be very different from the former two, but I am also really excited to write this one. The description below might sound fluffy, but I think it is going to pack a punch that most won’t expect. Here is a little description.

All nature speaks of the divine. The creator has chosen to reveal himself in created things; in wood, water, and wind; in sex, scorpions, and stardust; in life, death, and dirt. Whether this be the Redwoods of California, the baby boy born in wetlands of Papua New Guinea, or the sharks patrolling the Australian coast, God’s presence infuses creation. He is present, and he is not silent. However, sometimes his voice seems muffled. The tensions and tugs of life squeeze out the voice whispering, “I am here.” Now and then it takes a quiet day at the beach to see again, or time with close friends, or even a book to point out the enchantedness of life. My aim in this book is to peel back the dark layers that have enclosed this world and shut out the light; to remove the lifeless patch covering our eyes; to awaken wonder and love again.

If you are reading this and think to pray for me as I work on these projects I would appreciate it. My prayer is that I am faithful to the Scriptures, clear, and that these will build up the body of Christ and glorify God.

 

 

be3f169f-a262-4b57-ad01-f9823d0fa290-jpg-_cb270782896__sr970300_-1

Every summer I teach an exegetical course on Philemon. In this class we not only walk through the Greek text but I attempt to expose them to different aspects of studying the text. This includes thinking about biblical theology, outlining, diagramming, background, history of interpretation and application.

In the session on backgrounds I have them read quite a bit about slavery in the ancient world, and also about kinship and reciprocity structures. I usually copy some chapters out of an assortment of books and then we discuss how this impacts our reading of Philemon.

Recently the new NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing Life to the Ancient World of Scripture came across my desk (edited by John Walton and Craig Keener). I was happy to see when I turned to Philemon that they not only had a nice summary within Philemon of the background to ancient slavery but in the introduction they discussed in brief fashion many of the things that I considered important for understanding Philemon.

Not only this, but the verse by verse notes do not stray into other subjects but stay focused on background issues. So for example in their comments on verse 11 which is as follows, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me” the notes said.

he was useless to you – Many slaveholders stereotyped slaves (among whom they sometimes name Phrygian slaves, as would be the case here) as lazy and ill-disciplined. he has become useful. Here Paul plays on Onesimus’s name, which means “useful.” It was a common slave name, for obvious reasons.

Sometimes study Bibles try to do too much. Are the notes for application, theology, and background information? Many times the focus depends upon the individual author. I was happy to see that the editors made a conscious decision to keep things concentrated in this study Bible. As the editors say at the beginning, “This study Bible has been purpose-built to do one thing: to increase your understanding of the cultural nuances behind the text of God’s Word so that your study experience, and your knowledge of the realities behind the ideas in the text, is enriched and expanded.” In addition, the structure and layout of the Bible is clean and well put together. There are nice maps, and images of ancient artifacts.

This is a very good resource that I will be returning to for quick reference to cultural issues.

Check out this page for more resources and information.

 

bread-wine

The Canvas Conference, a joint effort between Humble Beast and Western Seminary, took place August 12-13, 2016, in Portland, Oregon, and was hosted by Imago Dei Community. This event, which sought to address the intersection of Christianity and creativity through a robust gospel-oriented and gospel-driven lens, included talks given by a number of Western Seminary faculty members. This was my talk. 

 

When you think of the Christian life what do you think of? What practices come to your mind? What is the essence of Christianity? I would guess that the popular view of Christianity concerns the internal, the spiritual, the disembodied. We think of Christianity as something in our heads, something in our hearts. We grow by reading our Bible, by praying, by meditating on our own, by learning more information about the Bible.

And these are actually good things. But I would suggest that we need to return to the Scriptures and recover the main images of Christian practice and see what they teach us about redemption. And I think we need to return to these central images because there is this tension, a dualism, a separation between the material and spiritual, between the earthly and the heavenly that has seeped into our culture.

I myself felt that tension when I was growing up. I felt that I occupied two worlds. In one world I was with my friends going to concerts, jumping on the trampoline, going to the lake, playing sports, building things with my friends, or trying to push my brother down the stairs.

However, there was another world that I occupied. I was urged to read the Scriptures, to pray, to go to church. For the most part, I thought of this second world as the world in my head for I could not see God, I could not touch him, I had to live by faith. Faith was acknowledging something immaterial, something beyond me and my physicalness. The world of the physical and the world of the spiritual were locked in their respective rooms never to come out and play.

And maybe this is why the church in the modern period has had a complicated relationship with artists and creatives. I am afraid that we have relegated Christianity to something in our mind and lost the sense of how holistic redemption is, how God communicates what Christianity is through the images that he has given to his church. There is a felt flatness to some versions of Christianity, not an embodied invitation to a historic sacramental Christianity. The historic images that God has given to his church are not the practices that usually come to our mind when we think of what it means to be a Christian.

The practices, the images that Christ gave to his people most explicitly are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we need to ask ourselves why did Christ give these? He could have given us anything? Why not something else? And what do these specific images teach us about us, about God, about how he communicates, with us, and about what God is doing in this world? We could say many things, but I have identified at least four things that these images teach us both about redemption and the nature of art.

FIRST, THEY TEACH US THAT CHRISTIANITY IS BOTH COMMUNAL AND PERSONAL.

It was C.S. Lewis who said that the devil always brings errors in pairs – pairs of opposites. He relies on your extra dislike of one to draw you gradually into the other. It is popular to pit the communal and personal against one another, but in the sacraments they come together. These practices are individual in one sense, but in the very same respect they communal. These practices by definition are to be done with other people.

Baptism is to be witnessed by a congregation as an initiation rite into the church. The Lord’s Supper is a meal we partake of with others who are also submitted to the king of this banquet. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper teach us that Christianity is personal, but it is more than personal, it is also a body ethic. These images teach us that there is no such thing as communityless Christianity, no such thing as churchless Christianity, no such thing as loving the bridegroom but shunning the bride.

The form of these main Christian practices informs us that the best art is both personal and communal. God has woven in our being the fact that we are both individuals and that we exist in community; not either-or, but both-and. The best art brings people together, gives them something to talk about, something to think about, something to wonder at.

SECOND, BOTH BAPTISM AND THE LORD’S SUPPER TEACH US THAT CHRISTIANITY IS COMPREHENSIVE.

Have you ever thought about what we are actually doing in these acts? They are actions that include the body, the mind, and the senses. The water rushes over our head, through our hair, and into our ears in Baptism. We place the bread and wine on our lips and in our mouths and chew and swallow in the Lord’s Supper. As James K. A. Smith notes, one of the first things that should strike us about Christian worship is how earthy, material, and mundane it is: “To engage in worship requires a body – with lungs to sing, knees to kneel, legs to stand, arms to raise, eyes to weep, noses to smell and. tongues to taste.”

The main images that Christ bestowed upon his church scream to us that Christianity is a religion for the whole person. Art, in a similar way, is meant to impact a person at different levels. Some art is for the eye, some for the ear, some for the heart, and some for the mind. But the best art brings coherency to these and recognizes that we are not beings to be cut up into pieces, but that our whole being in involved in every act. Art teaches us that God has made us whole.

THIRD, THESE IMAGES DECLARE TO THE WORLD THAT THERE WILL BE A NEW CREATION BUT THAT THIS ONLY COMES THROUGH SUFFERING AND DEATH.

In Baptism we go under the water to declare that the chaotic world has come over us in death. In the Lord’s Supper we eat of Jesus’ body and drink of his blood. When you think about it, in one sense the two sacraments that Christ gave us are gory and off-putting. And we need to ask ourselves what this means for art? Maybe it is not only the beautiful, but the painful, the distasteful, the gory, and the macabre that actually more plainly disclose the healing power of God (see Eph. 2). We not only need a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross for the arts. Maybe that is why the apocalyptic and dark shows are such a hit right now.

This is huge, because Christian artists in the past have been prone to present this pretty picture of life that whitewashes the pain, the suffering, the hardships of life. The fact is, we have a bloody, side-pierced savior at the center of our faith. We need to carve out spaces for art that makes us turn away in disgust, we need a theology of ugliness. But in case we forget, this dying, this suffering, in the sacraments always end with life, with oceans of hope. We are brought OUT of the water. We eat of Jesus to live! Life by death, and death by living. We need art that showcases the horrors of death and the beauty of life.

FOURTH, THESE IMAGES OF BAPTISM AND THE LORD’S SUPPER POINT BOTH TO HEAVEN AND BACK TO EARTH.

They point to Jesus’s life here on the earth in the flesh and his death and resurrection. But they also point to heaven where he is exalted now and sitting at the right hand of the Father. In Baptism we look forward to the final resurrection and in the Lord’s Supper we look forward to the messianic banquet. So Baptism and the Lord’s Supper declare that there are not two worlds but one. Heaven and earth are united in these images. In these rituals the people of earth enact a heavenly order.

Art in the same way is to showcase that the sky is not a closed dome of brass but there is movement between heaven and earth. The heavens are open. We live in an enchanted world, a world of spiritual forces, of devils and demons, of angels and archangels. Art needs to point to this earth, but also to heaven and show how these realms are united.

IMPLICATIONS

So what are the implications of these images, these practices for Christianity? These images teach us that Christianity cannot be relegated to merely a personal, internal, or disembodied thing. And we need more and more people who are interested in showing us the far reaches of Christianity:

Ÿ We need more artists who display the glory of God in the visual.

Ÿ We need more movie directors who tell stories that touch the recesses of the human heart.

Ÿ We need more composers who make music like Howard Shore.

Ÿ We need more singers, woodworkers, architects, interior designers, advertisers, project managers, and marketing experts because each of these things touches us in unique ways.

ŸWe need them to show us again how Christianity is a religion for the whole person, because in the images of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper God has already shown this to be true.

As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “Some people come to the church saying, “I want to be more spiritual.” The church responds, “Have some bread; take some wine.” This is the response one might expect from a faith that sees the Holy Spirit as resting on the body.” The images, the practices of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper teach us that Christianity is a complete worldview. They declare we don’t occupy two worlds, but that God is making them one.

 

51cBGPNUqFL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_Jamie Smith’s most recent book You are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is a more popular version of his books Desiring the Kingdom (here were my initial thoughts on the book) and Imagining the Kingdom. It removes some of the more academic conversations and distills his thesis into a two introductory chapters. But the book is not just a redo, there are new metaphors, new illustrations and he applies his thesis to the spheres of Christian worship, the home, youth ministry, and work.

On a personal note, I find Smith’s work very stimulating and always discover my mind firing in all sorts of direction. So although I might have some minor misgivings, I consider myself a supporter and recommender of his work.

If you follow Descartes, I follow Augustine (and Smith).

We Are Lovers

His argument is the title of the book. We are more fundamentally lovers than we are thinkers. We love in order to know, not know in order to love. These desires, these loves are manifested in daily life and habits. The way to train our desires is through ritual, through habit.

If you have followed the conversations of Smith’s books then you are aware that Smith is probably tired of responding to the same stale criticisms, or from people who don’t read him very carefully. One of the critiques that seems to come up a lot is that he proposes false distinctions.

But from a more positive vantage point, he is arguing that there is a priority or an order that we actually have backwards. It is not that we are not thinkers, but that we are first lovers. It is not that worship is not bottom-up, but it is first top-down. Earlier works provide more nuance in the footnotes.

I still personally wonder if the picture he paints is actually too neat. Maybe the process of theological anthropology is too complex to break down into humans primarily being this or that. Because isn’t the intellect a part of the body’s and heart’s process of desiring?

On Worship

I really enjoyed the chapter on worship/liturgy. His paradigm of God meeting us in worship and forming us coheres with a certain sacramental bent I have been on recently. Still two apprehensions came up when I read it. First, although there may have been more effort on the forming role of the Word it still seemed assumed. An Augustinian resourcement of the explicit centrality of the Word is needed.

Second, while it is true that God meets us in worship the emphasis in the NT seems to equally focus on the “bottom up” and “horizontal” dimension of worship. In Ephesians 5:19 it explicitly speaks of two objects in worship: one another and the Lord. I don’t think Smith is wrong here, but it is interesting what Eph 5:19 explicitly says.

The final thing that is worth bringing up is that when I think about applying some of his theories my mind fills up with awkward rituals that I have seen in churches or other institutions. This could be because we have lost the sense of how to perform rituals, but one wonders about certain institutions doing ritualistic acts and performing them so poorly that the effect is actually opposite of what Smith desires. It is not the strangeness or otherworldly nature of it that I am opposed to, but poor or less than thoughtful enactment of it. This does not take away from his thesis, for abuse does not cancel out use, but it is something to take into consideration.

I personally appreciated his reflection the home and youth ministry. Smith’s writing is always engaging and thoughtful. Although some of this is repackaged material, it is a helpful summary and has some new applications in different spheres.

This may turn out to be the best introduction to Smith’s work.

 

 

Below are some videos of Smith explaining his book.