As the tumultous Year Of Our Lord 2020 draws to a close, the Davenant Institute team members wanted to share their “Best Reads of 2020” with you, as a small insight into what has been informing our thinking this year.
As we seek to build a new “Republic of Letters” in contemporary Protestantism, and to bring about a renewal in Christian education, it’s essential that we are reading widely, discerning the good, true, and beautiful wherever it may be found.
Maybe, for your, the lockdown pressures of 2020 meant that time for reading was hard to come by. We hope these might act as recommendations to enrich your own reading in 2021!
BRAD LITTLEJOHN (President)
The Madness of Crowds, by Douglas Murray
If there is anything that is likely to most bewilder future generations about “the state of permanent revolution in social norms” in which we have found ourselves these past couple of decades, it is the dizzying, disorienting, breakneck speed of the revolution. In little more than the amount of time it now takes for a 13-year-old girl to “transition” into the boy she has decided she was always meant to be, large swathes of our society have transitioned from thinking such an action unthinkable, and the parents who authorize it grossly abusive, to thinking it the most natural thing in the world (if we can still use the adjective “natural”) and anyone who questions it to be the abuser.
If there is anything that is likely to most amuse those future generations, it is the transparent self-contradiction between the new pieties that are so sincerely recited by everyone from your professor to your hairdresser. Race is to be ignored–except when it is to be celebrated. Women are to be lauded for their achievements and men castigated for their oppressions–although neither sex exists outside of our imaginations. Gays are fundamentally defined by their sexuality–but it is intolerable bigotry to say that of a transgender person.
If future generations are to seek a guide through the madness of the early twenty-first century, they are unlikely to find one as clever, insightful, and bitingly, wickedly amusing as Douglas Murray. As an openly gay Englishman, Murray is at first glance an unlikely candidate to hold up a mirror to the absurdities of a generation in full-on rebellion against the reality of nature. Yet it certainly gives him a standing to speak frankly that few others could dare claim, while at the same time revealing the hypocrisy of those who claim to speak on his behalf. Tolerance is one thing. Inclusion is one thing. But a blind crusade against reason, decency, and dissent, he argues, is quite another. Murray’s book is a clarion call to all those who have retained their faculties amidst the onslaught of unreason, a call to stand up and say out loud that the emperor has no clothes.
COLIN REDEMER (Vice-President)
American Awakening by Joshua Mitchell
Amidst the delights of 2020 has been the pleasure of seeing another of the Great Awakenings for which America has a long history. Indeed Americans seem to be embracing religion as they haven’t in a generation. Only it isn’t Christianity.
Mitchell makes a very compelling case that identity politics is at its heart operating on a theological basis. The problem of the innocents and the transgressors, previously solved in our culture by our understanding of our own need for salvation and the bloody cross of Jesus Christ, is now being understood in terms of our blood-stained history. He predicts blood will be spilled in a misguided attempt to resolve our current conflicts. So we return to Aeschylus.
But Mitchell is not all doom and gloom. He also lays out how the Protestant tradition has the capacity to frame politics with robust theological roots to resolve ultimate concerns while leaving plenty of room for a people to work out their earthly lives with that dignity which remains to us. This is the “liberal” tradition which founded these United States of America and Mitchell lays out what will need to happen if we are to turn away from identity politics and return to self-government based on liberal competence.
But we have to see the problem of politics for what it is: a fight over how to live together, not over the state of our souls. The book is timely in diagnosing and prescribing our national soul sickness. It is nowhere more timely though than the epilogue which he titles the “Wuhan Flu Edition.” Here at the end of the book Mitchell slams our current leadership’s response to the pandemic as he tells us about a flu that has come to America which is 100% deadly and which we all catch with the first wail we let out from our mother’s womb. But while we all have this flu and we will all die of it the incubation period to kill us is about 69 years. Rather than “the Wuhan flu” he calls this “the Adam 69 flu” and the reader rapidly sees where he is going. If we can see this truth, that we were all handed a death sentence at birth, then perhaps we can escape utopian thinking and realize the aim of our shared political life: we have to learn how to live together prudently in the face of certain death.
ONSI KAMEL (Editor-in-Chief)
Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes
This year, I had the pleasure of re-reading Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy. Although dedicated to the theologically traditionalist “Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology at Paris,” Descartes’ Meditations were nothing short of revolutionary. Beginning from a posture of exaggerated skepticism, Descartes set out to give rational grounds for human confidence in knowledge of all things, “especially material things” (Synopsis, 12). Implicitly taking as his starting point St. Augustine’s argument against the skeptics in De Trinitate, the (in)famous cogito, Descartes would give new definitions of the human being (that which thinks), the mind/soul (non-extended thinking substance), knowledge (clear and distinct perception), and new grounds for trusting in our senses (the goodness of God, who will not deceive us). Needless to say, Descartes took the early modern world by storm. Generally, although not always, given a frosty reception by orthodox Protestant and Catholic theologians, Descartes was not a figure who could be ignored. And despite the earnest claims of Thomists the world over, four-hundred years later, he remains absolutely essential reading.
Aside from the intrinsic value of engaging with singular genius, it is important for us to engage with Descartes and his philosophical legacy as we think through how to live faithfully in our time. For, like us, Descartes lived at the beginning of a new epoch, and his burden was to negotiate with tradition as he navigated the contemporary world. Whether or not one thinks Descartes succeeded, his posture towards the tradition and new philosophy bears serious consideration, critique, and yes, perhaps, in certain respects, adoption.
MICHAEL HUGHES (Director of Davenant House)
Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A biblical theology of the book of Leviticus By L. Michael Morales
Ask Christians the top three books of the Bible that are hardest to read, understand, or that hinder success in their year-long Bible reading plan, most will include the book of Leviticus. Yet, this book is of immense importance and that is why Michael Morales’ work is such an important one.
He sets Leviticus in its context within the Pentateuch and then in the whole of redemptive history. Page by page, light is shed upon the reasons for all the sacrificial temple proceedings that seem so strange to the modern mind. The central question of Leviticus is the problem of fallen humanity, that we cannot ascend the mountain of God and dwell with Him. At the center of Leviticus, we find the answer: the Day of Atonement, on which a sacrifice made on behalf of all the people receives the judgement of God upon itself as a substitute and restores fellowship with God.
Morales does an excellent job mining the riches of Leviticus and identifying the gems that these uncut stones become as fully revealed in Christ, who ascends the mountain of the Lord that we may do the same through the blood of his cross. A reading of Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? is sure to enrich your understanding of the whole of Scripture and God’s great plan of redemption.
ALASTAIR ROBERTS (Teaching Fellow)
Acts: An Exegetical Commentary by Craig Keener
Having undertaken a two-year-long project of daily biblical reflections back in January, much of my reading this year has been of commentaries. While several of the commentaries that I have read could be especially singled out for praise, Craig Keener’s behemoth on the book of Acts has undoubtedly been among the most informative. The commentary itself is nearly 4,500 pages in length, stretched over four hefty volumes. If you want to feel the propulsive energy of the narrative, Keener’s digressive style of commentary is not for you—Robert Tannehill’s superb work on the book might be more your fancy. However, for those of us wanting a deep immersion in the world of the first century, Keener’s work on the book may be peerless. After having spent a few months with its volumes, I came away with a much firmer sense of the historical and cultural grounding of the events of the book of Acts and insights that will inform my reading of much of the rest of the New Testament.
JOSEPH MINICH (Teaching Fellow)
From Athens to Jerusalem: The Love of Wisdom & the Love of God by Stephen R.L. Clark
Really, I could just recommend the whole corpus of Clark, but this is as good a place as any to begin. Based upon his Gifford Lectures in 1982, Clark helps the reader take up the philosophical journey with wisdom. Drawing upon an extraordinary range of conversation partners (Western, Eastern, ancient, contemporary), offering insight from a range of disciplines, Clark attempts to show how faith, hope, and love are nascently operative in any sane philosophical journey. One of the world’s leading contemporary Christian neo-Platonists, Clark is perfectly suited to play the role of intellectual negotiator between a host of traditionally warring interlocutors.
DALE STENBERG (Teaching Fellow)
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
“I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body.” This proposition is becoming increasingly normal to hear in Western culture. Why? That is the question that Dr. Carl Trueman sets out to understand in his newest book.
Relying largely on the writings of Philip Rieff and Charles Taylor, Dr. Trueman offers a dispassionate analysis of the various philosophical threads that have been woven into the fabric of our modern age as it pertains to the sexual revolution and the expanding rhetoric that is being employed to explain the phenomena. He is not content to merely examine what took place in the 1960s with the so-called “Sexual Revolution”, but instead sets his aim back to influential thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Romantic poets, and Karl Marx to spy out common features of their philosophies that have coalesced into a stream of thought that has been unwittingly adopted by the modern mind.
I imagine this book will play a key role in advancing the conversation about modernity in general and the Sexual Revolution more particularly. In other words, this is an important book that Christians and non-Christians alike must wrestle with if they are to understand how the times are a-changin’.
RYAN HURD (Teaching Fellow)
The Order of Things: The Realism of the Principle of Finality by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Langrange (trans. Matthew K. Minnerd)
One work published this year in English to look at is Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s The Order of Things: The Realism of the Principle of Finality, recently translated by Matthew K. Minerd. This select volume is part of the outstanding goldmine of French works published in the ressourcement movement in the first part of the twentieth century. It covers the fundamentals of the issue of final causality, and should be the absolute baseline of what any seminary student should be required to understand with clarity on the topic. I am thankful that the volume is now accessible to the English-speaking church, especially for it to be used as a text in introductory courses of philosophy for theology.
RHYS LAVERTY (Marketing and Communications Coordinator)
Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher
By the time it was published in September 2020, regular readers of Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative probably felt as if they’d already read Live Not By Lies, given how much its message has infused Dreher’s writing in the last year or two. Yet it was still undoubtedly the right book at the right time.
Dreher’s contention – that we are living in a pre-totalitarian culture in which progressivism will make life increasingly difficult for Christians – often has him labelled a Chicken Little. But what stops this book from being just a lament in the culture wars is the story which inspired it: Dreher received a call, out of the blue, from a reader whose elderly mother (having fled the USSR) said that Western culture now bears the hallmarks of pre-Soviet Europe which made it ripe for embracing totalitarianism. After interviewing multiple other expats and survivors of the Soviet regime, Dreher found this judgment universally repeated. These interviews are the soul of the book, and justify Dreher’s frequent references to Arendt and Solzhenitsyn.
The ecumenical nature of the book is heartening as well. Although Orthodox himself, Dreher’s interviewees and intended audience are all orthodox Christians – a healthy, bottom-up ecumenism of believers in the trenches.
Dreher’s reputation as a doom-monger is unfair. He is, by his own admission, a Hobbit-like creature who would like to be left alone to worship, and to enjoy good food, good drink, and good company. Live Not By Lies is therefore a basically positive and convivial book about how, in a world where Mordor is real, Christians can still carve out a scouring-proof-Shire in their homes and churches. It is animated by characters such as the Benda family – Czech Catholic dissidents whose home was always open and table always full, often with those being harried by the Stasi. I finished this book not full of despair at our pre-totalitarian society, but full of excitement and hope about the kinds of homes and churches which will be built within it.