2022 in Pages

It’s the end of another year in which I read quite a few books—some by eye, some by ear; some by choice, some by requirement. As with each year’s list (see 2021, 2020201920182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2022 (though several 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

You’re Only Human by Kelly M. Kapic (2022)
This book was a great blessing, and exciting to see out in the world after the years of thought and study my friend Kelly has put into it. For too many Americans (and American Christians), life on a human scale, with grace and patience toward our shared weakness, has not been on our collective radar. This book calls us to reflect on and love our limits. Kapic focuses our attention on the doctrine of creation. He wants us to see ourselves as God does—embodied creatures, with inherent, designed limits on our presence, mobility, time, health, etc. that lead us to depend upon our Creator and each other. Designed limits that resist our attempts to live beyond them show us that vulnerability, weakness, and fragility as features, not bugs, in the human condition. He zeroes in on union with Christ as the spiritual reality to which our designed dependence points, on how the incarnation itself “is God’s great yes to his creation, including human limits,” and takes great care to separate the notion of humility (literally, being close to the soil from which we were formed) from our sinfulness and depravity.

See my full review at Mere Orthodoxy.

Art and Faith by Makoto Fujimura (2020)
Books on art have a way of being unintentionally pretentious. For those who’ve never studied art or would be confused by what they’re seeing at a museum or gallery, thinking about capital-A “Art” can be overwhelming. What Fujimura, an accomplished and celebrated artist in the Japanese Nihonga (or “slow art”) tradition, pulls off in Art and Faith is an invitation to explore the essential role of creative expression in our humanity—whether our “art” is “Art” or some other means by which we bless the world. He offers a loving, biblical call to generative creativity as the soul of what it means to bear God’s image. For those who practice the Arts, he offers encouragement to seek after truth and liturgies of creativity that flesh out a theology of making. Fujimura also commends the role of artists as “border stalkers” who see the gaps and ragged edges of our communities and practices and urges the incorporation of the artists’ way into the life of the church for the life of the world.

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (1949)
I’ve somehow managed to avoid reading Thomas Merton until this year. I suppose that’s a bit of a hangover from my Protestantism and its suspicion toward any sort of monasticism and mysticism as valid expressions of faith. It’s probably also rooted in a distrust of Americans writing books on spirituality, which have always felt more marketed than meaningful to me. I can’t judge the full corpus of his work, but what I took in this year (his memoir The Seven Storey Mountain, this book, and several recorded collections of his classes to the novitiate at Gethsemani) have convinced me that all those who recommend Merton have been on to something I missed out on primarily through my own stubbornness. New Seeds is astonishing both for its depth of insight into the ways we distract ourselves from the work of God (sort of an unironic, positive version of The Screwtape Letters) and its practicality in insisting that the contemplative life is not a special super-spirituality reserved for a few but an ordinary part of what it means to pray, to love God, and to obey His will. Really something.

The First Advent in Palestine by Kelley Nikondeha (2022)
Kelley Nikondeha calls us to look at the familiar contours of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth with fresh eyes. She looks through a lens that most Protestant Christians are deeply unfamiliar with, but which loomed large in the cultural imagination of all the participants in the advent story—the intertestamental period. These histories cover the families of Mattathias and Judas Maccabeus during the reign of the Seleucid Empire, a time of cruel oppression, violent uprising, and cycles of internecine brutality among the oppressed. Nikondeha situates the story of the Maccabees in the context of lament and the longing for a full, post-exile restoration, calling readers to see that “wrestling with suffering is the predicate to God’s deliverance.” This shines new light on the context in which Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the Magi, Herod, and all the other players were operating within. At each point in the story, Nikondeha also connects people and places on the pages of Scripture with contemporary counterparts in present-day Bethlehem. Overall quite a unique book—part exegetical reading of the New Testament, part travelog, part memoir.

See my full review at Englewood Review of Books.

The Lord Is My Courage by K. J. Ramsey (2022)
K.J. Ramsey and her husband Ryan have been Internet friends of ours for several years, and we finally got to actually hang out in person this summer thanks to the hospitality of a dear mutual friend. Her first book This Too Shall Last (2020), on the faithfulness of God in the midst of chronic illness, is a beautiful prayer for embodied faith that eschews easy answers to pain. In The Lord is My Courage, she explores the dynamics of spiritual abuse (along with the inhuman pace of modern life and inhuman expectations of many of our expressions of following Jesus) through the lens of her training as a trauma-informed therapist and the words of divine comfort in Psalm 23. Ramsey offers an invitation to attend to our bodies, the social dynamics we inhabit, and the people God places in our paths so that we can listen closely to what stories we are being told in light of God’s story of who we are in Christ. The contrasts she unpacks here—encounter vs. exploitation, striving vs. rest, abuse vs. shepherding, closing off vs. spacious generosity, etc.—are a word of blessing and challenge.

P.S.—Look for her follow-up collection of poems and prayers, The Book of Common Courage, due out in January 2023.

History/Biography

The Great Exception by Jefferson Cowie (2016)
I didn’t read as much history this year as I often do, but this short history of the New Deal (which came recommended by the podcast most likely to make me read new books, The Road to Now) was a good reminder of why I find the field so helpful at giving context to the problems we deal with today. In this relatively short work, Cowie presents a high-level overview of the political and socioeconomic shifts from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that made the New Deal coalition (labor, business, and government in some degree of cooperation) possible, and how the centrality of Southern Democrats to the coalition meant enforced exclusion of black Americans from the benefits of most programs. He also includes an effective summary of how post 1970s political realignments represented not so much a “revolution” of libertarian values but a regression to the mean of individualism and largely unregulated financial and business interests that has characterized most of American history. Because it was published before the election of Donald Trump and the upheavals of the covid-19 pandemic, etc., it retains a good bit of explanatory power of the baseline dynamics of the American electorate without the breathless urgency of more recent commentary.

Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden (2005 ed.)
Marsden’s overview of the development of Protestant Fundamentalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries (and the “re-fundamentalization” of American evangelicalism in the latter decades of the 20th century) is a classic of modern church history. If you’ve wondered about the ways the church fractured and re-congealed after the upheavals of the Civil War and the rise of a secular humanism founded on evolutionary theory and the ideal of progress (and what that has to do with contemporary church conflicts), this is your book. What sticks with me most, though, is Marsden’s incisive epilogue (which I wrote about some here). He says that “the theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the spirit,” whereas the historian, while keeping the big picture in mind, refrains from making judgments “while he concentrates on observable cultural forces.” In doing this, Marsden says, the Christian historian “provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.” The work of the Christian historian is, it seems to me, a vital part of any healthy church.

Unruly Saint by D.L. Mayfield (2022)
I very much enjoyed this unconventional biography of an unconventional woman. Dorothy Day’s witness against the spirit of antichrist present in the exploitation of laborers and the poor is an important, but often overlooked, theme in the story of the United States. Mayfield’s introduction to Day focuses on the earlier years of her life—her participation in the “Lost Generation” literary scene, troubled marriage, adult conversion, and the founding of The Catholic Worker—presenting a Day of tireless efforts, radical views, and a contentious relationship with the church she loved. Mayfield sets out not to write a comprehensive biography, but to introduce contemporary readers to Day’s work, encouraging them to engage with her own writings. In this, I think she succeeds. As Mayfield concludes: “[Day] is one of the ancestors who guides us, cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, saying to us, ‘Never stop asking why, and never stop hungering for God. The loaves and fishes will miraculously appear, but only if you surround yourself with those who are hungry.'”

Sociology/Philosophy/Psychology/Cultural Observation

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
There is probably not another writer who so deftly captures the soul of a nation at a moment in time like Baldwin does here. It is as damning, insightful, and hopeful 60 years hence as it was when it was written. These letters to Black and White America on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation are a poetic, prophetic call to discard the mask of peace worn at the expense of justice and repair the damage wrought on the soul of a nation by slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy before we reap the whirlwind. We still haven’t fully heard his message.

Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks (1994)
In my day job, we focus a lot on adult education for lower-income learners. Much of that work is drawn from the dialogue education theories of Paolo Freire. The late bell hooks was one of Freire’s premier interlocutors in the U.S. education scene, taking his philosophy farther by subjecting it to a healthy feminist critique and arguing for a more democratized classroom style for all levels of learning. This book is filled with insightful reflection on a variety of topics in critical pedagogy, particularly her work on the need for theory to match lived praxis. Embodying the content of what is being taught is vital to both teachers and learners. I don’t often hear hooks work referenced in theological education, but it is perhaps especially vital there, and she has certainly helped shape my style in facilitating courses through my job, as well as teaching Sunday school and hosting other discussions.

South To America by Imani Perry (2022)
I’m always a sucker for a good travelog, as it allows a writer to explore a variety of topics using the map (and the particular proclivities of a given location’s culture) as a point of departure for roving discussions that may not otherwise fit together. Perry’s tender-yet-critical, genre-bending work (part memoir, part history, part treatise) paints a picture of the U.S. South, with its rich culture and tortured history of race-based brutality and economic hegemony, as a fountainhead and centerpiece of American life rather than an aberration or outlier.

The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson (2015)
I read three books by Curt Thompson this year (this one, as well as Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Desire) as part of a growing interest in neurobiology as a helpful tool for cultivating curiosity and compassion toward myself and others. Christians have often pushed against psychology and psychiatry as fitting helpers in the process of emotional sanctification, and we reject the common grace of research like what Thompson presents to our detriment. In particular, his discussion of emotional attachment and attunement illuminates in greater detail the process by which biblical commands to “trust in God” (e.g. Ps. 20:7) are accomplished. This book, positing that shame is a product of the Fall, provides a very helpful rubric for understanding the effects of sin and brokenness on our self-understanding and our relationships.

Literature/Poetry/Memoir/Criticism

Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (2020)
This was the year this book took off, and I feel like everyone I know has read it or put it on their to-read list. As a practiced cynic toward all things popular, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Instead, this has been better than anyone could describe to me. I can’t really do it justice either. To tell what it is “about”—a refugee story told in the style of a sort of young-adult 1001 Nights with humor and verve and astonishing pain and beauty—doesn’t get you any closer to experiencing it. I don’t have any more words. Just read it, or better still, listen to the author-read audio version. So, so good. So funny, so rich, so deep.

A Hole in the World by Amanda Held Opelt (2022)
There is a lot going on in the world, much of it hard and painful, much of it lovely and joyous, often all at once. How do we live in the face of it? My dear friend (I’ve known Amanda for 20 years now!) has wrestled beautifully with this tension. Walking through deep hurt isolates and disorients, but pretending it is not there, as we are often expected to, does nothing for our wellbeing or for our neighbors’. Grief and sorrow call us to attend to one another, sharing burdens without adding new ones. How we live toward one another in the midst of pain and loss is something too few of us have considered. The unprocessed grief of our collective losses as a nation (throughout our history, but especially over the past 2-3 years) leave us lashing out, in a stupor, or terrified. Amanda’s work capturing and applying rituals of grief from across the globe and across the centuries is a balm and a blessing. Someday we all die; we all bury loved ones; we all suffer under the weight of a broken world. Learning to lament, to grieve well, must be found anew. Acknowledging the hole in our world that death represents makes space for the wonder that there is still life in the midst of it.

See a great full review by my wife, Rachel, in Fathom Magazine.

The Scandal of Holiness by Jessica Hooten Wilson (2022)
I really liked this book, not just because it prompted me to read and re-read some fantastic novels, but because it reminded me why and how I ever learned to read literature in the first place. Jessica Hooten Wilson builds on the longstanding tradition of finding moral instruction in literature by exploring how fiction can shape people not just into virtuous citizens, but into the very likeness of Christ. Through the lens of several twentieth and twenty-first century novels, she guides readers toward a beatific vision of sorts, calling them to contemplate the lives of literary saints. We cannot be made to all love the same books, and we may not all find the same gifts in each one, but Wilson endeavors to hold the door open wide. For every reader, there is a story ready to captivate and transform, and Wilson offers the tools needed to look for Christ without subjective application or limiting God’s witness to a book list of her choosing.

See my full review in Fathom Magazine.

This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley (2022)
Just like with Everything Sad Is Untrue, I find myself at a loss for words in describing Cole Arthur Riley’s This Here Flesh. If I were forced to pigeon-hole it, I’d say it’s something of a meditative memoir, but equally as much poetry, folk storytelling, prayer, and manifesto. She writes with a rare candor and economy, exploring the terrain of racial injustice, spiritual abuse, chronic health issues, and family trauma with acute spiritual insight.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (2022)
Contemporary fiction isn’t always my cup of tea, but as someone who still nurses the hope of writing some fiction someday, I do try to stay up on current trends of what people are reading. This one came highly recommended (and it won a Goodreads readers’ choice award!), and it to be creative and heartfelt, a story of love and friendship from inside the (foreign to me) world of gamer culture. As such, this was a bit outside of my genre comfort zone, but this geriatric millennial was sucked in from the very first Oregon Trail reference.

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” 

On The Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 318)
This fall’s reading through the Paideia Center was a book I’ve read three other times, but I was more than thankful for the opportunity for a fourth trip through Athanasius’ meditation on the necessity, wonder, and elegant logic of the coming of the Son of God in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. I jokingly say that I participate in this reading group to remember that I love theology (i.e. no one is grading me on it here), but it’s really true. On the Incarnation is a case study in what thinking deeply for the sake of joy and truth looks like. It does not occur to me often to say that something must be true about God because it is beautiful or untrue because it is improper, but Athanasius puts on these categories of thought with ease, and in the process challenges us to take God’s revelation of Himself on His own terms rather than rushing to categorize Him so that we have an “answer” we no longer need to dwell upon. God is an inexhaustible well, and we do not come to understand or encompass Him, only to draw near to Him through worship with all our minds, hearts, souls, and strength.

The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings (2010)
Jennings work has been a gift and a challenge on so many levels. I read this book years ago on my own, and wished then that I’d had a community of learning to debrief with. I got that opportunity this year through a seminary class. Jennings is a capacious thinker, simultaneously dense and elegant, bringing hundreds of years of theological and sociological work to bear on grasping the evil of separating peoples of the earth from their lands and (too frequently) their humanity. This he calls “a theological mistake so wide, so comprehensive that it has disappeared, having expanded to cover the horizon of modernity itself.” His discourse on the pedagogical modality of the development of colonialism is astounding—taking knowledge out of the frame of discipleship and putting discipleship in the frame of knowledge instead, such that following Christ must look like an intellectual, European, scholastic theological mode of engagement.

The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) by C. S. Lewis (1938, 1943, 1945)
I’ve not read Lewis’ “fairy tale for grown-ups” for some time, and I picked it back up to see if I felt like picking That Hideous Strength for my next book club selection. Though I ended up going a different direction for that choice, I enjoyed the world-building and playfulness Lewis brought to this series. It lacks much of the tenderness and narrative sensibility of the Narnia books, but is a lot of fun as an intellectual exercise. Some of Lewis’ unkind (or at least shortsighted) views on gender show up here in ways central to the storyline, which I’d not noticed as much on previous readings. Overall, however, his vision of where scientific determinism might take the world (even before the atomic bomb and the full revelation of the horrors of the holocaust) remains prescient.

The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen (1972)
The more I think about what the pastoral vocation looks like, the more I think it is something that can’t be cordoned off to a select few, but should be part of the way each of us embody the way of Jesus. What Nouwen reminds us of here is that the character required for pastoral care cannot be learned or earned, but must be given through partaking of suffering. The art of presence is the practice of empathy without centering your own brokenness. It takes so much work it takes to extend ourselves the grace God offers in the midst of our pain, but this is the crucial feature of growth—holding our pain without rushing to assign it a special significance is vital to creating the capacity to hold the pain of others from a place of genuine love.

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 2022. 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 Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson
A Spacious Life by Ashley Hales
Ain’t I A Woman? by bell hooks
Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie—REREAD
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Attached to God by Krispin Mayfield
Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude
Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile
Burning Bright by Ron Rash
Celebrities for Jesus by Katelyn Beaty
Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
For the Life of the World by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun
For the Time Being by W.H. Auden—REREAD
Heaven and Nature Sing by Hannah Anderson
How to Be Sad by Helen Russell
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Mark As Story by David Rhoads & Donald Michie
Men and Women in Ministry: Four Views by Robert and Bonidell Clouse
Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Aimee Byrd
Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray
Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider
Shoutin’ in the Fire by Danté Stewart
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
The Remarkable Ordinary by Frederick Buechner
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
The Soul of Desire by Curt Thompson
This Too Shall Last by K.J. Ramsey—REREAD
What Are Christians For? by Jake Meador
Wintering by Katharine May

Worshipping in the Paradox

Of note: last month, when it seemed that Twitter was about to go under, I started a Substack account. I think the place has potential, especially with new chat features, etc., but as yet, I’m not…um, finding a lot of readers there. So this and the next few posts will be re-shares from Substack, most of which were first re-frames of old Tweet threads. So it goes. Reflecting and refining is writing. Not everything I post there will come over here, so feel free to follow there, too.

In the afterword to Fundamentalism in American Culture (1980), historian George Marsden challenged readers to observe the way the church moves through the world (past and present) with both eyes open:

We live in the midst of contests between great and mysterious spiritual forces, which we understand only imperfectly and whose true dimensions we only occasionally glimpse. Yet, frail as we are, we do play a role in this history…. It is crucially important then, that, by God’s grace, we keep our wits about us and discern the vast difference between the real forces for good and the powers of darkness disguised as angels of light.1

He elaborated that “the theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the spirit,” whereas the historian, while keeping the big picture in mind, refrains from making judgments “while he concentrates on observable cultural forces.” In doing this, Marsden says, the Christian historian “provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.

It seems to me that for most of us out here in the wide world trying to follow Jesus, the task of both theologian and historian are set before us each day. Every choice, every conversation, every worship service, every news article, every election, presents a challenge of evaluating our next right move in light of both Scripture and culture. Every moment is a little dance of deconstruction and reconstruction in real time.

Of course, we are not left to our own wits in this dance—the Lord is with us, directing our steps, teaching us to walk humbly in His path—but the paradox does hit us between the eyes with astonishing regularity.

As my friend Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt put it:

“There is a lie that says our delight must be unadulterated in order to be real, that we are only truly happy when we are only happy. But I am convinced that joy and grief are less like pigments that mix together and more like the warp and woof of a textile. They are threads that weave together into a profoundly human experience.”

In the dance of real-time church history, we can be filled with sorrow & anger at the shortcomings of God’s people and the wickedness the church perpetrates in God’s name, and yet long for its restoration from a deep place of love given by the Spirit.

Multiple things can be true at once.

  • The visible church can be a hive of consumerism, apathy, abuse, callousness, nationalism, and pride and yet still administer the means of grace each week to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for God’s sake.
  • The church as an institution can be entangled down to its bones with corruption, the cancer of pharisaism metastasizing through its leaders and members and yet bear within it a remnant of faithfulness, even in denominations or associations that reek of sin and self-righteousness.
  • A local congregation may take no public action and make no public statements on the brokenness and violence and sorrows in the world and yet be full of members who are, in Jesus’ name, weeping and praying and serving those who are ground up by a hard and cruel world.
  • A Christian can experience Sundays when it is hard (or even impossible) to muster the courage to go to church, and yet long to be in the fellowship of believers, to praise the Lord, to taste the bread and wine. 
  • A Christian can hate what the church becomes when it worships power and cultural norms rather than Christ, and yet love the church enough to cry out to God in lament that He would cleanse and reclaim and restore it as His own.

We long from our deepest guts for these contradictions to cease, and for the church to fully do justice and love mercy always in every place, but the place of contradiction is the place of work and of prayer.

And so we cry out at every gathering: 

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

And so, we who know the pain and the joy of the church at the same time pray fervently that God would:

Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, 
As we also have forgiven our debtors
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.

We are those who know all too well our own hearts. We know, as Solzhenitsyn said, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” and so we pray:

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
Have mercy on me
A sinner. 

We can long for these things, pray these things, and yet be moved to righteous fury by those who try to hold the word of God and the people of God hostage to systems that devour the weak and prop up their power. Zeal for the Lord of Hosts does not make contradiction between fierce love, fierce lament, and fierce anger necessary. For our God is with us in our concern for His house, with greater zeal than we will ever muster.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you have gone. I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes” (Ezek. 36:22-23). 

And yet the promise that God makes from His holy zeal is not the abandonment of his people, but our complete repentance and rebirth in the midst of recognition of our deep brokenness.

In the rest of Ezekiel 36, God promises:

  • To gather us in (v. 24)
  • To cleanse us from impurities and idols (v. 25)
  • To give us a new heart and a new spirit (v. 26)
  • To put *His* Spirit in us to enable us to do His will (v. 27).
  • That we will be His people and He will be our God (v. 28)
  • That he will save us from all our uncleanness and provide for our needs (v. 29). 
  • To bless us abundantly and remove our disgrace (v. 30)
  • To cause us remember our evil ways and grieve over them in repentance (v. 31).
  • To allow us to experience the shame of our wickedness for His sake. (v.32) 
  • To rebuild our ruins, to re-cultivate our desolate places, that life may again be found among us (vv. 33-36)
  • To hear our pleas so that all will know that He is the LORD (vv.37-38).

Again, all these things God does for His own sake. We pray with lament and anger and sorrow at our own failures knowing that God will not ultimately allow His name to be profaned by those who call themselves His people. We know that He delights in justice and mercy, and that He is still working out His glory in us.

At one level, this restoration is a gift freely given in spite of our wickedness, but never without rooting out and despising our wickedness. God will restore and judge. God sees the evil, and He knows our love and longing. He has woven it through His word, and given us cries of anguish to deliver back to Him in prayer.3

Cole Arthur Riley sums this up better than I can:

Those who refuse or neglect to tap into the sorrows of the world may find joy elusive. There is so much that is worthy of lament, of rage. Joy doesn’t preclude these emotional habits—it invites them. Joy situates every emotion within itself. It grounds them so one isn’t overindulged while the others lie starving…joy says, Hold on to your sorrow. It can rest safely here.4

As we take our daily steps in that dance, may you be strengthened to hold on to the tension and see that joy and sorrow don’t have to fight each other to be true. May you pray like prayer matters, with the wisdom of serpents and the innocence of doves.

Notes

  1. George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, second ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 259-60.
  2. Ibid., 260.
  3. “Whenever I dig into the Psalms I have this thought: how could I give up on Christianity? I have barely even tried Christianity.” — Andy Stager
  4. Cole Arthur Riley, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us (New York: Convergent, 2022), 165-65.

Image: Slot Canyon, Washington County, Utah. October 2016.

The Resurrection of Irises

The specificity with which Easter falls in the year, tracking with the prescribed dates of the Passover festival, convinces me that God is delighted to have the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection be in the midst of the turning of the seasons. It is spring for us in the Northern Hemisphere (as it was for Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem), autumn on the other side of the world, and often in the midst of the shift from dry to rainy in the tropics. The jarring reality of defeated death is timed to catch our attention in some visceral way. Violent shifts in weather, the transitions of plants, even the behavior of insects, participate in this liturgical choreography.

Something is coming. Something is passing away. Everything is different now. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is alive. Christ is coming again.

In John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (which I love), he says that Christ’s resurrection “was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent.” The fundamental uniqueness to the second person of the Trinity being revealed as the firstborn from the dead can’t be captured by simple metaphors of life re-emerging from winter dormancy. The flowers weren’t dead, just waiting. Yes, we mark Christ’s resurrection every year, but it is on a whole other level than the guaranteed return of seasonal vegetation. But I don’t want to rush past the floral metaphor with the same hand wave Updike gives, on botanical or theological grounds.

Here in Tennessee, irises are the grammar of spring. Irises of every shade and shape imaginable. They love it here, and we love them (it’s the state flower). This one (pictured below) is my favorite, both for its outlandish style and its understated resilience.

When we bought our house in 2007, the grounds were a portrait of neglect, unkempt shrubs protruding at odd angles from knee-deep leaves killing the grass. That first spring, these irises came up all over the yard, without rhyme or reason. Not wanting to cut them down when I mowed the grass, we gathered them up, transplanting them all into one bed. They kept growing, but did not bloom again for at least 5 years. But they did eventually come back to life.

Irises have pedigrees, records of centuries of cultivation to produce minute variations, all catalogued by institutions like the Royal Horticultural Society or American Iris Society. As near as I can tell, these are a variety called ‘Fabian’, first attested by an English gardener named Salter in 1868. They were listed by the AIS as extinct in 1939. But here in 2022, beside a house built in 1960, they bloom with reckless abundance in April—a testament against exaggerated reports of their demise.

Once hybridized to a gardener’s specification, irises are set and shared by propagation through the multiplication and division of rhizomes—every iris that is a distinct varietal is a clone, a continuously living part of a part of a part of that first plant that some gardener thought was just perfect. Our “resurrected” Fabians are a testimony to this long-dead Mr. or Ms. Salter looking at the first bloom of their new variety and pronouncing it “good.” I do not know how they made it to our corner of Tennessee, or who else along the way thought they were “good” too, to keep passing them on, but they are a gift.

I could have the ID on these wrong (they didn’t come with papers), but whatever cultivar they are, they speak a testimony to life and love bursting forth from long ago. And this is where my tweak on Updike rests—most plants are not merely “recurrent”, but continuous, connected to past years’ growth by a continuous chain of DNA and stored sugars. They are kept alive year after year in the complex dance of ecosystems, or by the loving hands of nursery workers.

In this way, the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection points to ours as well. According to the Apostle Paul, Christ’s resurrection was how, through the spirit of holiness he was declared with power to be the son of God. The body of the man Jesus Christ that died was raised to life and is seated at the right hand of the Father—that part is the miracle, the point of Updike’s poem. At another level (what Paul is getting at, I think), of course God almighty could never die, so the resurrection of Christ is in some sense “expected” once we recognize his divinity—it the proof that Jesus is God. This speaks to continuity of life, such that Paul can say in another letter that all things hold together in Christ. The power that raised Christ’s body from the dead is the same power that gave his body life in Mary’s womb. It is the same power that gave Mary life as well; the same power that made the world; the same power that brings flashes of purple and yellow from a starchy underground tomb in my yard each spring. It is the same power at work in every moment of every day of every life, upholding the universe by a word and working it toward final glory in the midst of every unspeakable brokenness wrought by evil.

I need these flowers at Easter as a ritual reminder of new life, a sacramental blow to my retina each time I walk out the door that engages the gears of theology with the churning mass of thoughts and emotions that overflow my heart and mind and mouth. I need the unsought abundance of wonder packed into each blossom because I can’t make it through a day of reading the news, listening to the pain of friends, or cowering before my own rage and inability to control even the process of getting the kids out the door to school without it. 

God knows I am weak, and he sends flowers. They speak of his goodness in such a way that I can’t help but remember all of it. It’s often considered unbecoming of men in the violent culture of the United States to be moved to emotion and action by beauty, but it is how God made us. I can’t stop fawning over irises and every other created thing that crosses my path because I refuse to be “embarrassed by the miracle” as Updike cautions. The God who raised Christ to life is the God of irises and springtimes, because He is pleased to be so. He said, “I am making everything new!” and lest we forget, He makes it new in small ways every day. I’m trying to write this down as instructed, because these things are trustworthy and true. And all creation is groaning in participation.

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.