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

The Roots of Memory

Near the end of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, the title character muses on the nature of remembering and history and the passage of time:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. one by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

Finishing a re-read of the novel last week, this quote spells out clearly why I liked the book more now than when I first read it years ago.

Berry’s words have been a part of my life since a friend introduced me to him in 2002, but I’ve always been more fond of his essays, polemics, and poetry than his fiction. Like many novelists, his stories are first and foremost outworkings of his core ideas. Whatever the scope of their narratives, they always circle back to unpacking some thesis or other—in Berry’s case, concepts of community (membership), care for the land (stewardship), and living within limits (simplicity). The philosophy-narration in his works is done with varying degrees of craft, such that someone familiar with Berry’s larger body of work might simply prefer to read him lay out the ideas in question more plainly in his nonfiction.

Jayber Crow is by most any standards a good novel, though—round and readable. 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. As the quote above illustrates, it is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Even where it makes overt gestures toward the themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century, these facts are so relevant to understanding our present place in the world that it feels crucial to the story.

Part of why the book resonated more this time around is because the world it records is even further away from the experience of most Americans now. 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. Their stories of farming, and making ends meet by hook and by crook, and the deep and wide knowing of a place and all who dwelt within it were still part of my life and experience .

That whole generation of my family is gone now. If my children and theirs are to hear those stories, warts and all, it’s up to me and others who have heard and remembered to keep a certain understanding of the world within their imagining. Berry’s achievement with Jayber Crow is the setting into print of the sound, sight, scent, and savor of the place that formed him and where he lives still (though with the cloaking veneer of fiction). The stories he conveys are likely based in things he grew up witnessing or hearing about, and the memory of his particular web of knowing is preserved for us all.

Knowing and remembering entail loss and grief, as Berry has Jayber tell us. You cannot grieve what you never knew. You cannot lament what you have never felt. The art of love is the art of memory and imagination—sifting through the debris of death to see what glistens. May we have the courage to remember people, places, and things as they truly were; may we discipline ourselves to call to mind that which was good and has been lost so that it may be restored; may we receive the grace to imagine a world as it might be so that we can live as though it is already.

Image: Oak and Limestone, Meigs County, Tenn., January 2021.

Books of 2020

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books. This year was perhaps a bit more full of reading than most since, along with everyone else, my social calendar got cleared indefinitely after March 11. As with each year’s list (see 2019, 20182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2020 (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 should give a special shout-out to our library’s excellent selection of audiobooks, without which I would not get to read nearly as many things as I’d like. Also, I don’t put all my seminary assignments here, but some rise to the surface.

Christian Theology and Practice

Concerning the True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer
Off and on for the past few years, I’ve been part of a local reading group of the Paideia Center. In the spring we read this newly translated edition of a classic by the Reformer from Strasbourg. Though it can at times feel dated (an annotated edition is helpful), this book is rich and challenging, aglow with the fire of 16th century pastoral wisdom. I especially appreciated Bucer’s emphasis on pastors and elders knowing their congregations well enough to care for their deepest needs correctly, even to the extent of ensuring representation in leadership of the diverse backgrounds and walks of life of the community—”it is better to take those who may be lacking in eloquence and learning, but are genuinely concerned with the things of Christ. It is for this reason that the ancient well-ordered and apostolic churches chose their elders from people of all classes and types…on the basis of their common sense and experience.” 

This Too Shall Last by K.J. Ramsey
I’ve said often enough that majority-culture Christians in the U.S. (and the West more generally) haven’t meditated enough on suffering and lament to be able to effectively care for those in our midst and who endure pain and hardship and hold space for their honest experience without trying to “fix” them or their situations. Writing from a place of chronic pain from an autoimmune disease, Ramsey offers a faithful witness against our idols of ease, ability, and tidy outcomes, inviting us to sit with Christ in the long “middle” of unresolved suffering. In the process, she also focuses our attention on the devastating nature of shame and encourages believers to learn the way of Jesus in entering into others’ pain.

Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson
Devotional literature isn’t always my cup of tea. Too many popular titles in the genre tend to be weak on Scriptural exegesis and application, and even those that get that part right often read like self-help books with an air of religious authority—prescriptions for richer life without a humble invitation to mystery. Even so, you can’t read academic theology all the time, and I felt the need to have some “soul care” in my reading diet this year. The late Eugene Peterson’s series on “spiritual theology” (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eat This Book, The Jesus Way, Tell it Slant, and this title) fit the bill. Written between 2006-2010, when he was in his 70s, these late-in-life meditations on discipleship and what it takes to become the type of person who is like Jesus and does what Jesus does are a balm for weary souls. Practice Resurrection in particular is love-letter—with more than a twinge of lament—to the church in the United States, and a pretty fine commentary on Ephesians to boot.

The Day the Revolution Began by N. T. Wright
Wright was considered somewhat of a bogeyman in my undergrad Bible classes, always a bit suspect for his views on justification—even as he was regularly assigned by professors. Every time I read him, though, he makes so much nuanced biblical sense, I get more confused about the criticism. This 2016 work is a succinct yet thorough journey through the New Testament to put the death, burial, and resurrection (particularly the crucifixion) of Jesus into its cosmic context, as the defeat of sin, death, and Satan. If Jews and Christians alike were called to reject pagan notions of human sacrifice, what must Paul mean when he says that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3, emphasis added)? I will be recommending this accessible Christology as a primer for those seeking a richer and more hope-filled vision of what the church is called to be in our head, Jesus Christ.

Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley and The Beautiful Community by Irwyn Ince
In yet another year that has brought the rift of racial injustice to the forefront, listening to what our black sisters and brothers have to say, especially in the church, is an important discipline. Among many, many books already written on the subject, these two 2020 entries are wonderful invitations to understanding the broader tradition of American Christianity and recapturing the power of Scripture in every culture and age. McCaulley’s work reflects on the role of Scripture in the black church, pushing against the ways that tradition has been maligned as theologically weak and unbiblical. What a gift his book is, this year or any year. If Scripture isn’t the source of hope for those outside of society’s streams of wealth and power, then it doesn’t provide much hope to anyone. This book bolstered my appreciation of the depth and breadth of God’s Word. Ince’s work is deeply missiological, full of theological reflection on the church of “every tribe, tongue, people and nation” and practical wisdom for how this is to work out in our actual congregations. It is among the most Bible-saturated, commonsensical works on the beauty and challenge of multi-ethnic churches I’ve seen.

Work and Worship by Matthew Kaemingk and Cory Willson
Though academic theology can be dry, at its finest, it is eminently practical. Kaemingk and Willson offer a shining example of what it can be, anchoring robust critique of contemporary worship practices in thorough exegesis and historical analysis and turning to joyful commendation of new ways of integrating the embodied, working lives of worshippers into the sanctuary…all in less than 300 pages. From my forthcoming review at TGC: “If local churches take [the authors’] recommendations to heart, perhaps members and leaders would all be able to know one another better and work together for the good of the community in coordinated ways. If churches become more intimately aware of the triumphs and travails of each other’s daily lives, church members would begin to see how some economic and social conditions make work toilsome—especially for low-income workers at home and around the world. This extended conversation might open up ways for the church to speak into the lives and ethics of its members in ways that, provide the necessary grounds for true unity and love.”

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King
History with broad application to understanding a time period or cultural phenomenon is often best told through a laser-focused, richly detailed narrative of one particularly incident. King’s Pulitzer-winning account of the attempted lynching of two black men falsely accused of rape in the 1940s in central Florida does just that. He explores the unchecked political power Southern sheriffs (the infamous Willis McCall of Lake County), the legacy of civil rights legal battles through defense attorney Thurgood Marshall, and of the lengths to which white citizens would go to subvert justice for those they wished to keep in poverty and subservience. King shows that post-war America was less “good old days” and more a circus of the damned when you peek under the hood, and offers subtle but clear implications for the present as well.

Grant by Ron Chernow
Chernow is arguably the reigning master of American biography, with sweeping 1,000 page portraits of remarkable lives that soak in the fullness of the events and circumstances that propelled them to prominence and/or disgrace. Through Chernow’s telling, Grant seems like he would’ve been one of the most likable public figures of the 19th century, personified unpretension and genuine trustworthiness. His kindhearted openness was also nearly his undoing, as his presidential administration was shadowed by numerous scandals and his post-presidency was clouded by financial disaster. Long overshadowed politically by Lincoln and militarily by Sherman, Grant emerges here as the indispensable person of America’s darkest hour, and one of a precious few who truly understood the War and its aftermath as a push to recognize and protect the personhood of African Americans and secure the promises of the Constitution for all.

The Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel
Havel, the Czech playwright-turned-dissident-turned-president, is justly lauded as one of the heroes of the cold war and instrumental in the fall of the iron curtain. Power of the Powerless is his most enduring manual for understanding the ways that the human spirit is always resilient in the face of tyranny. Though Havel doesn’t use the phrase, this short book is suffused with a celebration of the image of God in men and women. Living in the truth must be a spiritual and cultural discipline before it can become a political one, and there can be no freedom, justice, or peace without complete honesty about the past and present.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Writing on shortcomings of the church in the United States is a rather sizeable cottage industry these days, but that doesn’t mean that all criticisms are invalid. Du Mez approaches the critique primarily from a historical rather than a theological angle, tracing how evangelical Christianity in post-war America shifted from a culturally aloof, largely apolitical, ambivalently pacifistic group to an aggressive coalition of culture warriors, political movers and shakers, and military boosters through the development of evangelical ideas of masculinity. The stories and data collected here (of abuse, scandal, and trading the promises of God for a mess of cultural pottage) are not new information to me (though they may be for many), but the unrelenting drumbeat of it all compiled and sequenced here left me with an overwhelming sadness for the faith tradition that introduced me to Jesus. May we have ears to hear and a heart to repent and follow Jesus rather than the traditions of men.

How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr
If good history is often zeroing in on a specific story (see my comments on King’s book above), a well-done 30,000 foot view can be equally illuminating. Immerwahr’s look at the often off-the-books expansion of America’s overseas territories is fascinating, fun, and painful all at once. I’d like to challenge anyone else to find a book that includes sections on (among many, many others): Daniel Boone, guano (seabird poop), birth control pills, the Beatles, labor laws, artificial rubber, tropical diseases, Osama bin Laden, James Bond, and stop signs, while somehow making sense of it all in a readable account.

Literature/Poetry/Criticism

Jack by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson is arguably the dean of American novelists at present, so when she releases a new work returning to characters of a beloved series, it’s a literary event. In Jack, we see more of the backstory of the lost sheep of the Boughton family who looms large but mysterious in Gilead and Home. The story covers Jack’s relationship with Della, an African American from the South, in 1940s St. Louis. Though issues of race and culture hover in the background (and have sparked much of the discussion of the book in reviews), Jack is her title character and central focus. Her depiction of the internal experience of the tortured soul here is powerful and rich, almost as if she has finally found a key to get inside a character that has hitherto remained opaque even to her. On that note, it reminded as much of Housekeeping as it did the Gilead stories.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver
I’m generally not one for “how to” books, but this one was so sparse and short as to actually be helpful. I’ve played at writing poetry, generally badly, a lot over the past few years. Mostly, this is because I never read much poetry until about 5-6 years ago. Oliver here gives very direct, clear instruction in the concrete elements of form that I had never been taught. I’ll be trying to apply some of what I’ve learned in subsequent work, and you can let me know if it gets any better. =)

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
As we’ve engaged the world of neurodiversity through life in an ADHD household, finding the Joey Pigza stories has been a dose of empathy and laughter for what can be a tough road at times. Gantos crafts a delightfully wacky world through they eyes of Joey and the people he encounters at school and in his neighborhood, but his tender accuracy in describing impulses and mood swings and the stresses of family life is beautiful. It’s a kids’ book, but I’m raising a tall glass to authors that work to help people in different walks of life feel seen, heard, and valued.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
If there was ever a year to revel in the joys of apocalyptic literature, this probably wasn’t it. Nevertheless, I signed on to another trip into McCarthy’s clear-eyed perspective on the dark side of the world. This book has been out for nearly 15 years now, but I get the hype. This is a painstakingly textured, ghastly, and yet achingly beautiful story. It’s also by far the tenderest of anything I’ve read from McCarthy, yet does not undermine his devotion to searching out the evil in men’s hearts. In wrestling through why I found it such a hopeful novel for this particular moment, I think something in my bones needed reassurance that all the commitments to God and a moral universe that were inculcated into me from a young age are actually true and would be true even without the brace of culture and civilization—that the ways of God and His people cannot be just one more relativistic political gambit, that truth is worth pursuing and clinging to, and cannot be decided on the outcome of a vicious, conniving game. Also, as always, I commend McCarthy on audiobook. His work can take a fair bit of interpretation looking at the page (with limited use of punctuation, no indentation, etc.), so a skilled reader can really bring it to life in audio.

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” 

Laurus by Evgheni Vodolazkin
I raved (like, 3 blog posts worth of reflections) about this when it came out, and it does still glow on a re-read 5 years hence. From my initial review: “Laurus is a serious work which is nevertheless extremely delightful. This is wholly different from being entertaining. The joys found here come not from exhilarating motion (though there are segments of adventure), but from the savor of fulfillment: complementary scenes, piercingly accurate phrases, redeemed longings, deftly chosen character names. Laurus is self-contained, intact, and deeply satisfying.”

Children of Men by P.D. James
Speaking of apocalyptic literature: Normally known for her detective stories, James here works out a taut, provocative thriller. This is sci-fi for grown ups, full of enduring themes and a banal plausibility that makes it the more chilling. She wrote this in 1992, near the height of the 20th century crime wave and the peak years of the abortion industry, so some of the story’s sociological punch has faded (her “future” setting for the action is 2021!). Still, it touches on the some of the core fears of humanity and does so with deep religious sensibility, often explicitly Christian—James, a lifelong Anglican, peppers the novel with quotes from Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. The story moves along briskly, almost too quickly for robust character development, but the themes carry the day well enough for me. In a particularly 2020 twist, a dystopian novel about societal collapse was my book club pick for Feb. 26—the last time we were able to meet in person for a long while!

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I read this last year, and was so blessed that we decided to do it again with the kids as a family read-aloud through this summer and fall. It was an absolute joy to see the kids respond and share thoughts as we went through each chapter. From last year’s review: “Kimmerer, an accomplished botanist and university professor, is a member of the Potawatomi Nation. In this book—part memoir, part field guide, part history, part scientific survey, part conservation manifesto—she explores the ecology of Eastern North America through the lenses of her indigenous heritage and her botanical training. Through a loving exploration of the interconnectedness of plant communities and the role of animals and humans in every ecosystem, she casts a vision for a culture of reciprocity that resists the temptation to take all we can get. Aglow with common grace and wisdom, and beautifully written as well.”

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 2020. 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 Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Art of Biblical History by V. Philips Long
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk
The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Peterson
The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings
Citizen Coke by Bartow J. Elmore
Culture Care by Makoto Fujimora
The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat
Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson
Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright
The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson
The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield
Heaven by Randy Alcorn
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
In Search of the Common Good by Jake Meador
Indescribable by Michael Card
Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
The Jesus Way by Eugene Peterson
Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Myth of the American Dream by D.L. Mayfield
The Possibility of America by David Dark
Rediscipling the White Church by David W. Swanson
The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron
The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark
Tell It Slant by Eugene Peterson
Unsettling Truths by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah
What Is Art? by Leo Tolstoy
When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat
Where Goodness Still Grows by Amy L. Peterson
White Flight by Kevin M. Kruse
Words of Life by Timothy Ward

Image: Autumn leaves, Tucker County, W. Va., October 2020.

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar(s) Short V: Catching Up Edition

From time to time, I [briefly] review movies. Not movies that are new, which the watching public may be eagerly awaiting information about, but usually movies that were new recently—and which I’ve finally gotten around to watching (most often on DVD, thanks to the local library). This time, a free month of Netflix, Prime, and a few weeks off from seminary studies helped expand the selections to some TV shows and documentaries as well. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts.

Toy Story 4
Sequels are the worst. Unless, of course, they’re not. Toy Story 2 was arguably better than the original, and Toy Story 3 was excellent as well—if also a little dark and emotionally manipulative. Even with that track record, I didn’t hold out much hope for yet another installment. But, true to form, Woody, Buzz, & co. pulled out another improbable victory, sucking us back in and even giving new characters (Duke Kaboom!) room to come to life and shine for a moment. I guess we’re the ideal target audience for these films—Rachel & I were 11 (just like Andy) in 1995, and the movies have grown up with us, with themes (moving away from home in Toy Story 3; dealing with all our kids’ toys in Toy Story 4, etc.) that roughly parallel our life experience.

Shorter Toy Story 4: Maybe *I* am a sad, strange, little man.


The Rise of Skywalker
The one theater visit of this set of reviews, for good measure. The tradition of Star Wars on the big screen is almost as old as the tradition of Star Wars stringing along fans with a hope for an engaging storyline. If there’s a bright center to the universe of film, we’re on the planet that it’s farthest from. Even so, this final installment wasn’t unwatchably awful—some of it was actually quite good. If anything, the mistake here was J.J. Abrams trying to atone for all of the awful in the universe with a smorgasbord of fan service that doesn’t linger on anything long enough to let us savor it. There’s a nice enough bow on the ending that I think I can resist the temptation to ever spend money on this property again, no matter what Disney throws at us. Baby Yoda notwithstanding.

Shorter The Rise of Skywalker: Is it over?


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Any movie released back in summer that can still hold its own with nominations and wins during awards season is usually worth exploring. I got snookered into watching Pulp Fiction nearly 20 years ago, and haven’t had the stomach for Tarantino since, but I’d heard enough people talking about Once Upon a Time to give it a try. Brad Pitt is truly astonishing in this movie, the whole thing is very funny, and the revisionist history of the violent death of the golden age is a nice thought experiment, but there are points where it all still seems like an elaborate excuse to commit footage of some gratuitous carnage to the archives. Here is a good plot and great acting that almost drowns in its excesses.

Shorter Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: The least Tarantino Tarantino film, but he still can’t help himself.


Ad Astra
On the subject of Brad Pitt being truly astonishing, I submit to you this movie. It is just as understated (not a word, I’ll grant, that often gets bestowed on space dramas) as Hollywood is garish. This is science fiction at its most visceral, and the space-as-blank-canvas-for-revealing-character motif at near perfect pitch. James Gray manages to use the entire solar system as a backdrop for a story about two people, only one of whom we really see much of—and most of his lines are delivered as internal dialogue.

Shorter Ad Astra: Good science fiction always points you back toward reality.


Chernobyl
I was able to catch up on this HBO miniseries via a few Delta flights last fall, and the intensity of this story didn’t lose anything to the tiny screen—if anything the setting amplified it, leaving me at least a few times wandering around an airport gasping for breath afterward. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and the rest of the cast suck you into 1980s Soviet groupthink and sycophancy. Gut-wrenching visual effects make you feel their human and environmental costs. A parable for our time on the dark places truth-shading and lack of curiosity will lead us.

Shorter Chernobyl: Some of the best historical storytelling I’ve seen.


The Crown—Season 3
The first two seasons of this show are so well done that I keep waiting for an inevitable letdown. The subject matter is just one bad script away from veering off into Downton Abbey banality—with the added soul-crushing value that these episodes are about real people and real politics. But Peter Morgan keeps pulling it off, bringing life and a real measure of relatability to one of the most recognizable and wealthy families on earth. Even the cast change this season wasn’t a net loss, with Tobias Menzies’ Prince Philip given many opportunities to steal the show (especially in “Moondust”).

Shorter The Crown: Fake people are people, too.


The Irishman
I’ve always liked Scorsese, but never his mob movies. This is, for film buffs everywhere, a heresy. Even so, this one rather insisted on being seen, perhaps a swan song of one of the great artists of our time. There were shortcomings—the incorporation of so many historical events in the backdrop made it feel a bit like Forrest Gump, but with a lot more blood—but most of the bold moves paid off. The 3.5 hour running time and much-vaunted de-aging technology are hardly noticeable as the story of men with too much money and too few outlets for healthy friendship and competition unrolls to its inevitably disastrous conclusions.

Shorter The Irishman: Death comes for us all, why not reflect on your life before then?


Marriage Story
Movies about divorce aren’t supposed to be cute and enjoyable, but this one had lots of quiet humor in the midst of a rolling disaster. The acting is superb top to bottom (and as a lifelong M*A*S*H fan, I’m always a sucker for Alan Alda bit parts), and the script is tight, never letting you lose sight of what a tragedy divorce and custody battles are, whatever the circumstances. The two leads are so well developed that it avoids simply retreading Kramer v. Kramer for a new generation. They’re so well developed in that their personalities hit me a little close to home. I nearly lost it when Charlie (Adam Driver’s character) breaks into “Being Alive” from Company at the end, not just because it’s inherently moving, but because belting out show tunes at karaoke seems about how I might process personal devestation.

Shorter Marriage Story: People are complex, broken, and all your feelings run together and come out at odd times. Also: this.


The Report
If you like to believe settled patterns of political life fall into neat ideological buckets, or worse, that there are more or less “good” guys and “bad” guys sorted tidily into partisan camps, don’t watch this movie. It takes an unblinking stare at the bowels of the CIA and U.S. foreign policy, and how people from other countries (even people with evil intentions and associations) are dehumanized by both parties (in this case, the Bush and Obama administrations) when it suits political needs at home. Easily the best political thriller since All the President’s Men, miraculously turning a 6,700-page government document into 2 hours of taut intrigue.

Shorter The Report: America is doomed. Also, does Adam Driver sleep?


American Factory
The flow of many familiar narratives is a journey from stasis to crisis to resolution. Sometimes, however, the bell curve inverts, and a story goes from despair to joy and back to despair. This is the case with American Factory—a multi-year tale of the shuttering of a GM plant in Dayton, Ohio, and its re-opening as an auto glass manufacturing site for a Chinese corporation. The nature of work, family, just wages, unions, safety, intercultural cooperation, and hope are all explored in depth. The filmmakers capture candid conversation so well, you almost forget that it’s a documentary.

Shorter American Factory: America is doomed


Edge of Democracy
There are few things Americans are less well-versed in than political occurrences in other countries. For that reason alone, this fine documentary chronicling the rise and fall of the Brazilian Workers Party through the impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff and speciously legal arrest and imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is worth your time. The lessons for a politically divided U.S. (and, more to the point, its sharpening class divide) are there for those with eyes to see. The film is that much more remarkable for director Petra Costa’s ability to see her own family’s entanglement in both sides of the conflict, giving its incisive political observations a personal edge.

Shorter Edge of Democracy: America is doomed


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers are definitely part of the “love-’em-or-hate-’em” school—you can’t ignore their work if your like movies, but they’re not to everyone’s taste. In Buster Scruggs, this is on full display, not just once, but six times. The movie is really 6 narratively disconnected shorts in a classic Western style held together by themes of death, fear, greed, and pride with trademark Coen dark humor. If you like this (which I do), it works quite well as an allegory for many aspects of American life and culture. If you don’t (which my wife does not), it really just turns the stomach to no greater purpose.

Shorter The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: America is doomed, but probably in a piecemeal, individual-demises-pooling-into-disaster sort of way.


The Two Popes
The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and ascension of Pope Francis in 2013 remains one of the most remarkable (and controversial) papal transitions in Roman Catholic history. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles explores this time in a fictionalized account of a visit between then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) and Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) at the papal estate, using this conversation to explore the church’s past and its future. The result is a dialogue between the need for openness, love, and evangelism and the need for structure, stability, and courage that shows the vitality and grace of Christianity, whatever tradition you examine.

Shorter The Two Popes: Tension is actually the key to hope.


The Good Place
I can’t remember the last time I felt like binge-watching a sitcom, but I got sucked into The Good Place last month, and decided to plow right through to the series finale (on Jan. 30). This is possible—because the whole series only has about 55 episodes—and probably a fine way to watch, since the story arc follows more of the pattern of a dramatic series even as it keeps the character-driven focus of a sitcom. While there are plenty of Hollywood tropes (primarily constant sexual references) that bog things down, the end result is a series that is incredibly funny, but also heartwarming and philosophical. The creators force viewers to think about morality, death, friendship, and the purpose of existence in the face of eternal ennui. In essence, the show provides a fine exploration of the unimaginative nature of many Americans’ vaguely Christian (or vaguely Buddhist) visions of heaven and hell. Mostly, I come away thankful for Jesus (as opposed to the show’s “point system” for determining one’s afterlife) and for a robust biblical vision of the new Jerusalem as a place of creative work in fellowship with God (as opposed to a “heaven” of eternal pleasure).

Shorter The Good Place: It’s telling that the only place this sort of conversation can break out in our culture is in a sitcom.

Header image: Rock in North Chickamauga Creek, March 2016.