Merry Christmas, Friends!
Yes, it is still Christmas. The 7th day, to be exact. I trust that you’ve been enjoying this week, living in the warm light of the Incarnation. And I hope you haven’t taken your Christmas tree or lights down yet. Winter is hard enough without prematurely ending our best celebrations (of which we have five days left). We need all the help we can get :).
I love this time of year for many reasons, not least because it’s when I look back to survey the terrain of what I’ve read over the last 365 days and think about the books that left the greatest impression on me. This year, there were many. All in all I read 80 new books, 15 rereads, and am in the middle of another five. Not a bad year.
I am often asked how I am able to read so much. Much of this is simply plain old discipline, and rather than recapping what my reading habits look like, I’ll refer you to this post and this post in which I briefly overview those habits. Copy and adapt as you see fit. Or don’t.
The two things I’ll say about the volume of reading I do is that (1) reading is like any muscle – the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. Read more, and you’ll be able to read more. It’s really that simple.
But also – and this is important to for you to hear, (2) reading in great volume is not necessarily a virtue. I do it, truly, because I enjoy it. A great deal of my spare time is taken with reading. And I’m not mad about it. But it has its challenges – not least in trying to remember half of what I’ve read. I’ve devised various strategies for cataloguing what I’ve gained/learned from the books I’ve read, but even so, I regularly have the experience of looking back over a year and going, “Now what was that one about again?”
I say that only to say – you shouldn’t be overly impressed with long lists like the one I’m about to give you below. There is great value in reading fewer books, and more slowly, with a view towards really mastering the subject matter. What can I say? Do what is native to your personality. I digress.
Anyhow, looking back over the terrain I covered, a couple things stand out…
- The standard fare of really good theological books was well-represented. Modern works by John Webster, Simeon Zahl, Andrew Davidson, and Chris Green were particularly good, and on the “theology written by dead people” side, the books by Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, and Pseudo-Dionysius were wonderful.
- I read fewer historical books than in previous years: only four (a steep dropoff from the last couple years), and oddly (and not by design) two were on one figure, John Adams, but both of those were great.
- Once again, not by design, it seems this year became the Year of the Novel (18) and the Year of the Memoir (12). I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I suspect it has something to do with growing older. As the years go by, I’m less interested in analysis and more interested in how people see the world. Novels and memoirs, along with poetry, are a window into other people’s unique way of looking at the world, and I’m finding myself routinely challenged and enriched by them (more on this below).
- I read some staggeringly good poetry this year, by familiar friends like Wendell Berry, Christian Wiman, and Gregory Orr, and by some new friends like Rainer Maria Rilke and R.S. Thomas. Of course Mary Oliver was with me (almost) on the daily. My goodness, that woman.
- And then there were some books that were just plain fun. My mom has been frequenting the thrift store lately, and when she finds good deals on books she thinks I’d like, she passes them along. Hence books by Barbara Walters (this one really was delightful), Joe Buck, and Tom DeFrank–books I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase, but once in my hands, I’m happy to have. The books by Jerry Seinfeld and Stanley Tucci were also wildly entertaining.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–read what interests you and you’ll love reading (at whatever volume works for you). It’s fun to watch those interests ebb and flow as the years go by. For whatever reason, it seems the river of my interests has taken a more literary turn of late, and I’m happy to grab an inner tube and float wherever this river takes me.
Okay, without further ado… my favorite reads of 2021:
Favorite Theological Book by a Living Person–All Things Beautiful by Chris Green
Chris is a dear friend, who has written many wonderful books, and my favorite thing about Chris is that he is genuinely, always, unfailingly astonished by the God of the gospel. He’s got a fertile, original mind, and it seems to me that he’s simply incapable of a boring thought. His writing and preaching are energetic and always leave me with a sense of wonder–which I cannot say about most preachers and writers.
All Things Beautiful might be his best work–an attempt to help us learn to “read” Christ not just in the pages of Scripture, but in all things, not least the arts. As such, ATB is a wildly stimulating meditation on the reality of Christ through Scripture, film, literature, and poetry that will challenge you, leave you loving Jesus more, and make you more curious than ever to spot the signs of his incarnate presence in the landscape of your life. Highly recommended.
Favorite Theological Book by a Dead Person–Showings by Julian of Norwich
We know the 14th century English anchoress Julian because of her classic statement, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” When she was 30 years old, she went through a serious illness during which time the Lord gave her 16 “showings” of himself–revelations of divine love. She recovered from the illness and spent many years reflecting on what had been shown to her. The result is a two-part work in which she records the initial “showings” and then sets down a longer and more mature reflection on their meaning. The effect is a fascinating study in how the things we come to know about God grow, fan out, and become fruitful as we mature.
I came to love many things about Julian–hers is an incredibly warm-hearted theology, fixed on the person of Jesus–but perhaps the thing I came to love most about her was the way she held her conviction that “all shall be well” both with strength and humility, convinced as she was both of the utter goodness of God and of the way that God had and was continually revealing himself to the mind of the Church. A section that illustrates what I’m talking about:
“And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly: I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well, and I will make all things well; and you will see for yourself that every kind of thing will be well…And in these five words God wishes us to be enclosed in rest and peace.”
But she worries–what of all whom the Scripture says will be excluded from final blessedness? How can “all things” be well if those things are not well? The Lord responds:
“‘What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall preserve my word in everything, and I shall make everything well.’ … For this is the great deed which our Lord will do, and in this deed he will preserve his word in everything. And he will make well all which is not well. But what the deed will be and how it will be done, there is no creature who is inferior to Christ who knows it, or will know it until it has been done…”
It is this “apophatic” approach that allows Julian to at once express her confidence that all things will be well and still hold fast to the Church’s reading of Scripture that final damnation is a real possibility for human beings–much as it grieves her (and it does grieve her). The willingness to hold that tension–and how she holds that tension–is so much of what I love about her. She’s a model for us to follow as we seek to hold tension in the difficult things of our faith with that altogether-too-rare blend of courage and humility.
Favorite Biblical Studies Book–Abraham’s Silence by J. Richard Middleton
Every once in a great while you pick up a book that totally and irreversibly alters the way you read the Bible or certain bits of it. N.T Wright did this for me many years ago, introducing me to a way of reading the entirety of Scripture that was cogent and clear, centered upon the life of Jesus as the climax the story that God is telling about himself, and us. It was a watershed moment for me.
A similar watershed–if on a smaller scale–occurred for me in reading Middleton’s book on one of the darkest tales of Scripture: the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. Middleton asks the question, “Did Abraham pass the test?” and argues vigorously–via a broad reading of the kind of divine-human dialogue commended in Scripture, as well as a close reading of Genesis 22 set in the context of Abraham’s life–that he, in point of fact…
Well, I’m not going to ruin it for you (although I will spell out Middleton’s conclusions in a longer review I hope to publish in the next couple weeks). You really ought to buy this one. For as well-researched and argued as it is, it is not dense, and it is not long. The average, motivated layperson will do just fine with it. And because it centers on the all-important questions, “Who is God? And what does require of us?”, it is eminently edifying and will shift the way you look at a story that has vexed Christians and Jews for hundreds of years. Snag it.
Favorite Historical Book–John Adams Under Fire by Dan Abrams
This one was loaned to me by my dear friend at New Life East Jeff Kowell, and I’m so glad he did. We know Adams as our second President. What we don’t (I didn’t anyway) know about Adams is how as a young Bostonian lawyer in pre-Revolutionary War America he risked his reputation and career defending British soldiers–the enemy!–in the Boston Massacre. Abrams gives us a deep dive into the history of this pivotal moment in America’s history–will mob-rule mentality or a commitment to truth, justice, and the rule of law win the day? (Still a relevant question.) Adams’ determination to go against the grain of the mob and defend the British soldiers because he thought it was right made this book really inspiring. Again, highly recommended.
Favorite Novel–The Brothers K by David James Duncan
Okay, this was a really tough one, for a couple reasons. One, I started reading Wallace Stegner for the first time this year and Stegner’s novels are my kind of novel–rich, well-defined characters, witty dialogue, and cogent plots that are driven along by a looming crisis which unfolds with inexorable (if unpredictable) energy. Early this year, I thought one of the many Stegner books I read would top the list.
But then I read Wendell Berry’s Memory of Old Jack and was so taken by the structural approach he employs–using one day in the life Old Jack to toggle back and forth across his history–that I thought for sure Memory would be the one.
And then I read David James Duncan. I cannot think of a book I’ve read in the last five years that provoked as wide a range of very strong emotions in me as The Brothers K. I found myself laughing out loud at times. And furious with rage at other times. And silently sobbing at others. And sad that the tale ever had to end. It’s everything I love in a good story.
The novel is sprawling epic hilarious tragic saga, following the life of a family through the turbulent 60s and 70s. Duncan pulls no punches and spares nothing in describing the triumphs and trials of this family as it sojourns across that tumultuous time–which is my way of saying, if you’re squeamish about language and certain kinds of content, maybe stick with Wendell Berry. You’ve been advised.
All the same, The Brothers K was thoroughly gripping to me, on every level. It instantly skyrocketed to my top five favorite novels of all time, and I have a feeling it will be an annual read. Loved every single page.
Favorite Book of Poetry–The Poetry of Rilke, translated and edited by Edward Snow.
Okay, I have a confession to make here. I am an Enneagram 4, which means (in part) that I never do anything just because everyone else is doing it. Often, that’s a good thing. Sometimes, it’s a bad thing.
Several years back, some friends of mine got really into Rilke. My “4-ness” immediately went to work and threw up all kinds of reasons why I shouldn’t follow suit. Then I read in one of Bonhoeffer’s prison letters to his dear friend Eberhard Bethge that he felt that some of the poetry his then-fiance Maria von Wedermeyer was reading was not very good, and even–gasp!–“decidedly unhealthy”. The latter category he reserved exclusively for Rilke. Ouch.
Armed with Bonhoeffer’s disapprobation and my own pathological need to be different, I refused to read Rilke. That was stupid. My vanity had the better of me there–and I was the one who paid the price. I here and now repent. This summer, I bought the fresh translation of Rilke by Edward Snow and devoured it.
Rilke was a pioneer in his own time, and, as such, there are many places where the poetry leaves you with that feeling that I think dissuades many people from reading any poetry at all–namely, the feeling of “What in the world is this poem even about?” and the concomitant question, “Am I the only one who just doesn’t get it?”
Nevertheless, Rilke rewards the persevering, as his lines touch the existential depths of being human like few do. A favorite of mine:
One day, at the end of the nightmare of knowing,
may I emerge singing praise and jubilation to assenting Angels.
May I strike my heart’s keys clearly, and may none fail
because of slack, uncertain, or fraying strings.
May the tears that stream down my face
make me more radiant: may my hidden weeping
blossom. How I will cherish you then, you grief-torn nights!
Oof, that’s good.
Let me state the obvious here: white Americans ought to read more literature by Black Americans (both contemporary and historical), and what I said above about novels, memoirs, and poetry giving us a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes is wildly pertinent in this case. How can we love each other if we do not make an effort to understand one another’s experience? In point of fact, we can’t, and the central command of our faith will be therefore impossible to fulfill.
I’ve followed Dante Stewart on social media for several years and was excited to see he was publishing a memoir. This one was beautiful, and painful. I found myself crying often, and repenting a lot. Dante–if you happen to read this–thank you for your brutal honesty. We needed it. And I am praying that God will help us hear what you and so many others are (and have been) saying.
Stewart’s memoir put me on the path to reading James Baldwin for the first time (he credits Baldwin for helping to form so much of his own thought). Baldwin was a genius. A highly original thinker who saw America’s race problem unlike any other. The Fire Next Time was scorching and insightful, and the encounter he describes between himself and the then-leader of the Nation of Islam Elijah Muhammed was itself worth the price of the book.
Favorite Pastoral Book–When Everything’s On Fire by Brian Zahnd
I call this a “pastoral” book not because it is for pastors but because through it Brian is pastoring all of us through the uncertain terrain of the post-Christian West. When it seems that so much that once was sure is not, and when folks are leaving the institutional church at an alarming rate and faith is being “deconstructed” left and right, how is the Spirit calling us to live?
Not with antagonism or anger. Brian writes:
“Being angry with modern people for losing their faith is like being angry with medieval people for dying of the plague. Something has happened in our time. Just as something happened to the Middle Ages that imperiled the lives of medieval people, something has happened in late modernity that has imperiled the faith of modern people. Something has crippled shared religious belief in the Western world over the past century.”
Agreed. And if that is so, as I’ve often said, then the pressing task for the church is to try to listen to and understand the cries of those who are losing faith, and to wonder what the Spirit is saying to us in those cries–that is, how those cries themselves are an invitation to live more deeply, humbly, and authentically in the height and depth, the length and breadth, of the apostolic faith.
This Brian does, in a way that is historically and theologically informed, pastorally rich, and deeply empathetic (not to mention beautiful). When Everything’s On Fire is a book that needed to be written, and that I’ll be gladly recommending to folks who are struggling with their faith. Thanks, Brian.
Favorite Book by a Writer I’d Never Heard of Before–One Long River of Song by Brian Doyle
How it took me so long to discover Brian Doyle I do not know. But man, I’m glad I did. I was first introduced to his work in one of the seminars of my doctoral program at Western Theological Seminary this past fall and promptly bought his posthumously published book of essays One Long River of Song that afternoon. It was a revelation.
Brian Doyle loved life. This life. The one where between birth and death we live and grow and fall in love and our have hearts explode with joy when our children are born and watch them break in our chests when our children hurt and friendships are formed and deepen and shatter and are reconciled (or not) and we fall in love and marry (or not) and those marriages go the distance (or don’t) and we search for meaningful work and purpose and maybe find it and maybe lose it and wonder why we are here and over it all each day the sun rises and on an existence which is bathed constantly in breathtaking beauty and unimaginable horror…
That life. That’s the one Brian loved. The one about which he wrote with a wild exuberance like (that was my attempt to channel Brian’s style a bit, in the paragraph above) no other writer I’ve ever encountered. Created existence is transfigured in Brian’s writing. A short example, from an essay in which he describes seeing the face of God in his postman:
“And I said yes, sir, and thank you, and walked out of the Post Office thinking that if we cannot see God in the vessels into which the electricity of astonishing life is poured by a profligate creation, vessels like this wonderfully and eternally gracious gentleman at the Post Office, then we are very bad at the religion we claim to practice, which says forthrightly that God is everywhere available, if only we remove the beam from our eyes and bow in humility and gratitude for the miraculous, which falleth even as the light from the sun, which touches all beings, and is withheld from none. So it is that I have seen God at the United States Post Office, and spoken to him, and been edified and elevated by his grace, which slakes all those who thirst; which is each of us, which is all of us.”
And that, ladies and gentleman, is how you say thank you to God for the gift of being alive. I read a couple essays of his a day for several months, and it was medicine for my soul. Go and do likewise.
Well, then. There you have it. My favorite reads from the past year, with the full list below.
Much love and happy reading in 2022.
2021 Reading List
- The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (John Webster)
- Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer (Richard Foster)
- Hammer is the Prayer (Christian Wiman)
- The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (Simeon Zahl)
- How to Talk with Practically Anybody about Practically Anything (Barbara Walters)
- The Promised Land (Barrack Obama)
- Lucky Bastard (Joe Buck)
- The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Wendell Berry)
- The Violent Bear It Away (Flannery O’Connor)
- The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Benedicta Ward)
- The Long Loneliness (Dorothy Day)
- All is Grace (Brennan Manning)
- Showings (Julian of Norwich)
- A Burning in my Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene Peterson (Winn Collier)
- A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Flannery O’Connor)
- Radiant (Tara Beth Leach)
- Sacred Fire (Ronald Rolheiser)
- Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)
- We Gather Together (Denise Kiernan)
- Brett Favre: Gunslinger (Jeff Pearlman)
- Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women (Lucy Peppiat)
- The Dialogue (Catherine of Siena)
- Crossing to Safety (Wallace Stegner)
- Is This Anything (Jerry Seinfeld)
- Participation in God (Andrew Davison)
- Big Rock Candy Mountain (Wallace Stegner)
- Remembering Laughter (Wallace Stegner)
- 1984 (George Orwell)
- This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Wendell Berry)
- All the Little Live Things (Stegner)
- The Complete Works of Pseudo-Dionysius
- Spectator Bird (Wallace Stegner)
- The Power of Place (Daniel Grothe)
- A Place on Earth (Wendell Berry)
- John Adams Under Fire (Dan Abrams)
- A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
- River Inside the River (Gregory Orr)
- Recapitulation (Wallace Stegner)
- Church Dogmatics I/2 (Karl Barth)
- Holy Longing (Ronald Rolheiser)
- Survival is a Style (Christian Wiman)
- John Adams (David McCullough)
- Christ our Salvation (John Webster)
- Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Marilyn McEntyre)
- Sober Intoxication of the Spirit (Fr. Ranierio Cantalamessa)
- Off To The Side (Jim Harrison)
- Telling Secrets (Frederick Buechner)
- Madness, Rack, and Honey (Mary Ruefle)
- 100 Best Loved Poems (Dover Thrift)
- An American Childhood (Annie Dillard)
- The Ninth Hour (Alice McDermott)
- Walden (Henry David Thoreau)
- All Things Beautiful (Chris Green)
- Letters to a Diminished Church (Dorothy Sayers)
- Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
- A is for Ox: The Collapse of Literacy and the Rise of Violence in an Electronic Age (Barry Sanders)
- The Memory of Old Jack (Wendell Berry)
- A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture (Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer)
- A Public Missiology (Dr. Gregg Okkeson)
- A Distant Land (Wendell Berry)
- The Poetry of Rilke (Edited and Translated by Edward Snow)
- Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford (Tom DeFrank)
- Shoutin’ in the Fire (Dante Stewart)
- Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Eugene Peterson)
- The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin)
- A Place in Time (Wendell Berry)
- The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
- Notes of a Native Son (James Baldwin)
- One Long River of Song (Brian Doyle)
- What About The Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction (Alice McDermott)
- Notes from Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
- He Held Radical Light (Christian Wiman)
- Living into Community (Christine Pohl)
- Transforming Worship (Rory Noland)
- The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (Lewis Hyde)
- The Brothers K (David James Duncan)
- Abraham’s Silence: The Binding of Isaac, the Suffering of Job, and How to Talk Back to God (J. Richard Middleton)
- When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged from the Ashes (Brian Zahnd)
- Where the Light Fell (Philip Yancey)
- Taste (Stanley Tucci)
- Home (Marilynne Robinson)
- Catechetical Discourses (Gregory of Nyssa)
- A Brave New World (Alduous Huxley)
- Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved (Gregory Orr)
- Laurus (Eugene Vodolazkin)
- Till We Have Faces (Lewis)
- Anam Cara (John O’Donohue)
- Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
- Deus Caritas Est (Benedict XVI)
- The Everlasting Man (Chesterton)
- Love Big, Be Well (Winn Collier)
- The Writing Life (Annie Dillard)
- Conferences (John Cassian)
- Into the Silent Land (Martin Laird)
- For the Time Being (WH Auden)
- Analogia Entis (Erich Przywara)
- Collected Poems of RS Thomas (1945-1990)
- Calvin’s Institutes
- Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)
- Thomas Aquinas (G.K. Chesterton)