By Brad Vermurlen
Late December means the pastors, seminary professors, and other Christian leaders with whom I’m connected on social media are, once more, sharing their top ten books of the year. As I noted last year, most of the books these leaders select are religiously committed books addressing some aspect of theology, ministry, apologetics, or the Christian life. The books are usually published by evangelical Protestant presses like Zondervan, InterVarsity, Crossway, Eerdmans, Thomas Nelson, Moody, David C. Cook, 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 much of the work I do 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, history, law, and other disciplines, as well as some journalism.
In that spirit, below I’ve compiled a list of 25 books published in 2018 that are not “Christian books” and yet in various ways Christian leaders would benefit from reading.
Before proceeding, there are four things I want to clarify:
First, these are some books worth reading, but not necessarily “the top” books. Although this list is longer than most, I still had to make some cuts and leave out potentially helpful books. On top of that, there are plenty of books published in 2018 I’m yet to discover, some of which I’m sure are deserving of a spot on this list.
Second, these authors themselves aren’t necessary non-Christians; I know some of them are Christians, and I know others aren’t. Others I have no idea. But wherever they stand themselves religiously, their published work is not confessionally or explicitly Christian. Their books aren’t “Christian books.”
Third, some may object to my liberal use of the publishers’ descriptions of these books instead of my own. That choice was largely for the sake of my time. Smart people have already put work into introducing and summarizing these books, and I am glad to employ their efforts here.
Finally, it would have been easy to fill this list with books in the genre of “American identity-based politics are toxic” or, more pointedly, “Western liberal democracy is collapsing,” but I intentionally tried to limit these books in the list.
If that is what you’re looking for, however, then you should check out Amy Chua’s book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations; Francis Fukuyama’s Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment; William Galston’s Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy; Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy; Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die; Lilliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity; Gwyneth McClendon’s Envy in Politics; Martha Nussbaum in The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis; David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends; Ben Sasse’s Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal; John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck’s book, Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America; and/or Cass Sunstein’s edited volume, Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America (all published this year).
With that not-so-uplifting caveat, here’s the list in alphabetical order by last name.
25 Books from 2018
Anderson, Ryan T. 2018. When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. New York: Encounter Books.
A timely book from my fellow Golden Domer. From the publisher: “Can a boy be ‘trapped’ in a girl’s body? Can modern medicine ‘reassign’ sex? Is our sex ‘assigned’ to us in the first place? What is the most loving response to a person experiencing a conflicted sense of gender? What should our law say on matters of ‘gender identity’? When Harry Became Sally provides thoughtful answers to questions arising from our transgender moment. Drawing on the best insights from biology, psychology, and philosophy, Ryan Anderson offers a nuanced view of human embodiment, a balanced approach to public policy on gender identity, and a sober assessment of the human costs of getting human nature wrong.”
Asma, Stephen T. 2018. Why We Need Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.
From the publisher: “How we feel is as vital to our survival as how we think. This claim, based on the premise that emotions are largely adaptive, serves as the organizing theme of Why We Need Religion. […] No theorist of religion has failed to notice the importance of emotions in spiritual and ritual life, but truly systematic research has only recently delivered concrete data on the neurology, psychology, and anthropology of the emotional systems. This very recent ‘affective turn’ has begun to map out a powerful territory of embodied cognition. Why We Need Religion incorporates new data from these affective sciences into the philosophy of religion. It goes on to describe the way in which religion manages those systems—rage, play, lust, care, grief, and so on. Finally, it argues that religion is still the best cultural apparatus for doing this adaptive work. In short, the book is a Darwinian defense of religious emotions and the cultural systems that manage them.”
Berking, Helmuth, Silke Steets, and Jochen Schwenk (ed.). 2018. Religious Pluralism and the City: Inquiries into Postsecular Urbanism. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
An edited volume on religion and urbanism, including a posthumous essay from Peter Berger. From the publisher: “Religious Pluralism and the City challenges the notion that the city is a secular place, and calls for an analysis of how religion and the city are intertwined. It is the first book to analyze the explanatory value of a number of typologies already in use around this topic – from ‘holy city’ to ‘secular city,’ from ‘fundamentalist’ to ‘postsecular city.’ By intertwining the city and religion, urban theory and theories of religion, this is the first book to provide an international and interdisciplinary analysis of post-secular urbanism. The book argues that, given the rise of religiously inspired violence and the increasing significance of charismatic Christianity, Islam and other spiritual traditions, the master narrative that modern societies are secular societies has lost its empirical plausibility. Instead, we are seeing the pluralization of religion, the co-existence of different religious worldviews, and the simultaneity of secular and religious institutions that shape everyday life.”
Bielo, James S. 2018. Ark Encounter: The Making of a Creationist Theme Park. New York: New York University Press.
From the publisher: “Opened to the public in July 2016, Ark Encounter is a creationist theme park in Kentucky. The park features an all-timber re-creation of Noah’s ark, built full scale to creationist specifications drawn from the text of Genesis, as well as exhibits that imagine the Bible’s account of life before the flood. More than merely religious spectacle, Ark Encounter offers important insights about the relationship between religion and entertainment, religious publicity and creativity, and fundamentalist Christian claims to the public sphere. James S. Bielo examines these themes, drawing on his unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the Ark Encounter creative team during the initial design of the park. This unique anthropological perspective shows creationists outside church contexts, and reveals their extraordinary effort to materialize a controversial worldview for the general public.”
Campbell, Bradley, and Jason Manning. 2018. The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
From the publisher: “The Rise of Victimhood Culture offers a framework for understanding recent moral conflicts at U.S. universities, which have bled into society at large. These are not the familiar clashes between liberals and conservatives or the religious and the secular: instead, they are clashes between a new moral culture—victimhood culture—and a more traditional culture of dignity. Even as students increasingly demand trigger warnings and ‘safe spaces,’ many young people are quick to police the words and deeds of others, who in turn claim that political correctness has run amok. Interestingly, members of both camps often consider themselves victims of the other. In tracking the rise of victimhood culture, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning help to decode an often dizzying cultural milieu, from campus riots over conservative speakers and debates around free speech to the election of Donald Trump.”
Coley, Jonathan S. 2018. Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
From the publisher: “Although the LGBT movement has made rapid gains in the United States, LGBT people continue to face discrimination in faith communities. In this book, sociologist Jonathan S. Coley documents why and how student activists mobilize for greater inclusion at Christian colleges and universities. Drawing on interviews with student activists at a range of Christian institutions of higher learning, Coley shows that students, initially drawn to activism because of their own political, religious, or LGBT identities, are forming direct action groups that transform university policies, educational groups that open up campus dialogue, and solidarity groups that facilitate their members’ personal growth. He also shows how these LGBT activists apply their skills and values after graduation in subsequent political campaigns, careers, and family lives, potentially serving as change agents in their faith communities for years to come.”
Deneen, Patrick J. 2018. Why Liberalism Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
One of the most celebrated books of 2018. From the publisher: “Of the three dominant ideologies of the twentieth century—fascism, communism, and liberalism—only the last remains. This has created a peculiar situation in which liberalism’s proponents tend to forget that it is an ideology and not the natural end-state of human political evolution. As Patrick Deneen argues in this provocative book, liberalism is built on a foundation of contradictions: it trumpets equal rights while fostering incomparable material inequality; its legitimacy rests on consent, yet it discourages civic commitments in favor of privatism; and in its pursuit of individual autonomy, it has given rise to the most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history. Here, Deneen offers an astringent warning that the centripetal forces now at work on our political culture are not superficial flaws but inherent features of a system whose success is generating its own failure.”
DiAngelo, Robin. 2018. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Whether one is friendly to or fed up with racial politics, this book will give the reader a look into race-based social justice education. From the publisher: “In this ‘vital, necessary, and beautiful book’ (Michael Eric Dyson), antiracist educator Robin DiAngelo deftly illuminates the phenomenon of white fragility and ‘allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to ‘bad people’’ (Claudia Rankine). Referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially, white fragility is characterized by emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and by behaviors including argumentation and silence. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue. In this in-depth exploration, DiAngelo examines how white fragility develops, how it protects racial inequality, and what we can do to engage more constructively.”
Djupe, Paul A., and Ryan L. Claassen (ed.). 2018. The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
From the publisher: “Why did Donald Trump attract a record number of white evangelical voters without unified support—and despite nontrivial antipathy from evangelical leaders? The editors and leading scholars that contribute to the timely volume The Evangelical Crackup? answer this question and provide a comprehensive assessment of the status of evangelicals and the Christian Right in the Republican coalition. The expected ‘crackup’ with the Republican Party never happened. Each chapter in this cogent volume includes analyses of the 2016 election to explain why—and why that is critical. Chapters examine policy priorities, legal advocacy, and evangelical loyalty to the Republican Party; rhetoric, social networks, and evangelical elite influence; and the political implications of movements within evangelicalism, such as young evangelicals, Hispanics, and the Emergent Church movement.”
Gray, John. 2018. Seven Types of Atheism. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
From the publisher: “For a generation now, public debate has been corroded by a shrill, narrow derision of religion in the name of an often vaguely understood ‘science.’ John Gray’s stimulating and enjoyable new book, Seven Types of Atheism, describes the complex, dynamic world of older atheisms, a tradition that is, he writes, in many ways intertwined with and as rich as religion itself. Along a spectrum that ranges from the convictions of ‘God-haters’ like the Marquis de Sade to the mysticism of Arthur Schopenhauer, from Bertrand Russell’s search for truth in mathematics to secular political religions like Jacobinism and Nazism, Gray explores the various ways great minds have attempted to understand the questions of salvation, purpose, progress, and evil. The result is a book that sheds an extraordinary light on what it is to be human.”
Hagerman, Margaret A. 2018. White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. New York: New York University Press.
From the publisher: “American kids are living in a world of ongoing public debates about race, daily displays of racial injustice, and for some, an increased awareness surrounding diversity and inclusion. In this heated context, sociologist Margaret A. Hagerman zeroes in on affluent, white kids to observe how they make sense of privilege, unequal educational opportunities, and police violence. In fascinating detail, Hagerman considers the role that they and their families play in the reproduction of racism and racial inequality in America. White Kids, based on two years of research involving in-depth interviews with white kids and their families, is a clear-eyed and sometimes shocking account of how white kids learn about race.”
Hunter, James Davison, and Paul Nedelisky. 2018. Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
A sociologist and a philosopher team up to address the intersection of science and morality. From the publisher: “In this illuminating book, James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky recount the centuries-long, passionate quest to discover a scientific foundation for morality. The ‘new moral science’ led by such figures as E.O. Wilson, Patricia Churchland and Joshua Greene is only the newest manifestation of an effort that has failed repeatedly. Though claims for its accomplishments are often wildly exaggerated, this new iteration has been no more successful than its predecessors. Hunter and Nedelisky argue that in the end, science cannot tell us how we should live or why we should be good and not evil, and this is for both philosophical and scientific reasons. […] Concise and rigorously argued, Science and the Good is a major critique of a would-be science that has gained too much influence in today’s public discourse, and an exposé of that project’s darker turn.”
Johnson, Jessica. 2018. Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
A new book on Mars Hill written by an intersectional feminist anthropologist. From the publisher: “Between 1996 and 2014, Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church multiplied from its base in Seattle into fifteen facilities spread across five states with 13,000 attendees. When it closed, the church was beset by scandal, with former attendees testifying to spiritual abuse, emotional manipulation, and financial exploitation. In Biblical Porn Jessica Johnson examines how Mars Hill’s congregants became entangled in processes of religious conviction. Johnson shows how they were affectively recruited into sexualized and militarized dynamics of power through the mobilization of what she calls ‘biblical porn’—the affective labor of communicating, promoting, and embodying Driscoll’s teaching on biblical masculinity, femininity, and sexuality, which simultaneously worked as a marketing strategy, social imaginary, and biopolitical instrument. Johnson theorizes religious conviction as a social process through which Mars Hill’s congregants circulated and amplified feelings of hope, joy, shame, and paranoia as affective value that the church capitalized on to grow at all costs.”
Laats, Adam. 2018. Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. New York: Oxford University Press.
From the publisher: “Colleges, universities, and seminaries do more than just transfer knowledge to students. They sell themselves as ‘experiences’ that transform young people in unique ways. The conservative evangelical Protestant network of higher education has been no different. In the twentieth century, when higher education sometimes seemed to focus on sports, science, and social excess, conservative evangelical schools offered a compelling alternative. On their campuses, evangelicals debated what it meant to be a creationist, a Christian, a proper American, all within the bounds of Biblical revelation. Instead of encouraging greater personal freedom and deeper pluralist values, conservative evangelical schools thrived by imposing stricter rules on their students and faculty. In Fundamentalist U, Adam Laats shows that these colleges have always been more than just schools; they have been vital intellectual citadels in America’s culture wars.”
Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. 2018. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. New York: Penguin Press.
From the publisher: “Something has been going wrong on many college campuses in the last few years. Speakers are shouted down. Students and professors say they are walking on eggshells and are afraid to speak honestly. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are rising—on campus as well as nationally. How did this happen? First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures. Embracing these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development.” (Read Our Review)
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. 2018. Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Viking.
This one’s for readers who prefer biography. From the publisher: “Since the sixteenth century we have been fascinated by Henry VIII and the man who stood beside him, guiding him, enriching him, and enduring the king’s insatiable appetites and violent outbursts until Henry ordered his beheading in July 1540. After a decade of sleuthing in the royal archives, Diarmaid MacCulloch has emerged with a tantalizing new understanding of Henry’s mercurial chief minister, the inscrutable and utterly compelling Thomas Cromwell. History has not been kind to the son of a Putney brewer who became the architect of England’s split with Rome. […] The real Cromwell was a deeply loving father who took his biggest risks to secure the future of his son, Gregory. He was also a man of faith and a quiet revolutionary. In the end, he could not appease or control the man whose humors were so violent and unpredictable. But he made his mark on England, setting her on the path to religious awakening and indelibly transforming the system of government of the English-speaking world.”
Magatti, Mauro (ed.). 2018. Social Generativity: A Relational Paradigm for Social Change. New York: Routledge.
This edited volume theorizes a world organized around generating rather than consuming, generativity instead of consumption. From the publisher: “The 2008 economic crisis called into question the sustainability of the individualistic consumer society. However, for better or for worse, this long-term crisis represents an opportunity for the creation of a new model of growth to reform capitalism, structurally as well as culturally. As a contribution to this debate, Social Generativity offers a much-needed and original conceptual synthesis, within a unique anthropological focus on the forms of selfhood sustained by the historical and economic conditions of the present day. Encompassing four years of interdisciplinary empirical research based primarily on a sample of social groups, organizations and firms in Italy, this volume redefines the notion of ‘Social Generativity’ from its psychological origin (as formulated by Erik Erikson) to that of a social action that can be implemented during daily life and in different spheres of existence.”
Medvetz, Thomas, and Jeffrey J. Sallaz (eds.). 2018. The Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu. New York: Oxford University Press.
If you’re feeling extra academic, dig into this collection of essays on arguably the most influential social scientist of the past half-century. From the publisher: “The Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu [offers] a sweeping overview of Bourdieu’s impact on the social sciences and humanities. Thomas Medvetz and Jeffrey J. Sallaz have gathered a diverse array of leading scholars who place Bourdieu’s work in the wider scope of intellectual history, trace the development of his thought, offer original interpretations and critical engagement, and discuss the likely impact of his ideas on future social research. The Handbook highlights Bourdieu’s contributions to established areas of research—including the study of markets, the law, cultural production, and politics—and illustrates how his concepts have generated new fields and objects of study.”
Peterson, Jordan B. 2018. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Toronto: Random House Canada.
This bestseller will give pastors a glimpse into the eccentric Canadian psychologist influencing their young men through YouTube. From the publisher: “What does everyone in the modern world need to know? Renowned psychologist Jordan B. Peterson’s answer to this most difficult of questions uniquely combines the hard-won truths of ancient tradition with the stunning revelations of cutting-edge scientific research. […] What does the nervous system of the lowly lobster have to tell us about standing up straight (with our shoulders back) and about success in life? Why did ancient Egyptians worship the capacity to pay careful attention as the highest of gods? What dreadful paths do people tread when they become resentful, arrogant and vengeful? Dr. Peterson journeys broadly, discussing discipline, freedom, adventure and responsibility, distilling the world’s wisdom into 12 practical and profound rules for life.”
Philpott, Daniel, and Timothy Samuel Shah (eds.). 2018. Under Caesar’s Sword: How Christians Respond to Persecution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
From the publisher: “The global persecution of Christians is an urgent human rights issue that remains underreported. This volume presents the results of the first systematic global investigation into how Christians respond to persecution. World-class scholars of global Christianity present first-hand research from most of the sites of the harshest persecution as well as the West and Latin America. Their findings make clear the nature of persecution, the reasons for it, Christian responses to it—both non-violent and confrontational—and the effects of these responses. Motivating the volume is the hope that this knowledge will empower all who would exercise solidarity with the world’s persecuted Christians and will offer the victims strategies for a more effective response. This book is written for anyone concerned about the persecution of Christians or more generally about the human right of religious freedom, including scholars, activists, political and religious leaders, and those who work for international organizations.”
Quinn, Naomi (ed.). 2018. Advances in Culture Theory from Psychological Anthropology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
This cutting-edge work at the intersection of cognitive psychology and anthropology will help Christians think seriously about culture. From the publisher: “This edited volume provides a long-overdue synthesis of the current directions in culture theory and represents some of the very best in ongoing research. Here, culture theory is rendered as a jigsaw puzzle: the book identifies where current research fits together, the as yet missing pieces, and the straight edges that frame the bigger picture. These framing ideas are two: Roy D’Andrade’s concept of lifeworlds—adapted from phenomenology yet groundbreaking in its own right—and new thinking about internalization, a concept much used in anthropology but routinely left unpacked. At its heart, this book is an incisive, insightful collection of contributions which will surely guide and support those who seek to further the study of culture.”
Routledge, Clay. 2018. Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World. New York: Oxford University Press.
From the publisher: “Humans are existential animals. We are all fully aware of our fragility, transience, and potential cosmic insignificance. Our ability to ponder the big questions about death and meaning and the anxiety that these questions can provoke have motivated us to be a species not only concerned about survival, but also about our significance. The quest for transcendent meaning is one reason why humans embrace the supernatural. Children naturally see the world as magical, yet when humans reach full cognitive development they are still drawn to supernatural beliefs and ideas that defy the laws of physics. Even those who consider themselves secular or atheists are seduced by supernatural belief systems. Clay Routledge, an experimental psychologist, asserts that belief or trust in forces beyond our understanding is rooted in our fear of death and need for meaning.”
Stanley, Brian. 2018. Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
From the publisher: “Christianity in the Twentieth Century charts the transformation of one of the world’s great religions during an age marked by world wars, genocide, nationalism, decolonization, and powerful ideological currents, many of them hostile to Christianity. Written by a leading scholar of world Christianity, the book traces how Christianity evolved from a religion defined by the culture and politics of Europe to the expanding polycentric and multicultural faith it is today—one whose growing popular support is strongest in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, China, and other parts of Asia. […] Transnational in scope and drawing on the latest scholarship, Christianity in the Twentieth Century demonstrates how Christianity has had less to fear from the onslaughts of secularism than from the readiness of Christians themselves to accommodate their faith to ideologies that privilege racial identity or radical individualism.”
Travers, Ann. 2018. The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) are Creating a Gender Revolution. New York: New York University Press.
This book, written by a transgender scholar-activist, provides a thorough and sympathetic portrait of gender dysphoria among children. From the publisher: “Some ‘boys’ will only wear dresses; some ‘girls’ refuse to wear dresses; in both cases, as Ann Travers shows in this fascinating account of the lives of transgender kids, these are often more than just wardrobe choices. Travers shows that from very early ages, some at two and three years old, these kids find themselves to be different from the sex category that was assigned to them at birth. How they make their voices heard—to their parents and friends, in schools, in public spaces, and through the courts—is the focus of this remarkable and groundbreaking book. Based on interviews with transgender kids, ranging in age from 4 to 20, and their parents, and over five years of research in the US and Canada, The Trans Generation offers a rare look into what it is like to grow up as a trans child.”
Wuthnow, Robert. 2018. The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
This renowned Princeton sociologist is the speed-of-light in the world of book publishing, faster than which no writer goes, and he’s out with another one this year. From the publisher: “What is fueling rural America’s outrage toward the federal government? Why did rural Americans vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump? And, beyond economic and demographic decline, is there a more nuanced explanation for the growing rural-urban divide? Drawing on more than a decade of research and hundreds of interviews, Robert Wuthnow brings us into America’s small towns, farms, and rural communities to paint a rich portrait of the moral order—the interactions, loyalties, obligations, and identities—underpinning this critical segment of the nation. Wuthnow demonstrates that to truly understand rural Americans’ anger, their culture must be explored more fully.”
Brad Vermurlen is the Director of Social Research for Docent Research Group but publishes as an independent scholar. He earned his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Notre Dame in 2016, and now lives near Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife and young daughter. His website is www.bradvermurlen.com.