Some Books I Really Enjoyed This Year
Here’s my end-of-the-year roundup of the books I really enjoyed this year. I’ll begin with a few caveats. These aren’t all books that were published in 2015; they’re just books I happened to read this year. They’re in no particular order. The display of books in the photo does not mean that I endorse all of them equally, or at all. Good readers, I think, read broadly, even among authors with which they disagree. These are the books that happened to stir my thinking this year, but they aren’t all the books I read this year (much of my reading is related to what I’m preaching—currently, the Sermon on the Mount—or my PhD dissertation). Many of these are books I fit into the margins of my reading (i.e. early mornings, late nights, while on a bike at the YMCA, while waiting at a coffee shop for a meeting or appointment, while sitting in the hallway outside my daughter’s gymnastic class when parents are not allowed to observe, etc).
Some honorable mentions of excellent reads I’m not reviewing below: Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays (this book helped me read my Bible better), The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism by Carl F.H. Henry (this book renewed my zeal for missional gospel engagement in the culture; divine redemption is the best solution for our problems, individual and social), The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims by Peter Kreeft (an imaginative allegory with Socrates as one’s guide), Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen (a study of American Evangelicalism), and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed so hard while reading…I laughed so much that it hurt and so loud that I actually woke my wife up once. Ignatius, the story’s hero, is hilarious).
Tinkers by Paul Harding
Harding's little book, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is replete with evocative descriptions of a man dying. As he passes, George is struck with memories of his childhood and of his father.
Consider the following potent quotes:
“George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, report raying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment” (18).
“One afternoon, in the spring before his death, George, his illness consolidating, decided to dictate memories and anecdotes from his life into a tape recorder…So deeply moved, he pulled the cassette from the machine, flipped it back over to the beginning, fitted it back into the snug carriage of capstans and guiding pins, and pressed PLAY, thinking that he might preserve such a mood of pure, clean sorrow by listening back to his narrative. He imagined that his memories might now sound like those of an admirable stranger, a person he did not know but whom he immediately recognized and loved dearly. Instead, the voice he heard sounded nasally and pinched and, worse, not very well educated, as if he were a bumpkin who had been called, perhaps even in mockery, to testify about holy things, as if not the testimony but the fumbling through it were the reason for his presence in front of some dire, heavenly senate. He listened to six seconds of the tape before he ejected it and threw it into the fire burning in the woodstove" (21, 23-24).
“When he imagined inside the case of that clock, dark and dry and hollow, and the still pendulum hanging down its length, he felt the inside of his own chest and had a sudden panic that it, too, had wound down. When his grandchildren had been little, they had asked if they could hide inside the clock. Now he wanted to gather them and open himself up and hide them among his ribs and faintly ticking heart. When he realized that the silence by which he had been confused was that of all of his clocks having been allowed to wind down, he understood that he was going to die in the bed where he lay” (33-34).
Harding’s work prompted me to ponder the fragility of life, my own death, and the sacred nature of life's normal, daily rhythms.
Touchdown Tony: Running With A Purpose by Tony Nathan
Disclaimer: I’m a huge University of Alabama football fan (that may be an understatement). But, this book was meaningful to me independent of the Crimson Tide.
Prior to his glamorous football career, Tony Nathan narrates valuable lessons that he learned about life and manhood from his parents.
“Even though I didn’t want any cotton picking in my future, I also knew that if farming was what I had to do to make my way in life, then that’s what I would do. In the fields, I learned that you do what you have to do to make ends meet and provide for your family” (4).
“During my freshman year [of high school], a few of my close friends decided they were going to try out for football…Since my friends decided they were going to play football, I didn’t want to be left home alone with nothing to do after school. Not the highest motivations, but it got me where I needed to be until I could find my own place and really make a difference. So, in August 1971, I walked onto a football field for my first practice at Woodlawn High School…When I went out for football as a sophomore the next year, I didn’t see many of my friends at the first practice. Most of my African American friends from my neighborhood had either quit or were cut from the team…I didn’t want to be left out, so I walked off the practice field and quit the team. But when I walked into our house, my mother saw me and stopped dead in her tracks. ‘Why aren’t you at football practice?’ she asked. ‘I quit the team,’ I told her. ‘I’m not going to play football anymore.’ ‘You did what? I’ve never known a Nathan to quit anything, and you’re not about to become the first. Get in the car.’ My mom’s reaction caught me completely by surprise. I thought she’d be happy that I wasn’t going to play football anymore. But she taught me a valuable lesson that day. She told me if I was going to start something, no matter what it was, she expected me to finish it—there were no quitters in the Nathan house. It was a lesson that stayed with me for the rest of my life” (27-28, 31-32).
There are valuable lessons for manhood, adulthood, and parenting to be gleaned via the narrative of Nathan’s life. Manhood means sacrificing personal comfort to provide for the family; manhood means not quitting, it means seeing a task through to its completion. Without these lessons; without this formation in his life, Tony wouldn’t have received a college scholarship, won a national title with the Crimson Tide, or played professional football. Our story won’t be the same, but what are we missing out on by failing to work hard and follow through?
The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner
Truth be told, I had low expectations for this book. In many ways, I randomly picked it from a pile I’ve been “intending” to read for a few years. What I found, though, was that Buechner’s book is made up of thirteen short reflections upon biblical themes intending to make manifest that the darkness of doubt is often necessary to provoke a hunger for God. The hidden face of God is found in the unexpected place, the place of doubt.
The following was a particularly powerful section I encountered in Buechner’s book. After citing the whole of Genesis 6:11-8:11, he writes,
“It is an ironic fact that this ancient legend about Noah survives in our age mainly as a children’s story. When I was a child, I had a Noah’s ark made of wood with a roof that came off so you could take the animals out and put them in again, and my children have one too; yet if you stop to look at it at all, this is really as dark a tale as there is in the Bible, which is full of dark tales. It is a tale of God’s terrible despair over the human race and his decision to visit them with a great flood that would destroy them all except for this one old man, Noah, and his family. Only now we give it to children to read. One wonders why."
He goes on to explain the ‘why' by saying,
“Not, I suspect, because children particularly want to read it, but more because their elders particularly do not want to read it or at least do not want to read it for what it actually says and so make it instead a fairy tale, which no one has to take seriously—just the way that we make black jokes about disease and death so that we can laugh instead of weep at them; just the way we translate murder and lust into sixth-rate television melodramas, which is to reduce them to a size that anybody can cope with; just the way we take the nightmares of our age, the sinister, brutal forces that dwell in the human heart threatening always to overwhelm us, and present them as the Addams family or the monster dolls that we give, again, to children…Noah’s ark is too something-or-other else, so it becomes a toy with a roof that comes off so you can take little animals out. This is one way of dealing with the harsher realities of our existence, and since the alternative is, by facing them head on, to risk adding more to our burden of anxiety that we are able to bear, it may not be such a bad way at that. But for all our stratagems, the legends, the myths, persist among us, and even in the guise of fairy tales for the young they continue to embody truths or intuitions which in the long run it is perhaps more dangerous to evade than to confront” (35-36).
Buechner’s provocative prose reminded me of the great lengths we (and all of humanity) will go to in the attempt of evading the force of the Bible’s revelation of Jesus Christ. We defend ourselves from it, we coddle our sin by reframing God’s revelation as a child’s story.
Preaching: Communicating Faith in the Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller
Faithful preaching will preach to Christians and non-Christians, Believers and non-Believers simultaneously. Keller has embodied this in his pulpit and, now, he has modeled this in his book on preaching. Forthrightly, especially if you’re a pastor/preacher, you need to read this book (even, maybe even especially, the endnotes which hold a wealth of helpful material).
Here are a few especially meaningful quotes from various sections of Keller’s work:
“If you are preaching or speaking to people who have strong doubts about the Bible, you should reinforce the points you are making from the biblical text with supporting material from sources that your listeners trust. Paul himself most famously does this in Acts 17:28 when he quotes the pagan writer Aratus to an audience of pagan philosophers who would not otherwise grant the Bible any authority…This is a crucial part of preaching to the heart of the culture. It is no guarantee of persuading a skeptical audience, but it will go a long way toward keeping them from tuning you out almost immediately. It often results in their increased respect for the wisdom—and eventually the authority—of the Bible." (106-107; 109-110).
And, in case readers are confound by how to do this, Keller makes several suggestions for heralds as they employ these sources in their homiletical endeavors: when addressing idols, use David Foster Wallace (107) or Martin Luther King Jr., when teaching on moral absolutes (108) or C.E.M. Joad, a former atheist intellectual who came to faith in God after WWII, when preaching on original sin.
Again, he writes,
“Yet Christian believers in Western societies are generally too influenced by these [cultural] narratives, and we [i.e. Christians] know why—they are so pervasive, and felt to be so self-evident, that they are not visible as beliefs to those who hold them. So, here we [i.e. the preachers] “make them visible,” not only to engage and challenge them in nonbelievers but also to help us as believers avoid being too shaped by them” (127).
"Nearly every place that Christian preachers or teachers come to a passage on the depth and complexity of evil—corporate and systematic evil (“the world”), internal evil (“the flesh”), or supernatural evil (“the devil”)—they should take the opportunity to engage this cultural narrative, showing that psychology and sociology and technology alone will never deal with all that is wrong with us, nor can reason alone discern the meaning of things…Knowledge is not the same thing as wisdom. Knowledge is data and facts, but wisdom is know what is the good and right way to live…The wisdom literature of the Bible provides Christian preachers with many rich themes and passages for thoroughly engaging the late-modern faith in science” (154-155).
In my experience, and from my vantage, a vast majority of preachers don’t preach like this because its too hard and too time consuming. This type of preaching requires significant effort. I pray that preachers and Bible teachers don’t merely read and shrug off Keller’s exhortation. Rather, I pray they pick up the mantle of history's great heralds.
How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K.A. Smith
Like others I know, when I began Smith’s work I assumed it was a sort of Cliff’s Notes to Taylor’s A Secular Age. I, too, was wrong. Though Smith interacts with Taylor throughout his book, the end result is not a summary. Rather, Smith’s book is an analysis of the state of secularism, and what it means for culture.
Smith makes his book relevant for everyone, not just those interested in philosophical musings or cultural criticism, in the opening illustration contained in the preface of the book of a church planter who moves from a “religious” Bible Belt area of the United States to an “unchurched” urban region of the United States. He comes equipped with all the answers to the unanswered questions the non-religious people he’s ministering among have. But he quickly realizes that their questions weren’t just unanswered, they’re unasked. The “godless” people don’t have gaps in their mental maps, they have different maps.
So, Smith’s quest via Taylor revolves around answering the following, “How, then, did we go from a world where belief in the divine was assumed and unbelief was rarity to a 21st century world where unbelief in the divine is assumed and belief in the divine is not only a rarity, but is contested?"
Using Taylor as a launchpad, Smith argues that we live in a haunted world that has been disenchanted by secularism. Secularism has taken away the transcendent and left us with the immanent—he calls this the immanentization of the world (48). But, because we’re creatures made in the Image of God, we now pine for transcendent meaning in the immanent and it cannot satisfy.
“A way of putting our present condition [our ‘secular age’] is to say that many people are happy living for goals which are purely immanent; they live in a way that takes no account of the transcendent” (44).
“Our secular age is the product of creative new options, an entire reconfiguration of meaning. So it’s not enough to ask how we got permission to stop believing in God; we need to also inquire about what emerged to replace such belief. Because it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise. We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning—a new ‘imaginary’ that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire” (47).
Smith’s work is a hard, slow read because of how meaningful the content is as its implications are contemplated. But, it is valuable for those willing to labor for treasure.
This was by far the saddest book I read in 2015.
Rob Peace grew up in a drug infested, crime riddled area of Newark, NJ. He was born outside Newark in a ghetto known as "Illtown." His unwed mother worked unending hours in a kitchen to provide him both food and private school education. His jovial, attractional father was later convicted of a double murder; he would die in prison. Peace's God-given intellectual brilliance earned him a full scholarship to Yale University through a benefactor impressed with him. At college, while majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, he straddled the world of academia and the world of the street by selling drugs, never revealing his full self in either place. Upon graduation from Yale, he went home to teach at the Catholic high school he attended as a child, while there he slid back into the drug trade, and was, eventually, brutally murdered at age thirty.
This book was a vivid portrayal of the lure of sin. Throughout the book, I found myself cheering for Peace, hoping that he would break free from the rhythms of transgression in his life. But, time and again I was reminded that sin is irrational and it incites irrational behavior, even among the most intellectually gifted of people. As a preacher, I was reminded that academics and scholarships and opportunities do not save people, Rob Peace had access to all of those despite the circumstances he was reared in. It is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ that can save people; it is only the Gospel of Jesus Christ that can set people free from sin’s dominion as it reconciles them to the Father in Christ Jesus.
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