Well, friends, another year in the books (see what I did there? … bad, I know) means another year of reading under the belt.
As always, it’s a fun exercise for me to go back and look at the literary terrain I covered in the past year. And also as always, I experience in equal measure the delight of, “Oh man, I loved that book!”, the frustration of, “Gosh, I don’t remember a fraction of what was in that book!”, and that tinge of self-loathing that comes from, “Why on earth did I waste my time on that book?” (More on that last one below.)
Like many, the forced slowdown of the year afforded opportunity for me to read more than I normally would have. All told, I read 77 books this year, 63 of which were new. Somehow, that feels biblical to me.
Truthfully, I was a little surprised that it didn’t wind up being more. But when I look at the list, I realize there are some pretty lengthy tomes in there. For instance, I got through three volumes of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (I’m a little more than halfway through the set now, which I’ve been working on for a couple years), in addition to several other systematic theologies. That’s nothing to sneeze at, if I do say so. I also read more biographies/histories than I ever have in a given year (10, depending on how you count), as well a pile of fiction that included rereads of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. I’m unashamedly patting myself on the back over here.
As I always say with respect to reading: read subjects you enjoy, by authors whose writing you like, in genres that resonate with you, and you’ll read a ton. And follow the rabbit trails where they lead. My “subjects I enjoy” and “authors whose writing I like” in “genres that resonate with me” ebbs and flows, grows and changes over time largely because when I see, for instance, as I did many years ago, that Eugene Peterson liked Marilynne Robinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins… well, if HE liked THEM and I like HIM, then maybe I’LL like THEM too! As always, not every friend of your friend will wind up being your friend, but I have found that in the majority of cases, they do.
One other note on reading, before I give you my favorite reads of the year: as I (also) always say – part of reading a lot is just plain old discipline. For me, I try to have at least an hour in the morning before work and an hour in the evening. That’s not always possible. But it’s what I shoot for. That means I’m up reasonably early in the morning, and maybe not watching as much TV as I’d like in the evening. (I’m woefully out of date in the TV category… The West Wing is still my favorite show.) Oh, and when I can, I like ripping off large chunks of reading on the weekends. You get the point – if you establish some predictable rhythms with your reading, you’ll read a lot.
Okay, without further ado – my top reads of the year (by category, more or less):
Favorite work of fiction: Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
I’d read a fair amount of Berry’s work over the years, but for whatever reason had never ventured into his fiction. How deprived I was! Jayber Crow is as good a story as I can imagine. It follows the journey of a young man orphaned (twice) who in his early years thinks he is going to be a minister, only finally to settle down in a small town as a barber – which becomes a “ministry”, in its way. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, subtle, thoughtful narrative. One of my favorite passages from the book comes early on, when Jayber sits down with one of his teachers, a professor of New Testament Greek, to tell him he is no longer sure of his calling to preach, since he is full of many doubts and questions:
I said, “Well,” for now I was ashamed, “I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”
“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”
“That could be a long time.”
“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said, “It may take longer.”
That resonates so deeply with me. The call to live the questions. Jayber Crow is wonderful. Buy it – ya know, if you’re into that kind of thing (see above on reading subjects you enjoy).
Favorite Work of Poetry – Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved (Gregory Orr)
This was a tough pick because my poetry reading this year included some heavyweights like W.H. Auden, the aforementioned Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the incomparable Christian Wiman. Nevertheless, Gregory Orr’s Concerning the Book tops the list for at least two reasons. First, because this volume of poetry is in fact one long meditation, and I absolutely loved the effect that format created. And secondly because this one led to a new insight for me – namely, that love and grief are not two things but one; grief being the form that our love takes in loss, and therefore to retreat from grief is to retreat from the flame of love which burns inside of us. Our humanity dies when we shrink back from grief. I’ve used that insight to help people (and myself) many times this year. A favorite section in Orr that I think captures it so well:
To be alive: not just the carcass
But the spark.
That’s crudely put, but…
If we’re not supposed to dance,
Why all this music?
Oof. That’s good.
Favorite Bit of Theology by a Dead Person – On First Principles (Origen of Alexandria, Translated with an Introduction by Fr. John Behr)
John Behr describes the 3rd century Origen of Alexandria as theology’s first rock star (listen to a fantastic two part interview with him on Origen here). When you read him, you see why. Origen’s mind was incredibly powerful, his imagination VAST. In the mystery of Christ he discerned the reality that encompasses all things, stretching from the very first moment in time to the consummation of all things. His vision is, frankly, breathtaking (even where you want to argue with him, as I often did).
Whatever his shortcomings, theology after Origen simply HAD to reckon with him. When you read him, you see why. He provided a great deal of the foundational thought pattern for Nicaea. Reading his work made me realize how much some of my favorite ancient theologians – Basil, the Gregories, Athanasius, etc. – owe to him. He also – in his more speculative places – provided fodder for those whose teachings the council of Nicaea would later judge as outside the bounds of orthodoxy.
For the “fodder” he gets a bad rap, but one of the things that I found so helpful in actually reading Origen was seeing that in those places where he is speculating, HE ADMITS THAT IS WHAT HE IS DOING. He’s trying to tease out the implications of the Church’s core teachings in a way that no one before him had done. He is also trying to “read” those teachings inside the context of the Greek thought world in which he had been brought up, noting points of agreement and disagreement with Greek philosophy. Both of those are ongoing, important, and necessary tasks for the church, and IMO, the bad rap he got was undeserved, especially since he provides his own caveat lectors.
Be that as it may. Here’s a favorite passage, on Jesus as the “living mirror” of the Father:
For as in a mirror the image formed in the mirror moves along or acts with all the same motions and actions with which the one who looks into the mirror moves or acts, and deviates from them in absolutely nothing, even so Wisdom is to be understood concerning herself, when she names herself the flawless mirror of the paternal power and working; just as the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Wisdom of God, declares about himself when he says, “The works which the Father does, these the Son does likewise.” And again he says, “the Son can do nothing of himself except what he sees the Father doing.”
Favorite Bit of Theology by a Living Person – Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God (Katherine Sonderegger)
My goodness. This book was a rhapsody. A mystical tour de force. A visio Dei all unto itself. Sonderegger pulls no punches. She thinks that the modern turn to Christology – that is, making the events recorded in the Gospels foundational to all theology (cf. Rahner, Barth, Moltmann, Jenson, et. al.) – is a huge mistake. Her project (which I wrote a review of here) is an effort to help us reclaim the first article of the Creed, “We believe in ONE GOD…” as foundational to everything that comes afterwards – Christology included. You won’t get Christology right until you listen carefully to Israel’s testimony: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord, he is One…” (Deut. 6:4).
As one who is more than a little persuaded by the so-called “Christological turn”, I found myself in a constant argument with Sonderegger. And that, I think, is a good thing. Nevertheless, I learned an extraordinary amount from her – not least from her method of reading the Bible, which is, quite frankly, matchless. With Augustine, she sees the Bible in its entirety as a “thing become sign” of the Living God’s presence and power among us. Her long meditations on Scripture – which bring the figure of Christ to life in a remarkable way – are worth the price of the book alone.
A favorite passage, commenting on the book of Numbers:
What we overhear in the agonized intercessions and entreaties of Moses and Aaron is the very prayer of that Prophet and Priest who fell on His face before the Lord in that darken garden, across the Kedron Ravine. The book of Numbers is the event and literary remains of the inner Life of Christ. In broken fragments we read of Christ’s own mind in Gethsemane, His own Inwardness on the cross…The daring distribution of subjectivity we find in Numbers, the deification of Moses, speaks in its own idiom of Christ’s Personal Life, His Hypostatic Union with the Word…here we must say that Christian prayer, Christian reading of Numbers, brings us within the veil, to the holy mercy seat, to Christ’s own Person.
Favorite History/Biography, Part 1 – Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Goodwin)
This was a tough one, because there were a number of great biographies/histories on the list this year, including Ron Chernow’s Washington, Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (a nice counterpoint to the portrait of Jefferson painted by Chernow in his biographies of Washington and Hamilton), and Tom Holland’s Dominion. But in the end, I had to give it to Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. For those who don’t know, after Lincoln was (to most everyone’s surprise) elected president, with America on the brink of the Civil War, one of the first things he did was to build a cabinet out of not only the three men who ran against him for the 1860 Republical presidential nomination (William Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates), but also three former prominent Democrats (Gideon Welles, Montgomery Blair, and Edwin Stanton). Goodwin explains:
Every member of this administration was better known, better educated, and more experienced in public life than Lincoln. Their presence in the cabinet might have threatened to eclipse the obscure prairie lawyer from Springfield. It soon became clear, however, that Abraham Lincoln would emerge the undisputed captain of this most unusual cabinet. …His success in dealing with the strong egos of the men in his cabinet suggests that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality–kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy–can also be impressive political resources.
What follows is a rollicking tale of how Lincoln led the nation through arguably its most calamitous season by leaning into the talents of precisely those men who had once been his most ferocious rivals and opponents. He depended on their genius and masterfully balanced their egos to take the nation where he thought it needed to go, preserving the union in the process. It’s a study in great leadership. Really, anything on Lincoln is. Plus, Goodwin is a fantastic writer. Highly recommended.
Favorite History/Biography Part 2 – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Frederick Douglass)
Douglass, the slave turned abolitionist, was a major public figure during Lincoln’s rise to power, often criticising his decisions. The two later forged a great respect for each other. As the story goes, after Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, amid a throng of well-wishers at the White House, Lincoln spotted Douglass and exclaimed, “Here comes my friend Douglass!” After greeting each other, Lincoln said, “I am glad to see you. I saw you in the crowd today, listening to my inaugural address. How did you like it?” Douglass responded, “Mr. Lincoln, I must not detain you with my poor opinion, when there are thousands waiting to shake hands with you.”
Lincoln replied, “No, no, you must stop a little, Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” Douglass said, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.”
I first heard that story in Ronald C. White’s A. Lincoln several years ago, and had always planned on reading more about Frederick Douglass. When the murder of Ahmaud Arbery sparked a new wave of national unrest, I decided that now was the time to do some deep reading, thinking, and praying about the roots of racism in our country. Douglass’ autobiography was a big part of that year-long meditation for me, and was powerful in part for the way it painted in lurid detail not only (1) how demonic and dehumanizing slavery was but also (2) how effectively it hid itself inside white American Christianity. I think in many places, it still does. God help us.
But it wasn’t just that. It was also so powerful for me because it testified to something essential in the human spirit – namely, the will to live. When that rises up us, it changes everything. After a failed escape attempt resulted in a brutal beating by his slaveholder, one Mr. Covey, Douglass did the unthinkable and decided to resist. In his words:
We were at it for nearly two hours. Covey at length let me go, puffing and blowing at a great rate, saying that if I had not resisted, he would not have whipped me at all. I considered him as getting entirely the worst end of the bargain; for he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him. The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. He would occasionally say, he didn’t want to get hold of me again. “No,” thought I, “you need not; for you will come off worse than you did before.” This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few remaining expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood…I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.
Favorite Biblical Commentary – Jonah (Brazos; Philip Carey)
The nature of my work keeps my nose in a fair amount of commentaries throughout the year. Some are good. Some are not so good. And because I use commentaries as conversation partners on this or that bit of biblical text that I am working through as I prepare to preach, I almost never read them cover to cover.
This one was a glorious exception. We preached Jonah at New Life earlier this year, and Philip Carey proved to be an excellent conversation partner. The Brazos series, if you don’t know, attempts a theological interpretation of books of the Bible inside both the total canonical witness of Scripture as well as the church’s historical confessions. In that way, it stands in the tradition and habit of thought of most of the church up until the rise of historical-critical scholarship. What Brazos produces, therefore, is always deep, theologically rich, and spiritually edifying.
Carey’s commentary on Jonah was no different. Imagine sitting down with Barth and reading Jonah together. That’s what this was. Carey sees each bit of Jonah sitting inside a horizon that stretches from Creation to Consummation, with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the crux of the whole story, and interprets it as such. I found it so helpful. One of my favorite excerpts, from his commentary on the swallowing of Jonah by the great fish:
Do the dragons of the deep praise [God]? Jonah will find out in his own flesh. It is indeed nightmare turned into comedy. The creature that swallows Jonah up is not one of the terrible monsters of the deep, not Rahab or Leviathan, but just a great big fish…And oddly, inside the belly of this beast, Jonah can live. The lesson is that there is a deep beyond the deep, beyond the furthest limits of the world…Wherever you go in the world, the LORD who created it is there before you and can prepare a way for you, even if the way is just a great big fish…Jonah is Israel, and Israel has passed through the waters before unharmed and dry-shod, for the LORD was with her. That has not changed and will not change. Forever.
Blessed be God.
Favorite Reread: Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
I absolutely love Marilynne Robinson’s writing. As I said in a recent (short) Instagram review of her novel Lila, I’m not sure that any modern writer of fiction understands the nature of grace–that mysterious kindness coiled around our existence, reaching down to our depths, comprehending our heights–quite like Marilynne Robinson. Books like Gilead, Home, and Lila (and, I can only guess, her newest novel, Jack; though I haven’t read it yet) simply radiate with it. Her stories draw you into the action quickly, and hold you there, mesmerized. Like icons. Housekeeping, her first novel, is a perfect case in point; a beautiful and agonizing tale of two young girls raised by their drifter of an aunt, Sylvie. If you don’t know Robinson’s work, this is a great place to start. Then read Gilead. Then read everything else. (Including her essays, which are fantastic.)
A favorite passage:
Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory—there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.
So… those were my favorite reads of 2020. But I feel the need this year to add a new category: LEAST FAVORITE.
Least Favorite Read(s): An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek
It pains me to do this, because I never want to disrespect another writer. But I feel compelled in this instance.
I was sitting on my couch early in the year dinking around on my Kindle when I came across a title that looked fascinating: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy by Robert Dallek. I bought it, and after enjoying the first couple chapters, struggled mightily with the rest of it. Which was odd to me, because JFK is such a colorful and tragic figure. I thought perhaps the fault was mine. Maybe I was tired or distracted and just not paying close enough attention to really appreciate the book. Then later in the year, I came across Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by the same author. This time, I thought, I’d try harder to focus. Same thing. Enjoyed the first few chapters. Struggled mightily with the rest.
I’ve read enough biography and history now to be able to conclude that the fault is not mine. Maybe it’s just Dallek’s style, but to my eyes, he took two of the most significant and interesting presidential figures in our history… no – two of the most significant and interesting political figures in ANY history – and made them dreadfully boring. Nothing in the prose pops. Little sense of overarching narrative. Little sense of dramatic action. Mostly, the books read like tax reports or instruction manuals for assembling a shelving unit. I regret that I wasted time on them. I have spoken.
So, there you have it. I’d love to hear in the comments below what books you read and enjoyed most this year!
And now, the full list:
2020 Reading List
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)
- The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Robert Louis Wilken)
- The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy (Timothy Keller)
- Jonah (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Phillip Carey)
- On First Principles (Origen of Alexandria)
- Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ (Matthew W. Bates)
- Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Tom Holland)
- The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of the Little Flower (Tan Classics, St. Therese Liseaux)
- The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Robert Louis Wilken)
- A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Parker J. Palmer)
- Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, Volume 1 (Katherine Sonderegger)
- Systematic Theology, Volume 2: The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Katherine Sonderegger)
- Origen: On First Principles (Oxford Early Christian Texts, John Behr)
- The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Robert W. Jenson)
- The Book of Pastoral Rule: St. Gregory the Great (St. Gregory the Great)
- Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A Novel (Max Porter)
- On the Church: Select Treatises (St. Cyprian of Carthage)
- Christ the Key (Kathryn Tanner)
- Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved (Gregory Orr)
- Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Martin Laird)
- Washington: A Life (Ron Chernow)
- The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Richard Bauckham)
- Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness (Michael J. Gorman)
- Reversed Thunder (Eugene Peterson)
- Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (John Webster)
- Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (T. F. Torrance)
- Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Jon Meacham)
- Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
- Hannah Coulter (Wendell Berry)
- Nathan Coulter (Wendell Berry)
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Goodwin)
- Trinity, Time, and Church: A Response to the Theology of Robert W. Jenson (ed. Colin Gunton)
- Jesus in the Trinity: A Beginner’s Guide to the Theology of Robert Jenson (Lincoln Harvey)
- The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics Benedicta Ward)
- John Cassian: Conferences (John Cassian)
- Mortal Beauty, God’s Grace: Major Poems and Spiritual Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
- Every Riven Thing (Christian Wiman)
- Everlasting Man (G.K. Chesterton)
- Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life (Robert Dallek)
- Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship (Jon Meacham)
- An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, (Robert Dallek)
- Managing Leadership Anxiety (Steve Cuss)
- The Splendid and the Vile (Erik Larson)
- The Conservative Sensibility (George Will)
- Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus (Laura Fabrycky)
- Church Dogmatics I/1 (Karl Barth)
- Church Dogmatics III/1 (Karl Barth)
- Church Dogmatics IV/2 (Karl Barth)
- Abide in Christ (Andrew Murray)
- Worship and the World to Come (Glenn Packiam)
- Chasing Wisdom (Daniel Grothe)
- Extravagant (Brady Boyd)
- The Deeply Formed Life (Rich Villodas)
- The Sacred Overlap (J.R. Briggs)
- Either Way, We’ll Be Alright (forthcoming – Eric Tonjes)
- Knowledge of the Holy (A.W. Tozer)
- Sanctifying Interpretation 2nd ed. (Chris Green)
- For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (W.H. Auden)
- The Gathering Storm (Winston Churchill)
- The Souls of Black Folk (W.E.B. DuBois)
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave (Frederick Douglass)
- Lila (Marilynne Robinson)
- Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings (Nicholas of Cusa)
- Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow)
- Where God Happens (Rowan Williams)
- Christ the Heart of Creation (Rowan Williams)
- The Seven Storey Mountain (Thomas Merton)
- My Bright Abyss (Christian Wiman)
- Discernment (Henri Nouwen)
- Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
- Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
- Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
- The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
- People of the Life (M. Scott Peck)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
- The Writing Life (Annie Dillard)
- On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations (St. Gregory Nazianzus)
- The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (Simeon Zahl)
- The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (John Webster)
- Leviticus (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Ephraim Radner)