By Brad Vermurlen
Around this time each year, many of the pastors and seminary professors I’m connected to on social media post their top ten books of the year. Inevitably, most of the books they select are religiously committed books about some aspect of theology or ministry or the Christian life. The books are usually published by Christian presses like Zondervan, InterVarsity, Crossway, Eerdmans, Thomas Nelson, Moody, NavPress, and Baker.
That’s fine and understandable. I benefit from those books too. But too often Christian leaders overlook good and important projects from the secular academy and other “mainstream” sources and scholars. One of my deep convictions—animating my work with Docent Research Group—is that Christian leaders generally have a lot to benefit from keeping up on sociology (my field) as well as psychology, anthropology, philosophy, political science, law, and other disciplines.
In that spirit, below I’ve compiled a list of books published in 2017 that are not “Christian books” and yet in various ways Christian leaders would benefit from reading and digesting.
A couple points of clarification: First, these aren’t necessarily “the top” books, because I’m not aware of all the books published this year. These are some books worth knowing. Secondly, these authors themselves aren’t necessary non-Christians; some of them are Christians and others aren’t. But either way, their published work is not confessionally or explicitly Christian.
The books aren’t ranked but are presented in alphabetical order by last name. Here we go:
Barron, Jessica M., and Rhys H. Williams. 2017. The Urban Church Imagined: Religion, Race, and Authenticity in the City. New York: New York University Press.
Two sociologists critically examine the new urbanism within American Evangelicalism using a church in downtown Chicago as a case study. From the publisher: “The Urban Church Imagined illuminates the dynamics surrounding white urban evangelical congregations’ approaches to organizational vitality and diversifying membership. Many evangelical churches are moving to urban, downtown areas to build their congregations and attract younger, millennial members. […] In part, racial diversity is seen as key to urban churches presenting themselves as ‘in touch’ and ‘authentic.’ Yet, in an effort to seduce religious consumers, church leaders often and inadvertently end up reproducing racial and economic inequality, an unexpected contradiction to their goal of inclusivity.”
Bejan, Teresa M. 2017. Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Based on her recent dissertation at Yale, this book by Oxford political theorist Teresa Bejan reflects on the nature of civility and toleration. From the publisher: “Most modern appeals to civility follow either Hobbes or Locke by proposing to suppress disagreement or exclude persons and positions deemed ‘uncivil’ for the sake of social concord. Compared with his contemporaries’ more robust ideals, [Roger] Williams’s unabashedly mere civility—a minimal, occasionally contemptuous adherence to culturally contingent rules of respectful behavior—is easily overlooked. Yet Teresa Bejan argues that Williams offers a promising path forward in confronting our own crisis of civility, one that fundamentally challenges our assumptions about what a tolerant—and civil—society should look like.”
Benatar, David. 2017. The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions. New York: Oxford University Press.
David Benatar might just be the most pessimistic philosopher around today. From the publisher: “David Benatar here offers a substantial, but not unmitigated, pessimism about the central questions of human existence. He argues that while our lives can have some meaning, we are ultimately the insignificant beings that we fear we might be. He maintains that the quality of life, although less bad for some than for others, leaves much to be desired in even the best cases. Worse, death is generally not a solution; in fact, it exacerbates rather than mitigates our cosmic meaninglessness. While it can release us from suffering, it imposes another cost – annihilation. This state of affairs has nuanced implications for how we should think about many things, including immortality and suicide, and how we should think about the possibility of deeper meaning in our lives.”
Crane, Tim. 2017. The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
From the publisher: “An atheist himself, Tim Crane writes that there is a fundamental flaw with most atheists’ basic approach: religion is not what they think it is. Atheists tend to treat religion as a kind of primitive cosmology, as the sort of explanation of the universe that science offers. They conclude that religious believers are irrational, superstitious, and bigoted. But this view of religion is almost entirely inaccurate. […] The Meaning of Belief does not assess the truth or falsehood of religion. Rather, it looks at the meaning of religious belief and offers a way of understanding it that both makes sense of current debate and also suggests what more intellectually responsible and practically effective attitudes atheists might take to the phenomenon of religion.”
Finke, Roger, and Christopher D. Bader (eds.). 2017. Faithful Measures: New Methods in the Measurement of Religion. New York: New York University Press.
This book is a collaborative volume about state-of-the-art techniques for measuring religion social scientifically. From the publisher: “In an era of rapid technological advances, the measures and methods used to generate data about religion have undergone remarkably little change. Faithful Measures pushes the study of religion into the 21st century by evaluating new and existing measures of religion and introducing new methods for tapping into religious behaviors and beliefs.”
Golob, Sacha, and Jens Timmermann (eds.). 2017. The Cambridge History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
From the publisher: “With fifty-four chapters charting the development of moral philosophy in the Western world, this volume examines the key thinkers and texts and their influence on the history of moral thought from the pre-Socratics to the present day. Topics including Epicureanism, humanism, Jewish and Arabic thought, perfectionism, pragmatism, idealism and intuitionism are all explored, as are figures including Aristotle, Boethius, Spinoza, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Mill, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre and Rawls, as well as numerous key ideas and schools of thought.”
Gorski, Philip S. 2017. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Yale sociologist Phil Gorski argues for a path beyond either Christian nationalism or radical secularism. From the publisher: “Was the United States founded as a Christian nation or a secular democracy? Neither, argues Philip Gorski in American Covenant. What the founders actually envisioned was a prophetic republic that would weave together the ethical vision of the Hebrew prophets and the Western political heritage of civic republicanism. In this ambitious book, Gorski shows why this civil religious tradition is now in peril—and with it the American experiment.”
Haught, John F. 2017. The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
From the publisher: “Over the past two centuries scientific advances have made it clear that the universe is a story still unfolding. In this thought-provoking book, John F. Haught considers the deeper implications of this discovery. He contends that many others who have written books on life and the universe—including Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins—have overlooked a crucial aspect of cosmic history: the drama of life’s awakening to interiority and religious awareness. Science may illuminate the outside story of the universe, but a full telling of the cosmic story cannot ignore the inside development that interiority represents.”
Hayles, N. Katherine. 2017. Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Here’s yet another book in the large scholarly literature on the extraordinary power of nonconscious and nondeliberative cognitive processes. “Cognition, as Hayles defines it, is applicable not only to nonconscious processes in humans but to all forms of life, including unicellular organisms and plants. Startlingly, she also shows that cognition operates in the sophisticated information-processing abilities of technical systems.” (source)
Josephson-Storm, Jason Ā. 2017. The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
From the publisher: “A great many theorists have argued that the defining feature of modernity is that people no longer believe in spirits, myths, or magic. Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm argues that as broad cultural history goes, this narrative is wrong, as attempts to suppress magic have failed more often than they have succeeded. Even the human sciences have been more enchanted than is commonly supposed. But that raises the question: How did a magical, spiritualist, mesmerized Europe ever convince itself that it was disenchanted?”
Laborde, Cécile. 2017. Liberalism’s Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
“Liberal societies conventionally treat religion as unique under the law, requiring both special protection (as in guarantees of free worship) and special containment (to keep religion and the state separate). But recently this idea that religion requires a legal exception has come under fire from those who argue that religion is no different from any other conception of the good, and the state should treat all such conceptions according to principles of neutrality and equal liberty. Cécile Laborde agrees with much of this liberal egalitarian critique, but she argues that a simple analogy between the good and religion misrepresents the complex relationships among religion, law, and the state.” (source)
Lilla, Mark. 2017. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
From the publisher: “In The Once and Future Liberal, Mark Lilla offers an impassioned, tough-minded, and stinging look at the failure of American liberalism over the past two generations. Although there have been Democrats in the White House, and some notable policy achievements, for nearly 40 years the vision that Ronald Reagan offered—small government, lower taxes, and self-reliant individualism—has remained the country’s dominant political ideology. And the Democratic Party has offered no convincing competing vision in response. Instead, as Lilla argues, American liberalism fell under the spell of identity politics, with disastrous consequences.”
Luce, Edward. 2017. The Retreat of Western Liberalism. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Luce offers a critical examination of the status of Western liberalism (“liberalism” in the broad sense, which encompasses both the American left and right). From the publisher: Building on his previous book, “Luce makes a larger statement about the weakening of western hegemony and the crisis of democratic liberalism—of which Donald Trump and his European counterparts are not the cause, but a symptom. Luce argues that we are on a menacing trajectory brought about by ignorance of what it took to build the West, arrogance toward society’s economic losers, and complacency about our system’s durability.”
Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
A timely addition to Oxford’s excellent “very short introduction” series. From the publisher: “Populism is a central concept in the current media debates about politics and elections. However, like most political buzzwords, the term often floats from one meaning to another, and both social scientists and journalists use it to denote diverse phenomena. What is populism really? Who are the populist leaders? And what is the relationship between populism and democracy? This book answers these questions in a simple and persuasive way, offering a swift guide to populism in theory and practice.”
Mulder, Mark T., Aida I. Ramos, and Gerardo Marti. 2017. Latino Protestants in America: Growing and Diverse. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.
A team of three sociologists thoroughly examine this growing religious demographic. From the publisher: “Latino Protestantism is growing rapidly in the United States. Researchers estimate that by 2030 half of all Latinos in America will be Protestant. This remarkable growth is not just about numbers. The rise of Latino Protestants will impact the changing nature of American politics, economics, and religion. Latino Protestants in America takes readers inside the numbers to highlight the many reasons Latino Protestants are growing as well as the diversity of this group.”
Nichols, Tom. 2017. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.
From the publisher: “People are now exposed to more information than ever before, provided both by technology and by increasing access to every level of education. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.”
Perry, Samuel L. 2017. Growing God’s Family: The Global Orphan Care Movement and the Limits of Evangelical Activism. New York: New York University Press.
University of Oklahoma sociologist Sam Perry analyses how Evangelicals are doing regarding adoption and care for orphans—and finds the movement struggling. From the publisher: “Why have evangelical mobilization efforts been so ineffective? To answer this question, Samuel L. Perry draws on interviews with over 220 movement leaders and grassroots families, as well as national data on adoption and fostering, to show that the problem goes beyond orphan care. Perry argues that evangelical social engagement is fundamentally self-limiting and difficult to sustain because their subcultural commitments lock them into an approach that does not work on a practical level.”
Regnerus, Mark. 2017. Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sociologist Mark Regnerus explains how the easy availability of sex is changing Americans’ relationships. From the publisher: “Sex is cheap. Coupled sexual activity has become more widely available than ever. Cheap sex has been made possible by two technologies that have little to do with each other – the Pill and high-quality pornography – and its distribution made more efficient by a third technological innovation, online dating. Together, they drive down the cost of real sex, and in turn slow the development of love, make fidelity more challenging, sexual malleability more common, and have even taken a toll on men’s marriageability.”
Sanger, Carol. 2017. About Abortion: Terminating Pregnancy in Twenty-First-Century America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Although written by a pro-choice law professor at Columbia, this book will help Christian readers stay informed. From the publisher: “Laws regulating abortion patients and providers treat abortion not as an acceptable medical decision—let alone a right—but as something disreputable, immoral, and chosen by mistake. Exploiting the emotional power of fetal imagery, laws require women to undergo ultrasound, a practice welcomed in wanted pregnancies but commandeered for use against women with unwanted pregnancies. Sanger takes these prejudicial views of women’s abortion decisions into the twenty-first century by uncovering new connections between abortion law and American culture and politics.”
Sasse, Ben. 2017. The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Nebraska senator Ben Sasse adds his voice to the literature on extended adolescence in America. “In an era of safe spaces, trigger warnings, and an unprecedented election, the country’s youth are in crisis. Senator Ben Sasse warns the nation about the existential threat to America’s future. […] In The Vanishing American Adult, Sasse diagnoses the causes of a generation that can’t grow up and offers a path for raising children to become active and engaged citizens. He identifies core formative experiences that all young people should pursue: hard work to appreciate the benefits of labor, travel to understand deprivation and want, the power of reading, the importance of nurturing your body—and explains how parents can encourage them.” (source)
Scruton, Roger. 2017. On Human Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton makes his case for personalism. From the publisher: “In this short book, acclaimed writer and philosopher Roger Scruton presents an original and radical defense of human uniqueness. Confronting the views of evolutionary psychologists, utilitarian moralists, and philosophical materialists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Scruton argues that human beings cannot be understood simply as biological objects. We are not only human animals; we are also persons, in essential relation with other persons, and bound to them by obligations and rights. Our world is a shared world, exhibiting freedom, value, and accountability, and to understand it we must address other people face to face and I to I.”
Smith, Christian. 2017. Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith (of “moralistic therapeutic deism” fame) offers a general theory of religion. From the publisher: “Drawing on the philosophy of critical realism and personalist social theory, Christian Smith answers key questions about the nature, powers, workings, appeal, and future of religion. He defines religion in a way that resolves myriad problems and ambiguities in past accounts, explains the kinds of causal influences religion exerts in the world, and examines the key cognitive process that makes religion possible. Smith explores why humans are religious in the first place—uniquely so as a species—and offers an account of secularization and religious innovation and persistence that breaks the logjam in which so many religion scholars have been stuck for so long.”
Sunstein, Cass R. 2017. #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein reflects on how the Internet and social media are negatively impacting democracy. From the publisher: “As the Internet grows more sophisticated, it is creating new threats to democracy. Social media companies such as Facebook can sort us ever more efficiently into groups of the like-minded, creating echo chambers that amplify our views. It’s no accident that on some occasions, people of different political views cannot even understand each other. It’s also no surprise that terrorist groups have been able to exploit social media to deadly effect. […] Thoroughly rethinking the critical relationship between democracy and the Internet, Sunstein describes how the online world creates ‘cybercascades,’ exploits ‘confirmation bias,’ and assists ‘polarization entrepreneurs.’ And he explains why online fragmentation endangers the shared conversations, experiences, and understandings that are the lifeblood of democracy.”
Wenger, Tisa. 2017. Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
From a historian of American religion at Yale University. “Religious freedom is so often presented as a timeless American ideal and an inalienable right, appearing fully formed at the founding of the United States. That is simply not so, Tisa Wenger contends in this sweeping and brilliantly argued book. Instead, American ideas about religious freedom were continually reinvented through a vibrant national discourse—Wenger calls it ‘religious freedom talk’—that cannot possibly be separated from the evolving politics of race and empire.” (source)
Williams, Joan C. 2017. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
From the publisher: “Around the world, populist movements are gaining traction among the white working class. Meanwhile, members of the professional elite—journalists, managers, and establishment politicians—are on the outside looking in, left to argue over the reasons. In White Working Class, Joan C. Williams, described as having ‘something approaching rock star status’ by The New York Times, explains why so much of the elite’s analysis of the white working class is misguided, rooted in class cluelessness.”
Brad Vermurlen earned his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Notre Dame in 2016. He now writes and drinks coffee in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he lives with his wife, Alex. His website is www.bradvermurlen.com.