Ahead of the joint annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), which will be held virtually from November 29 to December 10, we’re highlighting books in biblical studies and religious studies that point toward a new vision for Christianity.

New books about the Bible reflect modern politics and culture, and studies of religion are addressing why fewer and fewer people identify themselves as Christians. These titles can help shape the future of the Christian faith, religion publishers say.

“Pointing to a new way forward isn’t new, though perhaps Covid-19, movements for social justice, and the anxiety of this election season push us toward that desire with more intensity than we have felt in recent years,” says Nancy Bryan, v-p of editorial at Church Publishing Inc., which has published books on religious studies for decades.

CPI recently released In Conversation: Samuel Wells and Stanley Hauerwas, which features the two theologians’ ideas about Christian life in the 21st century. The discussion covers topics such as preaching, race, power, sexuality, and their next projects and plans. “Their love and respect for each other—alongside the moments of theological differences—shine through,” Bryan says.

At Westminster John Knox, “we seek to facilitate the study of religion, not only for those with personal faith commitments, but anyone interested in religion’s role in human life and society,” says editor-in-chief Bob Ratcliff. “We expect the importance of religious studies to grow in the years ahead.”

Out now from WJK, After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity by Christian ethicist David Gushee is a “searching analysis of the flawed origins and compromised present of American evangelicalism,” Ratcliff says. The idea for After Evangelicalism arose in response to widespread evangelical support for Donald Trump and what Ratcliff calls the “accelerated disenchantment with U.S. Christianity, especially among millennials and Gen Z” that resulted. “Showing those folks the path to a more life-affirming, justice-centered version of Christianity was David Gushee’s purpose in writing this book,” Ratcliff says. “[It introduces] a way of following Jesus that values diversity, embraces multiple sources of the knowledge of God, and learns from the voices of those whom evangelicalism has sought to marginalize.”

Anna Moseley Gissing, associate editor at IVP Academic, says biblical studies are a core category for the press and that recent releases have performed very well. “I’d say readers are as interested in biblical studies as ever, and I’m proud of books approaching Scripture in fresh and insightful ways.”

IVP Academic recently released Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Richard James, a biblical scholar and a missionary practitioner, respectively. The book explores the many ancient Mediterranean cultures and social structures that are found in the Bible in order to correct readers’ assumptions and improve understanding of the text.

“There has been a growing interest in how cultural values influence biblical interpretation and how readers might become more aware of our cultural bias,” Gissing says. “I hope readers will enjoy learning more about honor and shame, brokerage, and patronage, and that reading this book will help them read Scripture with fresh eyes—pun intended.”

Changing with the times

Several new books from scholars are highlighting faith’s changing role in society. In Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Eerdmans, out now), Douglas F. Ottati combines his knowledge of texts and traditions with modern life and questions such as, “What does it mean, in our time, to understand the God of the Bible as Creator and Redeemer?” After all, “any revitalized Christian faith is going to need to understand its rootedness in, and interpretation of, Christianity’s foundational texts and traditions,” according to the publisher.

In March, Eerdmans is also putting out Beyond Profession: The Next Future of Theological Education by Daniel O. Aleshire, longtime executive director of the Association of Theological Schools. He argues that theological education has been successful in the U.S. because of its ability to engage with contemporary culture and that, to continue to thrive, it must be reinvented to fit the needs of current times. Drawing on his career in theological education, he envisions seminaries not just as places of professional preparation but as starting points for Christian leaders to establish a “deep, abiding, resilient, generative identity as Christian human beings,” according to the publisher.

Bible scholar N.T. Wright is following up 2005’s Simply Christian, about the fundamentals of the faith, with Broken Signposts: How Christianity Makes Sense of the World (HarperOne, out now). The book draws on the Gospel of John to argue that Christianity provides vision, guidance, and hope to society as well as to individuals.

Zeroing in on Jesus

Naturally, a number of books within religious and biblical studies are highlighting the life and teachings of Christianity’s central figure. The Bible with and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (out now) explains differences in the ways Jews and Christians read the Bible and what they can learn from one another. Levine, a Vanderbilt University Divinity School professor and the author of Jesus for Everyone and The Misunderstood Jesus, teams up with biblical scholar Brettler to argue that reading biblical passages through different lenses can help readers “not only enhance our knowledge of each other but also see more clearly the beauty and power of Scripture itself,” says HarperOne, which published the book.

In March, HarperOne is also releasing Freeing Jesus by Diana Butler Bass, a historian of Christianity. In it, she examines Jesus in six unconventional capacities—or, as the subtitle suggests, proposed paths for Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence. (See “Growing Up with Jesus,” p. 8.)

In The Gospels as Stories: A Narrative Approach to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Jeannine Brown, a professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, Calif., encourages readers to interpret the Gospels as whole stories rather than one at a time. It includes visual aids, sidebars, and further reading suggestions to illuminate the Gospels.

“Jeannine argues that we tend to do odd things with the Gospel stories—harmonize them, atomize them, or allegorize them,” says Jim Kinney, executive v-p at Baker Academic. “But stories don’t need that kind of help. We ‘get’ stories. We are drawn into their plots. We identify with their characters. We understand them intuitively. Learning to read the Gospels as stories can revolutionize our engagement with them—and with their main character.”

Out now from IVP, The Spiritual Practices of Jesus by Catherine J. Wright, an associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University, focuses on Luke’s Gospel and themes of simplicity, humility, and prayer in Jesus’s life. “Wright challenges readers to take seriously Luke’s portrait of Jesus, particularly if they practice these same spiritual practices,” says IVP’s Gissing. “At a contentious time in our nation, resources engaging simplicity, humility, and prayer are welcome and needed.”

inside the house of God

Biblical and religious scholars are addressing issues within the Christian church and how it can start to change. Michelle Ami Reyes, an Indian American writer, speaker, and activist whose work has appeared in Christianity Today, Patheos, and more, considers the concept of cultural accommodation in 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 in Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures (Zondervan Reflective, Apr. 2021). Underscoring the importance of cross-cultural relationships, Reyes identifies major roadblocks, including racism and stereotyping, and urges Christian communities to be willing to change and “do better,” according to the publisher.

Focusing specifically on the Catholic Church, Havoc & Hope: The Tender Revolt of Pope Francis by historian John Cornwell (Chronicle Prism, Mar. 2021) explores Pope Francis’s efforts to reestablish the crisis-plagued church as a place of empathy, love, and inclusiveness, according to the publisher. Cornwell shares research and insight on Francis’s bid to eliminate clerical corruption, reform institutions, and combat global poverty, climate change, and racism.

Scot McKnight, the Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, teams up with Laura Barringer, a first- and second-grade teacher as well as a former congregant at Willow Creek, on A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing (Tyndale, out now). Addressing sexual abuse, including allegations of sexual harassment against Willow Creek Church founder Rev. Bill Hybels in 2018, the book explores the Hebrew word tov (good) found in Scripture. Using their combined experiences, the authors discuss how to keep these devastating events from repeating themselves.

Below, more on religion and spirituality books.

Point of View Matters in Books on Race, Religion
Black and women scholars bring fresh perspectives to issues surrounding race, whiteness, and religion, while white scholars look more closely in their mirrors.

Growing with Jesus
Diana Butler Bass explores the nature of Christ

How Islamophobia Poisons American Values
The fear of difference threatens democracy, according to Caleb Iyer Elfenbein

Journeys with an ‘Invisible Muslim’
Medina Tenour Whiteman examines race, ethnicity, and religious identity

STEM Meets Religion
Wesley J. Wildman and Kate Stockly discuss the relationship between technology and spirituality