I have a reputation for reading a lot. Always have. The funny thing is, I never feel like I read a lot, or enough. And that’s probably where all the reading comes from–the exquisite thrill of having a new experience, coming by new knowledge, seeing the world in a new way, and–especially for a preacher–gathering up new tools for communicating the depth and breadth of this one beautiful life we’ve been given. I can’t get enough. It’s an insatiable thirst to which I gleefully surrender.
Some people make a goal to read 52 books in a year–one for each week. I always thought that sounded like an enormous amount of reading until just a week ago I decided to do a tally of all the books I read this year. To be fair, I counted re-reads; but since I read books even more thoroughly at the second (and third) pass, I felt justified in so doing. My list came to pretty close to 43 or so (although there’s a good chance I read more and just can’t remember), and what’s funny is it never felt like a lot while I was doing it. I just read.
My habits are unspectacular. And I think that’s probably the “secret”, if I have one. That is, there’s no secret. It’s just consistency. I usually read an hour or so in the mornings and more after work if there’s not something else happening. And lots on the weekends. I don’t really have a strategy for reading, other than I try to:
- Challenge myself with hard reads
- Challenge myself with classic reads
- Keep a fair dose of good fiction rolling
I’m an incredibly active reader. Underline. Dog-ear. Notes in the margins. Sticky notes hanging out of books every which way. It’s why I can’t do e-books. I remember a fraction of what I read on an e-reader compared to what I’ve read on good old fashioned paper.
Anyway, since I’m frequently asked about what I’ve been reading, I thought I’d create a little list of some of my faves from this past year. I’ve got 10 favorite new reads plus a few honorable mentions, along with a handful of favorite re-reads. (For a complete list, download 2017 Reading List.) With that…
THE TEN BEST (in no particular order)
Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ (Guyon). A new friend gave me this book a couple months ago. I fell instantly in love. Jeanne Guyon was a rough contemporary of another favorite of mine, Brother Lawrence, and even shared a country: France. Her book is a simple and readable treatise on how a person advances into deep intimacy with God in prayer. I loved every second of it.
Scripture as Real Presence (Boersma). I saw Baker Academic tweet about this book and I knew I had to have it. I wasn’t disappointed. Boersma’s goal is to help us retrieve a “sacramental” reading of (especially but not limited to) the Old Testament. He does this by resourcing the likes of Origen, Irenaeus, Augustine, Chrysostom, Athanasius, the Gregorys (Nazianzen and the Nyssite) and many others, and tackling different genres of OT literature to show how the ancients believed that in the encounter with Scripture, they were encountering the very person of Christ, hidden under the aspect of the text. He doesn’t expect you to agree with the conclusions of the fathers–that’s not the point. But he does hope to help the reader develop a different kind of intuition when it comes to reading the OT. Breathtaking.
The City of God (Augustine). Confessions and De Trinitate are two of my favorites, but I was always intimated by this one. So during a break I took in May I decided to man up and get it done. My big complaint against Augustine (as much as I love him) is always that he likes the sound of his voice way too much, and this book was no different. But when he comes to his central themes, he shines with a theological clarity and even, perhaps surprisingly, an economy of speech that few possess. The contrast between the two cities and what they are driven by could hardly be clearer. “The Heavenly City outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness” (2.29). Sheesh. A powerful read.
The Search for Meaning (Frankl). Early in the summer I asked on Facebook what books had been most meaningful for people in terms of helping them survive a collapse of faith. This one came up a few times so I grabbed it. Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust and went on to pioneer a new form of therapy–what he called “logo-therapy”–the basic premise of which was that man is fundamentally driven not by purely animal thirsts but by a desire for meaning. When our sense of meaning and purpose is strong, we thrive. When it collapses, we collapse. His recounting of his time in the concentration camps is gripping, and especially helpful for elucidating his the main countours of his “logotherapy.” Highly recommended.
The Divine Comedy (Dante). Those of you who know me well know that C.S. Lewis has been my oracle for years, and there were few writers who Lewis venerated quite like Dante. This was the year I just had to read the Comedy. My sister gave me Allen Mandelbaum’s translation for Christmas last year and I began it earlier this year. Such a joy. I can hardly think of a more powerful psychological examination of the impact of sin and the process of redemption.
The Hidden and the Manifest (Hart). David Bentley Hart is one of those writers who does two things at once for me: he challenges my thinking and also enriches my theological imagination with eloquence. I find myself constantly going “huh?” and then “ohhhhh…” when I read his work. The Beauty of the Infinite, Atheist Delusions, and The Experience of God are among my favorites, and so when this collection of essays became available, I immediately purchased it. It didn’t disappoint. Some of his finest writing on the nature of God and salvation as our participation in the plenitude of God’s Triune love. Demanding, but so rewarding.
At the Back of the North Wind (MacDonald). I started reading MacDonald’s fiction several years ago. Lilith in particular is unceasingly compelling to me. When we left our church in Denver back in May, a friend of mine gave At the Back of the North Wind as a going away present. It didn’t disappoint. A beautiful window into how the embrace of our mortality makes us wise, good, and kind. I loved it.
Crucifixion of the Warrior God (Boyd). Every once in a great while a book comes along in the arena of biblical scholarship that you read and think, “This is going to change the game.” Truth be told, I didn’t want to think that about Boyd’s book, but the deeper I read it and the more I wrestled with his overall proposal, the more thorough, biblical, and therefore resilient it seemed to me. If the proposition “God is like Jesus” (especially as he is revealed on the cross) is true, then God has ALWAYS been like Jesus and ALL revelation must somehow bear a cruciform mark. No one that I know of has put forward a hypothesis quite like Boyd’s, and for that reason, I think it’s going to hang around for awhile. Deserves to be carefully read and grappled with.
An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens Living in a Strange Land (Stringfellow). William Stringfellow was a lawyer, lay theologian, and social activist who did most of his work in the 60s and 70s. This small book is a powerful examination of the way in which the structures of society fall captive to the demonic power of death and just to that extent become a sort of anti-Incarnation. The Church’s call is to be a people of the Incarnate Word who bear witness to the coming of the New Jerusalem to every regnant Babylon. I found it incredibly helpful for thinking about our contemporary cultural situation.
The Splendor of the Church (de Lubac). Henri de Lubac was a Jesuit priest who later became a cardinal in the Catholic Church and whose writings were instrumental in the many reforms of Vatican II. I’d heard his name for years and wanted to dip my toes in the waters of his theology, and so grabbed this one. I love the Church. And de Lubac did too. This book drips with beauty. On every page, in one way or another, he insists: The direct impact of the Triune God’s work in the world is the Church, and the Church is the place where faith and communion with the Triune God is nurtured and sustained. Oh man…
The Silmarillion (Tolkien). The pre-history of Lord of the Rings. This one was fun, though not nearly as “clean” as LOTR. The opening “creation myth” is worth the price of the book.
Seven Story Mountain (Merton). Thomas Merton is as self-aware as they come, and his spiritual autobiography is a powerful re-telling of his life’s story in light of his eventual conversion. Quite good.
The Mind of the Maker (Sayers). Sayers is unreal. And this book. Good gracious. For anyone involved in creative work and desiring to see how their faith in the Triune God is, in fact, the deep substructure of ALL creative work, this book is unparalleled. There’s really nothing like it.
The Imitation of Christ (Thomas á Kempis). No one imagines the spiritual life as conformity to the self-abandonment of Jesus quite like Thomas. Through so much of the “abandonment” I had to do this year, this book was a welcome companion and a great comfort. It gave me (and continues to give me) something powerful to hold onto in the midst of what felt like great loss.
The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky). I’ve read this, my favorite of Dostoevsky’s novels, several times now and each time I see something new of the wonder and perplexity of being human. The figures of Father Zossima and Alyosha always inspire with what I think is the heart of ministry: standing with people in the midst of the vexation of life with mercy and love.
Lilith (MacDonald). There’s no neat summary for this one. But it always speaks to me in a fresh way of how radical God’s love is, how unrelenting he is in the process of bringing us home to him. Just so good.
Well that does it. T’was a fun year of reading. Looking forward to the fresh discoveries of next year. Pick up a few of these and let me know if you ever need any further recommendations 🙂