It’s the end of another year in which I read quite a few books—some by eye, some by ear; some by choice, some by requirement. As with each year’s list (see 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2022 (though several are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.
As a seminary student (with a full-time job and four kids), I also always want to give a special shout-out to our library’s excellent selection of audiobooks (via services like Hoopla and Libby) that I listen to on my daily commute and weekly trips back and forth between Chattanooga and Atlanta, without which I would not get to go through nearly as many desired books as I’d like. Also, I don’t put all my seminary assignments here, but some do rise to the surface of recommended reads.
Christian Theology and Practice
You’re Only Human by Kelly M. Kapic (2022)
This book was a great blessing, and exciting to see out in the world after the years of thought and study my friend Kelly has put into it. For too many Americans (and American Christians), life on a human scale, with grace and patience toward our shared weakness, has not been on our collective radar. This book calls us to reflect on and love our limits. Kapic focuses our attention on the doctrine of creation. He wants us to see ourselves as God does—embodied creatures, with inherent, designed limits on our presence, mobility, time, health, etc. that lead us to depend upon our Creator and each other. Designed limits that resist our attempts to live beyond them show us that vulnerability, weakness, and fragility as features, not bugs, in the human condition. He zeroes in on union with Christ as the spiritual reality to which our designed dependence points, on how the incarnation itself “is God’s great yes to his creation, including human limits,” and takes great care to separate the notion of humility (literally, being close to the soil from which we were formed) from our sinfulness and depravity.
See my full review at Mere Orthodoxy.
Art and Faith by Makoto Fujimura (2020)
Books on art have a way of being unintentionally pretentious. For those who’ve never studied art or would be confused by what they’re seeing at a museum or gallery, thinking about capital-A “Art” can be overwhelming. What Fujimura, an accomplished and celebrated artist in the Japanese Nihonga (or “slow art”) tradition, pulls off in Art and Faith is an invitation to explore the essential role of creative expression in our humanity—whether our “art” is “Art” or some other means by which we bless the world. He offers a loving, biblical call to generative creativity as the soul of what it means to bear God’s image. For those who practice the Arts, he offers encouragement to seek after truth and liturgies of creativity that flesh out a theology of making. Fujimura also commends the role of artists as “border stalkers” who see the gaps and ragged edges of our communities and practices and urges the incorporation of the artists’ way into the life of the church for the life of the world.
New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (1949)
I’ve somehow managed to avoid reading Thomas Merton until this year. I suppose that’s a bit of a hangover from my Protestantism and its suspicion toward any sort of monasticism and mysticism as valid expressions of faith. It’s probably also rooted in a distrust of Americans writing books on spirituality, which have always felt more marketed than meaningful to me. I can’t judge the full corpus of his work, but what I took in this year (his memoir The Seven Storey Mountain, this book, and several recorded collections of his classes to the novitiate at Gethsemani) have convinced me that all those who recommend Merton have been on to something I missed out on primarily through my own stubbornness. New Seeds is astonishing both for its depth of insight into the ways we distract ourselves from the work of God (sort of an unironic, positive version of The Screwtape Letters) and its practicality in insisting that the contemplative life is not a special super-spirituality reserved for a few but an ordinary part of what it means to pray, to love God, and to obey His will. Really something.
The First Advent in Palestine by Kelley Nikondeha (2022)
Kelley Nikondeha calls us to look at the familiar contours of the story of Jesus’ conception and birth with fresh eyes. She looks through a lens that most Protestant Christians are deeply unfamiliar with, but which loomed large in the cultural imagination of all the participants in the advent story—the intertestamental period. These histories cover the families of Mattathias and Judas Maccabeus during the reign of the Seleucid Empire, a time of cruel oppression, violent uprising, and cycles of internecine brutality among the oppressed. Nikondeha situates the story of the Maccabees in the context of lament and the longing for a full, post-exile restoration, calling readers to see that “wrestling with suffering is the predicate to God’s deliverance.” This shines new light on the context in which Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the Magi, Herod, and all the other players were operating within. At each point in the story, Nikondeha also connects people and places on the pages of Scripture with contemporary counterparts in present-day Bethlehem. Overall quite a unique book—part exegetical reading of the New Testament, part travelog, part memoir.
See my full review at Englewood Review of Books.
The Lord Is My Courage by K. J. Ramsey (2022)
K.J. Ramsey and her husband Ryan have been Internet friends of ours for several years, and we finally got to actually hang out in person this summer thanks to the hospitality of a dear mutual friend. Her first book This Too Shall Last (2020), on the faithfulness of God in the midst of chronic illness, is a beautiful prayer for embodied faith that eschews easy answers to pain. In The Lord is My Courage, she explores the dynamics of spiritual abuse (along with the inhuman pace of modern life and inhuman expectations of many of our expressions of following Jesus) through the lens of her training as a trauma-informed therapist and the words of divine comfort in Psalm 23. Ramsey offers an invitation to attend to our bodies, the social dynamics we inhabit, and the people God places in our paths so that we can listen closely to what stories we are being told in light of God’s story of who we are in Christ. The contrasts she unpacks here—encounter vs. exploitation, striving vs. rest, abuse vs. shepherding, closing off vs. spacious generosity, etc.—are a word of blessing and challenge.
P.S.—Look for her follow-up collection of poems and prayers, The Book of Common Courage, due out in January 2023.
The Great Exception by Jefferson Cowie (2016)
I didn’t read as much history this year as I often do, but this short history of the New Deal (which came recommended by the podcast most likely to make me read new books, The Road to Now) was a good reminder of why I find the field so helpful at giving context to the problems we deal with today. In this relatively short work, Cowie presents a high-level overview of the political and socioeconomic shifts from the Gilded Age and Progressive Era that made the New Deal coalition (labor, business, and government in some degree of cooperation) possible, and how the centrality of Southern Democrats to the coalition meant enforced exclusion of black Americans from the benefits of most programs. He also includes an effective summary of how post 1970s political realignments represented not so much a “revolution” of libertarian values but a regression to the mean of individualism and largely unregulated financial and business interests that has characterized most of American history. Because it was published before the election of Donald Trump and the upheavals of the covid-19 pandemic, etc., it retains a good bit of explanatory power of the baseline dynamics of the American electorate without the breathless urgency of more recent commentary.
Fundamentalism and American Culture by George Marsden (2005 ed.)
Marsden’s overview of the development of Protestant Fundamentalism in the 19th and early 20th centuries (and the “re-fundamentalization” of American evangelicalism in the latter decades of the 20th century) is a classic of modern church history. If you’ve wondered about the ways the church fractured and re-congealed after the upheavals of the Civil War and the rise of a secular humanism founded on evolutionary theory and the ideal of progress (and what that has to do with contemporary church conflicts), this is your book. What sticks with me most, though, is Marsden’s incisive epilogue (which I wrote about some here). He says that “the theologian’s task is to try to establish from Scripture criteria for determining what in the history of the church is truly the work of the spirit,” whereas the historian, while keeping the big picture in mind, refrains from making judgments “while he concentrates on observable cultural forces.” In doing this, Marsden says, the Christian historian “provides material which individuals of various theological persuasions may use to help distinguish God’s genuine work from practices that have no greater authority than the customs or ways of thinking of a particular time and place.” The work of the Christian historian is, it seems to me, a vital part of any healthy church.
Unruly Saint by D.L. Mayfield (2022)
I very much enjoyed this unconventional biography of an unconventional woman. Dorothy Day’s witness against the spirit of antichrist present in the exploitation of laborers and the poor is an important, but often overlooked, theme in the story of the United States. Mayfield’s introduction to Day focuses on the earlier years of her life—her participation in the “Lost Generation” literary scene, troubled marriage, adult conversion, and the founding of The Catholic Worker—presenting a Day of tireless efforts, radical views, and a contentious relationship with the church she loved. Mayfield sets out not to write a comprehensive biography, but to introduce contemporary readers to Day’s work, encouraging them to engage with her own writings. In this, I think she succeeds. As Mayfield concludes: “[Day] is one of the ancestors who guides us, cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, saying to us, ‘Never stop asking why, and never stop hungering for God. The loaves and fishes will miraculously appear, but only if you surround yourself with those who are hungry.'”
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
There is probably not another writer who so deftly captures the soul of a nation at a moment in time like Baldwin does here. It is as damning, insightful, and hopeful 60 years hence as it was when it was written. These letters to Black and White America on the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation are a poetic, prophetic call to discard the mask of peace worn at the expense of justice and repair the damage wrought on the soul of a nation by slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy before we reap the whirlwind. We still haven’t fully heard his message.
Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks (1994)
In my day job, we focus a lot on adult education for lower-income learners. Much of that work is drawn from the dialogue education theories of Paolo Freire. The late bell hooks was one of Freire’s premier interlocutors in the U.S. education scene, taking his philosophy farther by subjecting it to a healthy feminist critique and arguing for a more democratized classroom style for all levels of learning. This book is filled with insightful reflection on a variety of topics in critical pedagogy, particularly her work on the need for theory to match lived praxis. Embodying the content of what is being taught is vital to both teachers and learners. I don’t often hear hooks work referenced in theological education, but it is perhaps especially vital there, and she has certainly helped shape my style in facilitating courses through my job, as well as teaching Sunday school and hosting other discussions.
South To America by Imani Perry (2022)
I’m always a sucker for a good travelog, as it allows a writer to explore a variety of topics using the map (and the particular proclivities of a given location’s culture) as a point of departure for roving discussions that may not otherwise fit together. Perry’s tender-yet-critical, genre-bending work (part memoir, part history, part treatise) paints a picture of the U.S. South, with its rich culture and tortured history of race-based brutality and economic hegemony, as a fountainhead and centerpiece of American life rather than an aberration or outlier.
The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson (2015)
I read three books by Curt Thompson this year (this one, as well as Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Desire) as part of a growing interest in neurobiology as a helpful tool for cultivating curiosity and compassion toward myself and others. Christians have often pushed against psychology and psychiatry as fitting helpers in the process of emotional sanctification, and we reject the common grace of research like what Thompson presents to our detriment. In particular, his discussion of emotional attachment and attunement illuminates in greater detail the process by which biblical commands to “trust in God” (e.g. Ps. 20:7) are accomplished. This book, positing that shame is a product of the Fall, provides a very helpful rubric for understanding the effects of sin and brokenness on our self-understanding and our relationships.
Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri (2020)
This was the year this book took off, and I feel like everyone I know has read it or put it on their to-read list. As a practiced cynic toward all things popular, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Instead, this has been better than anyone could describe to me. I can’t really do it justice either. To tell what it is “about”—a refugee story told in the style of a sort of young-adult 1001 Nights with humor and verve and astonishing pain and beauty—doesn’t get you any closer to experiencing it. I don’t have any more words. Just read it, or better still, listen to the author-read audio version. So, so good. So funny, so rich, so deep.
A Hole in the World by Amanda Held Opelt (2022)
There is a lot going on in the world, much of it hard and painful, much of it lovely and joyous, often all at once. How do we live in the face of it? My dear friend (I’ve known Amanda for 20 years now!) has wrestled beautifully with this tension. Walking through deep hurt isolates and disorients, but pretending it is not there, as we are often expected to, does nothing for our wellbeing or for our neighbors’. Grief and sorrow call us to attend to one another, sharing burdens without adding new ones. How we live toward one another in the midst of pain and loss is something too few of us have considered. The unprocessed grief of our collective losses as a nation (throughout our history, but especially over the past 2-3 years) leave us lashing out, in a stupor, or terrified. Amanda’s work capturing and applying rituals of grief from across the globe and across the centuries is a balm and a blessing. Someday we all die; we all bury loved ones; we all suffer under the weight of a broken world. Learning to lament, to grieve well, must be found anew. Acknowledging the hole in our world that death represents makes space for the wonder that there is still life in the midst of it.
See a great full review by my wife, Rachel, in Fathom Magazine.
The Scandal of Holiness by Jessica Hooten Wilson (2022)
I really liked this book, not just because it prompted me to read and re-read some fantastic novels, but because it reminded me why and how I ever learned to read literature in the first place. Jessica Hooten Wilson builds on the longstanding tradition of finding moral instruction in literature by exploring how fiction can shape people not just into virtuous citizens, but into the very likeness of Christ. Through the lens of several twentieth and twenty-first century novels, she guides readers toward a beatific vision of sorts, calling them to contemplate the lives of literary saints. We cannot be made to all love the same books, and we may not all find the same gifts in each one, but Wilson endeavors to hold the door open wide. For every reader, there is a story ready to captivate and transform, and Wilson offers the tools needed to look for Christ without subjective application or limiting God’s witness to a book list of her choosing.
See my full review in Fathom Magazine.
This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley (2022)
Just like with Everything Sad Is Untrue, I find myself at a loss for words in describing Cole Arthur Riley’s This Here Flesh. If I were forced to pigeon-hole it, I’d say it’s something of a meditative memoir, but equally as much poetry, folk storytelling, prayer, and manifesto. She writes with a rare candor and economy, exploring the terrain of racial injustice, spiritual abuse, chronic health issues, and family trauma with acute spiritual insight.
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin (2022)
Contemporary fiction isn’t always my cup of tea, but as someone who still nurses the hope of writing some fiction someday, I do try to stay up on current trends of what people are reading. This one came highly recommended (and it won a Goodreads readers’ choice award!), and it to be creative and heartfelt, a story of love and friendship from inside the (foreign to me) world of gamer culture. As such, this was a bit outside of my genre comfort zone, but this geriatric millennial was sucked in from the very first Oregon Trail reference.
“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories”
On The Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 318)
This fall’s reading through the Paideia Center was a book I’ve read three other times, but I was more than thankful for the opportunity for a fourth trip through Athanasius’ meditation on the necessity, wonder, and elegant logic of the coming of the Son of God in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth. I jokingly say that I participate in this reading group to remember that I love theology (i.e. no one is grading me on it here), but it’s really true. On the Incarnation is a case study in what thinking deeply for the sake of joy and truth looks like. It does not occur to me often to say that something must be true about God because it is beautiful or untrue because it is improper, but Athanasius puts on these categories of thought with ease, and in the process challenges us to take God’s revelation of Himself on His own terms rather than rushing to categorize Him so that we have an “answer” we no longer need to dwell upon. God is an inexhaustible well, and we do not come to understand or encompass Him, only to draw near to Him through worship with all our minds, hearts, souls, and strength.
The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings (2010)
Jennings work has been a gift and a challenge on so many levels. I read this book years ago on my own, and wished then that I’d had a community of learning to debrief with. I got that opportunity this year through a seminary class. Jennings is a capacious thinker, simultaneously dense and elegant, bringing hundreds of years of theological and sociological work to bear on grasping the evil of separating peoples of the earth from their lands and (too frequently) their humanity. This he calls “a theological mistake so wide, so comprehensive that it has disappeared, having expanded to cover the horizon of modernity itself.” His discourse on the pedagogical modality of the development of colonialism is astounding—taking knowledge out of the frame of discipleship and putting discipleship in the frame of knowledge instead, such that following Christ must look like an intellectual, European, scholastic theological mode of engagement.
The Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength) by C. S. Lewis (1938, 1943, 1945)
I’ve not read Lewis’ “fairy tale for grown-ups” for some time, and I picked it back up to see if I felt like picking That Hideous Strength for my next book club selection. Though I ended up going a different direction for that choice, I enjoyed the world-building and playfulness Lewis brought to this series. It lacks much of the tenderness and narrative sensibility of the Narnia books, but is a lot of fun as an intellectual exercise. Some of Lewis’ unkind (or at least shortsighted) views on gender show up here in ways central to the storyline, which I’d not noticed as much on previous readings. Overall, however, his vision of where scientific determinism might take the world (even before the atomic bomb and the full revelation of the horrors of the holocaust) remains prescient.
The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen (1972)
The more I think about what the pastoral vocation looks like, the more I think it is something that can’t be cordoned off to a select few, but should be part of the way each of us embody the way of Jesus. What Nouwen reminds us of here is that the character required for pastoral care cannot be learned or earned, but must be given through partaking of suffering. The art of presence is the practice of empathy without centering your own brokenness. It takes so much work it takes to extend ourselves the grace God offers in the midst of our pain, but this is the crucial feature of growth—holding our pain without rushing to assign it a special significance is vital to creating the capacity to hold the pain of others from a place of genuine love.
These books are not “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order are all the other books I also read in 2022. As a reminder, you can also find me on goodreads.com for more regular updates, as well as brief reviews of all these titles.
A Church Called Tov by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson
A Spacious Life by Ashley Hales
Ain’t I A Woman? by bell hooks
Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie—REREAD
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Attached to God by Krispin Mayfield
Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude
Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile
Burning Bright by Ron Rash
Celebrities for Jesus by Katelyn Beaty
Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
For the Life of the World by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun
For the Time Being by W.H. Auden—REREAD
Heaven and Nature Sing by Hannah Anderson
How to Be Sad by Helen Russell
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Mark As Story by David Rhoads & Donald Michie
Men and Women in Ministry: Four Views by Robert and Bonidell Clouse
Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Aimee Byrd
Redemption Accomplished and Applied by John Murray
Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider
Shoutin’ in the Fire by Danté Stewart
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy
The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
The Remarkable Ordinary by Frederick Buechner
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
The Soul of Desire by Curt Thompson
This Too Shall Last by K.J. Ramsey—REREAD
What Are Christians For? by Jake Meador
Wintering by Katharine May