Books of 2020

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books. This year was perhaps a bit more full of reading than most since, along with everyone else, my social calendar got cleared indefinitely after March 11. As with each year’s list (see 2019, 20182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2020 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

As a seminary student (with a full-time job and four kids), I also should give a special shout-out to our library’s excellent selection of audiobooks, without which I would not get to read nearly as many things as I’d like. Also, I don’t put all my seminary assignments here, but some rise to the surface.

Christian Theology and Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

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

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

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

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

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

Literature/Poetry/Criticism

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

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

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

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

Re-reads

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” 

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

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

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

Also-reads

These books are not “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order are all the other books I also read in 2020. As a reminder, you can also find me on goodreads.com for more regular updates, as well as brief reviews of all these titles.

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

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

Books of the Year that Was, 2019 ed.

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 20182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2019 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

As a seminary student (with a full-time job and four kids), I also should give a special shout-out to our library’s excellent selection of audiobooks, without which I would not get to read nearly as many things as I’d like.

Christian Theology and Practice

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
This is haunting and, for theological conservatives whose blood pressure goes up at the mention of Cone’s name, christologically and exegetically robust. A very painful contextualization of the gospel message to the American scene, made more painful by the fact that Cone goes straight at a part of our history that has been systemically erased from our collective conscious (and conscience). By identifying the injustice of spuriously legal or extrajudicial murder of innocent African Americans who dared to question the status quo of Jim Crow with Jesus’ crucifixion, Cone sheds light on aspects of the power of the gospel witness that are often overlooked by dominant cultural groups.

On the Road with St. Augustine by James K.A. Smith
Not that I ever expect Jamie Smith to let me down, but this book was astonishingly punchy, deep, and tender. I picked this up right after finally reading The Confessions, and it provided quite the chaser, deepening the takeaways I’d made from the classic. In many ways a passion project attempting to rescue Augustine from a mask of dour, proto-medieval theology and show (with the aid of Smith’s trademark weaving of philosophy and pop culture) how he is instead a guide and traveling companion for Christians seeking to follow Christ in a dark, hungry, and confusing world.

The Book of Pastoral Rule by Gregory the Great
For the past couple of years, I’ve been part of a local reading group of the Paideia Center. The group itself is marvelous, and our Chattanooga chapter includes men and women from multiple denominations and age groups. This fall, we read Gregory’s appeal for churchmen retreating into monasticism to consider the weighty calling of pastoral ministry instead. In his practical application of Scripture to people of various personalities and experiences, Gregory is chock full of worthwhile counsel—reading like a more complex and thorough enneagram resource from the 6th century. His allegorical interpretations of Scripture make some hermeneutical leaps that seem foreign to modern ears, but they are worth wading through to have our interpretive frames challenged by Christians across the ages.

All That’s Good by Hannah Anderson
A gifted writer (who, I might add, also curates one of the most insightful Twitter profiles around), Anderson always brings to her books a wealth of metaphors, reminding us that seeing a well-worn truth through the refraction of a new facet reveals new depths of blessing, reproof, and call. Here, she considers the spiritual discipline of discernment from a variety of angles, making a fine case for the cultivation of a “taste” for the wonder of the world and the joy of following Christ.

Separated by the Border by Gena Thomas
The decades-long humanitarian crisis unfolding in many central American countries has finally begun to capture the attention of U.S. Christians, thanks in large part to revelations of the federal government’s policy of separating migrant and asylum-seeking children from their parents. Gena Thomas (who I’m proud to call a friend and co-worker) and her family provided foster care to one of these children for several months, and were able to see her reunited with her mother in Honduras. In this gripping story, Gena simultaneously produces a tender, vulnerable memoir and a bold call for justice for the immigrant the oppressed and the orphan.

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Fundamentalist U by Adam Laats
As an alumnus of Bryan College, a non-denominational Christian liberal arts school birthed out of the heyday of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy (in the town where the 1925 Scopes Trial took place and named after its star prosecutor) that has seen more than its fair share of recent debacles, I was intrigued by this historical analysis of independent Christian higher ed. Laats has produced a remarkably fair yet hard-hitting history of bible institutes, colleges, and universities that ends up connecting many themes of the broader American Christian movement in the 20th century—from church splits to evangelical obsessions with politics to global missions and domestic opposition to civil rights.

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist
All my life, I’ve been told that American slavery was an outmoded institution that would have died out eventually in the face of technological advances and modern labor practices, but Edward Baptist is not buying it. Through this book, he makes a compelling case that Southern enslavement was, instead, a foundational driver of the massive explosion of wealth and productivity of the industrial revolution, a thoroughly modern institution integral to the building of a global economy. The book was not without controversy when released, with some accusing Baptist of revisionism with an eye toward the full discrediting of capitalism, but I found his arguments to stay focused on this institution and era. As such, I think he forces a needed reckoning with a part of our history so few of us have been willing to even countenance. Baptist’s telling, in particular, makes the Civil War so much more understandable, offering a clear picture of why the North would be politically willing to do battle, but also a better picture of why Reconstruction so quickly devolved into sharecropping and Jim Crow—the world market’s demand for cotton did not, after all, slow down. This is a painful work, but one that Americans need to read. See a longer review at goodreads.com.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
Looking back, I think 2019 was a year of educating myself on the ways our culture and law in the U.S. has historically dehumanized and abused non-white people, particularly our African American brothers and sisters. Kendi’s massive “history of racist ideas” demonstrates the rot of the doctrine of discovery in Western thought and law since 1493. He writes engagingly, tying historical discussions in various epochs to a few central figures and their work for or against the advance of racist policy and practice (Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis). Perhaps his strongest contribution is the observation that racist ideas do not generate racism, so much as they are attempts to codify and justify racist attitudes and actions motivated by greed and pride. A painful but important book.

The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Just as Baptist covered the effects of dehumanizing policy and practice in economics and Kendi in politics and culture, Jemar Tisby explores these themes in the American Church. Tisby’s work is remarkable in that he ambitiously covers so much ground in a slim volume (just over 200 pages, in contrast to the 500+ of Baptist and Kendi). He starts off with a short discourse about the discipline of history and acknowledges that his project here is to offer a survey, a necessarily shallow introduction to a massive subject. His goal is to illuminate the big arc of the story and encourage readers to go “upstream” into the multiplicity of deeper sources he cites. Read my full review.

Dignity by Chris Arnade
Of all the “here’s what’s gone wrong with America” takes, Chris Arnade’s is one of the most honest I’ve seen. Though the author (a former Wall-Street banker who also holds a Ph. D. in physics from Johns Hopkins) possesses greater privilege than many others in this group of writers, Dignity takes pains to  center with humility and humanness those for whom America has gone most wrong. Those who are being ground up get the focus and the voice here; those who’ve lost already, not those who merely fear what they may lose. Read my full review, and this commentary on what this book has to teach the church.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I’d heard several people recommend this book, and upon reading it I was floored. What a gift! Kimmerer, an accomplished botanist and university professor, is a member of the Potawatomi Nation. In this book—part memoir, part field guide, part history, part scientific survey, part conservation manifesto—she explores the ecology of Eastern North America through the lenses of her indigenous heritage and her botanical training. Through a loving exploration of the interconnectedness of plant communities and the role of animals and humans in every ecosystem, she casts a vision for a culture of reciprocity that resists the temptation to take all we can get. Aglow with common grace and wisdom, and beautifully written as well.

Literature/Poetry/Criticism

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky
I’ve been making the effort to stretch my language muscles by reading (and writing) more poetry over the past few years, and I’m convinced that we’re living in a golden age of the art form. Far and away the best collection of new poems I read this year was Kaminsky’s narrative arc of a town under cruel military occupation in which the populace feigns deafness together as an act of resistance. Simply stunning, especially in the way he bookends the story with two poems commenting on contemporary life in the U.S. Also a highlight of the year for me was running into Kaminsky, who holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech, recently in Atlanta (seriously, I just bumped into him at the botanical gardens) and getting to tell him how much I appreciated his work.

"At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?"

For the Time Being by W.H. Auden
Speaking of poetry, if any one poet is responsible for drawing me into the art, it’s Auden. This year, during Advent, I finally read his Christmas oratorio, “For the Time Being”. Written in the bowels of World War II, his sense of the radical light of incarnation in contrast to the darkness of the world is as prescient and moving as ever. It will be a Christmas tradition for me from now on.

Though written by Thy children with
   A smudged and crooked line,
Thy Word is ever legible,
Thy Meaning unequivocal,
And for Thy Goodness even sin
   Is valid as a sign.

Paradise Lost by John Milton
It’s part of the “canon.” It’s certainly a poetic achievement (and Satan is the best character). It’s also the source of a lot of bad cultural imagery of Satan, overemphasis of gendered sin patterns, etc. And yet it does still represent a powerful artistic achievement. I think it is also Milton’s honest wrestling with existence—Why would God allow the whole of humankind to be born in sin and misery after Adam & Eve’s fall? Why not just allow the curse of death to work immediately and start fresh? Isn’t that the height of cruelty? Milton’s answer seems to be that the cross, the great inversion of power (which is threaded throughout Scripture) is the point of existence, not the patch. An intellectually satisfying answer? Not fully. But it is perhaps “the sum of wisdom.” Maybe hoping higher is not good for our soul, even as we long for Christ to make all things new.

Merciful over all His works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things. By things deem'd weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; That suffering for truth’s sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And, to the faithful, death the gate of life;
Taught this, by His example whom I now
Acknowledge my redeemer ever blessed

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior
Literature has value in and of itself as story—the wonder of exploring the joy, sorrow, and mystery of people in the image of God. The best of literature also is among the best teachers of what a life well-lived might look like. To that end, Prior explores several classics (from Pride and Prejudice to Huckleberry Finn to The Road to Flannery O’Connor’s stories) to explore the virtues and how their depictions in good stories help us understand how to cultivate them in our own lives. Along the way, she does a good deal to unpack how virtue functions in the first place, a discussion worthy of publication in its own right. On Reading Well is a delight-filled reminder of why any of us read in the first place, abounding in wisdom and joy.

Giving the Devil His Due by Jessica Hooten Wilson
Regarding literature, one of the common excuses I’ve heard from Christians over the years for why they don’t read more is that they do not like dark or depressing stories—in other words, they conflate the portrayal of sin, and evil, and brokenness with the endorsement of such. In this excellent short book, Jessica Wilson (an acquaintance of mine and fellow devotee of the Walker Percy Weekend) shows convincingly that the dark side of literature is often where great authors do their best soulcraft. Chiefly, she applies the work of Rene Girard to the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor to show that the great choice of life is not belief in God or belief in oneself, but submission to God or submission to Satan (whose slavery lurks behind every idol, including even our own self). If you’ve not read Dostoevsky and O’Connor (particularly The Brothers Karamazov and The Violent Bear It Away) this one is hard to follow. If you have, it will make you cherish these writers and their work all the more.

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” 

Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr
There is an ever-present tension in the history of the spread of the gospel between the authority of Jesus and the reality of culture—between rejection of some cultural authority in Jesus’ name and faithful cultural engagement. Perhaps no one captures this as well as H. Richard Niebuhr, who says that where this balance is lacking, “Christian faith quickly degenerates into a utilitarian device for the attainment of personal prosperity or public peace; and some imagined idol called by His name takes the place of Jesus Christ the Lord” (p. 68). I read this in college, and didn’t get the depth of what Neibuhr was saying; 15 years later, his work still makes a ton of sense.

My Antonía by Willa Cather
Cather has become one of my favorite American authors, and so I deeply enjoyed that my wife chose My Ántonia for her turn in our bi-monthly book club. This is bittersweet and beautiful as American lit gets. As I wrote on this blog after my first reading several years ago, “I never thought of Nebraska with such tenderness. The themes of place, home, family, unrequited love, coming of age, and immigrant experience are deftly handled and give the story weight, but it is the American-ness of it all that gives it a worthy place in our national canon.”

Also-reads

These books are not necessarily “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 2019.

Act of Grace by James C. Petty
Chinnubbie and the Owl by Alexander Posey
Confessions by Augustine of Hippo
Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
Dubliners by James Joyce
A Field Guide to Becoming Whole by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic
Free at Last? by Carl Ellis
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Our Secular Age by Collin Hansen
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Whose Religion Is Christianity? by Lamin Sanneh
The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
The Year of Our Lord, 1943 by Alan Jacobs

Image: Little Opossum Creek, Hamilton County, Tenn., December 2019.

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)

Classics Revisited: Literary Limericks

East of Eden
When your father has dubious means,
And you’re not too sure of your own genes,
Your mom is a witch,
And you’re a snitch,
You can’t buy anyone’s love with beans.

Pride and Prejudice
Hearing the truth quite often hurts one,
But ignorance is even less fun.
Darcy and Bennett
Might take a minute
To figure out just who they should shun.

The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor Pavlovich was some kind of a jerk.
His three (or four?) sons each a unique piece of work.
Grushenka lived loud.
Katya was proud.
Priests rot, but in the loud dark, both death and hope lurk.

The Power and the Glory
Everyone’s sin is a nonstarter.
Church on the lam; wine on barter.
You shouldn’t get drunk
When you’re the lone monk,
For conscience will make you a martyr.

Les Misérables
Said Hugo, “No one can write bluer,
But ev’ry injustice I’ll skewer.
Valjean’s the hero;
All others zero.
Wait! I forgot about the sewer.”

Ebcosette

Image credit: Émile Bayard engraving for 1886 edition of Les Misérables. Public Domain.