Great books tell stories. Here’s our pick of vivid and insightful new releases for better understanding America, world events, history, science, and theology
This year, instead of having one Book of the Year, our committee of five WORLD writers chose an outstanding title in each of three categories—popular theology, history, and analysis. Two more in each category are runners-up, and we’re also spotlighting a book that doesn’t fit in those categories but deserves special recognition.
What’s Your Worldview?
by James N. Anderson
by Barbara R. Duguid
How to Talk to a Skeptic
by Donald J. Johnson
THE ORIGINALITY and conciseness of James Anderson’s What’s Your Worldview? An Interactive Approach to Life’s Big Questions (Crossway) make it our Book of the Year in this category. Structured like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” interactive story, the outcome depends on the choices readers make. What’s Your Worldview? should appeal especially to teens and college students.
For example, answering yes to a question about the existence of objective truth takes the reader to the Knowledge question: “Is it possible to know the truth?” A yes answer there leads to the Goodness question: “Is anything objectively good or bad?” That yes answer leads to the Religion question, “Is there more than one valid religion?” A no answer leads to “Is there a God?” followed by “Is God a personal being?” and “Is God a perfect being?” Answering yes to both leads to questions about God communicating with humans, then to questions about Jesus, and eventually to Christianity.
Other answers start the reader down paths to many other worldviews, including atheistic dualism or idealism, deism or finite godism, Islam or Judaism, materialism or monism, mysticism or nihilism, pantheism or polytheism, relativism or skepticism, Platonism or Unitarianism, and so forth—21 options in all. When readers hit the end of the trail they have chances to think again: For example, those whose answers bring them to deism may reconsider the Communication question by going to page 34, the Perfection question by going to page 32, or the Personality question by going to page 29.
Some “Choose Your Own Adventure” storylines do not end happily—choose poorly and belligerent goblins await. What’s Your Worldview? demonstrates that most endings are self-contradictory or hard to live with. For example, Anderson asks readers who end up at pantheism, “Are you willing to say that ultimately everything is good and nothing is evil? Perhaps you are. But can you walk the talk as well? Can you live consistently with that result of your worldview?” —M.O.
(Editor’s note: Listen to an interview with James Anderson on The World and Everything in It.)
THE TENSION BETWEEN law and grace (or works and faith, or legalism and antinomianism) is basic both to the Christian life and the Christian church. We all tend to fall on one side of the fence or the other, and given our basically unbalanced nature, perfect balance is impossible. In Extravagant Grace (P&R), Barbara R. Duguid attempts to sweep aside the dichotomy and frame the issue in terms of 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” “God thinks that you will actually come to know him better as a desperate and weak sinner in continual need of grace than you would as a triumphant Christian warrior who wins each and every battle against sin.”
This might be an especially timely reminder for a church wounded and bleeding in the culture wars. Over our failure rides the truth that God is in control and will work out all things for our good, both in the public arena and in our hearts. A certain tension remains, and a single book can’t settle it once and for all, but Duguid reminds us where grace abounds, and that the greatest strength for a Christian lies in complete and utter dependence. —J.B.C.
(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from Extravagant Grace.)
DONALD JOHNSON'S How to Talk to a Skeptic (Bethany House) rightly criticizes the idea of marketing Christianity as a consumer product to be sold by means of an advertising pitch: It will meet your needs and desires. Instead, he understands that the important question regarding Christianity (or any other religion) is not “What can it do for me?” but “Is it true?” Reacting to each specific assault on Scripture keeps us playing whack-a-mole, so a comparative approach works better with today’s young people. “Talk about which story of the universe is more reasonable to believe: Christianity or something else.”
To make that case, we should show that “Christianity is the worldview that best accounts for the evidence. Compared to any other worldview an unbeliever cares to offer, Christianity most adequately and comprehensively makes sense of life as we experience it every day.” Johnson shows that defending the reliability of Scripture and the historicity of the resurrection of Christ is crucial, but other bulwarks to faith—such as personal experience of God, our intimate knowledge of being conscious and having a conscience, the overarching unfolding of history, and the way the world and the universe seem designed—may be more relevant to an unbeliever. —M.O.
(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from How to Talk to a Skeptic.)
Mission at Nuremberg
by Tim Townsend
The Great Debate
by Yuval Levin
A Patriot’s History of the Modern World, Vol. II
by Larry Schweikart & Dave Dougherty
WE KNOW THAT the just shall live by faith, but what about the radically unjust who gain faith at nearly the last moment of their lives? Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis (William Morrow) implicitly takes on that question, and through gripping narrative suggests an answer that’s basic to Christianity. That’s why it’s WORLD’s history Book of the Year.
Townsend’s thorough research brings us the story of Henry Gerecke, a German-speaking American Lutheran pastor who took on the task of ministering to the worst of sinners—21 Nazi leaders including Hermann Georing, Albert Speer, and Joachim von Ribbentrop—because he did not see them as beyond redemption. This conviction stemmed from Gerecke’s lifelong calling to reach not the rich and famous but the poor and infamous: the unemployed of the Depression, death row inmates in Illinois, and war criminals at Nuremberg.
Townsend keeps the central narrative moving but also refers to Simon Wiesenthal’s famous story, “The Sunflower,” in which Wiesenthal refuses to forgive an SS officer for his role in the massacre of the inhabitants of a Jewish town. Some critics contrast that refusal with a Christian willingness to forgive, but Gerecke knew that his task was neither to forgive nor to condemn. His role as he saw it was to help the Nazis understand the evil they had done; the rest was up to God. The criminal on a cross next to Christ made it to heaven, because Jesus said so, but who could absolve someone who has killed six people, or six hundred, or six million?
Gerecke knew the biblical answer: A Nazi murderer who comes to believe in Christ and rests on Him alone for salvation can go to heaven. That’s hard for some to accept. That’s one reason this book is so useful. —M.O.
(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from Mission at Nuremberg. And listen to an interview with Tim Townsend that aired on The World and Everything in It.)
WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA equates “government” with “community” and castigates Republicans for dog-eat-dog individualism, he’s continuing (and twisting) a political discussion that began with two great champions of liberty, Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. The Great Debate, by Yuval Levin (Basic Books), exposes the roots of ideologies that remain with us today.
Paine’s fundamental presupposition was that the basic unit of society is the sovereign individual, equal to all other sovereign individuals, who has the power to remake himself with every generation. Burke saw individuals in context, shaped by class, family, nation, and religion, with obligations to each. Men and societies could change, according to Burke, but never without due consideration of their context. The journalistic salvos between these two exposed the core of political thought for the next 300 years: “what makes a government legitimate, what the individual’s place is in the larger society, and how each generation should think about those who came before and those who will come after.”
Levin explores the 18th-century dialectic between Nature and History, Choice and Obligation, and other dilemmas in learned (sometimes dry) prose. The reader is allowed to draw his own conclusions, but thoughtful 21st-century observers will find plenty of modern parallels. —J.B.C.
THE TITLE OF Larry Schweikart and Dave Dougherty’s A Patriot’s History of the Modern World, Vol. II (Sentinel) tips us a clue: This history from 1945-2012 leans toward a conservative view that sees the United States as exceptional. Four reasons, introduced in the first volume, are expanded here: “a Christian (mostly Protestant) religious foundation, free enterprise, common law, and private property with titles and deeds.” Sadly, these pillars are decaying. The narrative covers events all over the world, not just the United States, but as the unchallenged leader of the free world after Europe lay in ruins, the USA carried a weight and authority far beyond its considerable geographical size.
To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, a good history is hard to find. In the vast middle ground between Howard Zinn and Lyndon LaRouche lies as many interpretations of history as there are historians, but Schweikart and Dougherty strike a reasonable balance between honest evaluation and traditional values. Since “Modern” is defined in decades rather than centuries, 583 pages (plus notes) is sufficient for due consideration of such events as the Korean War, the Berlin Wall (rise and fall), and the strengths as well as weaknesses of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. —J.B.C.
The Tyranny of Experts
by William Easterly
by Peter Greer & Chris Horst
by Stephen C. Meyer
THE WINNER IN THIS category is William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (Basic Books), which shows the folly of a technocratic approach to poverty-fighting. The economic “experts” whom Easterly lambasts demonstrate “a terrible naiveté about power—that as restraints on power are loosened or even removed, that same power will remain benevolent of its own accord.” Easterly sees this naiveté as tragic because “the real cause of poverty [is] the unchecked power of the state against poor people without rights.”
Easterly eviscerates top-down, government-centric approaches that treat people as blank slates. He’s long been at war with Jeffrey Sachs and others who tend to “see each poor society as infinitely malleable for the development expert to apply his technical solutions.” Easterly regards local people without Ph.D.’s as more knowledgeable about how to use funds effectively: “Major gains in well-being would be possible by moving funds from problems with low benefit-cost ratios to high benefit-cost ratios, but these gains will never happen when the goals are set inflexibly from the beginning.”
Easterly could go deeper by looking at the theological roots of unchecked, centralized power: When we don’t worship God and in desperation turn instead to human gods, government power grows. But he does point out the complicity of journalists who don’t worry about a leader with “unconstrained power” because “his intentions concerning what to do with that power are presumed to be good.” Easterly notes that while dictators kept their nations poor for decade after decade, “the New York Times was four times more likely to mention successful autocratic countries than failed ones over 1960 to 2008.”
Nevertheless, hope remains: James Madison saw states as laboratories, and Easterly says progress comes when we “have many independent individuals trying lots of different things. … Just as important as the science beloved by technocrats is the individual’s knowledge of constantly changing details of other people, places, and opportunities. More important than how to build a machine is where and when and for what group of people a machine will really pay off.” —M.O.
(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from The Tyranny of Experts. And listen to a speech by William Easterly that aired on The World and Everything in It.)
PETER GREER AND CHRIS HORST, co-authors of Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches (Bethany House), have seen firsthand how good works that begin on solid foundations often lose their grip on Christ and become ensnared in scandal, financial problems, or outright secularism. Greer (the president) and Horst (the development director) of HOPE International describe problems in their own organization and the steps they took to correct them. Other organizations, such as Christian Children’s Fund, neither heeded nor corrected, and in time dropped “Christian” from their label entirely.
The authors are correct about an “unspoken crisis,” which makes this little book both prophetic and practical. They sketch the clear contrasts between Mission Drift and Mission True organizations, the latter distinguished by humility and faith: “Seeing God for who He is clarifies our role: We are stewards.” Both established organizations and hopeful organizers should take note of potential red flags, such as “Death by Minnows,” “Functional Atheism,” and “Follow[ing] the Money.” The chapters on measurement and corporate culture seem especially helpful for new charities struggling to define their mission and set their goals. —J.B.C.
STEPHEN MEYER'S Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (HarperOne) starts with Charles Darwin’s confession: “The difficulty of understanding the absence of vast piles of fossiliferous strata, which on my theory were no doubt somewhere accumulated before the [Cambrian] epoch, is very great.” Darwin admitted that the lack of intermediary forms in the fossil record undermined the key element of his theory, incremental change over long periods of time. He expected the missing links would turn up eventually, but to this day the fossil record has revealed no valid prototypes for the “Cambrian explosion” of new animal forms.
Meyer was WORLD’s Daniel of the Year in 2009, shortly after he published his previous big book, Signature in the Cell, which unravels the incredibly complex structure of the single living cell and demonstrates the unlikeliness of its evolving by chance. Darwin’s Doubt expands that picture with an examination of what the Cambrian explosion reveals and what sort of hypothesis might best fit the evidence. Using anecdote, analogy, drawings, and diagrams, he makes a highly technical subject accessible for a dedicated layman. Along the way he explores the nature of science itself, and how unexamined assumptions can keep scientists from seeing what is right under their noses. —J.B.C.
(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from Darwin’s Doubt.)
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
by John M. Frame
JOHN CALVIN wrote one. Charles Hodge wrote one, and so did Louis Berkhof, Wayne Grudem, and Robert Reymond, among others. Now Reformed Theological Seminary professor John Frame has written Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (P&R). All systematic theologies might be considered “magisterial” in some sense, because the whole point is to unify all scriptural teaching. But some focus on obscure interpretations or cutting-edge scholarship, to the detriment of plain truth. Not Frame’s: “Our theological problems,” he writes, “usually arise from our failure to note what is obvious.”
Frame’s theology is Bible-centered, readable, and devout. Following a chapter on what theology is (“the application of Scripture, by persons, to every area of life”), he launches his major theme: “The Centrality of Divine Lordship,” or the Lord himself as the main character and driving force of history. From there we survey the overarching narrative of the Bible, then move on to specific doctrines: of God, the Word, Knowledge, Angels and Demons, Man, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, Last Things, and Christian Ethics. That last chapter seems surprisingly short, but our ethical choices stem from our theology, and Frame has already spent the previous 1,100 pages getting our theology straight. To facilitate individual or group study, he includes key terms, study questions, memory verses, and resources at the end of each chapter.
Frame is known for his “perspectival” view of knowledge: “We will see that often in the Bible a subject is discussed not according to different parts, but according to different perspectives,” which relate ultimately to God’s Trinitarian nature. The Lordship attributes of God, for example, consist of His authority, His control, and His presence. Man, as the image of God, also exercises authority, control, and presence to a limited degree. Triangle diagrams are scattered throughout the text, providing a novel way to think about doctrinal matters like salvation, saving faith, revelation, and providence.
In a time when clear expository preaching is on the decline and standards—both doctrinal and ethical—are slipping, Systematic Theology is a great addition to Christianity’s library. —J.B.C.
(Editor's note: Read an excerpt from Systematic Theology and listen to an interview with John Frame that aired on The World and Everything in It.)
Previous Books of the Year
The Reason for God (Tim Keller)
The Battle (Arthur Brooks)
The Triumph of Christianity (Rodney Stark)
Escape from North Korea (Melanie Kirkpatrick)