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

New Morning Mercies

After Anthony Bourdain, after a fashion.

On the day my next-door neighbor died
I went to breakfast in a hurricane.
The water ran through the floor of Waffle House
As waffle batter ran dry in the kitchen.

While I sat, deep in conversation,
Trying to imagine how to remake the world,
A home-health nurse brought a man with his walker
To a corner table for weekly worship.

A family from out of state sat down
And got up after twenty minutes waiting
To have their order taken, unwilling
To further delay progress to Florida.

I shouted across bad coffee for hope,
Over the drone of a country jukebox
And the pleas of hungry addicts, but this—
This—is the world as it is, more or less.

What is the life of a saint but suffering—
Patiently, daily, not in crucifixion
Or being drawn and quartered or burned at the stake,
But simple, faithful endurance through each day?

What is the life of a saint but living
In the tension between having one’s cake
And eating it, with holy disregard
For the contrast between spirit and flesh?

The next day was the first crisp morning of fall,
Broken only by the first southbound monarch,
Bearing the indignity of migration
For the joy set before him with foreordained poise.

When he gets to Cerro Prieto,
He’ll be welcomed as an ancestral spirit
Together with multitudes lighting
In sacred firs, echoing resurrection.

Image: Getty Images

Seeing the Dead among the Living: Lessons from a Graveyard

We live next to a cemetery. Not merely nearby or down the street, but directly at the end of the driveway, visible out the kitchen window. And not an old family plot, either, but a commercial cemetery complete with a two-story mausoleum building.

Sometimes it’s a source of humor. When new guests ask what it’s like having such a property next door, my standard response is “At least the neighbors are quiet.” After windstorms, we pick the shredded remains of silk flowers from our backyard fence.

Occasionally it’s an opportunity for embarrassment, like when I rev up the lawnmower only to roll around the fence to the stares of indignant mourners at a graveside service.

Whenever it’s not raining, it’s a shady place to break from the day for a quick walk or pacing phone conversation—all the more so during the past 14 months of working mostly from home.

In the winter months, when the sun’s angle has tilted toward the southern horizon, it is the foreground of an almost daily flash of blinding beauty at the edge of the night.

In the spring, the trees fill with bluebirds, flickers, flycatchers, and robins, and the tombstones become battlements for feral cats attempting to make a meal of any of the above, or fighting with one another for territorial supremacy. Its wooded lower slopes have played host to broods of red fox kits, more than one nest of red-tailed hawks, a clutch of barred owl eggs, and even a litter of coyote pups—all this in the middle of a semi-urban area of a mid-sized metro.

Always, the cemetery is present. A patient, faithful memento mori that demands not to be ignored or passed off as a mere park. When you do stop and look, as I’ve been compelled to do for the past 13-and-a-half years of living here, that memento grows sharper still, telling stories of demise with a painful specificity that cuts across many walks of life.

At the top of the hill are the original burials, capped by weathered granite obelisks with barely visible names and dates, the oldest of which mark the resting place of people born over 200 years ago. Civil War veterans and even those who never lived long enough to see the battles that raged just a mile away in 1863 share the high ground.

Further down, on the side adjacent to the road, large, more ornate markers shining with glaze blare out the names of prominent citizens of our town—names that also signify many of our streets, parks, and buildings. Undoubtedly many of these were good men and women, but whatever services they rendered or businesses they built did not stop the passing of time that brought them here. Their personalities, triumphs, and trials fade as surely as the moss and diesel soot slowly unburnish their stones.

The new mausoleum is, as yet, mostly uninhabited by the deceased. There are a few scattered along the back wall, cheaper than the side visible to the road, and some cremated remains tucked in the specially designed corner slots. Most of the plaques denote pre-purchases, unclosed date-dashes extolling the financial prudence of a city councilman here, a dentist there, and the widow of a recently interred husband in the adjacent hollow.

When you get to individual graves amid the crab-grassed rows, the dead begin to speak their wisdom more directly.

The shared tomb of a husband and wife tells of sorrow and separation. He died in 1947, while she—were the headstone speaking true—is still roaming the earth today at the age of 151. More likely, she had to leave home when widowed, passing away in another place, her family unable to bear the cost to have her body delivered back here to be interred with her spouse’s.

A marker for a young woman of 23 who died in 1935 curiously bears her maiden name, along with a note that she was the wife of her husband—presumably a newlywed unable to afford the stone and honoring her parents (who could) by retaining their family name. Perhaps she died trying to bring a child into the world or from some then-incurable infection. The inscription below testifies to this grieving widower’s character and presence of mind, and never fails to catch my attention: “The Lord gave. He took. He doeth all things well.”

Under one of the sprawling willow oaks, a swath of tiny marble lambs mark the children’s section. Headstones of dozens of infants, toddlers, and stillborn children, some whose birthdays was their death-day, offer a solemn reminder that death plays no favorites. Such losses seem foreign to our age of NICUs, pediatric surgery, and antibiotics, but surely remain all too present for those who have endured pregnancy losses, without the funeral and the lamb to silently invite the rest of us to share in grief and support.

The cemetery itself is part of the ballad, its general disrepair a steady bass note. A few years ago, the family who founded it in 1847 either sold the property or outsourced its management (it’s not quite clear which is actually the case). Now, it’s not uncommon for a month or more to pass between mowings, or for storm-downed tree limbs to lay across paths and markers for weeks. Leaves go unraked, brush is piled in plain sight, and fill dirt left over from recent burials is mounded 3-4 feet high at the top of the hill. Some graves are still well-tended by survivors who bring new flowers with each season, but many markers have cracked or fallen over, with no one among the living able to muster enough concern to repair them. Even cemeteries must someday die.

I’m not going to tie this up into a simple sermon on how to value each day as though it could be your last (though each of my neighbors would attest that it certainly could). Consider it instead an invitation to see what is preaching to you from your own backyard, if you’ll stop rushing by long enough to look. Soak in the wide shot and the closeups and attend to the director’s framing. Dust you are, and to dust you will return, but between your forming and decay, a world of wonders beckons.

Walter Hooper (1931-2020)

I’m saddened this evening to hear the news of the passing of Walter Hooper. If you’re not familiar with Walter, it’s largely due to his influence that C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction books remain in print and continue to have an outsized influence on Christian discourse decades after his passing.

I once spent an afternoon with Walter at his home in Oxford, just after Christmas 2004, and if you’ll indulge me in more than a little nostalgia, I’ll share the story.

A dear friend of my family’s from Western North Carolina (Anna Barry, who has also now passed away) knew Walter when they were at UNC Chapel Hill together in the 1950s. She had been an avid reader of and correspondent with C.S. Lewis, and connected with Walter over his work. She encouraged him to write to Lewis, and, based on that correspondence, Walter went to the UK to meet Lewis and ended up becoming his literary secretary near the end of Lewis’ life, and later the trustee of his literary estate. He never returned to live in the US.

Miss Anna stayed in touch with Walter through the years, occasionally visiting him in Oxford with her family and hosting him at her home on visits back to the U.S. Through him, she connected as well with the Tolkien family, who were close friends of his. In the summer of 2004, Priscilla Tolkien (J.R.R.’s youngest daughter) paid the Barry family a visit in North Carolina, and Miss Anna convinced her to have a little reception and give a talk for our county homeschool co-op. I was a sophomore in college by then, but came along with my family. Coming on the heels of the Lord of the Rings film franchise, this was a big hit with a bunch of young nerds like us. Pricilla was charming, and more than kind to put up with the mountain of questions and photo ops we subjected her to.

Later that year, I had the opportunity to spend Christmas break in the UK on a fine arts tour through my college. We had one free day in an otherwise full schedule, so I contrived a plan to visit Oxford, eat at the Eagle and Child, and (hopefully) wow my friends by taking them to meet Priscilla. Miss Anna graciously reached out to Priscilla on my behalf, but she declined to see us, citing ill health.

“There’s someone else there you should meet, though. Let me give you his information,” she said, and wrote Walter Hooper’s name and phone # on a piece of paper for me. At that time, I hadn’t read much of Lewis beyond the Narnia books and Mere Christianity, and was only vaguely familiar with his impact on popular Christianity in the West. I’d certainly never heard of Walter.

Upon arriving in London, though, I dutifully phoned him (back then, kids, you didn’t call people from another country on a whim—it was so incredibly expensive!), and he was quite excited to to host some friends and me on our day in Oxford.

We took the bus and, after some obligatory sightseeing—Radcliffe Camera, the University church of St. Mary the virgin, the OUP bookstore—we walked 2 miles or so in the spitting snow to his townhouse. He welcomed us in, made tea, and intently listened to our stories about what we were studying, how we’d found England thus far, etc. And then I started looking around his house.

There was a large photo of Walter standing with C.S. Lewis hanging over the mantelpiece (Walter lived alone and never married, so aside from old family photos from the U.S., this one was most prominent). By the stairs was a picture of Walter with Pope John Paul II! It began to dawn on me that this must be a special guy who had lived quite the interesting life.

Once we had all been introduced and finished chitchatting, he started to tell his story. Walter made the connection for me of how he knew Miss Anna (he himself was a son of rural North Carolina) and then related how he came to know Lewis and become a British citizen. He’d actually lived for some months at the Kilns with Lewis and his brother, & inherited a good bit of their furniture, which he showed us. He told some classic Lewis stories about their first meeting, including the “Bathroom” anecdote that appears in his introduction to The Weight of Glory, and a story about Lewis’ giving change to a panhandler (he was chided by a friend, “He’ll only spend it on drink!” and retorted, “Well, that’s what I was going to do with it.”) that I’ve often retold when talking with Christians about erring on the side of generosity.

Walter then shared his faith journey, from his American upbringing (Methodist, if I remember correctly) and his studying for the Anglican priesthood, and his eventual conversion to Catholicism in the 1980s once he grew disillusioned with much of Anglican politics and cultural captivity (“The only real Christians in Oxford,” he said with a smile, “are in the RCC! Who knew?”). Time flew, and soon we’d been there talking of politics, eschatology—a particular comment of his about imagining the resurrected body being a bit like “Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his prime,” had us all in stitches— and so many other things for three or four hours. By then it was getting dark, and time to catch the bus back to London.

He sent us off warmly, and gave each of us his personal e-mail address (on AOL!) and an invitation to write anytime. When I arrived home, I sent him a note of thanks, and he wrote back promptly. We ended up corresponding for many months. I still have all the old e-mails, and looking back over them tonight, I am astonished at the time and care he took to write so faithfully. He even read and interacted with my paltry articles from the student newspaper! Eventually the conversation trailed off, though owing to my end rather than his, as I graduated, got married, got a job, and got too busy to keep up with old friends—to my great shame and lament.

Here is an e-mail from him (dated 5/17/2005) that I am still humbled by, especially given my lack of professional credentials or relevant projects of any sort and his incredibly full life. I’m sharing it here as a testament to the type of person he was.

Dear Justin—you are a good man for continuing to write. I like very much hearing from you, but I realise you have no idea of the strain I am under. After five years of unremitting hard work on the first two volumes of the Collected Letters of C.S.Lewis, I was hoping for a break. But because the big film of Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has its premiere in December 2005, the Estate of C.S. Lewis and the publishers have been pushing me very, very hard to complete Volume III (the final volume) so it can be published before the film. I work seven days a week, and I have had one day free since November 2004. Recently I’ve been getting up at 5 so as to try to get more done.

Most of those to whom I mention the letters imagine a little paperback, which they feel they could polish off in a weekend. But I am talking about a volume that is essentially a thousand pages of text and notes. Most of the 2000 or so notes in this volume have cost me many hours of research in the Bodleian. So, while this may be a job that could be polished off in record time by some people—I am not one of them. Besides all this, I get hundreds of visitors every year, and about 1000 letters to answer. So my work on the letters has to be sandwiched in between all these visits, all these letters. Nowadays when people make an appointment to see me I agree only on condition they not stay beyond an agreed on time. Otherwise, people will stay until they are ready to leave—which may be six or seven hours. They have nothing but free time, and I have none. I only have until the middle of June to complete the biggest task I’ve undertaken in my life, and the doctor is having to treat me for stress. So, the reason it is hard for me to be a good correspondent at this time—and until this job is behind me—is that I simply have to work ALL the time. I never have time off. I hope I can survive long enough to complete this volume, but if the presume keeps on building up I don’t know what I will do. I may simply have to ask the Lewis Estate to let someone else complete this volume. The problem with that is that it would be very difficult for anyone else to know how to finish it.

It’s a curious thing, which I can’t explain, that nearly all those who are constantly on the phone, or in letters or in emails, begging to see me, do not have the slightest notion of what I’ve spent the last 41 years doing. “What is it you do?” they are sometimes led to ask. I tell them, and they’ve forgotten five minutes later. Perhaps this is good for my soul, for I’m never given a reason to be vain. But it’s not good for my health because while these people have endless time, I have to either get up with the chickens and stumble into bed in the wee hours.

This is not meant to make you ashamed of having written—but merely to explain. I’m hoping good friends like you and your classmates will not write me off because—God willing—when this huge task is behind me, I want to keep up our precious correspondence. What I’m describing is not something new. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t one of God’s jokes that, while there are a few people in the world who actually know what I do, almost none of the people I know has the slightest interest in what I’ve being doing in Oxford for more than half my life. It makes me wonder why they are so keen to spend so much time with me?

On my precious day off—last Thursday—I went up to London with two friends to see the exhibition in the National Gallery of the paintings of Caravaggio. I am a member of the Athenaeum Club in London, but I am there so rarely I have to prove my identity when I go there. Anyway, I gave my friends Cyrus and Iain lunch there, and then we saw the paintings. It was wonderful to have a day out, and to see those marvelous pictures.

The other big change is my life is—Blessed Lucy of Narnia! Have you heard? I have a new cat. The Fathers of the Oxford Oratory would not give me a moment’s peace after Claret the Meek died. They felt that I needed another cat, and one of them dragged me off in search of one. Eventually, we found Blessed Lucy of Narnia in a little animal rescue place in Oxford. She’s a little over a year old, is a combination of tabby (which means rings) and tortoise (which means bright spots). She is very affectionate, and I worship the ground she walks on. But, Lord! What a merry dance she is leading me! She sleeps all day and is very busying during the night catching mice and birds. One night last week she brought me four mice. Not all together, but one after the other during the course of the night. If I’m lucky enough to get the mouse away from her undamaged, I fling it out the window. In fact it has just occurred to me that on that particularly night she might have brought in the SAME mouse four separate times. The same with birds. I take them from her, and put them out the window. This breaks poor Blessed Lucy of Narnia’s heart.

When she comes in from outside during the night she rushed to be with me. I have to turn over on my back because, while I can’t sleep unless I’m on my side, she can’t sleep on top of me unless I’m lying flat. So I lie flat, with Lucy of Narnia on my chest, and when she falls asleep I gently lift her onto the bed, turn over and go back to sleep.

But you must be bored with all my ramblings. Please, would you do me a favour? We often ask people to pray for us just to have something to say. But I am worried about the project I’m working on, and I’m worried about my health. Would you please pray hard  that the Lord will give me the strength to complete this task? Next time I’ll tell you why I am so very, very happy that the world has Pope Benedict XVI, but by this time you are tired of sitting at your desk, and tired of my voice! So, God bless you old friend, from Walter the Slow.

How do you respond to this? I’m sure I was more than sheepish, but we continued to write even so. Miss Anna was always also a faithful correspondent, sending me countless books, articles & longhand letters until her death in 2018. Among the many volumes on my shelf from her (always with lengthy introductions inside the front cover that showed her intimate knowledge of the text in question) is J.B. Phillips New Testament in Modern English (see article linked to in the first paragraph for the significance of that).

I was certainly a different person as a 20-year-old tourist wandering off the street into a busy man’s home than I am now, but Anna and Walter’s caring attention sparked a love for good books in me that hasn’t abated. Their nurturing correspondence with a young nobody is an example of faithful discipleship modeled by Lewis. It’s a level of willingness to pour out encouragement on others to which I still aspire.

Though I hadn’t spoken with either of them in a long while, I’m always grateful for their time and effort, and looking forward to reunions in glory. Rest well, friend.

Image: All Souls Quad, Oxford University. From ox.ac.uk.