Best Reads of 2019

We asked a handful of our staff and Davenant Fellows what books they particularly enjoyed reading over this past year. Here’s what they came up with!

Brad Littlejohn:

Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (2005)

I had the pleasure of re-reading this book, or large portions of it at any rate, for the third time earlier this year in preparation for a course in Christian Political Thought. It was, is, and remains an absolute humdinger–one of those rare works that not only keeps on giving fresh insights every time you come back to it but leaves you floored with astonishment at its power to illuminate hitherto bewildering aspects of human experience. O’Donovan gained acclaim for his seminal treatment of the concepts of freedom and authority in his 1986 Resurrection and Moral Order and his re-conception of “judgment” as the fundamental task of political authority in his 1995 Desire of the Nations. This volume recapitulates and expands upon both of those breakthroughs, and adds to them an equally profound treatment of representation. Taking aim at the preoccupation with procedure and democratic legitimacy that has dominated modern concepts of political representation, O’Donovan invites us to attend to the deeper, more visceral, and more aesthetic aspects of representation: political representatives are, first and foremost, the symbols through which a people represents itself to itself. Politics is thus a feat of imagination more than of power, and successful political judgment must conform not only to criteria of procedural justice, but must also vindicate the historic shape of a community’s identity. In these insights, as well as illuminating discussions of peoplehood, borders, and international law, O’Donovan anticipates many of the arguments that have made Yoram Hazony’s 2018 The Virtue of Nationalism an international sensation. This book may be a demanding read, but it is well worth the effort.

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019)

From time immemorial, the greatest power that humans have aspired to is the ability to know the future. Unfortunately, that requires knowing human behavior, and humans are a notoriously fickle lot. Or were, until recently. In this passionate and eloquent bombshell of a book, Shoshana Zuboff exposes the profound refashioning of economic and social life that has been going on right underneath our noses–or thumbs, at any rate–for the past two decades. To be sure, ever since the sweeping expansion of the intelligence industry in the aftermath of 9/11, the American public has been subject to fitful bouts of alarm and outrage (punctuated by periods of uneasy complacency) about the ubiquity of surveillance and the erosion of privacy. In 2013, Edward Snowden became a global celebrity/pariah overnight with his massive leak of data regarding the extent of intrusive government surveillance into cell phone, email, and web browsing information, not only of foreign threats but of US citizens. But it didn’t take long for this outrage to subside into a resigned numbness, and in any case, as Zuboff argues, the outrage was somewhat misplaced. At least government surveillance serves, in principle, a legitimate public purpose, an extension (though many would say an overreaching one) of the government’s police and national security powers. But far more sweeping and pervasive is the mining of our data–what Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus”–every day, initially by the big Silicon Valley firms, but increasingly by whole sectors of the economy, in order to repackage it and monetize it as knowledge of the future: of where you will go, how you will feel, and what you will buy. So rapidly have we been enculturated in this new digital ecosystem that we are apt to take this disempowerment for granted, but in fact, as Zuboff notes, it represents a fundamentally new mode of capitalism, one in which the majority of value-added no longer comes from the supply of improved goods and services that meet consumer needs, but from the supply of behavioral prediction data about consumers that meet advertiser needs. The next step, though, is the really troubling twist: however much data you gather on them, human beings remain fickle and unpredictable; thus the real profit comes in when you can condition them to act in certain ways, as our devices increasingly do. Although occasionally shrill and overstating her case (in ways reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, which is an influence on the work), Zuboff’s exposé reads like a modern-day Abolition of Man or Silent Spring, offering essential insight on the power dynamics of our rapidly changing world.

Jake Meador:

Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer: Unbelief and Revolution

Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, a 19th-century Dutch political theorist, is a predecessor to Kuyper. This set of lectures he delivered titled Unbelief and Revolution were given in the mid 18th century, in the midst of the age of revolution in Europe–typically said to run from 1789 to 1848. What makes Groen’s argument so interesting is that it’s an attempt to define the root problems in modern social order without making dubious arguments about Ockham or Duns Scotus. For Groen, the primary issue in modern social order is what he calls ‘the revolution.’ But the revolution is not a single discrete historical event, such as the storming of the Bastille. The revolution, according to Groen, is a shift in beliefs about politics and government. Specifically, it is the repudiation of the idea that the magistrate possesses power naturally that is delegated to him by God. The revolution rejects this idea and, instead, says that all political arrangements are voluntaristic; there is no natural hierarchy, no natural order in the world that is defined by God in which the magistrate has a particular role to play in the good society. This move is, according to Groen, the defining problem. In attacking a species of voluntarism the argument has some small overlap with the anti-Ockham arguments made by scholars like John Milbank and Brad Gregory. But Groen does not try to trace out a dubious genealogy of the idea. Rather, he goes straight to the Enlightenment philosophers that reject the natural order explicitly and focuses his critique around them and their modes of thought. If you are the kind of reader who is drawn to more radical critiques of our current social order but who finds the stories told by Milbank or Gregory to be implausible and who wants a recognizably Protestant approach to the problem, Groen is a fantastic place to begin.

Joe Minich:

The corpus of Michael Heiser

I realize this is a bit of a cheat, but the works of Michael Heiser are “of a piece.” This year, I went through most of his The Unseen Realm, Reversing Hermon, and Angels (and I am quite looking forward to his forthcoming Demons). Crucially, it is important not to judge these books by their covers (especially Reversing Hermon, which has the cover-art of a Bob Larson book from the “Satanic scare” era). Make no mistake about it. These are works of a seasoned scholar with a Ph.D. in Semitic studies from a top-notch program (U-Wisconsin, Madison), and they are meant to consolidate all the contributions of modern scholarship to make them extremely accessible for lay evangelical readers. Heiser is not merely up to date on Ancient Near Easter scholarship, but also in the scholarship of Second Temple Judaism. As such, he is a rare person who can help us read the Old Testament in its own world, and then connect how the Bible was read in an ANE context to how it was read in a 2TJ context, and then how it was received in the New Testament and early church. He has affordably pooled together information that would otherwise take you thousands of dollars to find in expensive academic tomes. You might not always agree with him in all the particulars, but very few could walk away from his work without feeling profoundly illuminated. Part of Heiser’s overall program is to help us see how important the “divine council” (God’s heavenly realm of angelic and spiritual rulers) theme is in Scripture. That is to say, as he puts it, we need to recover the “supernatural worldview” of the Bible. By this, he simply means that we need to understand how much the Bible simply assumes the role of spiritual agents in history and in life. What is unique about Heiser is that he treats these themes with very fine-grained scholarship, and with a disciplined imagination that is clearly intent on avoiding speculation. Chief among his claims is that Genesis 6 really is talking about some angelic activity that results in the production of violent tyrants. However, when addressing the precise “mechanism” by which this occurred, Heiser resorts to not being that speculative, suggests a range of potential options, and simply moves on. That is to say, he’s treating the weirdest parts of Scripture with the reserve and calm of a scholar, and the result of this combination is a treasure-trove of resources for the church. And seriously, do not miss his paranormal podcast,

Onsi Kamel:

Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 5

The early modern English divine Richard Hooker was not only one of the architects of so-called “Anglicanism,” but also a thoroughgoing, emphatically reasonable Reformed thinker. Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity represents one of the best defenses of a Reformed catholic Church ever written, beating back the excesses of non-conformist Puritans on one side and Roman Catholic polemicists on the other. In book five, the longest of the eight, Hooker defends the ecclesiastical practices of the Church of England down to their unexpectedly interesting details. Beginning with the claim that “true religion is the root of all true virtues and the stay of all well-ordered commonwealths,” Hooker tackles not only the Church’s relationship to the state, but also sacramentology, Christology, liturgical continuity with the Middle Ages, the freedom of Christian conscience, and many other topics. Like with St. Thomas Aquinas, Hooker’s most extraordinary and interesting claims are buried in sections with yawn-inducing headings: the section “Of music with psalms,” for example, is not a mere defense of Psalm-singing, but includes within it an entire theory of music’s relationship to virtue; likewise, a defense of the sacramental practices of the Church of England leads into one of the most beautiful explications of orthodox Christology ever written in English. Finally, and in most gratifying fashion, Hooker’s true churchmanship shines brilliantly in book five. “The Church is to us that very mother of our new birth in whose bowels we are all bred, at whose breasts we receive nourishment. As many therefore as are apparently to our judgment born of God, they have the seed of their regeneration by the ministry of the Church, which uses to that end and purpose not only the word but the sacraments, both having generative force and virtue.”

Michael Hughes:

W. Ross Blackburn: The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus, and Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts: Echoes of Exodus 

Perhaps I am cheating in bringing three books in one to my pick. But to tease apart the way in which the conversation happened as I read these two works simultaneously and alongside a reading of the book of Exodus seemed to me to short circuit the power I experienced. Accordingly, I recommend you try the same! In The God Who Makes Himself Known: The Missionary Heart of the Book of Exodus, W. Ross Blackburn argues for a reading of the book of Exodus that accounts for the canonical context. He asserts that God has always been about the business of revealing himself and his glory to the ends of the earth because he is the only adequate and all-satisfying end to pursue by nature and design. Blackburn takes us on a journey through the entire book of Exodus that illustrates the ways in which God reveals himself to his chosen people Israel, how they must live in light of that, and the resulting witness they are to the world. As God’s people, the church today will do well to remember these lessons. Echoes of Exodus by Andrew Wilson and Alastair Roberts traces the Exodus theme of God’s redemption and rescue of his people throughout the Scripture. Wilson and Roberts draw out these themes in such potency that you wonder how you missed some of the allusions. Their typological reading of Scripture remains faithful to the text and avoids reading things into it. These two works coupled with a reading of the book of Exodus provide a powerful study that will help you gain a deeper appreciation for God’s Exodus of his people throughout the whole of redemptive history and call you to long appropriately for our coming redemption, the ultimate Exodus of God’s people.

Colin Redemer:

The Form of Politics: Aristotle and Plato on Friendship by John Von Heyking

Friendship is a famously underexplored category in the modern era. This is particularly striking given the quantity (to say nothing of the quality) of material on the subject in the ancient world. Not that we completely ignore friendship as a category. But when we do encounter it we tend to focus on friendship sociologically, as in Bowling Alone by Putnam; psychologically for therapeutic purposes, as in The Five Love Languages by Chapman; or perhaps most often we study friendship for reasons of cold utility, as in the evergreen How to Win Friends and Influence People by Carnegie. These modern texts have little understanding of the underlying theories of friendship they are working out of, whether enlightenment categories of skepticism from Descartes or the transhumanist projections of friendship from Nietzsche. Von Heyking is thus a breath of fresh air walking the modern reader, in well-written prose, through the ancient theories found in Plato and Aristotle. Readers will gain insight not only into what constitutes a friendship, but they will also come to a humanizing realization about what makes us who we are and who we are meant to be. Friendship, it turns out, is something you learn not in business, therapy, or by studying humans as objects but by loving another as you love yourself.