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

2018 Reads & Recommendations

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books I’ve read since January. As with each year’s list (see 2017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2018 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

Theology and Practice

The Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren
This small book is a straightforward, elegant, needed reminder that the balance of faithful Christian lives around the world are lived in the everyday grind of waking, sleeping, eating, working, and caring for others. Warren crafts a framework of routine tasks that most will encounter in some form each day and explores their spiritual significance, teaching us to turn our work and worries back to worship. If we are to walk faithfully with the Lord, she contends, we must be encouraged to see His grace and provision (as well as our dignity and significance) in our mundane daily walk just as clearly as in heroic deeds of faith.

Playing God and Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Both these books were quite good and helpful. Andy is more philosopher than theologian, and that works in his favor for books like this, where he takes a high-level idea (power and power dynamics in Playing God, creativity in Culture Making) and brings it back from its cultural captivity to enable a more theological understanding of it to emerge. In Playing God he explores power as God’s character, and our image-bearing as a calling to use power rightly. Culture Making presents his thinking on the purpose, potential, and limitations of creative work. Though these books were written several years apart, they complement each other. There is much here to think on in the midst of a distracted world and our Western “cult” of productivity.

Black Religion, Black Theology by J. Deotis Roberts
Roberts, one of the leading African American theologians of the 20th century, deserves to be known as a leading cultural theologian more broadly. He shares much in common with James Cone and Black Liberation Theology’s critique of Western Christianity’s complicity in oppression and the selective biblical application that has helped prop up systemic sins. Roberts, though, critiques BLT for losing the “universal Christ” (i.e. a Jesus who transcends all earthly cultures and points us to God) in their zeal to rescue Christ from the powers that be on earth. This is a far-too-brief summary, but the essays collected in Black Religion, Black Theology provide a good overview of Roberts’ work. Insofar as culturally captive Christianit-ies hold sway in the U.S. and elsewhere, Roberts ought to be required reading for any pastor and theologian practicing today. A goldmine.

Embodied Hope by Kelly M. Kapic
The problem of evil supposedly keeps theologians and (especially) atheists awake at night. This is not a book about that. Kapic takes both a fallen world filled with pain, suffering, and injustice and the infinite goodness and power of God. His focus is on what meaning there is in pain, and particularly, how we should approach suffering in the church: how we should acknowledge pain individually and corporately, and how we should consider our responsibility to those who suffer. This small but rich book is worth reading for anyone who has experienced suffering or is living in it now, who loves someone who has experienced suffering or is living in it now, and for those who may someday experience it.

Disruptive Witness by O. Alan Noble
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has proven to be an indispensable text for grasping the social and theological import of our present moment. James K. A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy stands as the premier exposition of Taylor (though he is not, by far, the only thinker represented in that series), translating his insights for a wider audience. Others have followed in Smith’s wake to riff on Taylor’s work of criticism, and a new wave of writers is working on building up a path forward for Christians living in a post-religious world. Alan Noble jumps into this latter category, inviting believers to lean into countercultural (yet historical) disciplines of prayer, worship (including observance of the church calendar), service to and reverence for others, etc. that both anchor us to faithfulness and present an alternative report on the nature and purpose of life than the one our culture adheres to. A persevering church made up of faithful believers is able not just to withstand cultural forgetting, but to catch the world off guard and with the fullness of the Gospel message.

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins & Dominique LaPierre
In the aftermath of World War II, the new Labour government of Clement Attlee began to divest the war-spent and indebted United Kingdom of its overseas holdings—to dissolve the British Empire. The crown jewel of that empire was the Raj of India, a vast territory covering all of what is today India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. With the native populations of those regions crying out for independence from the crown and seething with internal cultural and religious divisions, the British opted for speed rather than stability in that process, unloading power and partitioning the countries in a matter of months and unleashing a bloodbath in the process. Collins and LaPierre had unprecedented access to Louis Mountbatten, and the family and archives of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohandas Ghandi and tell the story with impressive detail from multiple angles, focused on the year between Mountbatten’s appointment as the last Viceroy of India (January 1947) and the assassination of Ghandi (January 1948). There is somewhat of a Western bias to the tale, but the level of nuance makes it worth the telling.

How to Think by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs, literature professor in the Baylor honors program and a rather prolific author, has a knack for mining 20th century literature for perceptive critiques of contemporary culture and habits, and his 2017 effort, How to Think, is a reminder for our politically and socially fractured age if ever there was one. Jacobs stitches together threads from C. S. Lewis, Daniel Kahneman, David Foster Wallace, and George Orwell (spiced, as Jacobs’ work so often is, with input from W. H. Auden) to declare that “thinking”, properly considered, is the curated ability to calmly evaluate an opposing viewpoint. This, Jacobs argues, is the antidote to tribalism—even if tribes themselves must always exist—and inflexibility—even if there are certain convictions to which we always hold tightly. 

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
The memoir as a genre is overplayed these days, and, I fear, is forcing other forms of creative writing into the background of cultural dialogue. Surely not everyone who feels called to write also thinks their personal story is the thing we most need to hear from them, right? That said, a memoir that combines a compelling narrative with an incisive reading of a cultural moment is often exactly what we need to hear. Brown tells a story of growing up into an increasing awareness of what it means to be African American in an evangelical world that, as she puts it, assumes a monocultural (and largely white) perspective on everything from fashion to entertainment to worship style and is all-too-often fearful of any alternatives. Given some of the emotional pain she unveils here, this could’ve been sent out as a gut-punch of bitterness, but is instead a plea for grace and truth from a place of love and joy.

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen
Deneen observes some of the contemporary travails of Western Society—political gridlock, elimination of local culture, erosion of self-governing habits, technological replacement of nature, intense social stratification, etc.—and looks for their causes in history. In digging beneath the standard left-right blame game to explore the roots, he finds the sources of our malaise in the underlying ideology of the Hobbesian-Lockean Liberalism that birthed the modern world. For a short book, it’s remarkably thorough, conversant with other major voices in the “all’s-not-right-with-the-world” camp (from Neil Postman to Robert Putnam to Charles Murray), and tying up their various loose ends into a compelling thesis. Deneen is also mindful that any solutions to the problems he diagnoses must be inherently small-scale and long-range activities of culture-making, sidestepping the classical liberals’ key error of believing they could remake the world.

Literature/Poetry

American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
This book of 70 identically titled poems is the first volume of contemporary poetry I’ve ever picked up. I’ve learned to love poetry in the past few years, thanks largely to Christian modernists like Eliot and Auden, but Hayes’ effort here was the first book of poems I’ve read start to finish. It is both raw and polished, crying out from the anguish at an America that has never fully respected the personhood of black citizens while simultaneously exulting in dignity with pride. This isn’t for the faint of heart (as Hayes’ “raw” includes some explicit sexual references, and overarching themes of violence and loss), but worth the effort for an incisive look at our cultural moment. It’s made me want to write more and better poetry of my own, for some things that most need to be said pass beyond the realm of argument.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
What can one say about the greatest of books? To sum up or “review” seems petty, worthless. As has been said, one does not read the great books, they read you. Tolstoy’s tale of unhappy families is a striking morality tale, but also a political treatise and a master class on storycraft and character development. I suppose, like all the classics, it contains the world entire, without succumbing to pedantry or plotlessness.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I’m all for a good grounding in literature that exposes students to the best of what their culture has to offer throughout their education. This, even though I was a terrible reader until midway through my undergrad years. Of course, based on my experience, I can also say that the best books of any literary tradition are not meant to be read until adulthood, or at least not fully appreciable. I’m convinced that I’d have found this tome tendentious and boring as a high school or college student. In my mid-30s, though, it’s plain that this is one of the top 5 or 10 masterpieces of American literature. Even though the world described by “Ishmael” (19th Century Whaling) is long deceased, it feels fresh and real in narration. The symbols and themes are evergreen, and the peripatetic foreboding of the story is still haunting—Shakespeare at sea, almost.

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” 

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
It seems like O’Connor has been hyped and analyzed to death in recent years, but her short stories and essays continue to yield fruit for Christians working in the arts. She will always hold a special significance for me as the first author I discovered who could keep the faith while facing the evil of men with a clear eye and balled fist. Converge remains my favorite of her short story collections, and “Revelation” is perhaps the perfect short fiction, and grows in force with each passing year that I fail to fully heed its message of grace. As long as I live, I’ll be trying to come up with a line as powerful as: “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Cather has become an indispensable part of the American canon for me, as no one seems to understand the significance and contradictions of our country quite so crisply—both as the thief and plunderer of the native peoples and as a haven of opportunity for peoples from around the world. Death Comes for the Archbishop is so beautiful; as I’ve written on it before, her descriptions of land and sky here make you stop and re-read paragraphs for the sheer wonder of it. Re-reading this after spending a few days in Santa Fe this year, I’m even more in awe of Cather’s descriptive powers. This story is as intimate as the friendship between its main characters, expansive as the New Mexico sky.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
An excellent novel, bringing together historical and theological threads through the lens of family, and of particular interest in humanizing the profession of a Christian minister. This 2004 book solidified Robinson’s reputation as America’s queen of letters (with Barack Obama a noted member of her legions of admirers) and earned her a Pulitzer. Its success gave me hope that people would still read spiritual fiction today. It has, I think held up well in the years since I last read it. I’ve written more on Robinson’s fiction here.

Also-reads

Not necessarily “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order. Also, I started a seminary degree program this fall, so not every book I’m reading to that end will show up here (though the ones that have general application certainly will).

The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin
Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream*
by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas C. Oden
The House of Bondage by Octavia V. Albert
Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Light in August by William Faulkner
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Negro Church in America by E. Franklin Frazier
Notes from Underground 
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
Rooting for Rivals
by Peter Greer and Chris Horst
The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 by Justo L. González
Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

* Forthcoming (March 2019)

Books of the Year that Was, 2016 ed.

‘Tis time again for the annual stroll down library lane. As always, what follows is not an exhaustive list, but a selection of some of my favorite reads of the year sorted by genre. Also as usual, most of these were not published within the year, but I encountered them for the first time in 2016. Since changing jobs in March, I’m no longer reviewing books professionally, so this year’s list is more stilted to my personal tastes (i.e. literature).

History/Biography/Cultural Observations

The Chip by T. R. Reid
Once in a great while, an invention comes along that upends the settled order of things. The cultural perception that such devices are the result of a “flash of genius,” striking from a clear blue sky, is misguided; often the discovery comes after years of questing to solve a particular problem. Such is the case with the integrated circuit, or microchip. Engineers from all over the world were working to figure out how to reduce the size of computer circuits, and two Americans, Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby came to the basic design almost simultaneously. Reid’s book engagingly narrates this discovery, the resulting patent disputes, and the legacy of rapid technological change that this tiny tool unleashed on the world.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Some biographies inspire by demonstrating the heights to which humanity can soar with the right mix of circumstances, talent, and grit. This is not one of those. Isaacson’s overlong, chatty, and occasionally vulgar portrait of Jobs is not a particularly good book, and tiptoes too close to hagiography even to be a truly good biography. Jobs led groups to accomplish amazing things, but at such a great cost in burned up relationships, one wonders if it was worth it. A role model he was not. Jobs was a Raskolnikov of industry: someone to whom rules did not apply, at least in his own mind. And yet, yet, I can’t help but be a little in awe, especially thinking of the way Apple products and Pixar movies have made my life a little brighter, more productive, and more fun for many years.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat
Despite the fact that he’s only a few years my senior, New York Times columnist Douthat has become one of the leading voices for conservatism, tradition, and common sense in the American public square. Bad Religion provides a fascinating take on the history of American Christianity, namely that the slide in religious adherence has less to do with outright rejection of faith than the accommodation of Christian orthodoxy to various cultural ideas, which in turn have lead to various heresies. It is a clearheaded approach to the (real and perceived) challenges to the Christian faith in America, recognizing that they come from within as much or more than from without.

Musing/Memoir

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon
Capon’s masterpiece is delightfully uncategorizable. It is perhaps the world’s most circuitous cookbook or its most unorthodox work of theology. In either case, it is a must read for every one of us slightly pudgy and shameless lovers of all the tastes God built into His world. Food is necessary for life, but He made it fascinating and delicious on purpose. I’ve seldom come across a book that exudes such unvarnished joy.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Abbey, perhaps the atheist’s Annie Dillard, evokes with intimate detail the harsh moral clarity of the the wilderness while abandoning mankind to its condemning ravages all alone. Somehow, though, this paean to the vast inhospitality of the Colorado Plateau is more worshipful than Dillard’s glorying in the minutiae of a Virginia mountain stream. I read this (on a friend’s recommendation) before heading out West this fall, and Abbey’s portrait is richly accurate.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Snarky in that particular mien of the Northeastern sophisticate, but heartwarming all the same. I’ve long been a frequenter of the AT for day-hikes, and I always loved chatting with through-hikers on Roan Mountain, Mount Rogers, and the Smokies. Bryson elucidates the exhilaration and exhaustion of walking these mountains with a good mix of humor, disgust, and awe. His relationship with Katz keeps the narrative going, helping the book to rise above mere travelogue.

Theology/Christian Life

Knowing God  by J. I. Packer
From my review: “Though this work has been driving home deep truths about our Triune Lord since well before I was born, it was to my great detriment that I only just recently picked it up for myself. Every accolade Knowing God has received through the years was just praise—I have seldom read such a clear, emphatic presentation of so much Christian doctrine. To ears ready to hear and hearts ready to obey, Packer’s masterpiece is sort of a devotional ‘jet fuel’ to feed the fire of spiritual maturity….This pastoral heart most characterizes Packer’s work. It is a systematic theology (and a good one), but it is a systematic theology for pilgrims. Other books have more academic depth, but few achieve the devotional concern for the holiness, peace, and joy of the Christian.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith
It takes a while to get going (unpacking a philosophy of formation), but eventually Smith gets up a good head of steam and makes some very punchy, helpful suggestions on how to recover and retain the faith in the midst of our self-absorbed consumer society. In brief, he teases out at a more popular level what he has been writing about for years: that culture is liturgy, and the Church cannot combat secularism with knowledge alone. His earnestness comes across rather condescendingly at times, especially when he seems to downplay the intellectual pursuit of God, which can be just as formative as other more “embodied” acts of worship.

Fiction

Laurus by Evgheny Vodolazkin
Hands-down my favorite read of the year. From my review: “What shines in both the words and the story is a voice eerily absent from the world of modern literature—sincere faith. The Orthodoxy of Laurus isn’t merely attached to a character or added for ‘color’, but suffuses the entire work because it is real. The people of this book are, like the rest of us, sinners, but through God’s mercy, many are saints. Most are earthy, some insufferably pious, and a few are wicked, but they all live under the shadow of the Almighty. In this world, the glow of icons by candlelight is meant to inspire, and a Holy Fool throwing rocks at invisible demons is to be expected.”

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
My first foray into McCarthy did not disappoint. Horses has doses of his trademark depravity, but the story is tempered with enough tenderness to make it go down. The interweaving of characters into the turbulent political history of Mexico gives a literary and cultural ballast to what is already a fine (if bleak) bildungsroman. As a marginal hispanohablante, I also enjoyed McCarthy’s frequent use of untranslated Spanish dialogue.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
A masterpiece in every way. Why, oh why, do we persist in thinking the classics are somehow less accessible? Human drama explodes from every page, and spiritual significance crackles throughout. “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Powerful, affecting assault on the American soul. Being “colorblind” is not the opposite of racism, but often the same beast in another cloak. Ellison refuses to let any region (South or North), class (establishment, radicals, workingmen, etc.), or race off the hook for our mutual culpability in dehumanizing one another.

Honorable Mention: Re-reads

C.S. Lewis wrote in “On Stories” that “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.” Armed with that exhortation, I’ve made a habit of revisiting books that hit the mark to see if they stick. Here are a few that came back up this year.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Much as I want to find fault with this book (Atticus’ stoicism being an unsustainable ground for real social change is about as close as I can get briefly), it is justly enshrined in the American literary canon. Lee manages to be endearing, but not cloying; profound, but not preachy; childlike, but not childish.

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
As an habitual re-reader of Percy, this deceptively deep comedy has wormed its way into my list of favorites. It even inspired an effort at scholarly analysis this summer. From that paper: “This then, is the solution to which Percy points the beleaguered reader. Life, to be genuine and grounded, must find its roots in the reality of Christ, but also in the reality of creation—even in the realistic parameters of the Fall. To attempt salvation by any other means only brings disaster. By God’s grace, change comes to sick men and sick systems through the ordinary faithfulness of doing the next right thing.”

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
In the morass of 2016, I reached again for the mother of all political novels for understanding, if not consolation. Warren’s magnum opus is so good, and ranges so much farther than politics, or the South, into the very depths of humanity. Truly, everything worth knowing is covered in blood, and we cannot escape the awful responsibility of time.

*UPDATE
It was suggested that I list the other books I read this year which didn’t make this “hits list” but are still worth a read. Here they are, without comment:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
Godric by Frederick Buechner
The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser
Hillbilly Elegy 
by J. D. Vance
Intellectuals and Race by Thomas Sowell
The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie
The Sympathizer by Viet Than Ngyuen
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

Photo: Stacks, Chattanooga Public Library, Eastgate Branch, February 2015.