Books of the Year that Was (2021 ed.)

Another year (“really, it’s only been a year?”) has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books. As with each year’s list (see 2020201920182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2021 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

As a seminary student (with a full-time job and four kids), I also always want to give a special shout-out to our library’s excellent selection of audiobooks (via services like Hoopla and Libby) that I listen to on my daily commute and weekly trips back and forth between Chattanooga and Atlanta, without which I would not get to go through nearly as many desired books as I’d like. Also, I don’t put all my seminary assignments here, but some do rise to the surface of recommended reads.

Christian Theology and Practice

Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren
Warren has a gift of quietly, simply putting her finger on the way deep truths are waiting at the edge of the everyday. Her first book (The Liturgy of the Ordinary) sought these out in the mundane joys and habits of life at the scale of home and family; Prayer in the Night looks for them in the moments of sorrow, suffering, and unfulfillment. Weaving personal experiences and illustrations with the liturgy of Compline, she offers up a plea for the practice of turning to God in the dark, of making prayer from our fear, pain, and anxiety as well as our thanks, praise and longing.

Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg
In the midst of the heartbreaking, seemingly never-ending stream of revelations of physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse within the church over the past several years (which, let us be clear, are likely only distinguished from past times by enhanced opportunity in an information age for victims to speak out), Diane Langberg has been a voice of consistent, faithful application of Christian doctrine to the issue of abuse. In this book, she aims at the root, providing skillful and hard-won (from decades of counseling and mediation experience) reflection on what it means to exercise power as image-bearers of God. In a world where power is more often used to crush, oppress, abuse, and obscure than to serve and uplift, those of us who claim the name of Jesus ought to be living out the way of the New Jerusalem, not wallowing in the worst excesses of our fallenness.

Talking Back to Purity Culture by Rachel Welcher
I first “met” Rachel Welcher through her work as poetry editor for Fathom Magazine (where she has graciously published a couple of my poems this year), and decided to read this book she published last year. Both my wife and I were blessed by this winsome, frank, reflection on the beauty of the biblical sexual ethic. In particular, her meditation on the ways Christians have often deeply harmed others (and the reputation of Christ) by ham-fisted attempts to communicate and enforce that ethic was spot-on. You cannot separate sexuality from the overall call to holiness and faithfulness in community that the church represents. I am certainly the target audience (someone who came of age and went to church youth group during the 1990s purity movement), but Welcher makes her case with tender pastoral care that makes it applicable to others, both younger and older. This has also given us many tools for thinking through how to help shepherd our four daughters through adolescence and toward adulthood with honesty and hope.

The Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Scheiss
If there has been a common thread among Americans (based on the small sample of American humans I know and spend any degree of time with), all of us are deeply political. Few of us, though, have spent too much time reflecting on how our faith in Christ affects our political views and actions, and even fewer of us are deeply attentive to how our politics is affecting our faith. In this succinct and helpful overview of the spiritual and cultural formation at work in our political life, Kaitlyn Scheiss pokes at the particular idols that pull on our hearts in this sphere, and the ways that the good news of the kingdom of God knocks these down. She summarizes much of the weighty scholarship on this topic into accessible language (if, perhaps, making a few sweeping generalities along the way) and actionable strategies for keeping Christ over our political predilections and not the other way around. If churches could get members from various social/political camps to read this together and discuss, some real growth and health might result.

You Are Not Your Own by O. Alan Noble
Noble makes no less of a bold claim than that modernity (broadly, the Enlightenment: secularism, individualism, political self-determination, and technological and economic insulation from many physical demands of life) runs in many ways counter to God’s design of human beings. Nowhere, he suggests, do we feel this disjointedness more acutely than in the crushing demand of perpetual identity formation and maintenance. He examines the lay of the land through contemporary sociological research, philosophy (Ellul, Taylor, and others), and literature (Eliot, Plath, and others) to demonstrate the ultimate hopelessness of self-belonging, and then points us back to union with Christ as the stable ground of life. There is a lot of pastoral wisdom here, as Noble provides some helpful categories for analyzing 21st century social ills in ways that the church is designed to respond to and digs up ways the church itself has (unconsciously and consciously) adapted to the present age through modes of Christian practice that actually work to undermine identity in Christ.

History/Biography

A Burning in My Bones by Winn Collier
I was a latecomer to Eugene Peterson—the finished version of The Message came out while I was in college; while I edited a couple of magazines for pastors, I watched review copies of his Spiritual Theology series roll in, but never gave them a reading (or column space). That changed last fall, when, in a dry period of spiritual life in the muddy middle of a seminary program, a tough season at work (and, you know, a global pandemic and domestic political crisis), I decided to pick him up. That spiritual theology series (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eat This Book, The Jesus Way, Tell it Slant, and Practice Resurrection) was a balm to my soul. In these books, I found a richly scriptural work on what it means practically to follow Jesus, and I’ve recommended them to lots of people since. Reading this biography gives contour to the ways Scripture and experience shaped Peterson into a person who could, in his 70s, write such healing words to me. Collier shows us a driven, but patient, man—someone with a capacious academic mind, a deeply pastoral heart, and varied interests, who could have just as easily become a poet or a butcher or a carpenter as a pastor and author—whose burning ambition, recorded over and over in the privacy of his diary was to become a saint. May we all be so motivated.

Buried in the Bitter Waters by Elliot Jaspin
As he recounts story after story of county-wide racial purges through the 1880s-1930s (which often include horrific terrorism, lynching, and acts that in any other context would be described as open warfare), Jaspin unveils another facet of white Americans’ history of calculated resistance to co-existence with descendants of enslaved men and women as social equals. This fine piece of journalistic digging and historical inquiry is another step in the painful but life-giving process of remembering grievous national sins that many of my own ancestors would have preferred never come to light.

Paul: A Biography by N. T. Wright
I’m sticking this here so as to sneak in another theology read into a different category, but, as the title implies, it’s also an apt resident of the biography column in its own right. Wright has crafted what essentially amounts to a roving commentary on Acts and the Pauline epistles, trying to tease out the character and motivations of Paul the man through what we have preserved in Scripture of his comings and goings and his own words. In the process, he makes a fine case for understanding the character and practice of the early church as rooted in the Old Testament/second-temple Judaism.

The Outlier by Kai Bird
Most presidential biographies have something to teach about character, organizational leadership, etc.; they’re not just for “history junkies.” Bird’s work does not disappoint on either count. He gives good context to explain how the unpopular Carter presidency bridged the turmoil of the late 60s, Vietnam, and Watergate to the relative stability of the 80s and 90s, with a commitment to doing what needed to be done, political consequences be damned. Carter’s promises to do what was right and tell the truth (along with his work ethic, grounded idealism, and engineer’s mind) was what the country wanted in the wake of the aforementioned turmoil, but those commitments (which he fulfilled with remarkable consistency) and character traits in the face of intense economic and foreign policy challenges forced many decisions that angered the establishment and various voting blocs, which swept him out of office with gusto. It is little wonder that fair-minded, decent, honest people often stay out of politics—either you become as corrupt as a the systems you seek to reform or you stick to your guns and fall flat on your face. The silver lining is that history takes a longer view than election cycles, and Bird demonstrates that many of the successes for which later administrations took credit (curbing inflation, deregulation of airlines and utilities, reduction of dependency on foreign oil and gas) actually flowed from Carter’s actions. This, interestingly, is where Bird focuses, with the significant humanitarian and diplomatic achievements of Carter’s post-presidency given only scant attention in the book’s epilogue.

Sociology/Cultural Observation

Strange Rites by Tara Isabella Burton
The notion that Western Culture is no longer defined predominantly by Christianity is today a banal truism obvious to nearly everyone except those with a vested interest in turning anxiety and nostalgia into a political movement or fundraising pitch. What is more interesting is how G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism that “when men cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything and everything” plays out in this new reality. Though at times it gets a little too close to the handwringing tone of decline narratives, Burton’s Strange Rites explores just this phenomenon. Through engaging journalism and deep forays into the plethora of emerging subcultures of belief (from Wiccans to Harry Potter fanclubs, and even darker corners of the soul), she humanizes the turbulent religio-cultural waters we’re swimming in today in ways that churches would do well to think on as we seek to retell the story of Christ in ways that actually make sense to our neighbors.

Taking America Back for God by Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead
I’d wager few people had heard the term “Christian nationalism” before this year, but it’s hard not to see it everywhere once you start thinking about it. Perry and Whitehead present a rigorously researched examination of the religious impulse in American politics (across the political spectrum and, across generations) that effectively demonstrates both that “Christian” Americans are not a monolithic voting bloc and that “Christian” politics and actual adherence to the way of Jesus do not often overlap. If you’re looking for a book-length op-ed, this will disappoint you, though. It is essentially a thoughtful and (mostly) dispassionate discussion of sociological findings, complete with regression analyses and methodology descriptions.

The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson is most celebrated as a Pulitzer-winning novelist, but I’m often moved just as much by her essays, which often probe beyond cliche to expose rich veins of wonder hiding in plain sight. In this collection, she tries to take up the minority report of the liberal project, pushing back against the the various “isms” of the past three centuries to hold space for a more expansive view of reality. In her own words: “We assume that nothing is what it appears to be, that it is less and worse, insofar as it might once have seemed worthy of respectful interest. We routinely disqualify testimony that would plead for extenuation. That is, we are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgment as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it. Nothing that deserves to be called truth could ever be arrived at by such means. If truth in this sense is essentially inaccessible in any case, that should only confirm us in humility and awe.”

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee
Even most people who dispute claims of systemic racism in contemporary America would concede that Jim Crow policies of past decades did indeed represent systemic and systematic oppression of people based on the color of their skin. What McGhee demonstrates here is how those legal and social structures born out of past racial animus and racist policy are drivers of social, economic, ecological, and other problems that today afflict people of all ethnicities in the U.S. Though I’m not confident that the policy solutions to these entanglements are as simple and straightforward as she seems to believe, this is an insightful work worthy of consideration.

Literature/Poetry/Memoir/Criticism

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Trying to read more contemporary and international literature is hard when you only read English (maybe Spanish in a pinch—not much contemporary literature is being written in biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek). Adiche’s story of young lovers separated by continents amid political upheaval in Nigeria is a well-rounded tale (save for some uncritical acceptance of contemporary Western sexual mores that, for me at least, leads to some inconsistencies within characters) that weaves anti-colonialist, anti-racist, and feminist themes into its cultural exegesis of British, American, and Nigerian societies and subcultures as skillfully as the braiders whose shop supplies the setting of much of the narrator’s reminiscence layer strands of hair.

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos
Like many of my favorite mid-20th-century Catholic novels (and I have a thing for mid-20th-century Catholic novels), This is really a theology book, but one that presses deeply into the nature of vocation, the humility of faithful service, suffering and death, and the disconnect between culture-bound churches and the way of Jesus. What Bernanos achieves through this simple, first-person narration of a life of seeming insignificance is luminous.

Hannah’s Child by Stanley Hauerwas
Stanley Hauerwas is one of those people that sticks up to give a splinter to anyone making sweeping statements about the state of American theology—he doesn’t fit too cleanly in any category (he once called himself “a high-church anabaptist”) and has always embodied a delightfully contrarian posture toward the main stream of Christian political and ethical discourse. In this memoir, we see him as an old man sifting through the streams of his life looking for clues as to how he became who he is, from a low-income upbringing in Texas to the heights of the American Academy. His perseverance through decades-long marriage to a woman slowly succumbing to debilitating mental illness is heart-wrenching. His self-effacing tenor is by turns incisive and humorous, and filled with quips of wisdom you’d expect from any self-respecting grandpa.

Norwood by Charles Portis
What a strange, funny little novel. The plot is pointless, the characters aren’t very lovable, and yet, I don’t hate it. Like in his most famous work, True Grit, Portis demonstrates his facility with idiosyncratic characters capable of accomplishing unbelievable feats through single-minded devotion. Whereas True Grit‘s Mattie Ross is a heroine rising above her age and gender to pursue justice, Norwood Pratt is an antihero, bumbling his way through other people’s stories to get payment on a minuscule debt in a way that perfectly captures the self-interest and pointless consumerism inherent in so much of American life.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Again, given my affinity for (obsession with?) mid-20th-century Catholic fiction, you’d think I’d have read this one before. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I should, however. It is good, but so earnest and bleak that it almost doesn’t work for me as a novel. It is not as delicately wrought as Brideshead Revisited or quite as viscerally powerful as Greene’s own The Power and The Glory, both of which cover similar themes of wayward souls brought back to the heart of Christ at the end. Somehow, though, it manages to do what these novels do so well—depicting spiritual transformation without trivializing or sermonizing—a rare skill worthy of celebration.

Re-reads

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” 

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
I’ve been a Berry fan for over 20 years, but was slow to warm to his fiction. Re-reading this novel (which I still consider his finest), I liked it much more than the first time around, largely (I think) due to the fact that the world it records is even further from the experience of most today. When I read it first, my grandfather, born in 1924, was still living on his family land outside a small Georgia town where he’d been born. His sister, born in 1918, and her husband, born in 1914, still had their wits about them, telling stories of the Great Depression, working with the CCC, and life before cars and television. Now they’re all gone, and so Berry’s fiction evokes memories of memories and helps me appreciate his skill as a tale-spinner. Jayber Crow is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Its exploration of the inner life of one man, his wrestling with questions of faith and hope and unrequited love give it a texture that transcends any untoward preachiness, even as Berry’s standard themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century are entwined throughout.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
Revisited this (after having first read it 15 years ago) at the urging of a friend. It holds up so well—brimming with joy and wonder while giving modernity a cheeky middle finger. It is the rare work of apologetics that achieves its goal—making the author’s “side” appear winsome instead of just seeking to anger the “enemy.” The palindromic aphorisms Chesterton is so fond of do get old after a while—It’s clearly his favorite stylistic move, and repeated ad nauseam throughout. This is not a real quote, but its structure gives the sense: “The blubbering idiots claim they have the truth, but the truth is that it was always idiots blubbering.”

Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright
I think this book should be required reading for the church. Re-reading it for the first time since it came out in 2008, I’m struck both by how much of my life and ministry work is shaped by these (robustly biblical) arguments. Wright contends that many Christians cling to “going to heaven when you die” as an escape from the world instead of embracing a theology of resurrection that sees the risen Jesus as the first fruit of God’s ultimate redemption and the church’s mission as proclaiming Christ’s dominion over all. In short, he firmly believes that we are “saved to” service for the glory of God as much as we are “saved from” sin. Wright is at his finest as he attempts to ground the church’s efforts in the present day (from evangelism to social justice, art, and conservation) solidly in resurrection theology and liberate them both from modernist progressivism (which places the emphasis on the work instead of God) and traditional evangelicalism (which sees Christian ethics and vocation mainly as an addendum to saving souls for heaven).

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This rambling journey through the souls of a small Russian town hits hard as ever. The problems of faith, identity, and purpose that the characters wrestle with are evergreen, and felt more keenly today by more people (I’d wager) than they were when Dostoevsky wrote. It’s a book that, though it takes hours upon hours to read, demands multiple readings to even begin to glean its riches. This time around, however, what sticks out to me most is the theme of grace—of extending (or withholding) open-handedness toward the mistakes and anxieties of one another in light of what we shall all be some day before God. As Alyosha explains near the end, “Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In revisiting Hurston for the first time since college, I’ve learned much more about her overall life project of preserving folkways and folktales from now nearly-extinct groups across the South, as well as her refusal to allow her work to be co-opted into political or social causes that she felt would diminish its artistry. These layers of nuance give her enduring parable of the Black experience in America a deeper, more studied resonance. Their Eyes Were Watching God is allegory of the highest caliber, with some of the sharpest narration in all of American literature.

Also-reads

These books are not “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order are all the other books I also read in 2021. As a reminder, you can also find me on goodreads.com for more regular updates, as well as brief reviews of all these titles.

A Little Book for New Theologians by Kelly M. Kapic
A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
Canary in the Coal Mine by William Cooke
Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key
For God So Loved, He Gave by Kelly M. Kapic
He Saw that It Was Good by Sho Baraka
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy
Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr
Reparations by Duke Kwon and Gregory L. Thompson
Suffering and the Heart of God by Diane Langberg
The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
The Committed by Viet Than Nguyen
The Deep Places by Ross Douthat
The Great Sex Rescue by Sheila Wray Gregoire
The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire
The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2 by Justo L. González
The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor
Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans & Jeff Chu
Why We Drive by Matthew Crawford

Questions for a Time Traveler

Have you ever stood so still
That you could hear the world breathing?

Have you stepped so softly through the woods
That you were startled by a crackle
As a wasp munched leaves to papier mâché?

Have you ever watched so closely
That you saw a hoverfly yaw,
As on an invisible string,
A perfect one-eighty, meeting
Your gaze with twin dimpled prisms,
Compound eyes scouring your mind.

Have you ever felt the wisdom of children
Who see a Nashville warbler fall to the ground,
Yellow neck snapped by a window strike,
And think clearly enough to give it a name,
So that they circle and say together
“Rest in peace, Sunflower” when it’s buried?

If a bird is worth such a prayer
And each insect deserves a poem,
Is every man who ever lived
And every woman now on earth
An epic, a novel, a ballad,
Waiting only for attention and a pen?

Image: Hearts-a-bustin, Hamilton County, Tenn., October 2020.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Leaves and branches,
Oscilloscopes tracing
Wind from gathering storms,
Taunt my habit
Of hunting curses
under each blessing
And copping exhaustion
To avoid getting the shakes
From a momentary lapse
Of despair. Sunlight
Always gets me down,
Keeping me inside lest
It warm my eyelids and ask me to rest
In a dangerously peaceful grace.

I’m not sure I know
How to say something earnest
when nothing is weighing me down,
Not sure how to speak
An uplifting word
Without the ashes
Of profanity
Clinging to my tongue.
There is a way of seeking joy
That requires
Gouging out one’s eyes,
And I like looking
Too much to try it,
Even on sale.

It’s easier to look
For beauty in the dark,
Glowing brighter the farther from
What is plainly seen.
If I learned to listen
A little more
To the upbeat bass line
Throbbing beneath
The frantic tenor
Of making ends meet,
Maybe I’d have
A little more
Levity
though I’d speak less.

That’s when I start to laugh,
Catching the joke
That fear is only joy
Hiding behind
Something we will not understand
Until it passes us by.
This is what the trees
Tried to say when
In the early morning
They stood, still and bronzed
In the rosy mist,
But I couldn’t hold
A smile long enough
To muster robust thanks.

Now that they scratch
One another and flail
Before the advance
Of autumn air,
I see plainly what comeliness
The failing light wants to hide
Where the glimmer is weakest.
How carelessly we fall
Back into hope.
So little a splash
Of fuel on a smoldering wick
Sets a lamp flickering, for you
Cannot burn out
What had never been lit.

Image: Clouds and trees in slanted light, my front yard in Tennessee, August 2020.

The Art of Home

I’ve always enjoyed drawing. As a kid it was a way to recreate the machined elegance of Spitfires, Mustangs, and other warplanes. I never quite mastered landscapes; people were right out.

Later, I took up photography with my dad’s Minolta XD 5, and haven’t let up on that hobby, though it loses some charm when we all have a fine lens in our pockets.

More recently though, my wife (who has always enjoyed painting and all things crafty) has become quite the watercolor aficionado. She’s really quite good, and she’s gotten the rest of the family into it, too.

The impetus for this turn has been the co-op school our older two girls attend (and where Rachel tutors part-time) which draws on Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas, including observational learning from nature. As such, each student is encouraged to keep a nature journal where they can paint or draw the things they spot in the world around them. We’ve adopted this habit as a family, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve found in taking up the brush.

It starts off simply enough, it’s just drawing with paint, right? Except that’s not it at all. Learning to work in a medium to its strengths takes practice.

The milky paint acts like the water it is, seeking its level, finding the crevices in the paper like micro-arroyos, absorbing in to fade and spread colors. If you mix it thick enough to stay put, all of its liveliness shuts down, leaving you with flat, smeared lines.

To represent what you see, you have to paint what you don’t, laying down layers of color, slowly fading from light to dark to get things just right. The brush has to be held like a scalpel, the pressure, angle, and part of the tip with which you first touch the paper is going to set your course for good or ill. And once you’ve done something you don’t like, trying to fix it will only make it worse.

Watercolor has been a humbling learning curve for all of us, but perhaps for me—self-assured and overconfident as ever—most of all. You have to come prepared to shift along with it. The art takes you where it wants to go, and if you resist, it pushes you out of the picture.

During this time of pandemic and shutdown and quarantine, we’ve found some bursts of creativity. For me, that’s taken its usual poetic turn, but the watercolor has brought life, too. Because we’re stuck at home, we’ve looked closer at the world close at hand, watching and waiting as the magic of spring and the circles of life unfold in our 1/4 acre yard. We’ve been forced to slow down and open our eyes.

The past several weeks have been more of the old normal for me—working too hard on projects for my job and writing papers and studying to wrap up another semester at seminary. But I’m ready to stick a pin in all that and start to paint again.

Is it coping? Perhaps, but it is also exploring. Learning to know a place deeply enough to see it as it is. Pain, beauty, joy, anxiety, and anger swirl about in every breath these days, and we wait, brush in hand for what may happen next.