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My Year in Books – Akos Balogh

.’I managed to read (and listen to) a number of thought-provoking books in 2018. Here’s my top 10 (from 10 to 1): 

Hillbilly Elegy—A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Young author J.D. Vance tells a gripping account of his upbringing in a white working-class Hill-Billy family. He gives us a first-hand account of growing up within and among broken families, drug addiction, and disadvantaged children – the increasing norm amongst the white working class of America. Vance skilfully shows what happens when a culture swallows the false promises of the sexual revolution:

‘Not long ago, I noticed that a Facebook friend, an acquaintance from highschool with similarly deep Hillbilly Roots, was constantly changing boyfriends, going in and out of relationships, and posting pictures of one guy one week, and another 3 weeks later. Fighting on social media with her new fling, until her relationship publicly imploded. She is my age with four children, and when she posted that she had finally found a man who would treat her well—a refrain I had seen many times before—her thirteen year old daughter commented: ‘Just stop. I want you and this to stop.’’

(Keep the tissues handy.)

How to Think—A Guide for the Perplexed by Alan Jacobs.

In this short, punchy book by Alan Jacobs—a Christian who works in academia, Jacobs slaughters a number of secular sacred cows. In particular, that human beings can be perfectly rational in our thinking. As he points out (citing compelling research), our thinking is inescapably affected by our emotions, and by those around us.

Jacobs slaughters a number of secular sacred cows. In particular, that human beings can be perfectly rational in our thinking. Our thinking is inescapably affected by our emotions, and by those around us.

And so, if we understand this, we’ll be in a much better place to think clearly and truthfully.

I walked away committed to do a better job of listening to those I disagree with, and being a little more suspicious of my own emotions and biases.

A Doubter’s Guide To Jesus—An Introduction To The Man From Nazareth for Believers and Skeptics by John Dickson

I read this book on a long-haul flight to the US earlier this year, and it did not disappoint. Appealing in particular to skeptics,  Dickson carefully outlines the conclusions of modern secular historians when it comes to their view of the New Testament—and why they point to Jesus being the Son of God:

‘While historians cannot say Jesus actually healed the sick, they can, and mostly do, say that Jesus did things that those around him believed to be miraculous. Whether or not you and I concur with this belief depends not on historical considerations but on philosophical assumptions (such as what we regard as possible in the universe).’ (p17. cf. 65-67)

A great book to give away to friends and family who are interested (but not yet convinced) about the Jesus of history.

Known By God—A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity by Brian Rosner

One of the most contested areas in human life at the moment is that of identity: who are we?

Into this arena comes a new book by author and Bible College Principal Brian Rosner.

While Rosner gives a thorough biblical theology of the urgent topic of human identity, he also provides us with the important ‘so what?’, that helps us see the relevance of the Bible’s teaching to our everyday lives.   The underlying theme is that our identity is tied to the fact that we are known by God, and He is the one who determines our identity. This helpfully critiques and unmasks much of the modern views of identity, from human autonomy, to the search for authenticity.

‘If knowing God is life’s greatest challenge, being known by God is life’s greatest comfort.’

Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering by Paul Grimmond 

Suffering is inescapable in our fallen world, and yet we western Christians are often surprised when it comes our way. In this short yet insightful book, Paul Grimmond carefully unpacks how Christians ought to respond to the challenge of suffering. I found this book pastorally sensitive, and full of ‘aha’ moments. Not least, a (renewed) realisation that the questions we often ask of God (why me?) are the questions our sceptical culture asks, rather than what the Bible asks.

‘It is only as the things of this world are dimmed by the glory of God that we will be able to live and to suffer for Christ, becoming so like him in his death that God will bring us to share in his resurrection.’ (p151)

Saving Truth: Finding Meaning and Clarity in a Post-Truth World by Abdu Murray

Apologist and former Muslim Abdu Murray gives a lucid account of our ‘post-truth’ world (‘post-truth’ being the Oxford English Dictionaries word of the year).

Murray unpacks the corrosive impact of a post-truth world for a society as a whole—whether politics, science, and basic human wellbeing. He helps makes sense of a world that is increasingly giving up on rational discourse and pursuit of truth. 

‘The post-truth mindset acknowledges objective truth, but subordinates it to [personal] preferences…In a post-truth age, if the evidence fits our preferences and opinions, then all is well and good. If it doesn’t, then the evidence is deemed inadmissable or offensive, with offense being a kind of solvent against otherwise sound arguments.’ (p14)

Awaiting the King—Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith

How should Christians, who are citizens of the Heavenly City, live and act while they’re here on earth, amongst citizens of the earthly city?

It’s no small question, but Smith does a good job of unpacking the implications of our heavenly citizenship in the here and now. Contrary to a common view that Christians shouldn’t ‘force their views’ on others, Smith argues that Christians should influence societal views of justice, for the good of their (non-Christian) neighbours:

‘If we are convinced (convicted) that in Christ and his Word we know something about how to be human, then shouldn’t we bend social practices and policy in that direction for the good of our neighbours … The flourishing of our neighbours and the vulnerable among us might depend on us.’

The Bible In Australia—A Cultural History by Meredith Lake

Sydney University academic Meredith Lake won the Australian Christian book of the Year for 2018 with this book of hers. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. With large swathes of academia—and popular culture—swallowing the lie that Christianity is really a negative force in society, Lake’s book points out that the Bible’s influence in Australian history was overwhelmingly positive—not least when it came to the treatment of aboriginal people:

‘[T]he biblical notion of [one humanity] nevertheless constrained the development of alternative European theories of race. In colonial Australia, it provided the deepest and most important basis for condemning settler rapacity and upholding the rights of Indigenous people. With the authority of God’s own word, ‘one blood’ was the primary foundation of humanitarian thought and action.’ (p96)

(That’s not to say everything Christians did was good—as Lake points out in her book. At a time when society is increasingly (and rightly) aware of the horrific failures of the church, such as institutional child abuse, The Bible in Australia is a helpful corrective to much secular history of Christianity in Australia.

Evangelism in a Skeptical Age—How to make the Unbelievable News about Jesus more Believable by Sam Chan

Australian author and evangelist Sam Chan has done a brilliant job analysing and understanding our post-Christian age, and how to evangelise in it. In particular, he shows how in our increasingly hostile culture, we need to show people that Christianity is good before they’ll accept it as true (humanly speaking). Furthermore, Australians are rapidly losing any memory or respect for Christianity, so evangelism in Australia today is truly ‘cross-cultural’—and Chan shows what it looks like to share the gospel across the cultural divide.

Australians are rapidly losing any memory or respect for Christianity—Chan shows what it looks like to share the gospel across the cultural divide.

I especially liked the chapters on relating the gospel to secular culture, namely by showing how the gospel resonates with the underlying aspirations that secular people have, while being a much better fulfilment to those aspirations (you can see a TGCA interview I did with Sam Chan about his book here ).

A much-needed resource for our post-Christian Australia.

A Better Story: God, Sex, and Human Flourishing by Glynn Harrison

Harrison’s book is a brilliant introduction into the roots and impact of the sexual revolution on modern society. It’s accessible, yet deep. Harrison unpacks why the sexual revolution has captured our culture’s imagination, including many Christian’s imagination.

I appreciated the in-depth psychological and sociological analysis of the revolution’s victory over our culture, not to mention the threat this poses to churches, so far as the believability of the Bible’s account of human sexuality is concerned. To put it simply, Christians need to take seriously the Bible’s admonition to keep meeting together  (Hebrews 10:24-25), and and yet point out the broken promises of the revolution (e.g. epidemic of loneliness, broken marriages, and families). We also need to demonstrate how and why the Bible’s take on sexuality is better than the sexual revolution’s.