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My best books of 2013

December 31, 2013 — 2 Comments

Four the fourth year running, I’ve taken some time to boil down the books I’ve read over the past year into a manageable list of favorites. As with previous years (see 2010, 2011, and 2012), I’m including not only books that were actually published this year, but the best of all the books I actually read during this time, whether they were hot off the presses or published as far back as the fifth century.

As with all such lists, whether their compilers come right out and say so or not, what you see here is completely and unashamedly subjective. Also, these titles don’t necessarily appear in order, though I’ve saved my “book of the year” for last. But no skipping ahead!

Without further ado, my list of favorites:

Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions
by Anthony Bradley, editor (P&R Publishing)
When the majority of us gather for church each Sunday, the issue of race is still a big elephant in the room. As the demographics of our communities continue to change, the demographics of our churches and parachurch ministries often lag significantly behind. And nowhere is this clearer than in the top positions of leadership in these various institutions. This important compiled volume features essays from the perspectives of African American, Asian American, and Latino pastors, academics, and ministry leaders. As a white Christian male, I have much to learn from brothers and sisters like these.

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The City of God
by St. Augustine of Hippo (Random House)
Reading this was without a doubt my one big literary accomplishment of the year. I started reading it on January 2 and finally found myself on the final page the Sunday before Advent, drinking one of these. Reading it was largely a slog, but finishing it was, I imagine, akin to the feeling of completing a marathon; you don’t hear people at the finish line complain of having wasted their time.

Imagining The Kingdom: How Worship Works
by James K.A. Smith (Baker Academic)
Like Desiring The Kingdom before it, the second installation in the groundbreaking Cultural Liturgies series from Smith was a gimme to include on my favorites list, though also one I knew better than to attempt to properly review. An honorable mention is also in order for Smith’s collection of previously published essays, Discipleship in the Present Tense.

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In Search of Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beauty, Goodness and Heart of Christianity
by Jim Belcher (InterVarsity Press)
I reviewed this one just a few weeks ago, at which time I wrote, “Part spiritual memoir, part history, part travel writing, I absolutely love how he weaves it all together.” It really is a profound, unforgettable book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time
by Jeremy Courtney (Howard Books)
The author, along with his family and colleagues, are out to “love first and ask questions later” in Iraq, a place where doing so is, to say the least, quite risky. This book chronicles what has happened along the way, and as you’d imagine, the stories are riveting, often traumatic, and sometimes even funny.

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A Land Without Sin: A Novel
by Paula Huston (Slant Books)
While reading this novel set in Guatemala and Mexico in the early- to mid-90s, I tweeted, “Religion. Politics. Mystery. Latin America. What’s not to love?” Paula Huston is a masterful storyteller, and this novel is truly captivating from start to finish.

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
by Christian Wiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
I’ve noticed this one popping up on “best of” lists all over the place, and rightly so. Wiman is an acclaimed poet and for the past decade he served as editor of the prestigious Poetry magazine. Wiman is a believer, though he admits he’s not a believer of the historic orthodox sort. Writing in the face of death, his theological musings and desperate yearning for a new kind of religious language are deeply stirring.

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The World Is Not Ours To Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good
by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (InterVarsity Press)
If a book like this were written by a pietist, issuing a blanket warning against activism itself, it would be all too predictable, and wouldn’t be on this list. But the fact that it’s written by a Christian activist—coupled with the fact that it’s penetrating, pastoral, and personal—makes it one of the most important books of the year. The world is not ours to save, argues Wigg-Stevenson, and this is very good news. It’s a message my generation desperately needs to hear.

Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation
by Miroslav Volf (Abingdon Press)
I’ve long admired and appreciated Miroslav Volf, and included A Public Faith on last year’s list. I finally got around to reading what is probably his most well-known work this year. My reading of it coincided with our visit to Guatemala, which I’d venture to suggest helped me imagine a bit of the gravitas of Volf’s formative experiences in the former Yugoslavia, which shaped his outlook and, in turn, the provocative arguments in this book.

And The Mountains Echoed: A Novel
by Khaled Hosseni (Riverhead)
While this probably isn’t Hosseini’s best work (I’d reserve that honor for A Thousand Splendid Suns), it is nonetheless a wonderful novel that continues to demonstrate his knack for telling stories that capture the heights and depths of human emotion, in this case across both space and time. It was a pleasure meeting the author and getting our copy signed, at a reading event put together by great folks at Changing Hands, the independent bookstore in our neighborhood.

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Playing God: Redeeming The Gift of Power
by Andy Crouch (InterVarsity Press)
Ladies and gentlemen, my book of the year. I’ve said a lot about it elsewhere, so I won’t regurgitate it all here. In addition to my review in the winter issue of PRISM, I shared some thoughts on the idea of benevolent and malevolent gods, and had this to say on “the restoration of the human capacity to bear the image in all its fullness.” If you’re reading this, you’re a person with far more power than you realize, and it can be used for good or for bad. Please read this book.

Thanks to all of you who have faithfully read my reviews this year. I can’t wait for what’s to come in 2014!

Five books on my shortlist

September 12, 2013 — 4 Comments

I did one of these “shortlist” posts back in July, and for one reason or another people seemed to find it interesting, so here we go again. Here are five books I aim to delve into in short order.

1. Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time by Jeremy Courtney (@jcourt) – the story of a group of courageous people who together provide lifesaving heart surgeries to underserved children in wartorn Iraq. If you’re not familiar with the Preemptive Love Coalition, this TED Talk by the author is a great place to start. I’ll be reviewing the book soon.

chester-goodnewschrysostom2. On Wealth and Poverty by St. John Chrysostom – a good friend of mine is in the process of joining the Orthodox church, and he’s been nudging me to read this book by one of that tradition’s most esteemed fathers. This book is actually seven sermons on the gospel story of the rich man and Lazarus. I’m looking forward to discussing it afterwards.

3. Good News to the Poor: Social Involvement and the Gospel by Tim Chester (@timchestercouk) – this one, by a church planter in Sheffield, UK, was originally published across the pond nearly a decade ago. Now it’s founds its way to our shores and onto my shelf. I plan to review it here.

4. A Land Without Sin: A Novel by Paula Huston (@paulahuston) – I’m really intrigued by this one, as I mentioned in last week’s Repaso. Once again here’s the book’s official blurb: “In 1993, as revolutionary forces gather in the area, an idealistic young American priest vanishes in the jungles of southern Mexico. The church, immersed in trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the escalating conflict between wealthy landowners and poverty-stricken indigenas, remains strangely silent in the face of his disappearance. When his sister, Eva–only thirty-four but already a hardened battlefield photojournalist–finds out what’s going on, she flies to Central America to find him. For a cover story, she applies for a job assisting a taciturn Dutch Mayanist, who, it turns out, is on a secret mission of his own.”

5. My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman – I haven’t read any of Wiman’s books of poetry, much to my shame, but so many people whose opinion matter to me have recommended this one in glowing terms that this is where I’ll begin.

Which books are on your shortlist?

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1. On reading and living
Australian theologian Ben Myers (@FaithTheology) dispels the problematic notion that reading books and living life are separate undertakings:

I have often heard of a distinction – though I have never understood it – between reading books and something called real life experience. We are, apparently, supposed to believe that reading and living are two quite different things, as opposed to one another as girls and boys or night and day. There is, we are told, a moral dualism between reading and living. One of these activities is abstract, the other is concrete and practical. One is artificial, the other is true and real. One involves only the mind, the other involves the body. Personally I have never accepted that dualism. Not only because it is a heresy; and not only because it is opposed to the Old Testament, which views reading as the source of living (Psalm 1); but also because my experience has disproved it a thousand times. Ever since I was a boy I have experienced reading books not as the opposite of living but as a particularly grand and intensified form of it.

2. Holy Luck
What’s happening in October? Eugene Peterson has a book of poetry coming out, that’s what. John Wilson (@jwilson1812) discusses it on the most recent Books & Culture podcast, and he reads an excerpt from the introduction as well as two of the poems.

3. Inspiring bookstores
My mom, knowing how much I love books and bookstores, sent me this link to ten great bookstores from around the world – many of them jaw-dropping.

4. Work in the time of God’s patience
Gideon Strauss (@gideonstrauss) with some thoughts on a spirituality of work and the “problem” of good:

God’s grace sustains creation; God’s grace constrains evil; God’s grace enables redemption. It is because we live in the time of God’s patience (a phrase that Richard Mouw ascribes to his Mennonite friends) that rain nourishes the crops of both those who follow Jesus and those who don’t, artists can find and make beauty in God’s creation whether they follow Jesus or no, governments can act as God’s ministers by constraining evil whether they acknowledge the rule of God or not, and therapists can bring healing to broken relationships or nurses and doctors to broken bodies whether they acknowledge the healing power of God or not. God’s common grace (as Richard Mouw and others call it) – a grace that makes all human life, all creaturely existence possible – is as effective as God’s special grace, by which God brings people into a recognized and grateful relationship with himself.

5. The Vow
Another acoustic music video from Derek Webb (@derekwebb). If you haven’t pre-ordered his new album yet, which officially releases next Tuesday, you can do so here.

[Image: Alta Acqua bookstore in Venice, Italy via studentessamatta.com]

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1. An end of books
I’m one of those Luddites who has yet to cave and buy an e-reader, as those who helped us move boxes of belongings (in Arizona summer heat, no less) to our new house can readily attest. So any talk about books going the way of the buffalo makes me sad. But I wonder whether Seth Godin (@ThisIsSethsBlog) is right here:

Books, those bound paper documents, are part of an ecosystem, one that was perfect, and one that is dying, quickly. Ideas aren’t going away soon, and neither are words. But, as the ecosystem dies, not only will the prevailing corporate systems around the paper book wither, but many of the treasured elements of its consumption will disappear as well.

2. Leave the edges wild
An interview with Karin Bergquist (@KarinBergquist) and Linford Detweiler (@linfordjerome) who together comprise the magical folk/jazz/blues/etc duo Over The Rhine. The songs on their new album take their cues from the Ohio farm where they live:

Karin and I have lived out here at Nowhere Farm now for over eight years. Sometimes when the fog rolls in real close and hushes everything, we would whisper that it felt like we were living on a little farm at the edge of the world. We also realized when we moved out here that we didn’t know the names of much of anything – the birds, the trees, the wildflowers, the weeds. My father loved this place and was always a bit of a birdwatcher. And he knew his trees too, and helped us find names for some of what was surrounding us. When my father passed away, and was no longer around to do the naming for us, we began the work of learning for ourselves. Once we started calling things by name, they began appearing in our songs.

3. Cardboard cathedral
When a devastating earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011, 185 people were killed, and one of the city’s most iconic landmarks – a Gothic cathedral from the 1800s – was destroyed. The much-anticipated Transitional Cathedral, from Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, is now open. It’s made of cardboard tubes, and is designed to be in place for 50 years. Ban hopes for a longer lifespan, though: “Even a building made of cardboard can be permanent if people love it.”

4. Broken stained glass in Egypt
Amidst the recent escalation of violence in Egypt, Coptic Christians have been singled out for attacks by Islamists loyal to deposed president Mohammed Morsi:

Churches, houses, monasteries, orphanages, schools and businesses belonging to Copts were attacked in nine provinces “causing panic, losses and destruction for no reason and no crimes they committed except being Christians,” the Maspero Youth Union, a Coptic activist group, said Thursday. As if sensing trouble, just two days before Wednesday’s violence, Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II called on all Egyptians to prevent bloodshed. “With all compassion I urge everyone to conserve Egyptian blood and ask of every Egyptian to commit to self-restraint and avoid recklessness and assault on any person or property,” Tawadros wrote on his official Twitter account Monday.

5. Heavy

[Image: Transitional Cathedral by Jocelyn Kinghorn via Gizmodo]

Bookshelf

I have a confession to make.

I’m one of those readers who is fairly undisciplined in keeping my “shortlist” very short at all. There are just too many great books on too many interesting subjects, and they render me powerless to resist adding them.

Be that as it may, after the five I’m currently reading, here are four books that I plan to get to very soon.

ITK1. Imagining The Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith (@james_ka_smith) – after being bulldozed last year by Desiring The Kingdom (in a good way), this one has been sitting on my shelf for the past couple of months, tantalizing me to no end. I’m about to jump into this with a couple of friends, both local pastors in the Phoenix area. In many ways their churches are very different from each other but they are both wonderfully deep and careful thinkers. I’m an impostor among them, no doubt about it, but I really can’t wait to dig in.

buythisland2. Buy This Land by Chi-Dooh Li (@Skip_Li) – when an India-born, Spanish-speaking Chinese lawyer from Seattle starts an organization dedicated to enabling landless farmers in Central America (starting in Guatemala, no less!) to buy their own land and achieve economic stability, and then writes a book about it, as a rule that’s a book I’m going to read. Rumor has it he’s friends with fellow lawyer/adventurer/risk-taker Bob Goff, so beyond being fascinating and inspiring it should also be entertaining!

rivergrace3. RIver Grace by Makoto Fujimura (@iamfujimura) – this is a tiny, tiny book, but if it’s anything like Refractions, it’s sure to enchant and evoke awe. I got it as a gift for Katie, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fully intend to read it as well. Mako is a brilliant artist and a sage, and he has much to teach us about what he calls “culture care.”

snowman4. The Snowman: A Novel by Jo Nesbø (@RealMrJoNesbo) – sometimes readers get stuck in genre-ruts, and need something like a Norwegian crime novel to break them out of it. Nesbø’s The Redbreast (voted “Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written” – if that means anything to you) did that for me last year, and I followed it up with Headhunters, which had been made into a movie I vaguely intended to see, though I never did. Call it a guilty pleasure or simply a latent affinity for Norwegians with fancy names, but I think it’s about time for another dose of Nesbø.

Your turn: which books are on your shortlist?

[Image: Wikimedia Commons]