Feast of the Holy Apostle Thaddaeus
I EDIT theological books for a living. I’m a freelancer, so I work for several different publishers. On average, I edit about fifty books per year. I like to read theology anyway (one would hope, given my line of work), but it’s interesting to read books I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen (though admittedly it’s more interesting—and exciting—to read books I would have chosen anyway). It’s a chore sometimes too, of course, but I get to enter into and listen in on whole worlds of discourse I wouldn’t otherwise take the time to read. That said, here are the best books I edited in 2014, with a little commentary. Soon I hope to report on the best ones I’ve edited so far this year.
1. Handbook of Religion, edited by Terry C. Muck, Harold A. Netland, and Gerald McDermott
This book was a surprise. “Guides to world religions” tend to fall into one of three categories: (1) supposedly neutral textbooks for undergraduate comparative religion classes; (2) apologetics for ultra-pluralistic, radically post-something-or-other ideologies (sometimes this second one comes disguised as the first); or (3) apologetics for some form of conservative Christianity that fail to truly understand the religion under consideration. So I was expecting one of these. This book, however, manages to garner the benefits of each of these categories without falling into any of their pits. In other words, it serves very well as a textbook for understanding world religions, it recognizes that we live in a diverse, even pluralistic world and seeks to take account of that fact, and it manages to be confessionally and even, for the most part, traditionally Christian. (It’s an edited volume, so it’s not ideologically uniform.) The book, in five parts, covers the methodology of studying religions, the major world religions, indigenous religions, new religious movements, and topics related to the study of religion, such as religion and violence. The format of each part includes both the history and beliefs of each religion, its contacts with Christianity, current issues, and for the major world religions and new religious movements, a brief essay by a practitioner of the religion in view (there’s even one written by a Satanist). Needless to say, it’s a big book. But it’s an education in itself.
2. Language for God in the Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, by Mark Sheridan
A title like this will either make your eyes glaze over or make your mouth water. As a patristics enthusiast, I was, needless to say, already salivating when I received the project offer from InterVarsity Press. The book is pretty much what the title says, and it’s engagingly written, with a helpful appendix on ancient Christian hermeneutics. I have found this book especially useful for refuting (in my mind at least) modern biblical scholars who too easily dismiss the church fathers for their “Hellenizing” exegesis. Nobody who says the church fathers ignore the “concrete” or “human” language for God in the Old Testament can do so after Sheridan’s attentive reading of the patristic tradition’s language for God.
3. Talking Doctrine: Mormons and Evangelicals in Conversation, edited by Richard Mouw and Robert Millet
Another surprise. This book is the fruit of over a decade of unofficial dialogue between a group of evangelical and Mormon scholars who both recognize their profound differences and gratefully acknowledge their many commonalities. What’s more, it’s a model of both respectful engagement across confessional divides. Many of the scholars engaged in the dialogues in fact have become lifelong friends. I found myself existentially mixed up in the book’s content: I was of course reminded of the doctrinal divides between traditional Christianity and the LDS church; but never have I been more tempted to call them brothers in the faith.
4. Practicing Silence: New and Selected Verses, by Bonnie Thurston
What can I say? Sometimes you get paid to read contemplative poetry. There are worse jobs than mine.
5. Commentary on John, vol. 2., by Cyril of Alexandria, translated by David R. Maxwell, edited by Joel C. Elowsky
This was a treat. A brand new translation of Cyril’s much-neglected but masterful commentary on John’s Gospel. I hadn’t read the first volume (that will soon be remedied), but it didn’t matter. Watching Cyril pull together his Christology in these texts, and being myself drawn into them at the same time, was more than a pleasure. It deepened my faith in a way only the great church fathers can.
Jeff Reimer is a freelance editor and writer based in Newton, Kansas.